Canadian singer/songwriter k-os has just released Yes!, his fourth studio album, stateside; it’s an evolved mix of his signature funk, hip-hop, rock, and soul. Born Kevin Brereton to Trinidadian parents in a Toronto suburb, k-os encountered diverse musical influences, which have since shaped a vision of music that’s genre-skirting and overwhelmingly positive. (Jaded toe-tappers need not apply.) We chatted with k-os as he was hanging out in Vancouver, pre-Olympics, and got down to the nitty-gritty of touring, playing for college kids, stop-motion animation, and 2010: The Year of the Canadian Freshness.
On the Winter Olympics:
I’m out on the West Coast for a couple of weeks during the Olympics this year, a lot of friends are here and playing. It’s kind of confidential, but I am playing, and it’s gonna be a good vibe for sure.
On touring vs. recording:
This record was such an in-depth spiritual process. By the time I finished with my engineers — I mean you’re never really finished — you get very reflective. Touring is like some army shit, you’re out there with a bunch of guys, on your own in the world instead of being in the studio where you’ve created this illusion. Touring is the real deal: out in the world, meeting fans. I can’t really compare the two because they’re totally different processes. But if you make a record you’re proud of, touring is awesome because you’re playing what you’ve recorded, and sometimes people know the words and they call out a song from the audience. Those are all amazing things. You can start a song from your bedroom, then all of a sudden you’re in Portugal and people know what you’re doing.
On how songs evolve in live performances:
It happens on two fronts. I kick around this joke with my band, when we’re watching this other band that we’re friends with. When they play one particular song that’s well known, sometimes it’s just really fast and not like how it sounded originally. And sometimes the audience doesn’t realize because everyone thinks they know that song already. The band automatically plays it.
Other songs, maybe you don’t play them live as much, but one night on tour you find a piece of it and realize that maybe it doesn’t go over as well with the audience so you change it, just one or two lines. Things are constantly evolving and changing. It’s the difference between perfecting the sound with knobs in a studio and then going out in a room with 500 or 1,000 people. That’s the great thing about the band I’ve been playing with for a long time, we’re good about flipping things up. That’s when it really becomes fun, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure kind of thing.
On getting sick of songs:
Eh… Not at this point, because you realize that having songs people know and like is actually a beautiful thing. I went through a thing where I stopped playing, like, “Crabbuckit” and “Man I Used to Be” — the hits in Canada [from 2004’s Joyful Rebellion] —I was like “No I’m not going to play them, I don’t feel them anymore.” The challenge is keep them sounding so close to the studio version that people pick up on it and are like “Here’s my song!” Maybe that’s the reason they came to the concert.
When you become a musician you start going to concerts for a different reason, maybe you want to check the band out, check the guitar player out. When you’re a fan, you go to hear the songs you love. As a musician, if you’re out of touch with why people go to concerts, then your concert comes off as disrespecting the very reason people come. And they’re not into it. I went through that period, too, but I’ve come back around. I think it’s a blessing, I’m feeling really human these days, like wow! I was a part of something, I made something people can take out of the closet and put on a table for all to see.
On playing at colleges and connecting with the audience:
When I was in my first year of university (I only went for one year before I left to follow music), it’s the first time you’re away from your parents, meeting new people, it’s your own world. And people get to choose what they like. And they’re on the pulse, the cutting edge. 98% of the time those kids aren’t going home at the end of the night, they’re going to another party. University students are at a point in their partying that’s just off the charts. Playing for them is like playing for party royalty. If you rock these kids, if you genuinely rock them, they will leave and be into your stuff. In some cases, you’re actually giving them their first show. And that’s a crazy experience to give kids. So I have a soft spot for university shows — I mean, I never finished, so I didn’t get the full experience — but they’re so open and curious. I’ll have people ask me about [specific lines] — what did you mean by this? They’re busting out, you know what I mean?
On collaborating with indie bands:
To be completely real… I would say that [I developed my taste] growing up in high school, because I grew up in a suburb outside of Toronto, and I was like the only black guy in my high school. I went to public school and there were always only one or two black guys in my class. So my adaptation to U2 and Joy Division and Strawberry Switchblade and Echo and the Bunnymen was a natural thing, because that’s what everyone was bumpin’. If I went to a house party I wasn’t gonna, like, kick off the tape, you know what I mean? So I feel like these indie bands mirror the kids that I grew up with. Like Broken Social Scene, I went to their very first show. Why did I do that? I wanted to check them out because it appealed to my inner teenager. I get that culture because it was my culture.
Anyway, so all the music that I’ve made with those bands [Ed. note: Emily Haines from Metric and Murray Lightburn from The Dears both appear on this latest album] is a snapshot of the great times we’ve had together. I love them and it’s kind of a natural symbiotic relationship.
On racial profiling in music:
I think people put certain music into racial genres, though I guess that’s changing with the iPod. I mean, a dude could be listening to Britney Spears and you’d never know.
On the “4 3 2 1” music video:
The director is Drew Lightfoot, a brilliant dude, a crazy dude. You should check out his website. He had told me he stopped doing stop-motion because he had been doing commercials and so on. One day I was coming out of a bank on the corner of Queen Street in Toronto and ran into him and we talked about doing a video in stop-motion animation. That fall we got together, I went to his house, and he took all these pictures of me, showing me what it would look like pieced together. I was just dancing around, fooling around, and it looked so cool. So we did it.
It was also a labor of love, because there are 12 shots per frame, so you have to bend over and hold – 1,2,3,4,5 – twelve times. So you have to get creative and make it look animated. I had a lot of fun with that.
On Canadian camaraderie:
I keep saying Canada is like the fridge, man. Canada’s what? It’s a fridge! It’s fresh! It’s locked and ready to go. So when Michael J. Fox shows up out of the Ziploc bag in Back to the Future, he’s got such a fresh persona. And Seth Rogen and Michael Cera and Superbad, when those guys come out of the Ziploc, it’s like what is this? So what Americans need to know about Canada in 2010: it’s the Ziploc.
When this record comes out in America, and people get hip to it, I might even be a new artist to people. Even though I’ve been doing my thing in the fridge for ten years. So it’s cool.