Wade Kelly is going through an existential crisis. He admits this nonchalantly, between long sips from a pint of Guinness at the Eighth Street Taproom, in Lawrence.
The bartender spins vinyl, and a haunting Bessie Smith record oozes out of the speakers, filling up the mostly empty room and clashing with the sounds of the lone guy working out his pool game. Kelly is folded into a corner booth, dressed in dark denim jeans, a denim jacket and a black-knit beanie. You can tell that he is very tall even when he's sitting. His beard is thick, his eyebrows permanently furrowed.
Kelly's band, Black on Black, has a new EP, its third within a year. Get On With It is a five-track free download that doesn't last more than 12 minutes, but Kelly and the rest of the band — bassist Aaron Riffel and drummer Jason Jones, who splits duties with Kelly's Austin-based brother, John Benda — accomplish a lot in that space.
The heavy, sweat-drenched punk-rock set opens up throwing punches and never slows down. Kelly spits out the lyrics to the opening "Fork in the Road" like he's charging into battle, and he wields that barely controlled volatility through the rest of the album. For him, this music — unapologetically dark, with sludgy guitar work and inky drumbeats — is a way to ask the big questions that gnaw at his brain. He calls it "medicinal."
"I'm trying to put a different spin on the stuff that keeps me up at night," Kelly tells me. "In a way, this band is sort of like running a sprint. It's like a head clearer. It's so visceral that there's not a lot of thought put into anything. It's very primal, and for me, that's very necessary because I live in my head so much. It's necessary for me to have something primal to yank me out of that."
On "Made to Suffer," he furiously demands: Why are we made to suffer? Why do we choose a master? On "The Good Fight," Kelly's distorted voice insists that there are secrets. By the closing "Car Fire," though, he seems to have found a kind of solution: The only way is to grab the wheel on fire, wide-awake.
"If my life wasn't so chaotic, if I wasn't stretched so thin and stressed out about so many different things, I wouldn't have Black on Black," Kelly says. "The band wouldn't actually exist. I would probably just be a very well-balanced, calm person, playing acoustic songs or whatever."
The chaos — the foundation of Kelly's artistic output — comes from the fact that he simply can't quiet his own thoughts. That's the "existential crisis" he has warned me about: the constant questions running through his brain, things he tries to work through on Get On With It.
But Kelly isn't too interested in discussing the contents of the new EP. The point of the studiously DIY Black on Black is not to ruminate over the product but to experience it.
"Let's just be honest," he says. "This music is not for everybody. It's just not." He places his palms flat on the table and does a little content analysis anyway: "I mean, it's dirty. It's scuzzy. It's fairly simplistic. It has pop elements that give it a nice little flavor. It has some hooks. But for the most part, this is not something that is necessarily for mass appeal, and I have no problem with that whatsoever. And I don't mind being under the radar as long as I'm getting something meaningful out of it."
This ethos is why Black on Black has no plans to release a full-length — what Kelly calls a "big, bulky thing."
"The EP is all you're gonna get from us," he says. "Basically, what it boils down to is that this band is about immediacy. It's about what's happening right at this moment. If you listen to our EPs, you're probably listening to songs that were written within four months of the EP being released, or sometimes a little more or a little less. Sometimes I finish them in the studio."
He goes on: "How many bands have you listened to where you love them, and then they go into a fucking cave somewhere and they start listening to a bunch of the Who or something, and then they come out and suddenly it's not your band anymore? We're trying to take people with us."
Kelly works as a freelance graphic designer by day, and he likens the Black on Black project — the free EP releases, the rough cuts, the raw and guttural live performances — to a behind-the-scenes artistic process.
"People get into looking at the artist's studio and the artist's sketchbook. They want to get in the artist's head," he says. "For me, those artists' diaries and sketchbooks are a million times more important, and that's what we're giving people. We're handing them our diary every six months. We're handing people what's going on in our practice space."
In the background, the bartender changes records. Ella Fitzgerald comes on, and the pool balls keep clacking together across the room, echoing off the high ceiling. Kelly has all but forgotten his beer as he focuses with intense seriousness on answering my questions.
"I'm not judging my decision making, and that's because I've cut all the fat," he says. "I've cut all the filler. That's why everything sounds so raw, so live. There's not any ornamentation on anything that we do, from the artwork to the sound. It is what it is. Because of that, it makes me feel more comfortable in my skin. And when you're comfortable in your skin, that's when the actual art comes out."