The Return of the Kidneythieves, Part 1: An Interview

With the release of "Zerospace" in 2002, there was no hotter industrial band than the Kidneythieves. Shortly thereafter, the two-person troupe of singer/lyricist Free Dominguez and one-man-band Bruce Somers went on hiatus. In 2007, the band announced they were back in action and furiously writing songs, which culminated in the summer of 2010's triumphant return and the powerful album "Trypt0fanatic." Now back in the studio and recording their upcoming EP "Invisible Plan," the duo is working feverishly and putting out the same hard-charging, electronically influenced music they became known for almost a decade ago. Taking a moment off from their recording, Bruce and Free were generous enough to sit down and talk about what's new with the band, what it's like to be back, and how they ended up on the soundtrack of a Final Fantasy game.

I guess the first question, speaking in part as a fan, is why the long hiatus between “Zerospace” and “Trypt0fanatic?”

FREE DOMINGUEZ: You know, we…just had a good run, and then our label ended and there was just a lot of frustrations and questions, and we just took a break. But we did “Trickster Reprocess” in what, late ’04? And then we got back to writing again in late ’07. So we basically just took a break, and we both did some other things to sort of clear our head, and we came back and we made it about the art.

What in 2007 triggered it in your minds that that was the time to get back together, that made it comfortable again?

FREE: Oh, there’s so much.

BRUCE SOMERS: Free had someone representing her, and she called me, broke a couple times, sort of bridged it, brought it together. Worked on “Dark Horse,” which was the first song for “Trypt0fanatic,” and it felt really good for both of us. So we said screw it, we’re gonna go forward again, and that chemistry was there, it flowed, along with some other experiences that some of us had, so it was good. I think that was how that timing worked.

FREE: We both learned so much when we took some time to do other things, and I think we both became better. As songwriters, as musicians. So, that makes our connection and what we do, better.

So, in your time apart, what is it that you learned that you’re bringing to “Trypt0fanatic” and by extension, “Invisible Plan,” that will make them better than your previous works?

BRUCE: I wouldn’t look at it that way, whether it’s going to be better or worse or different. For us, it’s about the process regardless of what you do…you try and make the best music that you can, always. One of the things that Free and I have always agreed on is we don’t like sinkers, we don’t like songs that are not good enough. We kinda get into them and make sure that we like them a lot, that’s always our criteria first, and you know, we put them all together. So, a lot of times, actually all the time, we always write more songs than we actually end up releasing. And so, it’s always been the same situation, including “Trypt0fanatic.” But I don’t think we were looking back and thinking ‘oh, how do we top “Zerospace?”’ or something like that. It’s a different phase we’re going through, we’re feeling different about certain things, and we kinda let it happen, as opposed to having that conscious effort to look at what we’ve previously done.

What does it feel like to come back together and be united under the Kidneythieves name again? It is comfortable, does it feel like you never left? What’s that emotion like?

FREE: Bruce and I, we’re like family. Regardless of how long you’re apart or whatever, when we get back together, it’s like no time has passed. We’re just really, really lucky that we have such a great connection in the studio, and musically, we’re always on the same page. Even though we can’t explain what it is.

Does that also mean you occasionally fight like family?

FREE: Absolutely! But like normal people, we talk things out, we really listen to what the other person has to say, and most of the time, we’re saying the same thing in different ways.

BRUCE: I definitely give some credit to Free. You know, I’m a big guy, I might raise my voice a little bit sometimes, but she’s super tough. She’s been through enough and she knows how to deal with a lot of situations, so we kinda get a lot of that crap outta the way, and get down to the bottom line of what we’re both trying to do, which is write some kick ass music.

You released your newest album, “Trypt0fanatic” this past summer. What drove the decision to distribute that album independently?

BRUCE: When we first started doing this, I think we were still in label mentality to a certain degree. The first two that we did we wrote the music ourselves, and we would write…the first one we wrote two or three songs, and the second one we wrote four songs for “Zerospace,” and then we got people interested from our so-called demos, but they really were the final deal except for a mix. And then we we’d get our deal, and they’d advance us the money, and we’d go on tour and that was sort of the routine. I think when we first started we were hoping that was what it was going to be like. And it’s not, the industry’s different. So it took us a little longer to sort of realize that. And when we did it made a difference, we said, hey, we’ve got to do this ourselves, that’s the way it’s gotta be. So we didn’t intentionally say screw the world, we’re gonna do it all ourselves, etc, etc. You need help, regardless of whether you’re doing it yourself or whatever, you still need help from people to get the word out there.

FREE: We met with a lot of people and it just didn’t seem like it was a fit for us. And we did have a fanbase and we thought ‘let’s start there.’ Let’s start with the people who know us, and make sure that the music comes first, and then we’ll see how it grows. Instead of just ‘oh, my God, we have to pick a team, we have to do it this way…’ And a lot of people around us, people that we admire, were actually doing some distribution themselves too, so that’s where we are now, and we’re just gonna keep doing what we do, and we’ll see where it takes us.

When you released the album by yourself, what freedom did you gain by doing that, or what problem arose that you didn’t see coming?

BRUCE: We’re always had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted to do, which has had a lot do with our sound, doing something alternative, and not write something that’s heard a lot, or ‘oh, that chorus sounds kinda cheesy, let’s pull back and make the verse run a little further out.’ We’ve been lucky enough to always be able to do that. Unexpected thing was probably the time period of how long it takes to do a CD if you’re not working on it twenty-four seven.

You mentioned that there were people you admired doing this already. Who were you looking at as a model for the release of the album?

FREE: Well, our friends 8mm, Sean Beaven, KMFDM who we toured with, they have a very fine tuned operation, they’re really good friends of mine. And then there were people who have had a lot more success than we have, who now do it on their own.

BRUCE: It’s weird, when we came off our last tour, our last gigs, I forgot when it was, but there were so many bands who were dropped, that were out there and were really big bands. The Used, Chevelle, a lot of bands that all of a sudden were off that label. A lot of those bands have picked up and they keep doing it. It’s just a different landscape today, you know?

Speaking of Sean Beavan, I know he’s doing some work for “Invisible Plan.” You’ve had a long relationship with him, what’s he like to work with?

FREE: Oh, he’ so open, I know for me he’s taught me so much about songwriting, he’s an excellent engineer, he’s an old, dear friend of Bruce’s, and again, it feels like family. He’s such a pro, he’s so talented, that he has a demeanor that is very calming but direct. You know, ‘let’s get the best song we can, and how about when you look at it this way?” He’s great to work with, and he’s really funny, too.

BRUCE: Yeah, we spoke last night, he’s not working on this right now, but we’ll always bring him in if we can, when schedules line up and things like that, to advise and help. But we’ve been doing some work together on some other things. For me, the one thing about Sean is just…he’s meticulous. He taught me just to always care. And that’s the one thing that I think the two of us really share in common, we’re not gonna let it go. If there’s a hum, if there’s a wrong sound, if the drum isn’t right or whatever. It’s a little bit of an obsession, but it’s also I think what we both really like is music done right.

Sean has a reputation for a very dense, or a heavy sounding production. Do you find that he ends up pushing you that direction or shapes the sound of what you’re doing together?

BRUCE: For “Trypt0fanatic” he came in and he mixed, so we always talk in terms of his friends and things like that, but he wasn’t producing, so in terms of pushing, he was really at the end of that record. If you listen to 8mm, I think melodic sense is Sean’s incredible strength, he’s a great songwriter. And 8mm I think is really close to his heart. He ends up, because of what he’s done in production, made a lot of really heavy, dense music because he started that way, doing [Nine Inch] Nails and things. It’s hard, but he really does bass and melody for his own music, and that’s what I think of with Sean more than dense or heavy.

You were there back in the day with “Trickster,” versus now…how does the popularity of internet file sharing and the global music network change how a band goes about getting their name out there?

BRUCE: In terms of using Twitter and using a lot of social media to get the word out, it really is a huge part of it today. It can’t do everything because we still have to write music and do what we love to do, but that’s how you reach your audience. Free’s been amazing with that, with reaching out and having a direct connection with the fans that is so unique compared to when we started doing it and it was all about playing live, and then you might get a short set, and you’re opening in twenty minutes, and if the sound isn’t that great, you can’t really hear, and boom, they’re gone, they’ll sign the merch and that was it. Today it’s getting into the head a little bit. You say hey, what’s this person thinking about, and this person’s inspiring me, and it’s a two-way stream. So it’s been an incredible thing to watch, you know, and to be a part of it before and during.

Do you think it would have been possible to distribute “Trypt0fanatic” yourself without that kind of social media context?

FREE: I think it would have been a lot more difficult. Before that, the only other person I can really think of besides rappers who went and did it out of their trunk…I have to give it to the rap community, because they always stick together, and they all help each other out, and they really build from there. But when I think about someone who really did it all on their own before all of this, was Ani DiFranco. She freakin’ went bar to bar, twenty-four seven. That’s some serious dedication, and mad props to her. I think now with the economy and everything, thank God we have all of these social media things because it would be nearly impossible to do what Ani DiFranco did now.

Your song is now the featured theme for “Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy” How did you come to be on the soundtrack for this anniversary celebration of the Final Fantasy franchise?

FREE: I was just checking our emails that we get through the website, and I got an email that said ‘we’d love to have you on this video game, I can’t tell you the name of it, but we’d like to talk to you further.’ So I had my manager call them and shortly thereafter we found out it was Final Fantasy, and we’re like ‘no shit! This is awesome.’ The composer, Takeharu Ishimoto, had already composed a track, and we found out he is a Kidneythieves fan…

BRUCE: We found that out while we were working. They came out and were obviously speaking Japanese and we speak a little bit of English, and we had some times were we were just trying to figure each other out. A friend was here as translator, and we found out maybe a couple hours in that he was a huge Kidneythieves fan. It was great, we really didn’t know, we just thought that he liked the music and it was cool and usually people are a little casual about that, but he was just really into it. We have tons of respect for him, too, his song is great and it was a fun experience.

So he came to you with a song he’s already written and wanted you to perform, or you composed your own material?

BRUCE: It’s their song, they wanted us to put our stamp on it. That was the way they explained it to us. Obviously it’s Free’s vocals, and she worked on a few things on it, and then we asked as we were working ‘is this okay? We’re kinda heavy, we like a heavier sound.’ The orchestral part was a real orchestra, which made a big difference. But there’s some production, drums obviously and all the stuff that we like to do, and they liked everything. Whatever we wanted to do, they said run with it. So it was fun, they were here, we were doing things, and they were like ‘that works, or that’s great.’ It was a really collaborative, cool experience.

What’s it like to work with a full orchestra?

BRUCE: It sounds amazing. I mean, they do a lot of string composition, and having an orchestra dig into it and play it is pretty cool. I conduct, so we flew the strings in, but definitely had to make sure that it would fit, where it was tension against the music and sometimes strings are a little bit loose. So we did a little bit of tightening, which means a little bit of chopping and editing to make it fit the riffs and everything like that. That was a little bit of work, but I think the sound overall is really cool. The other thing I liked, too, is when we were mixing, I’d say to [Takeharu] ‘do I have to have the strings on top?’ A lot of video games are much more string driven or orchestral, the guitars get kind of thin in the back, and I pushed the guitars a little bit, and he was all down with that. So that was great, that was fun.

Do you guys feel like being on the “Final Fantasy” soundtrack is putting the Kidneythieves back out center, in terms of exposure? Is this your grand returning statement?

FREE: First off, we’re so honored. I mean, we’re the only ‘band’ on that whole soundtrack. We’re the only band, so it was a huge honor, and they have our song featured on their website. I think it will also expose a lot of people to what we do.

BRUCE: To answer the question, we’re lucky that we fell into something. They were fans, and they came to us and it was a big deal and a big franchise. To have the opportunity to do it is awesome, if we can reach another audience, if our core audience isn’t offended, that’s pretty cool, it’s a win-win for us. We’re really excited about it, the reviews I’ve seen so far, people are digging the track a lot. We’ve done some music for games before, and anytime someone gets into it, that’s a great compliment.

I like to ask this of bands who I know are connected in music. Name me and the readers a small handful of bands that people should be listening to.

BRUCE: Kidneythieves. [Also] I’m a huge Chevelle fan. Always been totally inspiring to me. Lot of electronica, lot of heavy rock, but still I think incredibly melodic.

FREE: You know, I can’t get enough of The Roots. I think especially lyrically, Black Thought is one of the greatest lyricists of our time. Just to go and listen to what he’s saying, it’s so deep but not preachy. I really get inspired, especially with the latest stuff he’s been doing, it really inspires me and opens me up, for sure. I also like things like Rachael Yamagata. Basically just about someone who is being honest and works on her art. Beach House’s “Teen Dream,” that was one of my favorite albums last year. Danger Mouse’s “Broken Bells,” love “Broken Bells.”

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