Words by Derek Evers
Photos by Meg Clark
When you consider how much our culture idolizes rock musicians -- let alone members of a high-profile successful band -- it takes a brave person to walk away from one of the world's biggest "it" groups to follow your own musical destiny.
Hank Sullivant has done it twice.
The founding bass player for Athens Georgia's The Whigs, Sullivant left the band after four years and a "demoralizing RCA development deal" in 2006 to pursue his ever-evolving solo project Kuroma. Sticking it out just long enough to see the release of Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip on Dave Matthews' ATO Records, the label to which the band is now home on and achieving phenomenal success.
"It was my senior year of college and we recorded all the songs that we had, which was really great because it kind of cataloged everything I had done with them." Sullivant tells me over beers at a bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side prior to a show. "Even before we released the album I wrote about 5 or 6 of the songs that landed on the Kuroma album. I just started writing songs that didn't really have much to do with The Whigs sound. So even by the time we signed to ATO I was thinking of doing my own thing."
His "own thing," Kuroma has taken shape in the two formative years since leaving The Whigs. But as he was finishing up the recording of his solo debut, an old high school friend gave him a ring.
"I had already recorded the Kuroma album when Andrew [VanWyngarden] called me and asked to come to NY and practice all summer and then do a tour. I thought I was going to do one tour, but I stayed committed until March."
While some publications have begun to unfairly classify any band that has come in contact with MGMT as a bastardized version of the privileged band, the reality is that Kuroma is more about a musician who's spent the last few years of his life in the immense shadow of two very successful groups rather than being influenced by either. In person, Sullivant is confident yet humble, wanting to tell his story in his words -- through his music -- but finding it hard to define what that story is.
"I kind of figure that out for myself everyday," Hank summarizes when posed with the question of how he would like to be presented to the world. "I think [my music] will develop into something very cohesive and very well structured, hopefully remaining in it's own little universe unto itself."
Remaining in his own little world is the one place Sullivant seems comfortable. While Kuroma's debut Paris has been somewhat of an Internet phenom, there is no MySpace page to speak of and his website consists only of his record. As unassuming in nature as his persona, the songs on Paris give the impression that there is a genius at work, but one who doesn't want the world to get too close.
I can't help but be extremely careful about the way it's put out there. The idea is to create your own world of art. It isn't supposed to be reclusive.
"I like it best when I'm in the studio alone with an engineer," Sullivant admits. "I didn't really set a blueprint before I decided to give a CD to someone. I mean, I think it's less some minded exclusiveness, it's not even about some deliberate hit making. I can't help but be extremely careful about the way it's put out there. The idea is to create your own world of art. It isn't supposed to be reclusive."
The irony behind his demeanor is that his songs are rife with self-assurance and swagger, especially on stage. During Kuroma's performance on this night, the only words he spoke were, "Hi, we're Kuroma from Athens Georgia." This is no exaggeration. But musically, his performance was gushing with confidence. With an almost cocky, classic rock vibe mixed with Sullivant's airy vocals, Kuroma could lazily be summarized as a comfortable medium between his two previous bands; a place where southern garage rock meets light psychedelic electro-pop. Not far removed from the song "Sister Golden Hair" by America, which was the last song he listened to prior to sound check. "Or maybe it was 'That's The Spirit' by Judie Sill" he interjects. As the conversation turns to his music, it's easy to see that he feels most comfortable in this world.
MP3 Download - "I Was The Rat"
"It's like, if I want to have a part that sounds like George Harrison, I have to know exactly how to be George Harrison," he explains, taking pride in his ability to reference without sampling -- a word he refuses to use on record. "I guess part of the overarching theme is taking noticeable extractions from old music, like in terms of these small parts themselves and the tones themselves and re-contextualizing it. It's almost like, I'm not going to use that word..."
Another theme that stands out on Paris is the harkening back to his southern rock roots, something else Sullivant is happy to talk about. "I'd say growing up in Memphis [influenced the sound on the record]. There was definitely a period of time when I was trying to figure out every Steve Cropper lick and all I was listening to was Stax albums. Mainly because it reminded me of Memphis."
Talking about Memphis brings out a smile from Sullivant and soon he's talking about his first band with VanWyngarden back in high school. "We were going for funk. I don't know what came out," he laughs, refusing to give me the name of the band citing Andrew's paranoia about the being outed. "Spin Magazine knows it, you can ask them."
The fact that he gets a kick out of talking about a musical project the MGMT front man is ashamed of is no coincidence. Hank Sullivant's greatest -- and possibly most detrimental -- attribute is his humility. By the end of our conversation, I wasn't entirely sure if he started Kuroma as way to better express himself musically, or because he was afraid of the success he might have attained. Despite having a hand in some of this generation's most important music, like a sane Brian Wilson, Sullivant might only be comfortable reaching a certain level of notoriety. So as we finished our beers, I pointedly asked him what his highest musical aspirations are.
"To make the most commercially accessible pop music possible. I'm not talking about being a pop star or being in commercials, just the most cosmic degree of commercialism."
Is that sarcasm I ask?