We get to know Kurt Riley in what may be our most in-depth interview yet…
So, who are you?
My name is Kurt Riley. I’m a metapop composer, musician, and performer.
Where are you from?
There’s not one locale I can pin down, honestly. My father was in the military, so I moved with great frequency as a boy; even after he left the service, we continued to relocate for work, a habit which I perpetuated as an adult. In total, I’ve moved about seventeen times.
Three of these locales have been most impactful upon me, both as an artist and as a human being – Memphis, Tennessee; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Ithaca, New York. Memphis gave me the blues, Florida gave me the dance, and New York gave me the opportunity.
How long have you been together?
As a solo artist, I’ve been active for over a decade. My debut album, Brighthead, was produced by Beyoncé/Run The Jewels collaborator BOOTS; my sophomore release, Kismet, was a sci-fi concept album about an alien king who comes to Earth in search of his lost queen – and saves humanity in the process.
I’ve had several band line-ups, but the final iteration began to assemble when I found my right-hand man, bassist Rick Kline. Rick joined for the recording of my third record, Tabula Rasa, and he has been the stalwart foundation of my band ever since.
In 2018, I released the Valentine’s Day single ‘Love Is In My Heart’, the debut of our incredible synthesizer wizard, Charlie Jones. And later that year, our line-up was finalized when Sesu Coleman joined us on drums, debuting on the single ‘Failure of Imagination’. Sesu performed with The Magic Tramps and Alan Vega of Suicide, so he has quite the pedigree.
Just last December, we released the single ‘Be Cool’, a goodbye kiss to those first 10 years of my career. ‘Be Cool’ closed that chapter and 2019 will bring an entirely new sound for the band and I – one we are very excited to debut.
How long have you been playing music?
Since I was thirteen or fourteen. My first hopeless infatuation was with rhythm and blues, specifically the brilliant Chess Records releases, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, and the brilliant Delta blues artists, such as Robert Johnson and Son House.
The Rolling Stones led me to each of those fellows. And I am indebted to them for that – Brian Jones’ original mission was not in vain. (I adore their work, too; Tattoo You and Beggars’ Banquet are in constant rotation at my home.)
In time, my interests grew quite diverse, stemming from dark wave to Baroque, from Tin Pan Alley to post-punk. It was my aim from the beginning to become a self-constructed being – a one-man army. So I taught myself how to compose my own songs, how to play multiple instruments, how to sing and perform.
Given the vast gulf in quality between the music I was infatuated with, and that which I heard on the airwaves at the turn of the century, I was possessed of a revolutionary spirit – it felt almost like a mission. “We must make good music again!” (laughs) Very teenage in its pretense, and also in its purity of spirit.
Since those heady days, I’ve been blessed to have incredible experiences – working with Grammy-winning producers, recording with magnificent musicians, appearing on magazine covers and on television – but these have only been part of the first chapter. What comes ahead will shock everyone. Perhaps even myself.
Why should people listen to your band?
There is absolutely no one like me. No one living, anyhow.
Amidst a sea of sound-alike, Auto-Tuned Max Martin drivel, I’m an outlier. For I’ve waited and trained on the perimeter, poised to strike. And with every YouTube comment asking “why does music today sound so awful,” I grew a bit closer to the first strike.
So many people are fed up with how homogenized, spiritless, and hackneyed modern pop music is. The lowest common denominator does not satisfy; one can only eat McDonalds’ for so long. And that is what I am here to do – to rail against McMusic. Consider me the alternative – the last in a line of self-created, high-concept stars, tracing back through Prince, Gary Numan, David Bowie, and Marc Bolan.
What is your ideal touring line-up?
Definitely the fellows I’m performing with now. They’re magnificent! And I know a backup vocalist and a sax player that I would love to bring along on tour, as well.
What does music mean to you?
Transcendence. In a song, I can escape the moment – escape mortality, for a moment – and visit another place or time. Humans often use music as emotion management software, as well; in dark times, we dwell with songs which pull the tears out and help us push forward. And in joyous clover, we blast the victorious anthems.
Art is the collective consciousness of a sentient organism recognizing itself in the mirror. With all of the humor, horror, adoration, and laughter that brings.
This is why modern popular music is an absolute scourge. It is the destruction of a vocabulary. An enthusiastic affirmation of mediocrity.
What was the first record you bought when you were younger?
I distinctly recall having to persuade my parents for the money to pick up a copy of The Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks. (Being quite conservative and religious, they didn’t wish for me to have anything mentioning The Devil. Haha.)
What an incredible education that was. Like an elementary school primer. It showed me what breadth, depth, and power one band could have – everything from the poignant heartbreak of ‘Wild Horses’ to the haunting eroticism of ‘Under My Thumb’. And once I heard those opening chords to their famous cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’, I knew that I was head over heels.
What artists first inspired you to start playing music?
The brilliant writer Grant Morrison created a brilliant run of the Justice League of America, which began in 1997. One of his many smart moves was to create a line-up which was essentially unbeatable – which he often compared to a Greek pantheon of heroes.
My personal pantheon of musical heroes contains many geniuses who never cease to inform what I do.
Bryan Ferry/Brian Eno/Roxy Music; Killing Joke; Chuck Berry; Gary Numan; John Lennon; David Bowie; The Killers; T.Rex; Vangelis; The Rolling Stones; Siouxsie and the Banshees; The Kills; Bo Diddley; Prince.
What’s the most aesthetically pleasing album cover that you have in your collection?
Julie London, Julie Is Her Name¸ 1957. Such a beautiful woman, with a smoky, detached, even haunted expression – her hair and makeup done in that optimistic Atomic Age manner, all futuristic class. Swept back and shiny, like a Sabre Jet. And the thing contains ‘Cry Me A River’, which is absolutely required listening.
What kind of movie genre do you think your music would best be the soundtrack for?
Well, Kismet was written for a science fiction space opera about a doomed romance and the future of humanity. So anything like that would be a solid fit. (laughs)
Recommend us a record, a book, and a movie…
Record: Avalon, Roxy Music, 1982. The finest balm for a weary soul I know. Their pinnacle.
Book: Preacher, Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon, 1995-2000. Hilarious, disgusting, heart-breaking, and irreverent.
Movie: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Nicholas Meyer, 1982. Stylistically gorgeous, with a brilliant, poignant script and fine acting from a cast of masters. An incredible treatise on the futility of revenge – and the importance of resolve.
Any last words for the readers of Highwire Magazine?
I know I’m strange. Thank you for listening.