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Shelly Harris Uncovers Chicago’s Majestic and Melodic F.H.O.D.

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 @ 0:34 AM

"I am more metaphorical with my lyrics - it's more subtle, and it's more poetic."

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The latest in a series of features on up-and-coming bands. It's "The Hunt" and here, our Chicago Contributor, Shelly Harris offers FHOD for your consideration:

I first caught Chicago-based F.H.O.D. live at a local Southside club on the night the band was debuting its new album, My Great Escape. [See: http://www.myspace.com/kkfhod]

And, much to my own astonishment, there were many moments during the band's set when my hair stood on end and shivers went up my spine - not from fright, but from the sheer emotionality induced by the power, drama, and conviction of the music and its spellbinding delivery via front-woman K.K. and Company (bassist Dimitri Kontos, guitarist Tom Howell, and drummer Jason Stiltner).

Now, this was surprising for many reasons (notwithstanding the fact that I'd listened to the band's new album in advance, and was already sold on the material and a level of songwriting and production that made it hard to believe this was not a "signed" band).

First there was that seasoned, you're-gonna-have-to-really-impress-me jadedness music scribes tend to have after seeing and hearing one too many supposedly killer new bands, but also because I've never heretofore been a huge fan of female-fronted metal or hard rock in the first place.

It may be an issue worthy of an article in itself, but it's tough for any woman to toe the line as a front person in that uber- masculine domain of heavy rock/metal without coming off as trying to overcompensate with un-listenable yowling vocals and mannish posturing. Thus, very few such front-women - maybe a handful in my estimation - have really done it without sacrificing their femininity, their credibility, or their vocal charms in the process. It's either that, or when the sex appeal -- the femininity -- is there, it's too often a deceptive false front for nothingness.

But F.H.O.D.'s own K.K. is up to the task in jaw-dropping spades with intense, charismatic stage-presence and strong, soaring vocals that have power, depth, and substance - as does the band's material and musicianship. F.H.O.D.'s songs weave dark, moody, dynamic, and atmospheric tales with a majestic style that is hard to succinctly define, though it does include progressive hooks, grooves, complex rhythms, explosive guitar riffs, and melodies delivered with high drama bordering on the operatic. (It gives pause to imagine the impact of this band would have live on the big stage, and a label-backing budget.)

In short, F.H.O.D. is a band that deserves special attention, especially if you read on here in this introductory interview -- or catch some of their tunes -- and reckon that their brand of progressive, alternative, hard rock/metal suits your tastes and standards as much as it does mine. (See also: http://cdbaby.com/cd/fhod)

In keeping with the band's rare knack for balancing the feminine with the masculine in heavy music, the following chat about F.H.O.D.'s influences, background, and musical vision was excerpted from a conversation I had with K.K. and bassist Dimitri Kontos at a fav band hangout, Ben Pao, on Chicago's North Dearborn Ave.

KNAC.COM: Based on your new album, My Great Escape, your music is difficult to precisely define or pigeonhole: it’s certainly not wimped out, and it’s very dynamic, melodic, and dramatic. How would you “pitch” it or describe it yourselves?

KONTOS: I’d say it is a combination of different elements: hard rock elements, a progressive element, a melodic element …

K.K.: You sound like you’re reading the Chemistry Table. (laughs)

KONTOS: You could describe it as progressive hard rock female vocals, and thoughtful lyrics.

K.K.: I think it’s modern with an old school twist.

KONTOS: It’s a combination of different things like classic rock, hard rock, and metal with old school feel – and a little bit of a newer sound.

KNAC.COM: Who have you been compared to?

K.K.: I know we’ve heard Alanis Morissette, I’ve heard Evanescence as well, I’ve even heard Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, believe it or not. But these are the female artists that we’ve been compared to, basically because I am a female front here. But I don’t view us as primarily a female-influenced. I know I’m influenced more by Robert Plant, and I think we have some of that with us. What do you think Dimitri?

KONTOS: I’ve heard people say Rush with a progressive element and vocals, some Maiden, and live there are a lot of Tool references.

K.K.: The problem is nobody can pinpoint us exactly!

KONTOS: Yeah, each song may have three or four individual influences in one song – and the next song may have three or four references that are different than that. Every song is different in what it brings, so the chemistry changes with each song.

KNAC.COM: I actually thought a couple of the songs were reminiscent of Queensryche – the Mindcrime era.

K.K.: I’ve actually heard that, believe it or not. There’s part of those operatic vocals I’m influenced by too.

KNAC.COM: Well, it’s the tone and the drama of the music too.

K.K.: I do believe there’s drama in there – I’m a Drama Queen. (laughs) We’re very dynamic in our arrangements, too. There’re a lot of soft parts, and then we hit you in the face, so I think that back and forth is characteristic of our sound.

KNAC.COM: Do either of you think it belongs in a sub-genre of metal?

K.K.: I do. I would say it's more mainstream metal.

KONTOS: Yeah, but I don't know what sub-genre it is; there’re so many different ones now. I would say it’s progressive hard rock. To me, when you talk about metal, you're talking fast guitars and blazing guitar solos, double bass, all this really heavy stuff, and some drop-tuning - which we do some. We have complex arrangements, but we're not over-the-top with it. So, we're kind of in-between … It's still got a melody and a beat to it, so it crosses over into metal and hard rock. People who are into metal might like what we do, and people who are into hard rock and rock might like what we do, so it’s hard to pigeonhole us into one category. We kind of cross over here and there and mix it up.

KNAC.COM: Influences usually say something about what a band is about musically, and K.K., I know that, besides Plant, you have cited some of yours as Skunk Anasie, Tori Amos, and Anne Wilson, amongst others. What about the rest of the band – since everyone contributes to the songwriting at times?

KONTOS: Tom [Howell], our guitar player, is influenced by Eddie Van Halen, Mark Tremanti of Alter Bridge ... John Mayer, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so he's got a blues-rock thing going on, but he's also classically trained, too. I know he studied classical guitar for about five years, and he knows Bach, and he does a lot of classical picking with his fingers and his chord structuring adds a classical influence to his guitar playing and his songwriting as well. But his actual feel is very blues oriented. He has so much feeling in what he does, and it's so surprising, because he can be so technical -- and yet so soulful at the same time! A musician would look at Tom and go, he's a guitar player. He's not just a guy that goes up there and shreds, or a guy who just goes up there and plays two licks; he's got feeling to it, and he's got theory behind it, and he plays in different tunings, too, which helps give us our sound. He plays in open tuning, he plays in drop D, and he plays in standard tuning, so he's a very well rounded musician, and a really, really good guitar player.

KNAC.COM: What about the rest of you?

KONTOS: Jason [Stiltner, band drummer] is a progressive drummer; he's very influenced by Danny Carey, the drummer from Tool, Neil Peart of Rush, and Carter Beauford from Dave Matthews Band. He doesn't necessarily play straight-on all the time, he's got that kind of off tempo thing and he throws in a few fills in here and there. Every section of the song, he always changes up the beat. My top three influences are Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath, Steve Harris - obviously - of Iron Maiden, and Cliff Burton of Metallica. And, as I progressed, it was Stuart Hamm, John Entwistle from The Who, and Billy Sheehan. So, I have been influenced by some of the virtuoso bass players, and I use a little bit of that in our songs, but not that much. But, how I write is also influenced by those guys.

KNAC.COM: K.K., you do have an interesting musical background, so can you elaborate on that?

K.K.: I actually studied classical piano for many years – that’s where I really began my musicianship. And I absolutely loved it, and I played for hours a day. I really studied classical composers, and I knew structure very well, and I knew what a recurring theme was and what not. Then, as I started hanging out with my friends more, we started listening to a lot of heavy metal, like Anthrax, and this is what I grew up on, and I really liked that genre – but I never thought of myself as being in a band, ever. I was going to be a classically trained pianist; that was going to be my forte. But I started getting into songwriting, and putting poems to music. It was really cheesy lyrics and whatnot, and I never took myself seriously as a songwriter or a singer for that matter. But I got more confident as I did it more, and I did join a couple of bands as a keyboard player and a background singer, and I was content being in the background. But you keep evolving, and you keep maturing as a person, and you’re not satisfied anymore, and you look for a new challenge. To this day, I’m more confident in my songwriting than in my singing, because I was never trained in it.

KNAC.COM: You have so much power and confidence onstage, I would never guess it.

K.K.: I am confident when I get onstage, but there’s still a small little part of me where I say, if were playing the piano, I’d probably be even more confident! (laughs) But now I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t think about it anymore – I let the song take me where it needs to take me, and really put myself in the theme of what that song’s about. And I would love to have the theatrics onstage – I would love to have the lighting, the props, everything, that matches the drama of the songs.

KNAC.COM: How do you feel about being a female singer in such a masculine music form?

K.K.: As I said before, I’m always looking for the extreme challenge. (laughs) And I absolutely love it. It’s a boy’s game, and, if you’re female and also a songwriter, they want to put you in the pop genre, or the Sheryl Crow or Jewel type of genre. In many shows we’ve performed, I’ve been the only female on the stage out of five bands, musicians or singers. I get a kick out of that because I know I can kick butt just like all the guys can. It gives me that adrenalin to go out there and go, okay, this is what I’m about; I’m not some wimpy female who’s going to go out there go, “Oh, I hope you like me.” I don’t care if you like me; I go out there with an I-can-do-it attitude! And everyone in the band writes, so there’s a lot of male influence in the songwriting as well as the female. And I think that nice mix kind of makes us appeal to females and males at the same time.

KNAC.COM: How do you feel about balancing your own femininity with the masculinity of the music?

K.K.: I actually like using both aspects, it doesn’t really bother me that people will look at the femininity – the sexual aspect of it – first, because, after you get their initial attention, you’ve got to have the stuff to keep it up, or they’re going to lose interest. So, it’s a one-two punch. I actually have no problem if people what to look at you as eye-candy or whatever, because, if they do pay attention, it’s like, “Wow, I did not expect that!”

KNAC.COM: Give me a wish list of three bands would you like to open up for because you think their audiences might be compatible with yours.

KONTOS: Well, there're the realistic bands, and there's the dream bands! (laughs) Realistic bands: Alter Bridge, Tool, and Foo Fighters. I think our style is similar to those kinds of bands, and I think fans of those bands will probably like us. Dream bands: Rush, Iron Maiden, and the Black Sabbath era with Dio - Heaven and Hell, you know?

K.K.: I have a certain thing I want to project with my songs, and I am more metaphorical with my lyrics - it's more subtle, and it's more poetic. So, when somebody listens to one of the songs, they actually take it for what they want it to say. And I actually like that, and I don't expect people to understand what I'm trying to say. I'm just glad for however it affects people, and what it brings to their emotions. But, there are some things that I'm very, very literal about - that people think I'm being more subtle! (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Yeah, that brings to mind my favorite song on the album, “Peacemaker,” which I thought was either a medieval or futuristic song, but which in fact was about a rapper on death row!

K.K.: Yeah, it’s really about Tookie Williams, the one who started the Crips [and was later executed in CA in 2005]. That was the very first song we actually wrote together as a band, and that means a lot to me, because I find that that's a really, really strong song, and one that will always hold a place in my heart, because that made us really mesh as a band. I've never written about love stories or things like that; it's always been about the dark side of things, and I've tried to go past just the more biographical kinds of stories.

KNAC.COM: Well, a couple of them do sound like they may be about relationships of some kind ... like "Kings and Queens."

K.K.: That's not actually about a specific relationship, but yes. It's more about a sexual power struggle. A lot of lyric lines, I'm talking about sacrificing my "fortress" and things like that. I can't remember the exact lyrics after two Mai Tais (laughs) but that actually came in a dream I had, which is really, really strange, but the melody line came to me while I was sleeping and I woke up and recorded it on my cell phone so that I wouldn't forget it. But it's using your sexuality and the power struggle that comes with that. And maybe that comes from me being able to use that as the singer in a female fronted band as well. I have my sexuality affecting what I'm able to accomplish, but still winning in the end. That line "on hands and dirty knees I please" - that's very much a sexual song, and I'm glad when people know what I'm talking about because I meant it that way! (laughs) But, it's also saying I still have power in using my sexuality as well; I can still rise above it with that, moreso than a man can.

KNAC.COM: So that's really a feminist song.

K.K.: It is - it's a very feminist song!

KONTOS: There's a bass line in there very reminiscent of "The Trooper" ... (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Here’s a question you must get asked often: How did you come up with the band name and what does it mean?

KONTOS: We going back and forth trying to decide what the name of the band should be and we were coming up with a lot of stupid ones …

K.K.: I can’t even remember what any of them were, can you?

KONTOS: Yeah, like Neon Knights, Knights of the Round Table (60 seconds of laughing) … And I said what about “The Flying Hamsters of Doom” and she [K.K.] said, “That’s it!” Because I’d seen a shirt that said that on it, it said, “The Flying Hamsters of Doom are raining coconuts upon your pitiful city” – which I thought was a clever shirt. It was really a joke, but it just stuck. So, we were “K.K. and the Flying Hamsters of Doom” for a couple of years, then we just shortened it to F.H.O.D.



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