Singer-songwriter Markus Kuhlmann (Clouds & Satellites, Waits & Co.) is interviewed about how he got his start in the Savannah music scene, his creative process, his new band Mike Kilo, and much more.
What is your earliest musical memory?
Probably church choir. My Mom is pretty religious, so I spent a lot of time rehearsing for church-y musical plays. Nativity scenes with jazz hands, etc.👋👋 I’d be the third Wise Man in the back of the manger scene or something. She also had a cassette recording of me singing “Top of the World” by The Carpenters note for note (pitch-perfect, reportedly🤷🏻♀️), when I was two years old. I have a vague memory of that. One of my older brothers taped over that performance. Mom’s still salty about that. I also have big memories of recording Casey Kasem’s Top 40 off of the radio and watching Solid Gold on TV. There was no streaming in the 70s!
Who are some of your influences?
Even though my listening tastes are kinda all over the map, I definitely skew towards the broadest definition of Indie Rock as far as the music that I produce. I’m a big fan of a variety of subgenres that exist under that Indie Rock tent: Alt. Country, Post-Punk, Power/Dream Pop, Shoegaze, Lo-Fi. With a lot of Indie stuff, it’s a thing where “you know it when you hear it”, even if it all seems very stylistically diverse and relatively unique. I kinda mix all of these influences together to create something that just winds up sounding like me. If I had to pick four musicians to put on my very own Mt. Rushmore, it’d be Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Bob Pollard (Guided by Voices), Britt Daniel (Spoon) and J Mascis (Dinosaur, Jr.). That’s one crazy-ass mountain! And possibly the greatest supergroup lineup ever…. 🤘
Describe your creative process …
When writing songs, the music almost always comes first and fairly quickly for me, and then I agonize/procrastinate/dilly-dally, etc., with the lyrics. I’m trying to get better at being more efficient with my lyric writing, essentially setting self-imposed deadlines to get things down on paper, but I still self-edit relentlessly. When recording starts, I typically get a couple of guitar/keyboard tracks (whatever carries the main arrangement of the song) down on tape and recorded to a click track. Then I can add drums & bass to that to get a solid foundation. At that point, I can really start fleshing out the arrangement with a lot of extra instrumentation. Pile things on, pull things away. It’s a part of the process that I love.
As far as recording engineering, as well as the graphic design and video presence of the band, I’m just makin’ shit up as I go along. I’ve had little to no instruction or education in either recording techniques or marketing/video production, so I just head over to Google College or YouTube University whenever there’s an issue and tackle each problem as it arises. This method has enabled me to acquire a set of tools specific to the look and sound of the project that I want, and it’s also made me a lot more confident & willing to try all sorts of crazy stuff with the various software that I use. You can always hit “undo”!
Talk a bit about your new band Mike Kilo …
It’s essentially a continuation of the songwriting that I was doing within Clouds & Satellites, with some tweaks added. C&S was great, because I always wanted a band with multiple singer/songwriters. But eventually, it just wasn’t really working anymore, for whatever reasons. At this point, Mike Kilo is a solo recording project, but with concrete plans to put a full band together shortly after the holidays. When my good friend and C&S bandmate Stu Harmening, who I met during my time playing with The Train Wrecks, moved out of town earlier this year, it pretty much ended both of those bands. Since I record most/all of the parts on my songs anyway, I just took the more upbeat ones I had slated for the next C&S record, wrote a few more tunes with a more garage-y/psych/new wave feel to them, and here we are.
This is maybe the first band where I’d be the sole singer/songwriter, and the first time that I’m not singing lead from behind the drum kit. So that’s super exciting and super nerve-wracking all at the same time.🤘😬 I know that John Pizzichemi, my bandmate in Waits & Co., is on board to play bass, and I’m thrilled. I have a few more “definite maybes” in the lineup that I hope can be a part of it. Maybe get Stu back in town for a gig or two?🤞I honestly don’t know how these songs wind up translating live, but I’m totally shooting for a more immediate, over-saturated, over-driven vibe that will equal a lot of rock n’ roll fun on stage.
Downtown Savannah seemed much less touristy at night, and you could just travel from bar to bar on any given night and find one of your friend’s bands playing at one of them
How did you get your start in the Savannah music scene?
I was playing with Eric Britt in one of the many various iterations of Hazel Virtue he’s had over the years in the early 2000s; we were based in Charleston at the time, but he got back together with his family here in Savannah, so my focus shifted towards playing more in Savannah. From there I met Jason Bible and Eric Dunn, and we started The Train Wrecks. Those beginning years were just ridiculously fun. Downtown Savannah seemed much less touristy at night, and you could just travel from bar to bar on any given night and find one of your friend’s bands playing at one of them. Lots of impromptu jams and collaborations.
Over the first few years, I began running a bunch of open mics as well, which started friendships with all kinds of musicians, both locals and folks from out of town who were on tour. I don’t necessarily feel that kind of camaraderie anymore, but that’s mostly due to a lot of the people in that scene (me included) getting older, starting families, crankin’ out a mortgage or two, etc. Real life-type stuff. I think (and hope!) that there’s a pretty close-knit vibe between a lot of the younger Savannah bands, I’m just not out & about very much to know one way or the other. I’ve got a kid and a job that gets me up at the ass-crack of dawn, so I pretty much don’t go out unless I’m getting paid for it at this point!
Any secret musical indulgences?
“Guilty pleasures”, maybe? I’ve gotten to the age where it’s pretty much impossible for me to be anything approaching cool anymore (if I ever was… highly debatable), so I apologize for NONE of my pleasures! I’ve been watching a lot of super technical death metal drumming videos, even though I can’t come ANYWHERE close to playing what those guys and girls do. Ridiculous vocals aside, metal musicians typically possess the technical skill I only dream of having. I can also dig some really well-crafted pop stuff for sure. “Since U Been Gone” slaps! “Call Me Maybe” is a bop! “Toxic” kix ass! I’ve recently rekindled my love for 10,000 Maniacs. That band was so good! The album they released before In My Tribe, called The Wishing Chair, is amazing.
Name a Savannah artist who you’d love to collaborate with and why …
That’s a tough one, ’cause I truly don’t get out enough to know what bands are killing it around town these days, much less get to know them personally. I was lucky that I was able to have a lot of those cool collaborations with my contemporaries at the time, when I was playing music full-time. Currently, I’ll have to say Donna Savage, since I look WAY better in a wrestling mask and floor-length robe, and also their lead singer (who shall not be named, I think?) is a really good dude. And their tunes are great. Donna Kilo, FTW….
I do think there are a number of younger SAV bands making moves regionally, and some of the old guard are still playing around town
What are some of your favorite local venues to perform at?
Also a tough one. RIP The Jinx. That’d probably be my winner. I haven’t played Victory North yet, but I’m sure that’s a blast. Service Brewing has a great music/tasting room. And they have Miss Zoe Dog! She’s on Instagram, and you should all go look her up right now. Tybee Post Theater is always a swanky treat. I play a lot of solo gigs around town, and there’s a completely different set of venues for that. Of course Foxy Loxy is a perennial favorite, as are both Perch and Public Kitchen.
I am so stoked that Stopover is coming back this year, and I think the Railroad Museum is an inspired choice of venue. I’m super looking forward to that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more cool venues can be started and thrive here in town, given the current global circumstances.
Your thoughts on the state of the Savannah music scene …
Savannah has always been an enigma for attracting low- to mid-level touring bands. We don’t get the same acts that Atlanta or Athens, or even Charleston and Charlotte get for whatever reason. I’m always hopeful. I do think there are a number of younger SAV bands making moves regionally, and some of the old guard are still playing around town. It feels like there’s less live music in town than in years past, but that ebbs and flows with each new mini-generation. Ultimately, in the midst of a pandemic, I think we’re doing OK.
What’s next for you?
This recent push to get some videos made and to get an EP out in the world is mostly in hopes of getting into Stopover through the Local Band Submissions. Even if that doesn’t pan out, at that point I’ve got some recorded music and a couple of videos and a bunch of graphics to work with, so either way it’s a win-win. Having a deadline for “something” is always better for me, and I’m pretty happy with what I’ve cranked out here lately. I plan to keep writing & recording, striving to get better at making graphics/videos, get the live version of Mike Kilo up and running. Jon Waits will be moving back to the area at the beginning of the year, so expect to see a lot more Waits & Co. live in the near future. I’m up for playing with other bands. I’m up for producing other bands. It’s been a crazy couple of years for musicians. I mostly hope to do good work, and maybe help others to do the same.