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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Killingtons Stand at the Crossroads

September 13, 2000|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Right now is an anxious, restless time for the Killingtons. The Huntington Beach-based band is on the bubble, grinding it out at the grass-roots level yet poised for a big-time breakthrough.

Released on the independent MEG label, the quartet's new, self-titled CD is creating quite a stir, drawing almost unanimous critical praise and the ears of major label scouts.

The band members--lead singer-guitarist J.K. (a.k.a., James Killington Thompson), lead guitarist Mitchell Townsend, bassist Chris Muench and drummer Michel Bravine--are certainly delighted with the positive vibe surrounding "The Killingtons," the long-awaited follow-up to 1996's promising three-song EP, "American Made."

At the same time, the band is decidedly cautious about its future. Some Orange County groups have seen their fortunes skyrocket after inking deals with major labels. But for every No Doubt, Sugar Ray and Lit, many others--Wank and Red Five, for instance--have a different story to tell. Because Townsend, who joined the Killingtons less than a year ago, played bass in the now-disbanded Red Five, he knows what the big leagues can--and can't--do.

"When you're not a label's priority, it's so easy to fall through the cracks and kind of disappear," he said during an interview with the band members at their favorite Mexican restaurant in Huntington Beach. "A lot of A&R people have free rein to sign whoever they want, which is fine and dandy. But if no one else at the label feels that strongly about you, you're in trouble."

Despite Red Five's premature demise, Townsend, 29, hasn't completely soured on the idea of giving the majors another shot.

"I had a horrible experience before, but I'll try again under the right conditions," he added. "It's important to have people in your corner that are not only into what you're doing, but understand it and know where it's coming from. Then they want it to happen almost as much as you do--and I believe that's the only way it's going to happen."

"We've been approached, we've had options," interjected Muench, 25, between bites of chips and salsa, "but we wanted to at least do this record on our own. That way, we can say, 'Here's what we've done for ourselves . . . now what can you do for us, or at least with us?' "

Akin to the style of My Bloody Valentine and Sunny Day Real Estate, the Killingtons--who perform Saturday night at the Roxy in West Hollywood--play emotionally-charged, guitar-based, heavy rock that often takes repeated listening to fully digest.

Dark, unsettling songs like "All My Friends Are Vampires" and "Destination Failure" mirror the disillusionment, fear and struggles of a young generation looking for fulfillment and a sense of purpose.

The subject matter comes from the experiences of J.K., the band's lanky, soft-spoken lyricist.

"The words usually speak about my problems, or maybe fit a screwed-up situation I've gone through," said the 26-year-old J.K., whose vocal intensity calls to mind Peter Gabriel and Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett.

"I am angry a lot," he continued. "It's hard to survive, especially at our age. I feel confusion about goals. . . . The future does look dim at times. Life is a bumpy road filled with all these distractions, whether it's a lost relationship with a loved one or drug abuse."

Hardly one-dimensional, the band offers more than galvanizing rage and despair. The pretty-sounding, acoustic-tinged "Balladovie" is a comforting ballad, and "Ninety Three" has a serene quality--at least until it shifts tempo and the slashing guitars of Townsend and J.K. kick in.

The band's most intimate number is "In Memory," a heartfelt tribute to Muench's parents, Michael and Wendy. Both were big backers of the band and died within the last two years--Michael from a stroke and Wendy from breast cancer.

"Out of anything anyone's ever done for me, it's a great gift that J.K. wrote a song like that for me," Muench said. "Losing your parents like that . . . it's something you don't get over. It's like a healing process for the rest of your life. I'm expecting it to be slow, so I'm taking it slow.

"Michel's parents live in Colorado, so my mother was like a surrogate mom to him."

"Yeah, she'd bake us cookies and bring them to the shows, which she and Michael came to many times," added Bravine, the youngest band member at 23. "She was a kind-hearted woman, and we talked about so many things."

From that sorrow was at least born a cause. In honor of Wendy Muench, the Killingtons sell breast-cancer awareness ribbons at their shows, with the proceeds going to local cancer patients' medical costs.

"It was her idea . . . she brought it up to me," Muench said. 'We're not trying to raise money for the cure because there are so many corporations, with a lot more resources, already doing that. When you're going to chemotherapy three or four times a week, those co-payments add up real fast. So this is our way of pitching in."

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