EPIC SOUNDTRACKS, KEVIN JUNIOR and NIKKI SUDDEN

 

You may not recognise all of the characters but you’ll almost certainly recognise the story, or at least the darker parts of it. At its core are three men with a love of the same kind of music in common, liberated from time to time, I suppose, by the magic they heard around them, some of which they produced on their own, other times with one another. All three of them are dead now and none of them saw the age of fifty.

All three tended almost always towards the hard shoulder and never really threatened the popular market, like many of the artists and lots of the music we’re drawn to here. But I’ve tried not to be too pious in the telling and I’m not being wilful or deliberately obscure ;- if the story strikes a chord, then I’ve listed some records below that you might like to check out. The complicated, fractured lives of Epic, Kevin and Nikki – and the music they made – only really make sense that way. And so …

Kevin Junior’s death earlier this year went relatively unmarked over here, and understandably enough. The American singer, guitarist and producer died five days after David Bowie, on January 15th last and, outside of his circle of friends, family and those who had loyally supported his bands, The Rosehips and  The Chamber Strings, and his various other side-projects over the years, his name will be unfamiliar. I spent the guts of fifteen years talking him up to anyone I met and, from a distance and with the benefit of the internet, followed his moves, wished him on, watched him vagabonding in several guises, car-crashing his way sidewards and downwards.

As is the case with Epic Soundtracks, with whom he wrote, toured, recorded and performed, Kevin is rarely cited as widely as his talent, flawed as it was, maybe deserves ? But he leaves behind him a decent canon of work that, uneven as it is, captures a restless spirit at work, hinting at what could have been and that, on occasion, is up there with the best of them. When Kevin had his head straight and his body clean, he was capable of real alchemy ;- like many before him, his songs were maybe all he really ever had but, in the end, not even those were enough to save him.

Folk of a certain age and of a particular leaning will remember Epic and his brother, Nikki Sudden ;- they buttressed Swell Maps, an urgent punk-art outfit that flourished briefly during the late 1970s. Born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the English midlands, and raised as Kevin and Adrian Godfrey respectively, they recorded a pair of opaque albums with Swell Maps who, years after they folded, were name-checked fondly by the likes of R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. Indeed R.E.M. backed Nikki on his 1991 single, ‘I Belong To You’, which was recorded at John Keane’s famous studio in Athens, Georgia and which derived from a three-month period the previous year during which Nikki had moved into Peter Buck’s house.

Epic Soundtracks passed away in 1997 and Nikki Sudden died in New York city seven years later ;- Kevin’s death last January completes that circle and, on one level, wraps up a little known side-story in the modern history of alternative American and British pop music. Kevin spent many years soldiering long and hard with both Epic and Nikki, lurching from place to place, song to song, crisis to crisis, barely keeping on. When he re-located to Berlin to accompany Nikki during the 1990s, he fell quickly into a period of chronic drug use ;- it had been the same story earlier in Los Angeles. And in New York. And back home in Akron, Ohio.

Epic Soundtracks and Kevin Junior wrote and played from the heart and the records they’ve left behind are, almost without exception, simply executed and remarkably personal. Kevin believed that Epic actually died of a broken heart ;- he’d struggled with depression for years and an intense relationship had ended in the months before he passed away. In Kevin’s case it seems as if, after thirty odd years spent clinging to the ledge, his own heart simply gave out too. Nikki Sudden died in a hotel room in New York in 2004 and, while the cause of his death has never been clearly determined, he too was defined for years as much by his drug use as by his music. If it was their hearts that first bound them and bonded them, it was their hearts that failed them all in the end too.

Akron, Ohio features prominently in the colourful and often bizarre history of Stiff Records and the story – and spirit – of the label that boasts among it’s leading players the likes of Dave Robinson, Jake Riviera, Madness, Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Nick Lowe, The Damned, Devo, Rachel Sweet and numerous others, is captured in detail in Richard Balls’s terrific book, ‘Be Stiff: The Stiff Records Story’ [Soundcheck Books]. It was in Akron that Kevin was born Kevin Gerber in 1969 to a pair of music loving, free-thinking parents ;- as a child he was baby-sat by Chrissie Hynde and, as Bob Mehr mentions in a fine profile for The Chicago Reader in 2007, ‘he attended Firestone High School, which produced such future stars as Hynde, Rachel Sweet and members of Devo’.

Kevin moved to Chicago in his mid-teens and cut a skeletal shape from the get-go in his trademark Johnny Thunders do and sharp jackets, almost always stylishly adorned with a silk scarf and a pair of decent winkle-pickers. Like Nikki and Epic, Kevin was an advocate of the old school, long influenced by T-Rex, The New York Dolls, The Beach Boys, quality R and B and The Monkees. From where Kevin looked, in order to sound good it was vital to look good first and he covers this ground in detail on an efficient, low-budget documentary, ‘Chamber Strings – For A Happy Ending’, made for the Glorious Noise website.

It was Keith Cullen at Setanta Records who first turned me onto Epic soundtracks, back when we worked together in London in the early 1990s and during which time I would often kip down in a hammock strung across his kitchen in a squat in Camberwell. I was trying as best I could to make a positive contribution to an emerging independent record label, while free-lancing for a couple of music magazines to turn a coin. With the Setanta roster developing nicely, Keith needed dependable, day-to-day office help ;- most of the time I just got in the way.

I’d often put myself to sleep with a primitive Walkman clung to my ears and, for a while, Epic’s music was what I’d hear last thing at night. Himself and Freedy Johnston, another favourite during that time at the Setanta office, were affiliated to a vibey New York-based label called Bar None, run by a Limerick man called Tom Prendergast. Tom’s apartment in Hoboken often hosted Setanta’s bureau chief and Bar None and Setanta shared a philosophical and business arrangement, on and off, for years.

Bar None’s substantial and varied catalogue also boasts releases by the likes of They Might Be Giants, Peter Holsapple, Carlow’s David Donoghue/The Floors and a host of others but it was Epic Soundtracks’ 1994 album, ‘Sleeping Star’ for the label that remains, to these ears, one of the most affecting records of the decade. It was because of Tom Prendergast’s relationship with Setanta – and the regular exchange of stories and music between the labels – that I first started to tease back through Epic’s lineage and, for a while, I became obsessed with his story. Tom Prendergast’s own history, it should also be said, is one of the great, largely untold stories from the fringes of Irish alternative music history from the early-1980s onwards.

Kevin Junior recorded two excellent albums with his band, The Chamber Strings – ‘Gospel Morning’ [1997] and ‘Month of Sundays’ [2001] – both of which betray his long infatuation with the likes of The Beach Boys, T Rex and the more tender aspects of The New York Dolls. But despite consistently good notices, the band found it difficult to generate any forward momentum ;- Kevin’s short life was largely spent on the hoof and he led a temporal existence, moving onwards and sideways until, as was often the case, drugs just moved him out. And he alludes to this on the remarkable liner notes he wrote for ‘Good Things’, the posthumous Epic Soundtracks album released in 2005, eight years after Epic was found dead, alone, in his ground floor flat in West Hampstead, London.

Plaintively written, Kevin vividly paints a number of key scenes from an incredible few months in his long friendship with Epic and transports his reader and listener back into the belly of the small flat in which the pair of them recorded that record between November 21st and 27th, 1996. It was a record – like much else in their lives at the time – that they hadn’t planned. Indeed both men found themselves together in London by accident and only after a tour of Europe, on which Kevin was due to lead Epic’s backing band, had been cancelled at the last minute. Rather than put his plane ticket to waste, Kevin fetched up in West London with his then girlfriend, some primitive pieces of kit and not a whole lot else. He found Epic living from hand to mouth and struggling badly ;- it had been years since he’d released new material, his personal life had come asunder, he’d had difficulties gaining entry into the U.S. and his long-standing label had gone cold on him. And yet Epic’s love of music was undiminished ;- Kevin recalled that he would rather survive on cereal [‘his beloved Sugar Puffs’] if it meant he could afford to purchase records and CDs from London’s second hand stores. [One of the many photographs that adorn the inside of ‘Good Things’ captures Epic in a white towelling robe, vinyl in hand and posing, in his flat, in front of a vast library of elpees and compact discs].

And still, between them, they knocked out a series of rough demos of a host of new Epic material, using the most basic techniques to tape onto Kevin’s Tascam Porta Two four-track recorder that he ‘bought in the 1980’s for $150’. As Kevin writes ;- ‘Instruments included Epic’s W.H. Barnes upright piano, a Fender Twin amp and the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever played, my $75 Mitchel, a nameless organ, some half broken pieces of percussion, a digital delay pedal and a few guitars on loan from friends.

‘We had to constantly deal with the problem of low batteries that we couldn’t afford to replace and the blasts of train whistles that pierced through the garden window and into the floor. There was no way to punch in or overdub parts that didn’t feel like the musical equivalent to a game of Twister’.

And ‘Good Things’ bears all of those hallmarks. It’s far from Epic’s best record ;- it’s a series of brittle, lo-fi recordings, some of which are barely clinging to life. And yet, as tends to often be the case, some of it is truly enchanting. But Kevin wasn’t merely Epic’s co-writer and co-producer ;- over the course of the recording, and a subsequent two-handed tour of Europe, he’d become his primary carer too. Epic had few friends and no real supports to summon in London ;- he was, Kevin reckoned, in an awful state.

Once the recordings had been complete, and once Epic and Kevin – and Kevin’s girlfriend, Karen Kiska – had completed a short, acoustic and hastily-arranged series of live shows around Austria and Germany primarily, travelling light, cheaply and often simply booking dates as they went, the party went it’s separate ways.

‘Epic phoned the day after we arrived back in Chicago’, Kevin’s liner notes reveal. ‘He said some nice things about our friendship and then said that what would really make him happy at that moment would be for the three of us to go see a film’. Two weeks later, Epic Soundtracks was found dead in his flat. ‘It’s been said that a man can die if he simply loses the will to live’, Kevin writes. ‘I don’t care what anyone else says, I believe Epic died of a broken heart …’. He was 38 years old.

‘Good Things’ finally saw the light of day in 2005 and, featuring the songs recorded in Sumatra Road in West Hampstead years previously, mixed and finished by Nikki Sudden and Kevin’s evocative notes, is the final farewell from one of the most beguiling and genuinely fascinating British songwriters of the 1990s. It’s a record I go back to time and again because, often, the saddest things are also the most beautiful things. And, if you get the opportunity …

For more about Epic, Kevin and Nikki :-

Jane From Occupied Europe’ by Swell Maps [Rough Trade Records, 1980]

Sleeping Star’ by Epic Soundtracks [Rough Trade Records/Bar None, 1994]

Red Brocadeby Nikki Sudden, backed by The Chamber Strings [Chatterbox Records, 1999]

Gospel Morning’ by The Chamber Strings [Bobsleigh Records, 2000]

Good Things’ by Epic Soundtracks [DBK Works, 2006]

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14 comments

  1. Lovely piece, Colm. Epic’s debut solo album, Rise Above, is my favourite. I got it in a bargain bin in HMV in Sydney not too long after it came out in 1992. I couldn’t believe how God it was, seeing as I mostly bought it because I liked the Pet Sounds-ish cover and the list of who played on it.

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  2. Sometimes I wonder if things would have wound up differently if we would have taken the later flight. Spent one more night with Epic.
    He was so sad…

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  3. Loved that read Colm. Sleeping Star was my intro to Epic Soundtracks – loved it and still go back to it. While running gigs with Frontline in Cork in the mid-90s Tom Prendergast sent over a huge package of Bar/None releases. Ali O’Riada from Frontline is Peadar’s younger brother and Bar/None had released two fine albums by Peadar around 95-96. I still have all the treasures from that package, some of which included: two Juan Garcia Esquivel compilation albums (these opened up a whole world for me), two Epic Soundtracks CDs, Poi Dog Pondering’s Pomegranete, and Katy McCarty’s Dead Dog’s Eyeball and Sorry Entertainer CDs (my first introduction to the wonders of Daniel Johnston). A fantastic label.

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  4. Beautiful piece. I only intermittently turned on to what Epic and Nikki did after the Swell Maps but it always seemed interesting. I still dig out the Swell Maps albums and singles every now and again and still get a lot out of them. Read About Seymour, Let’s Build a Car; Midget Submarines… Epic’s stint with Rowland S Howard could also easily be stitched into this story. Another lost minstrel who left too soon.

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  5. Really enjoyed that Colm. My first intro to Epic Soundtracks was Sleeping Star – I still pull it out and play it, a great record. When I worked with Frontline running gigs in the mid-90s Tom Prendergast send over a huge batch of CDs via Peadar O’Riada. Bar/None had released two fine albums by Peadar in 94-95. This package of CDs was amazing: Poi Dog Pondering’s Pomegranate, two Juan Garcia Esquivel comps (opened up a new world for me), Kathy McCarty’s Dead Dog’s Eyeball and Sorry Entertainer albums (my first time hearing songs of Daniel Jonston), Epic Soundtracks and more. A great label.

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  6. It’s May 2016 and somehow the news of Kevin’s passing eluded me until now. I met him many years ago at an L.A. club where I bought a poster of the “Gospel Morning” cover. He signed it for me and it still resides on a wall in my house all these years later.

    I was also acquainted with Nikki Sudden around that time and would visit with him sometimes when he came to town. Never got to meet or see Epic as I don’t think he was ever allowed in the US due to our stupid drug laws. I would have never believed Kusworth would be the last man standing out of all these guys.

    RIP to all three. Your music will make sure you live on forever.

    – Mike Villano

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  7. I had no earthly idea who Kevin Junior was until I read news of his passing via a few mutual friends who posted his obit on Facebook January 18. I after reading a bit, I thought, “Who the fuck IS this guy? Never heard of him. Looks interesting, though…” Little did I know that I was about to embark on a journey down an incredible rabbit hole involving Epic, Nikki and Kevin. Months later it’s pretty clear I’ve decided to stick around this wonderfully dark hole for a bit–set up some furniture, got a used fridge to keep the beer cold, etc.

    The first order of business once I began my spelunking expedition was to track down Kevin’s music. Boy did that prove challenging! Since everything is out of print, I stood zero chance of finding anything in local music shops. And nothing at all available to download via iTunes, Amazon or Spotify. A few things on YouTube, but I hate listening to music on my laptop. There’s quite a bit on Soundcloud; but again, we’re talking streaming. (I at least want something I can burn to disc and listen to in my car!) I was, however, able to download Epic’s Wild Smile compilation from iTunes, and that gave me PLENTY to chew on while I waited for Kevin’s stuff to arrive from various eBay merchants via US mail.

    And once I got into all this it’s hard to describe my reaction, other than OH MY GOD. How the fuck did all this music escape me for all these years? I thought I was pretty good about keeping up with this stuff. It’s all so perfectly in my wheelhouse! I did know who Nikki Sudden was back in the day, and had at least heard of Epic Soundtracks. (How do you forget a name like that?) All I can figure, looking back at that time during Chamber Strings’ run in the late ’90s and early ’00s, is that the Alt Country/Bloodshot Records scene in Chicago was SO dominant and pervasive that anyone trying to do anything else at that time, in that town, was shit out of luck. That’s how I see it, anyway. But I was even a really big fan of Kevin’s Chicago friends The Webb Brothers. Yet somehow still, I totally missed out.

    In the last six months or so I have run into a very small handful of music friends who knew about these artists, and even one very good friend who was fairly well-acquainted with Kevin personally during his tragic Los Angeles phase. This friend had gotten himself cleaned up a few years before, and tried as best he could to help Kevin out, but clearly it was not to be. In the end people have to want to help themselves or it never works.

    Anyway, thanks for the read.

    –Blake

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  8. Hi Blake. Thanks ever so much for getting in touch. And fair play to you on managing to locate some of that catalogue. I hope our piece here helps to join the dots a little. Its not definitive – far from it – but we always intended this as an introduction for those who, like yourself, arrived to Kevin’s music via a more scenic route. All the best, and thanks again. Colm

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