Got These Voices In My Head: Words with the Knights of the Fire Kingdom
Sometimes, all I really want to do is rock the hell out. I just want to hear guitars, bass, drums, and yelling/singing, all loud as fuck, with distortion that’s just enough to not be metal, rough-edged vocals, and a solid, pump-your-fist rhythm. When I’m driving, in particular, that’s what I want to come blasting out of the speakers, much that makes you bang your head along but doesn’t involve corpsepaint or Cookie Monster vocals or drums so fast your feet can’t follow along.
And weird as it may sound, sometimes I have a hard time finding bands like that to listen to. I don’t know how it happened, but sometime in the past decade or so, it seems like those straight-up rawk bands have largely morphed into metal bands or devolved into something so meatheaded they’re not worth hearing. As a child of the ’90s, I miss the days when a loud, heavy rock band could both roar and not be flat-out dumb.
That’s where the Knights of the Fire Kingdom come in. Formed out of the ashes of a half-dozen other bands — Roky Moon & BOLT!, The Monocles, Ultramagg, Hardin Store Road, Hollywood Black, and on and on from there — the Knights exploded out of the gate, fiery and loud and raw but at the same time sharp-edged and restrained. And right from the start, those raging guitars (courtesy of Aaron Echegaray, Chris Wertz, Dave Noske, and frontman Jeoaf Johnson), those thundering/stomping drums (from ex-Ultramagg drummer Marcos Echegaray), and that shredded-throat howl hit that pitch-perfect rock zone, at least for me.
They’ve only got one 7″ under their collective belt so far — 2012′s semi-secret “Chinese Dragons”/”No No No No”, out on Treaty Oak Collective — but they’ve already honed themselves into an impressive sound, one that brings to mind Rocket From The Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Queens of the Stone Age, New Bomb Turks, Mudhoney, Jawbreaker (circa Dear You, at least), Priestess, and Hüsker Dü, all melted down together into a solid slab of heavy noise. When they come charging out of the speakers as I’m driving down the road, well, you’d better get the hell out of the way.
SCR recently cornered singer/guitarist Jeoaf Johnson and got to talk a bit about the band, their sound, and what it’s like in the Houston scene these days; here goes…
SCR: Okay, so Roky Moon & BOLT broke up, and then Knights of the Fire Kingdom arose, it seemed like, almost immediately. Were you guys already playing together on the side while you were drumming for Roky Moon?
Jeaof Johnson: Knights of the Fire Kingdom formed as kind of an instinctive reaction when Roky and Cass moved to Austin. BOLT! was absolutely still a band at that time, but with them in another city, I knew that our activity was going to slow down a lot. So I basically started Knights as a strictly for-fun thing to keep myself busy and blow off steam while we were waiting to crank BOLT! up again.
But as time went by, we talked, tentative plans were laid out, and some other stuff happened that made it apparent that Roky Moon and BOLT! wasn’t going to be continuing on any further, which was a total bummer. But I love Aaron [Echegaray], and everyone knows that he’s a phenomenal guitar player, so I obviously didn’t want to stop being in a band with him, and the transition to making Knights our main thing was pretty effortless. But yeah, the two bands existed at the same time for a little while, even though Knights of the Fire Kingdom hadn’t played out just yet.
I feel like I’ve been asking this a lot lately, but how did you guys come together as a band? And where’d the name come from? I can’t help but think of The Sword’s “Fire Lances of the Hyperzephyrians” when I see you guys’ name.
Well, there’s the Roky Moon and BOLT! connection between me and Aaron, obviously. He was the first person I talked to when I wanted to start Knights. He was in the band at the beginning, then he left for a few months, but then he came back again, thank god. I met Marcos [Echegaray] years ago when he played in Ultramagg, and we reconnected by happenstance years later through Aaron, ’cause they’re brothers. Dude’s a killer drummer, and I really love the way he plays.
Our bass player, Dave [Noske], is roommates with the Brothers Echegaray and is a genius songwriter, so it was kind of a “no-shit” decision to get him in the band. He actually wrote all of our best songs and is absolutely hilarious — the guy rules.
Chris [Wertz] used to play guitar in a band called Hollywood Black, who I immediately got really into years and years ago after playing a show together at Fat Cat’s/Mary Jane’s. I actually wanted to be in Hollywood Black for awhile, so when we decided we needed more guitar, I immediately called Chris and asked him to come play. I’m glad he said yes.
The name was my daughter’s idea. She’s unbelievably creative and talented. She showed me a story that she wrote, and some of the characters in it made up a group called “Knights of the Fire Kingdom.” That name totally blew me away, so when it came time to name the band, I asked her if I could use it. She said “yes” and then charged me 15 bucks for the rights. Smart kid.
I’ve got to say, I had a blast when I saw you guys play back in the fall with The Tontons; watching Benjamin Wesley fix one of the guitars using a knife was just about the most punk thing I saw all year. How’ve the shows been going? Have you gotten a good reception from the crowds?
Good lord, that show was nuts! Within the first couple minutes of us starting, there was a three-person pit, two feet in front of my face that consisted of these ultra-gigantor, massively huge dudes. I found out after our set that those dudes were Connor Barwin, J.J. Watt, and Shaun Cody from the Houston Texans, so that was cool. And the knife Ben used to fix that guitar — mid-song, mind you — wasn’t just some little Swiss Army knife. It was a big-ass Bowie knife! I was terrified the whole time that he was gonna cut his thumb off or something.
Shows have been going really well, actually. I kinda gauge whether people are digging us on whether or not they buy into the clap-along, arena rock crowd-participation things that we try to throw in here and there — and they always do, so I guess we must be doing something right.
Any touring plans? Or is this band strictly a play-every-once-in-a-while thing?
After a couple of beers, we always talk about small tours. Mainly out to Marfa and other places that we’re stupidly in love with. For now, we’ve really only discussed regional stuff, but we wouldn’t count something bigger out, should the opportunity arise.
So, where do you see the Knights going, in general? Are you just taking things as they come and not worrying about it, or would you like to be able to quit day-jobs and whatnot for the band?
Yeah, we’re just taking it as it comes. No stress, no pressure, just fun.
Sure, I think it’s every band’s dream to be able I quit their day jobs and just go out and play all the time, so we’d definitely like to be able to do that. But we’re not actively pursuing it with this band. If it happens, then awesome, but we’re not hiring agents or PR people or anything to make it happen.
Did you ever officially release the “Chinese Dragon” 7″? I know you had those copies of it at a show way, way back in the fall, but I wasn’t sure if that was the real-live, actual release or not…
That record was “officially released” the night you got one. We didn’t have a release party or anything for it. It was a super-limited run of 14 at first, and then we had about 15 or 20 more cut afterward, so the total run was of around 30 or 35. It was just a fun, novelty thing that we recorded at home, had the Treaty Oak Collective press a few of, and just threw out there. All of the copies are gone now.
How’d the video come about?
I’ve known Denniz Trauma for years and years from working the door at Walter’s for a billion of his shows during his Fight Pretty days. He’s an amazing filmmaker, too, and I got a link from someone to the video he did for his new band, Peloton. I thought it was awesome, so I emailed him and asked him if he’d be into doing one for us, and he was, so it happened.
Nice! Will there be swords and axes and lots of gore? Who gets to be Vlad? Aaron’s probably got the hair for it…
Oh, yes, there will be blood! I want it to kind of have a creepy, dark, almost smutty feel to it, but offset it with some humor in there. It’s pretty much gonna be the funniest snuff film you ever saw! [laughs] I think Marcos is gonna be Vlad, just cuz I think it would be funny to dress him up like King Diamond and make him prance around in a cape or whatever.
And is the band going to record more songs, hopefully soon? Are there any plans for an album somewhere along the line?
Yup! We’re recording a 10- or 11-song full-length the first weekend of April. The plan is to put it out on vinyl only, but with a download card.
Putting anything out on CD anymore is a waste, if you ask me, ’cause if you even only put one digital copy out there, then you’ve effectively made it free for everyone on the planet. And that’s fine, that’s great! Music should be free. I don’t believe that you should have to pay money to experience something like listening to music.
That said, I do think that the package is worth something. The artwork, the vinyl, the tangible package is what costs money. But the music itself should be accessible to anyone and everyone who wants it.
It’s funny, because I actually heard something very similar from Marshall Preddy of Bright Men of Learning before they released their final, vinyl-only album. His point was that if somebody wanted to hear the album on CD, they could download it and burn it, so why bother getting a bunch made? I’m a little weird these days, I guess, because I do still buy CDs; I definitely like actual records, too, but I don’t get to play them very often, and I kind of like having my shelves of CDs to look at, rather than shelves of records… Are you a serious vinyl-head, yourself?
I’ve thought about putting a CD-R of the album in with the LPs, so people can have an uncompressed digital copy and not have to deal with downloading MP3s. That doesn’t really solve your CD shelf issue, but it’s something.
Nah, I don’t consider myself a vinyl purist at all. I like the fact that the artwork is bigger, and you can do some cool, creative things with it, in that respect. But I’m not one of those guys who’s adamant about the sound being superior and this or that. I basically just see vinyl records as fun collector’s items. A good song is a good song regardless of what format you hear it on, y’know?
Do you guys already have all the songs written, or is it still a work-in-progress kind of thing? I know you said Dave’s written some of the songs — do you each write a handful of ‘em, I take it?
There are enough songs written to justify making a record, but we’re gonna take all of March just to write and see if any stragglers pop up.
So far, Dave and I have been the ones bringing song ideas in. It’s right at half and half between his and mine at this point. But once we get them into the room, everybody puts their stamp on it, and most of the time the idea changes dramatically for the better.
In a lot of bands, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, we all have a hand in the songwriting process,” but you can tell that’s its mostly one person telling everyone else what to do. With Knights, everyone has a huge hand in how the songs take shape. They really are written by the group as a whole.
‘Cause I mean, seriously, who the fuck am I to tell a guitar player like Aaron or Chris how to play their instrument? I’m a drummer, for Christ’s sake! And Marcos is twice the drummer I am, so I try to stay out if his way and let him do what he does, too. My main contribution is pretty much just having the most fucked-up voice out of all of us.
I meant to ask earlier on but blanked on it: what’s it been like for you, being the frontman/singer/guitarist for the Knights? I’ve seen you in several bands over the years, but it’s always been as the guy behind the drum kit. Has the Dave Grohl-esque transition been an easy one?
Oh dude, it’s been so much fun! There’s something about getting to jump around and scream and strangle a guitar onstage that is so silly and goofy and…just fun! It’s like jumping on a trampoline or something.
That said, I do miss beating the shit out of a drum kit from time to time, though. They’re totally different beasts. I don’t know that I’d say that the transition has been hard from a playing standpoint, per se, but the dynamic is extremely tough to get a grasp on and get used to. I’m still trying to figure out how to be a “frontman” in-between songs and be charming and witty or whatever without looking like a total shithead.
I saw the picture of Aaron’s new guitar — what the hell is that?
Dude, I wish I could tell you more about it, but the truth is that I don’t know. He’s got a couple of those things now, and they’re both custom-made here in town by a guy that he knows.
One is made from a box that held promotional cigars for some Andy Garcia movie. He’s playing them a lot lately and writing some really kickass blues songs with them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they showed up on some Knights stuff somewhere soon, too.
You’ve been in bands ’round these parts for quite a while now; what do you think of the Houston scene these days? Are there any bands you’re liking in particular? Any problems with the scene in general?
Thankfully, the Houston scene is stronger than it’s ever been. You can ask any of the old-timers around town, and the story will generally be the same: that over the years, there were either great bands that no one was going to see play or, conversely, there were people hungry to see great shows, but were being handed bullshit bands.
We’re in a very unique time where the two worlds are colliding in the best way possible. There are so many people excited to go out and see bands play now, and there are so many good bands in town that are ready and willing to deliver. It’s fucking great! I’ve been digging the hell out of Key Bumpz, Mikey & the Drags, Grandfather Child, Wheel Workers, We Were Wolves…man, my mind goes off on tangents just thinking about how good things are in town these days. I could go on and on.
At this point, any of the gripes I have about the scene would be strictly of the personal preference variety. Like, I kinda feel like straight-up, hook-y rock bands are pretty under-represented in Houston. But like I said, that’s more of a personal preference complaint and isn’t really “scene”-related at all, now that I think about it. It’s really just more of an observation.
Overall, things in the Houston music scene are phenomenal, and I don’t think anyone could justifiably ask for much more without seeming nit-picky.
Good as things are, is there anything you’d like to see improved or changed somehow? Or is it all pretty much rolling down the right track?
I’d like to see the remnants of the old guard finally fade away. That whole jaded, “everything sucks and fuck you” mentality has no place here anymore. It’s far less prominent than it used to be, but every now and then I’ll catch echoes of it, and it’s just so tired. Luckily it’s pretty easy to dismiss.
But by and large, I think we’re pretty much on the right track. I’m really happy and feel very fortunate to be around during a time where there are so many kickass bands in town and so many people who are excited to go see them play. And it’s be criminal not to mention the clubs and promoters who are willing to bust their asses to bring out-of-town bands in, as well. It’s a really cool and long overdue time in our little town right now, and I feel really lucky to have a little place in it all.
Last but not least, the most important question: will y’all ever wear the helmets at a show?
Dude. Those helmets weigh 15 pounds apiece. No way in Hell could we ever wear them at a show. They’re authentic, hand-forged steel Viking helmets made by some dude from Norway. He wanted to trade some shit for them, so we said yes.
While the helmets probably won’t be incorporated into the live show, don’t be surprised if flames and fireworks start shooting from our instruments at some point. We are nothing if not showmen, after all. END
(Photos [top to bottom]: Knights of the Fire Kingdom (by J. Hart); Dave Noske & Jeoaf Johnson (by Jason Smith); Aaron Echegaray (by Jason Smith); Chris Wertz & Benjamin Wesley (by J. Hart); Dave Noske (by Jason Smith); Knights of the Fire Kingdom (by J. Hart); Marcus Echegaray (by Jason Smith); Aaron Echegary & Chris Wertz (by Jason Smith).)