Kaiser Cartel: conspirators in pop

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Kaiser Cartel: conspirators in pop


New York, New York, it's a

helluva town. That's something Courtney Kaiser has learned over time.

Ironically, the Indianapolis

native and Indiana University graduate played on her biggest stage when she

still lived in this state, as a backup singer for John Mellencamp. Not that

she's resting on her laurels: Since moving to Brooklyn eight years ago, Kaiser

has worked with luminaries such as Sean Lennon.

But her musical partnership with

Benjamin Cartel has dominated her professional life for the last six years. As

Kaiser Cartel, they've crisscrossed the country, performing their playful style

of elegant, folk-tinged pop.

"We're very familial," Kaiser

says. "People see it and feel like they're seeing something they haven't seen

before – almost like you've gone to someone's family party. It's intimate

in a way that gets people drawn to it."

The two are in town on a

pleasant April day, in between tour dates. A show in Chicago is that night. For

now there's time for Kaiser to eat an oversized muffin in a Broad Ripple coffee

shop and talk while Cartel makes a run to the post office. For someone who has

lived in New York as long as she has, Kaiser still looks modest by that city's

standards. A tattoo dominates her right bicep, but otherwise she easily blends

in with the Midwest hoi polloi.

A not-so-lonely petunia

The petite brunette grew up at

71st Street and Dean Road here. She attended Park Tudor High School before

finishing at Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy. Kaiser knew she could sing

"pretty much when I started talking. I would sing all the time, in the yard."

By age three she was part of a tap-dancing group. One of her favorite songs to

perform then was "I'm a Lonely Little Petunia in An Onion Patch and All I Do is

Cry All Day." By third grade she was focusing on music and was a member of

Butler University's Children's Choir.

Kaiser studied opera at IU, but

soon became bored with only learning to sing classical music. She used

Bloomington's cultural diversity to her advantage, taking lessons in other

traditions from fellow students and parlaying her access to international

talent as a booking agent at Second Story.

"I felt like if I was going to

be a voice major, it would be smarter to learn as many vocal styles as I

could," says Kaiser, who graduated with a degree in world vocal music

performance, a major she created herself.

She stayed in Bloomington to

attend grad school. Kaiser met Paul Mahern, the former Zero Boy and

now-producer, at Second Story. He got her a job working as an assistant for

Mellencamp's wife Elaine in the Indy Racing League.

Mellencamp asked to hear some of

Kaiser's music during the first sessions for his album Cuttin' Heads. Mahern gave him a copy of an EP by Kaiser's band

The Prom.

One night Mellencamp asked

Kaiser how she would feel about singing in front of thousands of people. She

replied that it would be great, thinking he was just kidding around.

"The next day he called me and

said, 'Where are you? You've gotta be here. You're in this band,'" says Kaiser.

Working under a kaiser

She quit grad school and spent

the next three years touring with Mellencamp's band. It was an experience

Kaiser calls "pretty amazing." Not just because she performed with Mellencamp

— but also people like Pat Peterson, who has been in Mellencamp's band

some 25 years and sang on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon tour at age 16.

"To be on stage with these

people and a part of their team was amazing," says Kaiser. "To have that

experience of singing in front of that many people is pretty wild."

Not that it was easy to work

under a legendary taskmaster like Mellencamp.

"John likes everything to be a

certain way. Preparing for the first tour was really hard work," says Kaiser,

who rehearsed 12 hours a day for three weeks. "It was grueling. I've never

experienced rehearsals like that. But because everyone was so tight if anything

weird happened you're prepared to just keep going or change at the drop of a


Her work with Mellencamp

culminated with a private performance for some computer tycoon's birthday party

that also featured Robin Williams and The Rolling Stones. At the time Kaiser

was preparing to release a solo record. Figuring it was time to move to greener

pastures, she narrowed her choices to New York, Chicago or L.A. New York won

after Harry Sandler, Mellencamp's tour manager, offered her his apartment there

rent-free for a year while he toured with The Eagles.

"That was too good to pass up,"

Kaiser says. "I had to say yes."

She wasted little time

ensconcing herself in the city's eclectic music scene.

"I like to say (it's) because so

many people from the Midwest go there," says Kaiser. "I think that's why you

end up having so many different kinds of music."

She's worked with Yuka Honda,

who played in the band Cibo Matto and is Sean Lennon's musical director. That's

led to performances with Lennon, including an appearance on the "Late Show with

David Letterman" when Lennon was promoting his last record. That collaboration

led to meeting Yoko Ono and befriending Tracy Bonham, whom Kaiser Cartel hopes

to tour with later this year.

"I just love it. I've never

left," says Kaiser of her new home.

On the road, with


But friendships with Lennon and others have mostly spawned

one-off gigs. But in Cartel, whom she met at the Knitting Factory, she found a

genuine collaborator.

"We were both bent on getting on the road and promoting our

music that way," Cartel, back from the post office, says about their

introduction. "We talked about that the first night we met. And we were both

into catchy pop songs – very succinct, memorable songs. We knew we had

that in common."

It was Kaiser's idea for them to play multiple instruments,

thereby giving the two-piece a fuller sound. One of their first gigs was at a

place called Pete's Candy Store. There were something like 10 people in the

audience. Cartel accidentally hit Kaiser on the head with the neck of his

guitar. And yet they use the word "hilarious" when reminiscing about it.

"We thought wow, this is really working," says Cartel. "But

at the same time we were laughing about it."

Soon after they loaded a three-door Saturn with a snare

drum, child's glockenspiel and two acoustic guitars and hit the open road. Over

time they've amassed funny tour stories — the disturbed child having a

verbal confrontation with a stuffed animal in a Madison, Wis., Goodwill store;

the comp motel room they refused to stay in because of the giant bloodstain on

the mattress. It's a far cry from the tour bus and Four Seasons Kaiser enjoyed

while touring with Mellencamp. Nowadays she hopes for a $40 room at a Marriott.

"There've been times we've slept in the car in a rest area

because we can't pay for a hotel room," says Kaiser.

She admits it can sometimes feel ridiculous to play a show

at 5 p.m., in some nowhere city, on a summer day with no guarantees of getting


"I'm in my 30s and still going for this," she says. "It's

crazy. You can feel like, is this Anvil all over again?"

Both Kaiser and Cartel had teaching jobs when they started

their partnership. Back then it was no big deal to break even on a tour.

"If we break even now, though, it's almost like we lost

money," says Kaiser. "That's when you can't help but think like, when is dinner

going to be more than just pizza from the promoter?"

Dodging the plague

But then they wouldn't have had the experience they did

while recording their second album, Secret Transit. It was in a Victorian church in London, circa 1839.

Producer Matt Hales' brother knew the music director there and sought

permission to use it as a studio. They were told they could only do so at


"We would go in at 8 o'clock and record for the whole night,

stopping at like 7 or 8 in the morning," says Kaiser.

The church rested on a vast, green plain, supposedly where

all the victims of the Black Plague were buried.

"We didn't find out till after the recording was finished,"

says Kaiser. "No one's allowed to dig or build there because they're afraid if

you dig in the ground the Black Plague will come back. We were really glad not

to know this – being in a church at night."

The result is a spookier sounding record than their debut, March

Forth, though there are still plenty of

buoyant harmonies and lilting melodies.

Kaiser is especially proud of closing track "The Weight,"

for which she recorded the vocals for at 6 a.m. one day. She repeated two lines

for several minutes because no one told her to stop and she thought maybe they

were messing with the sound. While singing Kaiser could hear a plane flying

over. Then she heard a bird. Then four birds. Then lots of birds. An amp in

another room started spitting out all these phantasmal sounds.

"It felt like all of London was waking up, like we had been

doing this secret thing in the middle of the night," says Kaiser. "I like that

we caught that moment, because it was the end of the process."

Instances like that make long car drives, nightly pizza

dinners and bloodstained mattresses worth it for Kaiser and Cartel.

"We're super lucky only to be doing this every day and not

clocking into some corporate job with fluorescent lighting handing in reports,"

says Kaiser.

Hear "Ready to Go" from Secret Transit:

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