Indie pop rock team KATO have clocked up a wealth of experience. Their lead singer Keith Ayling was quizzed by Lukas Willcocks.
I caught up with Keith Ayling, frontman of Kato, before the band's soundcheck for a gig in Nottingham. For a band who've never secured the illusive record company contract, they've managed to turn in some exceptionally fine recordings down the years, while their festival performances (including their earlier incarnation as K) have made the indie pop rockers firm favourites of festivals like Greenbelt. In fact it was last year's Greenbelt which saw the launch of 'Home Movie', a surprising move into an acoustic-based sound. I began by asking Keith how the album came about.
"Last year we played Greenbelt, Freakstock in Germany, Switzerland and even the Shetland Isles - absolutely freezing place - beautiful in a mountainous, very barren sort of way. As well as the main gigs we did acoustic sets at all those places, and people just started asking us to release stuff acoustically - and that's how the album developed.
"We met Tony Silcock, the engineer at Redland Studios in Bristol. We spent a couple of weeks there and then moved to Dan Bowater's db Studios in Lincoln to finish it off. It lasted about six months in all because we had so many problems at almost every stage. Nearly every month we were deciding whether to abandon it or not - we always persevered, but it's been the longest project we've ever undertaken! Now, after its release, we are already getting feedback saying it's the best thing we've ever done - so we are very pleased.
"It's pretty much all acoustic guitars but Tony's put some ambient
beats in there - on three tracks. We put a bit of a jazz thing on one
of them - so it's not what you'd expect from us. If you like Iain
Archer and Sixpence, I think you'll love it! Hopefully it'll excite
and challenge a lot of people who are new to the band. There's a
mixture of new songs, previously recorded tracks and remixes, but they
all sound a little different. Some of the earlier songs sound really
effective with the acoustic treatment."
I asked Keith for a potted history of the band. "We formed in 1996. There are four of us: me, Mick on guitar, Rick on bass, and Mike on the drums. Mike used to play with Eden Burning. We're originally from Blackpool (apart from Mike) but now we're spread all over - London, Birmingham, Leeds. It's not a real problem in terms of gigs 'cause we all just travel to wherever the gig is. Rick, Mick and I met in school. We formed a band just after that called K which played Greenbelt main stage five times. That came to a natural end in 1995, after which I re-examined where I wanted my career to go, and the kind of songs I wanted to write. So now it's a new style and aim. I've got a lot of ideas and dreams but, at the end of the day, God may take us down the grocery stall route instead of signing to Sainsburys. In some ways you can be more effective that way. I've always believed that God is guiding the band, and I still believe that he has promised us something - and we're still searching for whatever that is. Until that arrives we need to be happy working away - and that's another reason for the acoustic album. It's not a new direction, just a widening of our road. The more you push the doors - the more you question your direction. When the music business starts to show interest as they are doing now, it makes you question your priorities and allows God to confirm his will for your life. That's where we are right now - Where does God want us to go now?
Kato have an interesting take on the endless CCM vs Mainstream Debate. "We've never said we are a Christian band nor have we said we are a mainstream band, not because we don't want to make our minds up, it's more because we are Christians who are also musicians. The label thing doesn't sit comfortably with us - 'Have you written a Christian song?'/'Do you play 'Christian' music?'. I think I'm from the Steve Shaw (No Splits) and Laurie Mellor (Desert Song) school of thought. Our job is to be real people in the real world. The best way I can put it is to be someone like Steve Chalke who is a Christian and yet he's working for something like GMTV but without compromising. Just being there is a powerful witness. He doesn't get enough credit. People are too quick to criticise Christians in the mainstream media."
But, I argued, there is a difference between a musician and someone who's doing a job in, say, the service industry -because the former have access to a microphone. What sort of message are Kato putting across? "We're putting over a Christian influenced message, but it's a positive, commercial message too. At the end of the day, I feel my job is to write quality songs. I'm not an evangelist or a worship leader - my aim is to write a good song and to do that the best way I can. That's the bottom line for us - though we've been criticised for it in the past."
I asked Keith to tell me about his music. "I can only relate the reaction that people have told us. This may sound completely obnoxious but it's romantic, indie tinged pop - very deep, so I'm told! Powerful and dramatic! Pop is so broad and indie as a phrase is dying so we're pushing towards the alternative pop side!"
How do the band survive spiritually when they're on the road? "Because we all live in different towns, to some extent we are dependent on each other. It can be hard - particularly for the others who've moved around and found it hard to settle in new places. But when you do a lot of Saturday nights - it's harder to get to Sunday services - so we normally go to things in the week. I have a few friends that help shepherd me."
As I left the band for their soundcheck I ported with a question about the band's name. Presumably they are all Inspector Clouseau fans. "After K, we kept the sound and added some letters. Kato was the crazy servant who ran around Peter Sellers' flat, and helped him practice his karate. It suited our collective personality! Well-done KATO! That was a very good workout today. Every day you're getting better.'The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.