AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE KILSTEIN

While he doesn’t have a headshot with duct tape around his mouth, or dub himself an “equal opportunity offender,” Jamie Kilstein has built a name for himself by being one of the biggest risk takers in comedy in the industry today. When he made his TV debut on Conan, he elected to tell a joke that criticized President Obama and our pretty terrifying history of drone strikes.

A lot of people were unhappy with this! But throughout his career, it’s become apparent that Kilstein doesn’t really care if people get mad about something he says. All he cares about is getting his message out there. And in addition to his comedy, Kilstein’s been able to spread that message through a wide range platforms. Him and his wife, Allison Kilkenny, launched the podcast Citizen Radio and co-authored the book Newsfail together as a way to rally against the corporate media machine and provide people with an unbiased look at the news.
For his latest project, Kilstein’s strapped up his guitar, wrangled a band together and made a whole damn album. I was able to talk with him about how it came about, who influenced him and why there probably won’t be any assholes listening to this record. So if you’re not an asshole, be on the lookout for ‘A Bit Much’.

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AS: With Citizen Radio, and now this album, you’ve made a conscious effort to release your work independently. While it must be more fulfilling, does it ever get hard to find the money to keep going?

JM: Well, we’ve been able to get help from our label, Don Giovanni Records. They’re completely independent, and in the music industry, the most moral people tend to have the least amount of money, but they there so many awesome female punk bands like the Screaming Females and other great queer acts on this label, so it’s great being surrounded by all these different voices.

But the thing about our podcast is that we started it 8-9 years ago when we were homeless and had no money, and now it supports us the most. We can’t get fired or have our sponsors pulled because we have no sponsors. Glenn Beck’s fans were attacking us a while back and they kept demanding that our sponsors pull out, but we never had any to begin with! We never wanted to work for someone, and to us, that pays off more.

Yeah, a lot of people love your podcast and the medium as a whole has been garnering a lot more respect lately. Do you see that as the old guard starting to crumble?

I know! And the funny thing is now that podcasts are being taken more seriously, we’ve been taking ours less seriously. We’re just getting weirder and weirder with what we’re doing because we have an audience and they’re not going anywhere.

I just want to weed out the hacks who don’t know how to be creative and make it easier for those who are creative to make something. When I started doing stand-up, there were these bringer shows that all the club owners would make us do in order to perform in front of people in the industry. You’d have to bring, like, 20 people to get on and you’d always get screwed over. So taking power away from people like that and going out on your own is an option podcasting has given people.

Ever since you first started doing stand-up, I’m assuming people immediately started shouting the name ‘Bill Hicks’ at you. And when listening to ‘Fuck The NRA’, I couldn’t help but think about Rant In E Minor and his guitar intermissions in between his material. But your song has a more actualized version of the two melded together. Is that something you had in mind when recording?

Bill Hicks was a great guitar player. And he might’ve done something like this had he not passed, who knew what he would have done later in life? When I was working on the album, I sent it to Bill Hicks’s brother, and he really liked it.

I’d really love to do what Henry Rollins does, where he talks for about an hour, then he plays music. I wanted there to be a half and half on this album. Music just makes it easier to feel something. Like, how many shitty movies or commercials have you cried to because the music was perfect?

Your special is also coming out soon, so did you have to pick and choose which material would best fit on the album as opposed to being in your special?

The special got pushed off because the director had to go direct an Oscar winning movie, so it actually worked out for the best. There’ll definitely be music in the special, though. I’ve been doing stand-up for 15 years, and I only felt happy when I started doing these rants. Reggie Watts and I toured together, and at the end of the show, he’d beatbox to my rants.

So the more I’d do my rants, they’d go over better than all my other material. I remember doing a show in LA, fucking Moby was there. And LA’s known for being a place where you can’t really try out new material, but I didn’t care. I did one of my rants there and it killed. So all my rants started doing better than my material and then I started writing songs, and that went over better than the rants.

Humor’s just another instrument. A lot of Frank Zappa’s songs are funny, but nobody ever cut him off when he was playing and shouted, “WHAT ARE YOU?” Which is why I’m not gonna make an album where the music itself isn’t killer.

That’s definitely something that shined through on ‘Fuck The NRA’. The musicality was really well done. Also, the video was hilarious. How much footage of bad Steven Segal inspired karate moves did you have to leave on the cutting room floor?

All of that was done in one take. We came up with the concept and then they improvised on that. All of those guys are in the UCB improv community, so they’re used to working together and building stuff. We’ve been really trying hard to have a bunch of diverse bands open for us for the tour, and as soon as we came up with the video idea, we were like, “fuck, we gotta hire a bunch of my white guy friends.”

So were there any artists in particular you were trying to sound like, if any?

What I love so much about this album is that all the songs sound different. I grew up listening to Phish, our bassist is a huge fan of Fugazi, and we’ve also got a guy who went to Berklee School of Music for violin. I grew up with the craziest spectrum of music. I loved NWA, Stevie Ray Vaugn, The Gin Blossoms. So we want to be influenced by everything for us to create our own community. Just push the limits.

Whenever somebody does something they’re not known for, I always expect the fanbase of that person to flip out, but all your fans seem to be so incredibly supportive of what you’re doing. Has that surprised you at all?

It’s nuts! But they’re my family. I get so personal with them about depression and addiction, they know me so well at this point. Like, when some hot guitarist posts a new photo of himself all sweaty and shirtless, the comments are like, ‘you’re so hot,” but I just posted a photo of me holding a guitar and my fans all comment, “you look so happy!”

Our careers have been hard. I’ve gotten fired from jobs just for saying, “gay people are people,” so our audience gets a lot of credit for supporting us. And at this point we’ve weeded out all the assholes, and now there’s such a big douchebag buffer that we’ve made it impossible for you to like what we do. When I first posted that photo of me with a guitar, they didn’t know I could play it, they just went, “I guess we’ll see where this goes.” That’s the kind of artist I want to be. Allison and I still have scripts we wrote together, so it’s fucking amazing to have fans who allow us to try different things.


Be sure to see Jamie this Thursday, April 28th, at the Bowery Electric. And see where he’s performing next here!