With three-part harmonies and an incomparable pop-rock sound, Brooklyn band the French Kicks have created an impressive and variant collection of albums since their creation in 1998. In the early 2000s, in terms of music and popular culture press, Detroit and New York City, especially Brooklyn, were the most talked about cities being credited for the "rebirth" of rock 'n' roll music. Along with a bevy of bands that included The Strokes and dozens of others, at their onslaught, the French Kicks thrived outside of the city and the a buzz, making their names known on the independent scene for their music merit and not just because they were from Brooklyn. "French Kicks are not a traditional rock 'n' roll band. Although they have elements of snarly garage rock, slick new wave, and giddy classic mod-pop, they remain completely unique," stated music video channel MuchMusic's website.
At six feet six inches tall, musician Nick Stumpf grew up in Washington, D.C., playing the piano at his mother's request. Although he now thanks his mother for forcing him to learn the piano, at the time, Stumpf wanted nothing more than to play the drums. In high school, once he was able to pay for them on his own, Stumpf finally bought his own drum set and started playing in bands with his friend and guitarist Matt Stinchcomb. After they set off to study at Oberlin College, a prestigious music and arts university in Ohio, the pair was joined by bassist Jamie Krents. When the trio picked up and moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1998, they met Alabama-born guitarist/keyboardist Josh Wise at a party and soon the French Kicks were born.
Taking influences from the art-rock music scenes in D.C. and Oberlin, the quartet mixed sharp and angular guitar lines with savory three-part harmonies and just-catchy-enough pop choruses to make a distinctive and uncategorical new style of rock music. Stumpf was manning the drums, but also singing most of the lead vocals as well; a sight rarely seen in contemporary rock bands. Stinchcomb and Wise played guitars and harmonized with Stumpf while he buoyantly bounced up and down on his drum stool while singing his heart out. The band quickly scrounged up a self-titled, four-song demolike EP, and released it via independent Chicago label My Pal God Records in the fall of 1999.
Although the French Kicks' EP got some press, it was apparent that the band needed a record label that was as fresh as they were. In 2001, the quartet signed to StarTime International, a new label started by Isaac Green in Brooklyn. The French Kicks' next release would be the label's premiere artist. To record their new EP for StarTime, the French Kicks retreated to a farm in West Virginia for the summer. In the middle of nowhere, with producer Greg Talenfield (known for his work with Beck and Pavement), the French Kicks captured the guttural sound of the new blood of NYC bands juxtaposed with immaculate sunny harmonies. In 2001, StarTime released the Young Lawyer EP and sent the band on a tour of small clubs in the United States. The Portland Mercury's Bradley Steinbacher called Young Lawyer "about as perfect as indie rock can be. Brief, packed-yet-simple, each song sheds the girth of what much of indie rock has become, and instead, leaves behind what you want and expect—a smart, catchy, and ridiculously creative recording."
Near the end of the year, the band and producer Talenfield embarked on a journey to make the French Kicks debut full-length album. Recorded in New York, and released in 2002, One Time Bells was a jump from Young Lawyer—cleaner and more streamlined, a mature album. Muchmusic.com called the record "a perfect crystallization of French Kicks' taut, clipped, frequently beautiful sound." In an interview with Mike Tiernan of Boston's Weekly Dig, Stumpf talked about the making of One Time Bells, recalling that there wasn't a concrete plan to have the album sound so different from Young Lawyer. "One of the rules that we go by is that we do whatever we feel like doing and go by what we like," he told Tiernan about the new record. "It doesn't have to sound like anything in particular." Tiernan described the effort as "a subtle gem that displays a unique concoction of rough harmony, tumbling drums, ringing keyboard, jolty guitar, and bouncing bass."
After touring exhaustively for One Time Bells, lead singer Stumpf made the decision to focus on his vocals and hire a drummer to fill out the band to a five-piece. In 2003, drummer Aaron Thurston joined the French Kicks pushing the band into new terrain. Without limitations of sitting behind the drum kit, Stumpf was able to focus more on his vocals and keyboards, while moving about the stage, giving the band more vigor. The band tested out their new lineup in February of 2003 in a week-long residency at New York's Mercury Lounge.
In 2004, the band teamed with producer Doug Boehm for The Trial of the Century, an album miles away from their first recordings. "I think we've managed to capture something that is potentially difficult to do: just having a somewhat clean sound yet at the same time something that doesn't sound gutless," Stumpf told the website Straight.com. "It's got some balls in some way. It's not raw; that's not what we're doing." The critics began to judge the band on their musical merits and not just their zip code. Billboard's Brian Garrity praised The Trial of the Century, labeling it "a fully realized work of sweet, sophisticated hipster rock that floats on atmospheric layers of keyboards and guitars."
After touring for the record, Stumpf and Wise spent a large part of 2005 writing and working on songs for what would be their third album. In an interview with website Skratchmagazine.com, Stumpf admitted that he and Wise stayed inside a lot that year, keeping themselves almost isolated from outside influences. "We were pretty insular about this one; we worked on it on our own," he said. "We were interested in writing the best songs that we could and just structuring them and making them sound cool. So, we kind of had our head in the sand. We had blinders on." Before the band left for Los Angeles to begin recording their new album, founding member Stinchcomb left the group. As a four-piece yet once again, the French Kicks ventured out to Los Angeles for an intense one-month recording session with producer Boehm.
Bringing back some of the unrefined energy from their early days, the group's 2006 release, Two Thousand, was a continued wave of the atmospheric pop and sticky guitars heard on The Trial of the Century. "Though they've been around for eights years, Brooklyn's French Kicks always manage to seem young, playing their tender post-punk that's so pristined it sounds fresh-scrubbed … on every new effort," wrote Tristan Staddon in Alternative Press. To round out the band's live sound and help to play the myriad new sounds and instruments explored on Two Thousand, multi-instrumentalist Kush El Amin joined the French Kicks on guitar, keyboards, and percussion for the band's 2006 tour.
French Kicks (EP), My Pal God Records, 1999.
Young Lawyer (EP), StarTime International, 2001.
One Time Bells, StarTime International, 2002.
The Trial of the Century, StarTime International, 2004.
Two Thousand, StarTime International/Vagrant Records, 2006.
For the Record …
Members include Kush El Amin (joined group, 2006), guitar, keyboards, percussion; Matt Stinchcomb (left group, 2005), guitar, vocals; Lawrence Stumpf (replaced Jamie Krents, 2001), bass; Nick Stumpf, lead vocals, keyboards; Aaron Thurston (joined band, 2003), drums; Josh Wise, guitar, vocals.
Group formed in Brooklyn, NY, 1998; released four-song self-titled EP, 1999; signed to new Brooklyn label StarTime International, released Young Lawyer EP, 2001; released debut full-length CD One Time Bells, 2002; released The Trial of the Century, 2004, and Two Thousand, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—StarTime International Records, 328 Flatbush Ave., PMB #297, Brooklyn, NY 11238; Vagrant Records, 2118 Wilshire Blvd. #361, Santa Monica, CA 90403. Website—French Kicks Official Website: http://www.frenchkicks.com.
Alternative Press, October 4, 2006.
Billboard, June 5, 2004, p. 31.
Boston's Weekly Dig, December 4, 2002.
The Georgia Straight, May 13, 2004.
The Portland Mercury (Portland, OR), January 31-February 6, 2002.
"French Kicks," MuchMusic, http://www.muchmusic.com/music/artists/index.asp?artist=301 (October 30, 2006).
"French Kicks," StarTime International Records, http://www.startimerecords.com/frenchkicks.html (October 30, 2006).
"French Kicks Interview," Skratch Magazine, http://www.skratchmagazine.com/interviews/interviews.php?id=192 (October 30, 2006).
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