June 20 2012 09:11 AM

New York skronk-punks endure hard times in the city

Jack Hines (right), Vashti Windish (second from left) and Julie Hines (center) face problems head on.
Photo by Marti Wilkerson
Oh, New York City—what a place! Full of theaters, art galleries, record labels and live-music venues, the Big Apple’s practically a Promised Land for creative young people. Really, who hasn’t dreamed of moving there some day? With opportunities at every turn, you might just make the big time if you work hard enough.

Well, that’s what they say, at least. If you’re considering making the move, you might want to listen to K-Holes’ song “Rats,” off the Brooklyn band’s new album, Dismania. In a whirlwind of scorching guitar riffs, pounding drums and raging saxophone, the song perfectly captures the soul-sucking disenchantment of a New York City musician at his wit’s end. “We are rats!” screams singer-guitarist Jack Hines.

Hines co-wrote the song with fellow K-Holes singer Vashti Windish during a rough time in his life. He was broke and scrounging to survive, working the late shift at a rat-infested diner. Though the problem was eventually brought under control, the experience got him thinking about how rats and humans really aren’t that different in some ways.

“There’s millions of ’em,” Hines says, speaking by phone from the band’s tour van on the way to Montreal. “They swarm and they both live in cities, and they both kind of degrade the places wherever they are. I heard this statistic…. When you’re in New York, you’re never more than 15 feet away from a rat.”

A former New York City resident myself (I went to college in the city and lived there for five years), I can relate to the relentless grind. And yet it’s precisely the song’s nightmare vision that makes “Rats” so incredibly exciting. If it comes up randomly on my iPod, I’ll crank the volume up to full blast, pump my fists and scream along, “We are rats!” The line feels like a rallying cry, an embrace of the rat within.

That’s what makes K-Holes—Windish, Hines, his bass-playing wife Julie, drummer Cameron Michel and saxophonist Zumi Rosow, who recently replaced Sarah Palmquist—so utterly necessary. While plenty of buzz-bands go the escapist route with nostalgic garage-rock or dance-floor-ready synth-pop, K-Holes face problems head on, striking a defiantly repulsive stance in the style of The Birthday Party, Pussy Galore and New York City no-wave bands like James Chance and The Contortions.

You can practically smell the gutter on Dismania, which came out in May via Hardly Art. “Child,” the album’s opener, is a feverish dirge of teeth-clenching guitar riffs and caveman-style cymbal crashes, topped with tortured sax howls and Windish’s creeping snarl: “I won’t change for no one / ’cause I don’t give a damn.” But with tracks like the slow, bluesy, quietly sinister “Window in the Wall,” you can also find beauty in the mess.

To Windish, the album reflects the frustration of living in the city: “Not being able to hold down jobs. Watching people all get fucked up and beat up or die. It’s not like our lives are that insanely crazy, but that kind of shit happens.”

Times have been tough for New York City’s underground music scene. Last year, K-Holes had to find a new practice space after the shuttering of Monster Island, a well-known DIY arts complex in Williamsburg; the landlord plans to redevelop the property, which sits on prime real estate. And, recently, Cake Shop, a modest venue in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that’s served as a haven for emerging indie-rock bands, launched a fundraising effort to avoid eviction.

With rising rents and gentrification in hip Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick, members of K-Holes say the city’s begun to look like Disneyland. And it’s hard to get by.

“I’m not independently wealthy,” Hines says. “I pretty much live paycheck to paycheck, and the paychecks aren’t really coming.”

Amid the daily grind, though, the band hasn’t lost its sense of humor—a track off their 2011 self-titled debut is titled “Werewolf with a Tan.” Even the sneering melodrama of “Rats” is so over-the-top that it verges on hilarity.

As it happens, the band’s name—a reference to the drug ketamine—is itself kind of a joke. When K-Holes first started several years ago, they picked the name on a whim because they were planning to play only one show. “And then people were like, That’s awesome!, so we had to keep playing shows and we had to keep the name,” Julie Hines explains, stifling a giggle.

And despite their intense music, the band has a relaxed approach. “I think that we’re all really good friends and honest with each other and confident with what everyone’s doing,” Windish says. “It’s a nice vibe. It’s not like any other band I’ve been in.”

As for the challenges of living in the city, they’re undaunted.

“We’ll always be like, It sucks! It’s terrible! It’s dirty!” Windish says. “But we actually all really love it, too.” 

K-Holes play with Teenage Burritos at Bar Pink  on Friday, June 29.

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.