An Interview with Reed Kendall, Creator and Front Man of Up the Chain
You may have heard of them from open mics at MilkBoy Coffee or Fergie’s pub, or perhaps from gigs at JD McGillicuddy’s or World Cafe. Philly’s own Up the Chain is a staple in the local music scene and has been playing venues from the inside out since 2008, sharing and spreading their voice in the city of Philadelphia and beyond. Many musicians have added their creativity and musical versatility to the project over the years, lending different ingredients to make each song a unique recipe. Fronted by guitarist and songwriter Reed Kendall, the roster of players in the band is constantly changing, but some of the most frequent participants include Avery Coffee, Anam Owili-Eger, Phil D’Agostino and Matt Scarano.
Their most recent release, Holy Open Drying Road, is filled with stylistic diversity and thoughtful musicianship. Teeming with horns, bowed strings and mandolin, the variety in musical background among the ever-changing musical cast really gives the band a slightly different tone each time they perform. The only reason Reed Kendall and his band Up the Chain have become a household name at open mics and venues around Philadelphia is because of their constant devotion to playing as much as they can- spreading their sound around. I interviewed Reed to find out about how Up the Chain started, the creative process behind the music, and what the next step is for the band.
Michele Zipkin: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but what is the meaning of the name Up the Chain?
Reed Kendall: It originally comes from the cartoon Space Ghost (from the fictional late-night talk-show Space Ghost Coast to Coast spun off from the 1960s cartoon.) Space Ghost was interviewing Willy Nelson, and someone randomly blurts out [up the chain] in the background. My friends in high school and I thought it was funny so we named our high school floor hockey team Up the Chain, and we made shirts with our names and numbers on the back. Then, when I was starting up the band (it wasn’t like, five guys starting a band together, it was just me and some studio musicians), I didn’t want to call it Reed Kendell so I just called it that.
MZ: When you started out, how inconsistent was the personnel in the group? How did you initially get together with the people you started playing with?
RK: It was very inconsistent. Avery has been with me from the start. He and I were in the Alfred James Band together. When I started my own band, I went to MilkBoy to record an EP demo, and he (Avery) played on it, and a bunch of other guys who hadn’t played with the band since played on it. Then I took that to Fergie’s Open Mic, where I met everyone else who’s played with me since, which has been about 20 people total over the course of two or three years.
MZ: You’ve had several musical accomplishments so far. You made an EP I’ll See You Inside, a live album at MilkBoy, and a full-length studio album, Holy Open Drying Road. Did you see a noticeable growth in the band or in your style with each of your albums?
RK: Yeah. For the live record, that was basically the first time the band had ever been the same group of people for two shows in a row. We did four shows at MilkBoy, so it’s weird that the band did a live record and the group wasn’t that familiar with each other playing live. It’s not really a sensible way to do it, [but it speaks very highly.] The studio record was the biggest step for us. When we play now, we’re just a lot better after having gone through arranging the songs and talking about them… Before that it was just like, ‘do we know the songs well enough to play them live, yes OK, good enough’, but doing the record… Producer Barrie Maguire gets a lot of credit for that. We got together a bunch of times for pre-production and everyone was just really focused, and everyone had ideas. That’s when it started to get good.
MZ: The song “En Zed” (from Holy Open) is a very poignant song. The chorus has a “stop and smell the roses” and appreciate the simple things in life kind of theme. Can you talk about the meaning of the song?
RK: En Zed is “N-Z” people in New Zealand say Zed. I lived in New Zealand for six months. That’s basically what the chorus of the song is about. There weren’t too many distractions there. I wasn’t on Facebook at this point in my life… I didn’t have TV, really. We had a group of friends and a beautiful landscape. It was just kind of enjoying the simple things kind of energy. It was a great change of pace for me. I miss it. I live very much in the city now, so it’s different.
MZ: What do you think the most important thing is in creating a story behind a song?
RK: Creating something that people can relate to. Even if it’s not necessarily what the writer has in mind, if people are relating to it that’s the goal. Making a connection of some sort.
MZ: What was the coolest or most enjoyable show you’ve played?
RK: I can tell you the strangest happened the other day. (I won’t forget about the coolest though.) I was doing a gig on Market street. The city hired a bunch of people to play for four hours on the street for two or three days a week. I was the first one to do it. They didn’t tell me this at the time, but they were trying to faze out these radical hate groups that set up on Market Street. So when the time’s come for them to set up, this lady comes up right next to me over top and says “There’s someone where you guys usually set up, what do you want me to do about it?” and then starts causing a scene, so they called the police. I had three policeman on either side of me. It was just me and this guitar, and there’s this hate group that’s coming, demanding their turf. I was like, what the hell is going on, I didn’t sign up for this!
And then the next one of those gigs that I did, there was a preacher on the corner with a microphone and an amplification system, preaching. I had to set up ten feet from where he was. The city was paying me to do it, so I said “Look man, I’m sorry but I have to do this”. So I set up and plugged in and started playing. So he turned up, and I didn’t turn up to fight him. I was singing a mellow Amos Lee song or something, and he’s preaching in the background. It was the most bizarre thing. We were fighting for volume.
My favorite gig was the Philly Sings Philly gig at the Fire. There was a residency on Tuesday nights in November of last year. Just Philly artists covering Philly artists. We did a five song set and it was a lot of fun. We covered Chris Kasper, Hezekiah Jones, Cow Muddy, Chris Grunwald and Ryan Tennis.
MZ: What is the significance of the album Holy, Open Drying Road?
RK: It seems like every song on the record has something to do with a restless feeling- traveling, changing scenery. So the Holy Open Drying Road, is what we’re doing next. We’re doing a tour in August- going down to Nashville, Knoxville, North Carolina.. .That’s basically where my head is. If someone books a gig and asks me to play in Philly, that sounds great… but when I’m booking things I’m looking elsewhere and trying to spread around a little.
[Here’s a story behind the meaning of the word “drying” in the title]: I was in a car accident while driving on the high way, it was pouring rain. I spun out and hit the guard rail. My car wouldn’t start as it was facing I-95 highway traffic in very low visibility. Everything turned out fine. After the accident I had a fear of driving at high speeds in the rain. I think it still lingers a little. When I wrote those words I was thinking back on the feeling of being out driving as the sun came out on what was previously a very rainy day. the warm sun drying up the puddles was very, very reassuring. It’s a hopeful metaphor for the next chapter of the band – traveling.
MZ: What is the one thing you think the music industry needs in order to thrive? The Philadelphia music scene?
RK: I don’t really know that much about the industry. If there were more record deals out there- if I could pay my bills by being a musician. I think no matter what happens with the industry, creative music and sharing and connecting with people on an artistically credible level will always exist. It may not be what dominates the radio or TV. There will always be creative people making good art. Even if there’s not a lot of money in the industry… I’m not that worried. It fluctuates. When the Beatles and Dylan were what was popular, they were amazing. There are similarly amazing artists out there now, it’s just not as much of a phenomenon. That’s not bad, it’s just different.
Holy, Open Drying Road is now Available on ITunes.
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