After years on the Boise music scene, Nampa-born musician Kris Doty needed a change.
"Boise has always been a really supportive scene for me," she explained, "but I [felt] like maybe I overplayed for a while. And so I needed to go play some new places, be around new blood, just mix it up a little. I didn't want to become stagnant."
In 2009, Doty moved from Boise to Portland, Ore., where she'd lived once before and played in the band Five O'Clock People with singer-songwriter Drew Grow. The two had kept in touch--Grow opened at Doty's CD release show at Neurolux in February 2007--and reconnected in Portland. They performed for the next two years with drummer Jeremiah Hayden and keyboardist Seth Schaper as Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives.
But after Grow was injured in a car wreck in 2011, the time had come for another change. When the band went into the studio in 2012, Doty noticed a shift in his writing.
"It became clear that Drew had done a lot of thinking about deep things because of almost dying," she said. "That definitely gave a lot of food for his lyrical writing, but I think it also made him feel like it was time to get things moving."
Now called Modern Kin and comprised of Grow, Doty and Hayden, the band has been making big strides. Modern Kin, the first full-length album since Grow's accident, was released Oct. 22, 2013, on Hayden's Amigo/Amiga record label. Produced by Janet Weiss--drummer for indie-rock groups Quasi, Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney, as well as Grow's girlfriend--its 12 songs forgo Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives' wistful tunes and ambling rhythms in favor of stomping beats, ghostly organ drones and rousing, bluesy riffs. Boiseans will get to hear the results of this evolution when Modern Kin opens for Seattle, Wash.-based neo-soul group Pickwick at Neurolux Saturday, Jan. 18.
Trimming down to a trio made the name change feel appropriate, Doty said--especially as the band started recording the new album.
"We took it about as far as we could with being crazy and experimental and kind of noisy," she said. "[T]he sound was shifting. We were tightening it up and arranging more and caring about our parts being right. It sounded like a different band."
For Grow, the new name represented a change not just in sound but in spirit. He'd chosen the band's old name, he told the Habanero Collective blog last October, because "it felt risky and vulnerable for me to incorporate my heavily religious past in my present decidedly nonreligious music. It was a stage of my self-acceptance." But he'd grown tired of "the pseudo-gospel fad" and "the pervasive worship-team sound--all the clapping, bad lyrics and predictable harmonies gross me out."
The name "Modern Kin" better suited the making of the new album, which Grow felt "relied heavily on our animal natures, our creature-ness. ... This energy and freedom was a great beginning and continued to be our driving force going into the new material, but with transformed execution."
Weiss aided in that execution. Doty credits her with "helping us figure out how to bring out the best qualities of the music. ... Sometimes, you can be a little attached to your own song and think, 'But I wrote this bass part; it's so amazing.' And then [Weiss] can be like, 'Yeah, but it doesn't serve the song. What about the song? What about the art?'"
Modern Kin's penchant for oblique lyrics suggests that Grow is discovering the best qualities in his life as well. The radiant ballad "Pony" celebrates domesticity ("Oh, the grown man. / Oh, the down-home. / Oh, the pony in his stable stays"). On the raucous, soulful "Groundwire," Grow cries, "Out in the sun, my love / something has changed." The uplift of these songs balances the intimations of mortality on "Sooner or Later" ("You're gonna fly too. / You're gonna die too") and the digital-age discontent of "Congratulations Lack Earth" ("Til we're living alone again / are we living alone again / could I be satisfied with cold imaginings"). It also contrasts sharply with the songs on 2010's Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives, whose lyrics are rife with spiritual and romantic unease.
While Doty was reluctant to discuss Grow's relationship with Weiss, she did say that he "finally met somebody that was enough for him" and added that Grow regularly introduces the lurching, Tom Waits-esque rocker "Wicked Crush"--which features the lines "Oh my my, just my size / Would my woman fit my mind"--as a love song.
Seattle Weekly Editor-in-Chief Mark Baumgarten caught Modern Kin's performance at the Barboza on July 12, 2013. In a July 16 review, Baumgarten praised the band's "terse, direct songs built around growling electric-guitar lines and spare-but-insistent drum hits," declaring that Grow "is in fact destined for great things."
On Oct. 25-26, Modern Kin staged a virtual "world tour," performing seven live sets at Portland's Mississippi Studios, which were streamed on Youtube at 10 p.m. in seven time zones. Covering the event for MTV Hive, Colin McLaughlin wrote that the band "poured copious amounts of charm and energy into each set, even during early morning hours when live music of this volume should not be happening."
For her part, Doty enjoyed the performances but admitted that "there is nothing like a real flesh-and-blood live audience."
Modern Kin should see plenty of those in the coming months. The band has started working with Eric Gilbert and Duck Club Presents and hopes to tour beyond the Northwest. In March, the band will perform at Treefort Music Fest.
Doty looks forward to playing Treefort again. She remembered catching Quasi's set at the El Korah Shrine during last year's festival.
"I was standing with [Built to Spill's] Doug Martsch to my right," she said. "And I was like, 'This is so cool.' And other old friends that I could see. I just loved seeing Doug be so supportive of other musicians. ... It really makes it feel like a community, you know?"