Tom Kanach discusses the new Kanak EP, “On The Outside”

Photo by Stephanie Kanach

The members of New Jersey rock group Kanak initially came together working with singer/guitarist Tom Kanach on his solo project, but as the musicians brought their own ideas to the music, it evolved into a true band. Kanak recently released an EP, On The Outside, on which they worked with legendary producer Ed Stasium (The Ramones, Talking Heads, Motörhead, many others).

Kanach is a veteran of the New Jersey music scene, having been part of Grimace, Well of Souls, and Mischief. Rounding out the band Kanak are guitarists Johnny Rao (David Johansen Band / Sylvain Sylvain) and Peter Wood (Dramarama), bassist Joe Rowley and drummer Steve Brown.

Over a Zoom interview, Kanach discussed the band and new EP.

The EP just came out, but the first music released from it was “Outside.” Was that song the obvious choice for the first single?

Tom Kanach: There was a lot of back and forth about it. Everybody liked a different song. There was some discussion, but “Outside” we felt was a good intro to the band. And then the second single, “Not Right Now,” came out a couple of weeks back and then the EP just came out. So we did a lot of back and forth about it, but we thought that “Outside” wasn’t the most commercial of the songs, but we felt like the message was strong and then the guitar solos were cool and everything.

Some songs were initially on a previous EP, Demolition. Could you discuss that? How did those versions differ?

Tom Kanach: So we had been a solo act under my name, with the same guys in the band, and they were just recording my songs. We were playing some live shows, and really realized pretty early that it was a band. So we changed it to Kanak, but we had no product out there because everything previously had been under my name. So we threw the Demolition EP up there, of just the demos that we originally sent to Ed Stasium, for Ed to listen to and decide whether he wanted to produce us. And we just wanted to have something up there. It was only on Spotify and it was really hard to find.

So which of the songs were originally on Demolition?

Tom Kanach: “Outside,” “Disguise,” and “Crash.”

How do you feel the material evolved from that to the versions we have on the new EP?

Tom Kanach: They’re very different. They were really just a thumbnail sketch of the chords and the melody line and really rough. Since then, we’ve learned to figure out who’s playing what. There’s three guitar players, and while I don’t constantly play, I usually play on the choruses or things like that. We still had to figure out parts so that everybody’s not stepping all over everybody. So we spent a lot of time in the last year or so, sort of crafting that better. So, these songs that we did at Ed’s, some of them were really well developed and some of them … in the mix, we took some guitars out, so there wasn’t a lot of duplication, but it feels like we’re in a really good place now in terms of the band. And it’s really truly a band. Everybody argues about everything constantly.

Tell me about working with Ed and what he brought to the sound and the project.

Tom Kanach: We had started looking for producers because we wanted somebody else’s input, to make the tough choices because a lot of times somebody falls in love with a part or whatever and you really want to battle for it. And sometimes you’re just battling for it because it’s passionate to you and it’s not logical. So we were looking around and Johnny Rao, one of the guitar players, mentioned that he had done a record with Ed some years ago and he said, “Let’s just send it to Ed and see what he says.” And we sent it to Ed and we were surprised that Ed came back and said, “Oh, I love this. I’ll do this.” And so we flew out to see Ed and spent a couple of weeks out in San Diego with him recording at his house and learned a lot. Ed really pushes to capture the live vibe of the band. We worked hard, we did a lot of takes, way more than we would’ve if we were just left to our own devices. By ourselves, we would’ve stopped and been like, ‘that’s good enough.’ But Ed was like, ‘Nope, keep going.’ And he was funny and sarcastic and had a lot of great stories and we learned a lot. He was a really, really nice guy. We really liked him a lot.

Are there any particular songs that you feel were impacted more by working with him?

Tom Kanach: Yeah, I think “Without A Clue” was the one he actually really ripped into the arrangement with us and changed some things around. Some of the other songs, we had some suggestions about endings and things like that, but “Without A Clue” was really extensively reworked with his input as a producer in the studio.

Could you talk more about the evolution from doing music under your own name to the band and what provoked that?

Tom Kanach: So originally, I was in a punk band back in the early days and sort of my roots are Beatles and then early punk stuff that I really love. And over time, I got away from that a little bit and I got a little bit darker and a little bit more melodic in my writing. As we were doing these rehearsals with these guys, originally they were duplicating what I had done in the studio. And then after a while we asked, ‘Well, how would we play it if we were just hearing it for the first time?’ And it sounded really good and it was better. And relinquishing a little control, sometimes a little scary, but usually the result is that you get a much more diverse and complex song.

How did this group come together initially? Were they just all people you knew or had you been seeking musicians to work with?

Tom Kanach: I took some time off. I had kids. I took some time off from performing, actively performing, but I realized that I never stopped writing. So I did this really long, involved 30 song concept record called “Undertow.” And I did it in the early 2000s and I put it aside and I was like, ‘Oh, guess that’s all it’ll ever be.’ And one of my friends heard and said, “You should record it.” So I went into the studio and recorded it. The bass player that was hired for those sessions was Joe, who’s the bass player in the band. It took us two years to record 30 songs, like one night a week. And afterwards we said, “Well, let’s keep playing.” And I knew Steve Brown, the drummer, for a very long time. We’d never been in a band together, but we’d done a couple of shows together, like benefit shows and things like that. And of course, I knew Pete from Dramarama and I knew Johnny from David Johanson and from some of the other things he’s done, but Joe was playing in the band with Johnny and I had known Pete, so we just said, “Hey, do you want to come and play?” And it just piece by piece fell together. And it’s very interesting. Everybody has a sort of similar grounding point in the middle of power pop, early British rock and roll, and punk but then there are so many other different things that come into it. It’s pretty cool.

Was it obvious that you were going to do an EP now as opposed to releasing a full album?

Tom Kanach: I write a lot of songs and Johnny writes a bunch of songs and Pete and Joe and Steve write a little, and we just felt like, let’s do a snapshot of this moment, get it out there, and then we’ll do a snapshot of another moment in a couple of months. Instead of planning a whole big record and a whole big release, we would just get in a cycle where we did five, six songs every three or four months. We talked to Matt, Matt Pinfield is a supporter of the band, and we were talking one day and he said, “Yeah, do EPs because then you always have something fresh in front of the public,” which makes sense to me.

You’ve all been involved with different projects. Are there any particular things that the members bring into this band, based on what else you’ve done? Are there outside influences or experiences that became a part of Kanak?

Tom Kanach: I think so. I mean, music wise definitely. And then also business-wise and experience-wise, people bring those things in, lessons learned sort of stuff. But musically, I think the bands that Johnny’s been in impact him and the fact that Pete was always in a two-guitar band in Dramarama; he wasn’t always the lead guitar player. That forced him to learn how to be a good secondary guitar player, how to play good parts around the solos and not step on them. All those little bits together really, really made it easier for us to start to integrate that. And then Joe and Steve had played in a lot of different bands, all different styles, including some cover bands, and they learned best practices for songs that are really popular and hit songs and they brought those arrangement ideas in as well.

What are your plans once the EP comes out? Do you have any touring plans or what’s in the immediate future?

Tom Kanach: So, we are going back into the studio in April to do the next batch of songs, which we’ve been working on. And then in May, we have a ton of shows we’re playing all over. We’re playing some East Coast shows, and a bunch of West Coast shows out in California at the end of May. And then during the summer and into the fall, we have little mini tours booked, five days, four days here and there. But the next EP will probably come out in July or August.

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