This extended Q&A is supplemental to the Fringe article, “Justin Kalk: A Stiff Necked Rocker,” and features our complete email discussion with Justin Kalk, touching on his meeting and collaborating with the legendary illustrator Ralph Steadman, his own Stiff Necked Rocker label, and VoLcanO, the new Justin Kalk Orchestra album.
Who first got you interested in playing music and what inspired you to attend the Berklee College of Music?
My father, I remember crawling up to his Gibson 335 and strumming it back when it was taller then I was. He showed me some chords and we always have played together. My great uncle Gunars taught me to play lead though: Zeppelin, Hendrix, Jeff Beck. Spent a lot of time with me. Also, my grandparents took me to incredible jazz concerts in D.C. and introduced me to the musicians.
Berklee just seemed like the most logical next step if I was going to be serious.
When did you meet Steo & Jeremy?
Our bassist Steo and I have played in bands together since we were kids. He’s one year younger then I am. Steo followed me to Berklee. After he applied, I lied to him and said the acceptance letter came in a big red envelope! He moved up to Boston and we wrote a lot of music together up there.
Our drummer, Jeremy Williams, is Nashville, TN born and raised. I saw him playing out at 12th & Porter a few years ago here in Nashville and knew instantly I needed to jam with him. He just brings the gospel, jazz, hip hop style and chops. A lot of bands try to hold drummers like him back, but in this project I need someone who can rip! J’s a serious talent and a great friend, too.
How did you first get involved working with Flying Dog Brewery? I’m wondering if that connection helped introduce you to Ralph Steadman?
Actually it was the other way around.
I wrote Ralph a letter a few years ago and some music I was working on. He said he listened to it in his studio with his roofer; I guess it was leaking. Anyway, he wrote back he was blown away and so was his roofer: as many roofers tragically are.
After Ralph did the cover, I sent it to Flying Dog & they’ve been extremely supportive ever since. We’ve put on a few concerts with them and sponsor our tour!
What is Giralph, and do you know what Steadman cites as inspiration behind the covers for Blue Sky Traffic and VoLcanO?
GiRalph is our pet Giraffe. Ralph gave us a giraffe with rocking chair legs for our first cover. The Stiff Necked Rocker. He got it from one of my lyrics to my wife “Kelienne, above the giraffes neck. Up, up away.”
The cover for VoLcanO is just a masterpiece. I went to his house last spring and brought him the album. There’s a lot to it. I especially love the bird at the bottom of the volcano.
“Caged Bird” is said to be influenced “equal parts by Kurt Vonnegut & James Brown.” What does that mean to you?
Yeah you could say that. Lyrically Kurt Vonnegut. He did this painting called “Freedom” that’s a bird cage with the door left open.
Groove wise though, the godfather!
Being so richly inspired by the blues already, what sort of influence did Tom Hambridge have on the new album? Did he introduce you to Buddy Guy when you were out in NY?
Yeah he did! Tom produced the last few Buddy Guy records. Buddy is the real deal and so is Tom. He’s a good soul. As a producer, he gave me permission to be myself. We recorded the bones of VoLcanO in a single day at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. Twelve songs actually — one of my favorites “Fingerless Black Gloves” I haven’t released yet.
Who produced the “Dirty Thing” claymation video?
We did that in my garage! It was my British friend William “The Facillitator” Macdonald that was the instigator though. We were practicing and he came over with $80 worth of clay. Before long he had made Clay Steo. An hour later Clay Jeremy. Pretty soon we we’re stop motioning them with the iPhone. It took 2 weeks. My lovely wife Kelienne was extremely patient.
Blue Sky Traffic was the first release on Stiff Necked Rocker, VoLcanO the sophomore release — what led to the label’s creation and do you intend on working with other acts through it?
Yes! I’ve been working with this two piece, Reverse Buzzards. A self titled album is inches from the finish line for these guys. Eric Phillipi on guitar and Jon Morgan on Drums. They sound like if Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and Queens of the Stone Age had some kind of bearded baby!
Also working on new music with Vanessa Barbee, Willy 3rd Street and Keya Gordon. I’m waist high into my third album as well. Musically, it’s been a very fruitful year for me.
Yeah, Stiff Necked Rocker is a boutique rock & roll company. I started it as a roof for my own publishing & recordings but at the moment it’s taking on a life of its own. I want to not only put out music but signed limited artwork and publish writings.