Local teen band Uncle Kurtis releases a studio recording

KID STUFF: Four Asheville teenagers have come together as Uncle Kurtis, a rock and punk-influenced group that plays the big stages in its hometown. The band has scheduled an Aug. 16 album release show at Asheville Music Hall. Photo by Sophia Miller

It’s not at all unusual for four 14-year-old boys to start a rock group. It is, however, remarkable when that band gets high-profile gigs in local bars and cuts an album of songs, all within a year of forming. But thanks in part to parents drawing on their contacts, that’s what has happened for Uncle Kurtis, an Asheville-based quartet of rising ninth-graders. Uncle Kurtis plays an album release show on Thursday, Aug. 16, at Asheville Music Hall.

“Each of the dads for this group has some connections, and a lot of people are calling things in,” says Roger Darnell, father of vocalist Riley Darnell and enthusiastic spokesman for the band. He says that local club owners are “willing to accommodate us in special ways” by scheduling all-ages shows.

Bassist Quinn Sforza jokingly suggests another reason why his band lands sought-after bookings in a competitive local market full of worthy musical artists: “I don’t think they know that we’re all 14.”

The band’s studio album, Let’s Kill Uncle Kurtis, was released on Girth Records, an indie label run by the brother-in-law of one of Riley’s teachers at ArtSpace Charter School. The group’s music reflects each member’s musical heroes. Sforza laughs when he mentions his influences: “Les Claypool, Jaco Pastorius, Flea … as stereotypical as it gets.” Guitarist Jackson Lee says his tastes run toward “avant-garde composers, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.” (Drummer Graham Barrineau was unable to make the interview.)

While the instrumentalists in the group cite the sway of ambitious artists, Riley draws inspiration from punk. “To get in the state of mind that I like to be in for shows, I watch Bad Brains videos,” he says.

Some of Uncle Kurtis’ songs feature knotty riffs, but many are built around one- or two-chord motifs; the group members agree that the approach is a sort of a band signature. The vocals consist mostly of Riley shouting seemingly off-the-cuff lyrics over the musical foundation. He says that he jots down lyric ideas on his phone. “And then, whenever they start playing a song that they want to turn into a real song, I’ll just pick one that I think fits the best,” he says.

Since getting together a year ago (some of the members had played together in other groups before their 10th birthdays), Uncle Kurtis has been booked at Soulshine, LEAF Downtown AVL, Sly Grog, Isis Music Hall, Salvage Station and The Mothlight. Roger Darnell says his son’s group has a loyal following, one made up not just of kids.

There’s an unapologetically bratty demeanor to the 10 songs on Let’s Kill Uncle Kurtis (four of which feature explicit lyrics). And the subject matter is sometimes intentionally provocative: “Back to Iowa” is a first-person victim account of a child kidnapping; the central character develops a Stockholm syndrome-type attachment to his male abductor and rebels when returned to his parents. Roger steps in to defend the band’s lyrics penned by his son. “The things that they like to sing about and carry on about make them all laugh together,” he explains.

The lyrics of the nearly six-minute, one-chord album closer “Rubber Man 35” concern a motivational speaker who appeared at ArtSpace. “His father told him not to have sex until he was 35,” Riley Darnell recalls with a laugh.

The violent nature of the album’s title might strike the wrong chord, especially at a time when many teens are protesting gun and other forms of violence (Uncle Kurtis played a concert fundraiser benefiting Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action in May). Sophia Miller, designer of the album’s cover art, claims responsibility for the title.

But when pressed to explain its meaning, Miller just shrugs. When she drew the album cover art, she included a speech bubble above the floating head of drummer Barrineau. “There was some room above ‘Uncle Kurtis’ in the speech bubble,” she says. “So I wrote ‘Let’s Kill.’ And then that just became the album name.”

“It’s not really meant as anything,” insists Riley. “It doesn’t really matter. It just sounds good, I think.”

The lengthiest track on Let’s Kill Uncle Kurtis is the ambitiously titled “Simfonia LaMousea,” a two-chord improvisation that runs more than 13 minutes. Its inclusion is explained in part by the band’s need to record enough music for a full-length album. “It wasn’t like we ran out of material,” explains Sforza, possibly joking. “We ran out of good material.” (The rest of the band responds with hisses and boos.)

Right now, the four members are enjoying the summer before starting high school; their plans beyond that aren’t sharply defined. “We just want to make more songs,” says Riley. “Further develop them, and kind of round them off before we record them.”

WHO: Uncle Kurtis with Seven and a Half Giraffe and Over the Edge
WHERE: Asheville Music Hall, 31 Patton Ave., ashevillemusichall.com
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 16, 7 p.m., $5 all ages; those younger than 18 must be accompanied by a guardian

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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