Kiwi Jr.'s Scrappy Jangle Pop Takes Flight on 'Chopper'
Across their latest album Chopper, Toronto rockers Kiwi Jr. transcend their ramshackle jangle pop trappings to wedge in fragments of dark, cloistered synths and fluorescent keyboards, dialing up the band's preference of mechanics to the swing and mess of rock 'n' roll. We caught up with vocalist-guitarist Jeremy Gaudet to dive deeper into his band's new layers, finally working with Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner, and capturing that feeling between sunset and sunrise.
Whereas Kiwi Jr.'s first two albums showcased the band's hooky, yet-hard edged garage pop as a safe space for Flying Nun and C86 worshipers, their third album, Chopper, complicates things as the band turns nocturnal and embraces the lathery sounds of synthesizers. Comprised of vocalist-guitarist Jeremy Gaudet, guitarist Brian Murphy, bassist Mike Walker and drummer Brohan Moore, Kiwi Jr. resets their posture for ten tracks that accommodate a greater emotional depth. Over the neon-tinted merry-go-round keyboards, Gaudet's poetic allusiveness is still very much at the forefront, propelling passed the scratchy 12-string guitars, giddy Kinksian choruses, and driving rhythms. The opener "Unspeakable Things" sets everything up for the album's near 37-minute runtime with its quick attack of thumping drums and ear-candy synths. With Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) behind the soundboard, Gaudet's catchy vocal melodies are all over the crystalized power pop blast of "Parasite II," while the hummable "Clerical Sleep" presents a sonic platter of bubbling synths and infectious backing vocals from Toronto singer-songwriter Dorothea Paas. The power balladry of "Night Vision" is a prime example of the self-described "Kiwi after dark" — encompassing all the hallmarks to a textbook Kiwi Jr. tune while desending into the night. "The Extra Sees the Film" is a bit more darker and a change of pace as Gaudet puts it. "It’s a song about whether or not you’re the hero of your own story, or a smaller part of something bigger," Gaudet said in a press release. "Contract Killers," "Downtown Area Blues," and "Kennedy Curse" all sound like lost '90s Halifax pop gems. While comparisons to The Feelies, The dB's, The Only Ones, and Matthew Grimson still come to mind, Kiwi Jr. expand upon their familiar sound for high-voltage shocks beyond the horizon.
Ahead of their show with Charlotte Cornfield at the Lula Lounge, we caught up with Gaudet to dive deeper into his band's new layers, what it was like to finally work with Boeckner, and capturing that feeling between sunset and sunrise.
Paperface Zine: I know we've touched based on this before when we last spoke, but tell readers how exactly Kiwi Jr. formed.
Jeremy Gaudet: To dispel the myth that we formed a band in Prince Edward Island and moved to Toronto to hit the bigtime, I'll take you through the timeline. I had just finished grad school in Montreal and moved to Toronto in 2014 because my girlfriend was already here. Then I convinced Brohan to play drums on some songs I had been writing. He wasn't a drummer, but his roommate had a kit we jammed on. We were a two-piece trying to do a sort of Beat Happening, VU thing and then one day, we saw Mike walking down the street — who I hadn't seen in a couple of years, but grew up a few houses down from me in PEI. He had played bass in other bands on the East Coast so we got him to come over and try it out. The three piece had a better sound than the two piece, but still needed something else. Our friend Peter played keyboard for a bit with us, but I think the songs weren't punk rock enough to really interest him. Sort of spontaneously, I bought a cheap 12-string electric guitar to see if that would be the missing ingrediant and it sort of was. We then played a handful of shows to little notice — this would be the end of 2016, I think — and then one of the few Kiwi Jr. fans Brian came along to play another guitar.
PZ: What does a usual Kiwi Jr. practice session look like?
JG: If we're just rehearsing and not writing new songs, we'll book three hour sessions at a rehearsal space and we spend 1/5th of that actually playing music. The rest is just hanging out and paying for it. If we are writing it's a lot livelier with some healthy debate. Sometimes we go for wings afterwards at a sports bar nearby, if there's a game on.
PZ: So your latest album Chopper is composed of ten tracks that takes your guys' crooked hook power pop formula and merges it in a tightly knit parcel of neon-tinted synth pop — sorta in a way The Cars did on their third LP Panorama. Talk to me about how this record came together and what the recording sessions were like for it.
JG: When we wrote Football Money and a chunk of Cooler Returns, we were practicing at least once a week and sometimes would just jam and improv which results in new songs. We weren't doing that since the pandemic and so I started making a lot of demos on my own. My girlfriend and I have a handful of keyboards lying around so I was writing a lot on those. Partly because it's just easier and quieter to record a keyboard than a guitar; partly because it's hard to get new ideas through the same old guitar chords; and partly also because we knew we wanted to use more keyboards on this record. We were thinking about working with Dan, thinking about a tonal shift, doing some things differently.
PZ: There's certainly more emotional depth explored across this album especially when capturing the feeling of nighttime that's been described as "Kiwi after dark." What led you to explore such a cinematic concept?
JG: It just seemed like a different side of the coin to look at. Chopper is not a genre switch or anything like that, it's just drawing from a deeper part of the same well. Intentionally putting yourself in new territory — whether it's instruments, personnel, or whatever — is a good way to keep things fresh. I think some of it stemmed from when we did our KEXP at home session back in 2021 and we rented a big cityscape backdrop to try and manufacture a specific look for the video. We all felt good about the look and the vibe and thought maybe we could sneak something similar onto the next record.
PZ: I heard you guys rented a bunch of synths after tracking the other instruments. What led to the incorporation of more synths? It's totally a fresh spin on a familiar sound.
JG: We rented a Moog and then just used whatever else was in the studio for the most part. There was a Solina string machine we used a lot. We were always going to use more keyboards on this record, that's partly why Dan was brought in is that he really knows his way around that stuff. Anything of the arpeggiated stuff, like on "The Extra Sees The Film," or the intro to the "The Mask Singer" for example, that's all the Moog that we rented because of Dan. We did that stuff very early on because he got hit in the head on his way into the studio early one morning and had a gnarly gash and I don't think he could stand sitting through another ten hour day of solely drum and bass takes like we had done the previous day. So we switched to synth stuff very early on in the process.
PZ: What was it like working with Dan and were there any moments that he pushed you out of your comfort zone instead of you just taking the initiative?
JG: Way back when, Dan was going to produce what would become Football money. So we'd been looking to work together for a while and I was excited that it was finally happening. He had a lot of ideas that needed to come from somebody outside the band. Everything from tones and sounds we've never used before to some lyric suggestions — which is normally is something I'm defensive about. He made us do more takes than we probably would have on our own. And of course he co-mixed the record and was involved in editing and comping takes etc. Overall it was great, he's a generous and knowledgable guy. One of the times he came to Toronto we booked him an Airbnb to stay in that looked normal online, but when he got there he was sharing the apartment with like six other dudes who every morning at like 5:00 am were doing loud oversees business calls in a strange language — maybe some sort of scam calls and that was probably the only sorta bad thing that happened during our sessions I can remember. We found him another place to stay though.
PZ: I read in Stereogum that the album's lead single "Night Vision" inspired you guys and really set the tone for the rest of the album. What was it like putting that track together?
JG: The original demo I made for that song was on a Casio keyboard and has a very different structure and probably 30% different lyrics. I sent it to the guys and Mike chopped the demo up and rearranged the chords into new verses and choruses and really into something pretty different. After a few weeks of resistance, I agreed to re-do the demo with his structure and rewrote the lyrics to fit it. He was right to do it, the old one sounded too much like I was rapping in the verses. We were excited about the song going into the studio, but it was one of the last ones to get finished because we were chasing the keyboard sounds of the Casio demo and couldn't quite get it with the studio's keyboards. So I brought the Casio into the studio in an attempt to recreate what I had done on the demo then realized somewhere in the last four months we had changed the key of the song to F-sharp and I'm not quick enough to sit down and transpose two keyboard parts on what was supposed to be our last day of tracking keyboards. What we ended up doing was using some software to isolate the keys parts (because I didn't have the session files) of the Casio demo, pitching everything into F-sharp, and then running it all through the studio gear and amps so that it wouldn't sound as dinky. That was all Alex Gamble's doing and he 100% saved that track.
PZ: Chopper continues your stream-of-consciousness lyricism that's filled with hyper-specific references and witty one-liners. What's your songwriting process like and where do you mostly draw influence from?
JG: Many of the lyrics on this record started out as small notes I'd make to myself after hearing an idea that makes me pause — like, hey that could be something. A thing somebody says to me at work, or I hear in a movie, or read online, etc. An example is hearing a character in the TV show Justified say something like "I've seen unspeakable things" and me just pressing pause and writing down "unspeakable things," I like that. Months later when I have to write a new record, I go through my notes and pick out that idea and sit down and write the whole song. Same thing with "The Extra Sees The Film." At one point, I told a friend that I was in L.A. for Kobe Bryant's last game and how great it was, and he said "damn how much were the tickets?" And I had to clarify that I watched it at some sports bar in Los Feliz. I find that note a while later and sorta build a song around sucking the air out of a room.
PZ: Were you writing any of these songs during the nighttime?
JG: Usually I would write lyrics at night and work on the music and record demos during the day. It was a choice to make this album sound right if you played it at night, but it didn't really occur to me to only work on it at night, nor would I have had the time or resources to commit to a method like that.
PZ: Towards the end of last year, you played some shows with The Cloud Nothings and Nap Eyes. What were those shows like?
JG: Those shows were great. We've known the Nap Eyes guys for many years from back in the Maritimes and we always have a good time when we get to play together. The Cloud Nothings shows were fun, they were really nice people. I was for a second worried their audience would think that we were really twee or something, but I think most of them got it. Stephen Malkmus came to our show in Portland and it sorta phased me and I didn't have a great set, but he said he liked it.
PZ: I know you guys move quickly with already three albums under your belt, but what's on the horizon for the band? Have you guys already started working on another album?
JG: We got some shows ahead and some ideas floating around, but I think we sorta need to catch our breath.
Chopper is out now through Sub Pop Records.