Kids of 88 are all grown up

By Scott Kara

After some sonic soul-searching, Kids of 88 return with a more mature new album, writes Scott Kara. Click here to listen to our stream of Modern Love.

Jordan Arts and Sam McCarthy, aka Kids of 88, want to keeping make pop music that's interesting. Photo / Supplied
Jordan Arts and Sam McCarthy, aka Kids of 88, want to keeping make pop music that's interesting. Photo / Supplied

Sit down with Sam McCarthy, the confident, on-stage show pony of electronic pop duo Kids of 88, and it's hard to stop him talking. One minute he is sharing his deep love for Seal, quoting lines from the singer's worldwide hit, Crazy, like it's a Shakespearean sonnet. "It's just really good pop music," he says.

Then he's off pondering whether the music of Manchester techno ambient rave act 808 State still stands up today. In his opinion it's interesting but a little dated. Not like Crazy, eh?

He also loves bands like Happy Mondays ("I've got Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches on vinyl.") and Scottish noise merchants the Jesus and Mary Chain. And then he's praising rock 'n' roll as "the most popular music ever".

"I love hip-hop and stuff but it will never take over from rock 'n' roll. And you've got to have that rock 'n' roll attitude and feel and most of the time that's about having a good time, having a few rough edges and a sense of humour.

"And even though we were doing dance and electronic music, we realised one of the reasons people liked us first up was because it had guitar on it," he says of their breakthrough hit My House (which was "written in an afternoon") from 2009 and follow-up single Just a Little Bit off debut album Sugarpills from 2010.

Of course, as well as this broad musical appreciation, there's also just a little bit of sexual innuendo and sugar-coated and saucy dance beats that goes into the band's music.

It's been a roller coaster ride for the duo since the release of My House. Back then they were taken on a whirlwind trip around the world, being touted to overseas record companies and eventually signing to Sony Music. That deal is no longer. So while nothing life-changing came from their initial success, they are no less ambitious this time round with the release of second album Modern Love, which came out last week. But the difference is, they are more content with seeing what happens.

"The plan," says McCarthy, "is to get the music out and get back into peoples' consciousness and sitting comfortably in that niche of a band making pop music that's interesting."

And so when it came time to write Modern Love, McCarthy and knob-twiddling sidekick Jordan Arts did some sonic soul-searching.

"We felt that writing the album was like walking a tightrope in a way because as much as you want to go big and develop your sound there are restrictions, in that you have to keep within the vein of what people know you for," says McCarthy sitting in the main room of the Creature Club, the name given to the recording studio at his Mt Eden home.

So while they were initially toying with the idea of doing something different and "changing the world", the further they got into writing new songs the more they started to realise "it's about the other people, not just about us".

"So it was about trying to create music that was a lot more intelligent than where we had come from but at the same time still encompassing what people liked before.

"And I think it was that people could relate to the music on a very accessible level, yet it was different enough that it was provocative; catering for people, but not diluted."

And what Kids of 88 - who are signed to indie label Dryden Street, which is also home to the Wyld and Loui the ZU - have come up with on Modern Love is a more self-assured and polished-sounding collection of songs. It's also clear they have grown up a bit, with McCarthy joking how they look back on some of the songs on Sugarpills and think: "Oh man, did we really write about that?"

So it is more serious and lyrically straightforward this time round - "When we were younger we were throwing words around that we didn't even know what they meant," he laughs.

There's the beautiful simplicity of Raza, about sexual frustration ("I like the combination of its sexiness with naked emotion at the same time - kind of always teetering"), The Drug is about an alcoholic ex-girlfriend, and standout, Kimodo, is about this guy they used to bump into at a Ponsonby pub who was a drug dealer.

"Listening to it, it's about someone telling you that they've got this product that will make you fly for two weeks, but really it's about this guy from Ponsonby.

"So the songs are still about normal everyday things, and I suppose people take normal everyday things as being serious until something really massive comes along and puts everything into perspective. That became a theme around how we put the album together."

Another influence on Modern Love was an antique Indian beat-box that McCarthy bought on Trade Me. It's like an exotic Eastern-sounding metronome, though McCarthy says it has had a "subliminal" effect on the album rather than an overt one.

"It's all about having those different textures and different flavours," he says.

Like on the lush and soothing India, which is the album's escapism anthem (or "tree hut" song, as McCarthy calls it).

"We always want to have a little dreamland where, if the going gets tough you can mentally visit it and then feel relaxed again. I think that's an important part of life really, having your own little Shangri-La to escape to. And India is that song."

Who: Kids of 88
New album: Modern Love, out now
Debut album: Sugarpills (2010)
Where and when: Bodega, Wellington, Nov 2; Bedford, Christchurch, Nov 9; Powerstation, Auckland, Nov 17

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