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Jamie Kilstein & The Agenda

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Ken Weinstein
Big Hassle Media
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Biography

JAMIE KILSTEIN AND THE AGENDA

Jamie Kilstein is one of today’s most powerful progressive voices, his righteous rants and searing social commentary earning him international applause and the enraged ire of the vast right wing media conspiracy. “A BIT MUCH,” the debut album from Jamie Kilstein and The Agenda, sees the NJ-born provocateur unleashing his own intrepid brand of colloquial punk blues, meshing his often hilarious, always acute insights with riotous riffs and with a beat you can tear down the system to. Songs like “Fuck The NRA” and the tender “Tiny Humans” burn with Kilstein’s trademark wit, wrath, and compassion, their unstoppable hooks and memorable melodies new ammunition in his ongoing war with the greedheads and homophobes, misogynists and morons that stand in the way of both peace and progress. Jamie Kilstein and The Agenda’s “A BIT MUCH” is a rabble-rousing rock ‘n’ roll salvo straight into the face of our complacent and still too conservative culture.

“Music is what first taught me about injustice,” Kilstein says. “Music is where I heard people speaking out against the war and defending the outcasts. Kids watch the news and see the same old white assholes that have destroyed our country time and time again, so they turn it off and then are called apathetic. They’re not apathetic – they just know those guys are full of shit. Maybe with music I can reach all of those disenfranchised people and tell them it’s going to be okay. That we still have the power to fight.”

A self-described “weird awkward kid with a Walkman,” Kilstein found respite from hard times at home and high school via an obsession with music born the day a couple of older kids at the local YMCA blew his mind with Bad Religion’s “STRANGER THAN FICTION” and Pearl Jam’s “TEN.” He tried drums but soon moved on to guitar, drawn to the electric blues via Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Buddy Guy. Autodidactic and genre-agnostic, Kilstein dropped out of high school with no aspiration other than music. But when the other members of his teenage jam band went off to college, Kilstein found himself last man standing. He put his guitar down and directed his energies towards another more individual form of expression.

“My dad would say, if music falls though, you need a back-up plan,” he says. “Um, I have a back-up plan, Dad. I do comedy.”

Kilstein crafted a fairly traditional stand-up but as progressive politics grew more central to the act, he started working out material at New York City slam poetry clubs like the Nuyorican Poetry Café, redirecting his humor into long form diatribes built upon rhythm and rage.

“That was the first time my audience wasn’t frat boys and rich white people,” he says. “It was this diverse crowd, they weren’t too cool to laugh or clap, people would stand up on their chairs and cheer when I said the things that got be booed at a comedy club.”

Despite escalating attention, Kilstein remained, for all intents and purposes, homeless – living out of his car for nearly two years, making minimal ends meet with gigs in coffeehouses or anywhere else that might allow him to spew on their stage. Among those who took a shine to Kilstein’s refusenik comedy was legendary comic, actor, and director Paul Provenza (The Aristocrats), who suggested the junior stand-up join him at 2007’s annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Kilstein hustled up enough cash to get himself to Scotland where, with Provenza’s help, he arranged an appearance at one of the Fringe’s famous late night comedy jams. A nascent version of what would become the album’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (For Homophobes)” brought the house down, earning him rapturous cheers unlike he’d ever received before. Tears in his eyes, Kilstein started his second piece, a screed lamenting the corporatization of music, when the house DJ began backing him with a track by Explosions In The Sky, the epic instrumental builds syncing perfectly with his barbed words and verbal flow.

“I got so into it,” he recalls. “I was slamming my foot on the stage, literally lifting my leg and slamming my foot down. And then the place went crazy. The host lifted me onto his shoulders; it was like a movie moment. I walked off stage and this 6-foot Dutch guy comes up to me and says, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Being homeless.’ Next thing I know I’m booked at Lowlands, this festival in the Netherlands, watching Tool with members of Arcade Fire. I remember thinking, this is what I want to do.”

Kilstein ranted on, developing pace and purpose, occasionally inviting musicians to accompany him onstage. Kilstein toured the planet from comedy dives to the world famous Sydney Opera House, headlining clubs and performing at festivals like the UK’s Latitude and Reading/Leeds. Extensive coverage accrued over the decade, highlighted by appearances on TBS’ Conan and Showtime’s The Green Room with Paul Provenza as well innumerable spots on MSNBC, FX, NPR, CNN, and countless media outlets around the world.

Citizen Radio, the long-running, member-supported Internet radio show he co-hosts and co-created with life partner Allison Kilkenny, further boosted Kilstein’s profile, earning him a number of famous fans from among the comics, writers, and musicians he admires most, people like Moby, Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin, and such like-minded modern punk bands as Rise Against and Anti-Flag. Particular support – professional and personal – came from Robin Williams, a friend and mentor since the late comic caught a politically charged gig in San Francisco.

“Robin compared my rants to music the first time he saw me,” Kilstein says. “I would call him to talk comedy, I called him when I quit drinking, I called him when I was depressed. He supported Citizen Radio for a while when things were rough. He had my back.”

 

Citizen Radio’s achievement aside, Kilstein grew disillusioned with the state of comedy, tired of swimming upstream in “a white bro sexist cesspool of man babies.” He bought a guitar, his first since high school, and began writing songs, starting with the rants as his foundation but developing into true songcraft as he taught himself how to sing.

“Singing was one of my biggest fears,” Kilstein says. “I would only do it when the house was empty. But all of a sudden I was like, I really like singing! Now I can write a bunch of hooks and melodies!”

The songs spilled out, articulate aural outbursts like “War” and “Every Country Song Ever.” Kilstein began bringing his guitar to gigs, closing sets with a musical number or two to progressively more positive responses, including that of veteran indie rock producer Kevin Salem (Giant Sand, Mike Doughty).

“Kevin felt it politically and musically,” Kilstein says. “He wanted to do something different that would really throw people for a loop.”

Salem helped Kilstein gather a number of studio specialists to back him as The Agenda, including guitarist Nick Phaneuf, bassist Greg Glasson (Seal, Alanis Morrisette), drummer Joe Magistro (The Black Crowes, Tracy Bonham), and iconic cellist Jane Scarpantoni (Lou Reed, Beastie Boys, King Missile). Recorded over three December days at Woodstock, NY’s Applehead Studios, “A BIT MUCH” is, like Kilstein himself, deeply rooted in 90s-era alt.rock, equal parts hardcore energy, straight edged hooks, and a classicist sense of musicality and adventure. Kilstein walks a path tread by experimental artists spanning iconic provocateurs like Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra to such contemporary bands as La Dispute and Listener. Songs like “How Not To Be A Dick (To Women)” and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (For Homophobes)” veer freely between punk primitivism and anarchic improvisation, the music’s raw power amplifying Kilstein’s kinetic verbal energy while also giving him space to not a punch line every 60 seconds.

“Comedy is just another tool,” Kilstein says. “It’s just another accent, like a guitar solo or a high note or a harmony. It’s just another piece to the songs.”

 

“JFC” and the fully improvised “This Is NYC” offer sharp shocks to the system, emotional blasts of populist power in the face of unstoppable elites and institutions, but Kilstein also has additional goals in mind. “A BIT MUCH” is loaded with what Kilstein calls “songs for weirdoes and outcasts,” tracks like “Nerd Love” or the album-closing love song to his fans, “Maniac.”

“I don’t want to just preach my political beliefs,” Kilstein says. “Music gives me the chance to connect with people on a more personal level than comedy. I can write songs about Jesus taking a girl to get an abortion or I can write love songs about being this misunderstood nerd in love with another misunderstood nerd.

“It is just as much of a political statement to sing an anti-NRA song as it is to tell kids that it’s okay to be an introvert or have anxiety or whatever. That shit’s political too – maybe more so.”

Protest music in the truest sense, “A BIT MUCH” will likely ruffle some feathers and burn a few bridges. Once again, Kilstein is determined to bring much-needed change to a culture still irrefutably backdated.

“There is rampant homophobia, racism, and sexism in the music scene,” he says, “so of course it will still be a fight. But it’s a fight I want.”

With that in mind, Kilstein is choosing to release “A BIT MUCH” via New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records, home to such similarly inclined artists as Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, and Downtown Boys as well as the hosts of the upcoming New Alternative Music Festival, to be held this fall at NJ’s legendary Asbury Park Convention Center.

“It’s a great label with a lot of female-fronted and queer-fronted artists,” Kilstein says. “They’ve got punk rock ethics and their fans will probably be fans of mine.”

Indeed, Kilstein has long swum in the same slipstream as bands like Anti-Flag or Against Me! but was separated from his fellow outsiders – “the transgender feminist vegans” – by the limits of genre. Even more exciting is the opportunity “A BIT MUCH” allows him to connect with a younger audience than ever before.

“We get a couple of emails every week at Citizen Radio from kids thinking about killing themselves,” he says, “but they listen to our podcast and they feel normal, they feel accepted. That’s how music made me feel. So imagine what happens if I put my words in front of music. Imagine, through music, getting to 16-year-olds. Maybe it can help them before they get so depressed in their 20s.”

Kilstein has united a scrappy new collective to bring “A BIT MUCH” to his people, including hungry young punks Liz Kelly (drums, vocals), Erek Smith (bass), and Jaime Marcelo (guitar). The Agenda has already begun coalescing, its members writing new songs together via text messaging before embarking on what Kilstein plans to be a virtually non-stop world tour.

“I want to develop a supportive scene around the band,” Kilstein says. “We’re going to go to cities I’ve never been to, get this message out. The goal is still to play Madison Square Garden but I’m not going to change anything for that to happen. I want to do everything as morally as possible.”

Kilstein’s aim is both true and ever more necessary. With “A BIT MUCH” Jamie Kilstein and the Agenda present a bold rock ‘n’ roll manifesto of incendiary intent, equally daring in its sonic attack as its thought-provoking message is fraught with palpable purpose. Which is exactly as its forward-thinking author intended.

“If I can get people as excited about the music as they are about the content, that’s success,” Jamie Kilstein says. “We’re already breaking so many rules, why not go all the way with it?”

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Jamie Kilstein