Chattanooga, Tennessee, June 2006: Gatsby's American Dream pull their van into a gas station off Interstate 75. Their roadie, Kay Kay Dargerson, gets out to fill up the tank. He picks up the nozzle, and a mosquito lands on his sweaty outstretched forearm. It's 103 degrees, and Kay Kay is about to have heat stroke. He pumps the gas and studies the mosquito as it sucks his blood. He lets it drink until it's full. Dizziness sets in. Seeing the mosquito with his own blood inside fly off into the sky mesmerizes him. It's the last thing he sees before the heat overtakes him and he falls to the asphalt.
When Kay Kay comes to, Kirk Huffman and Kyle O'Quin from Gatsby's have poured water over his head and are slapping him in the face. They are wearing only their underwear. Groggy, Kay Kay asks, "Why are you in your underwear?" O'Quin (still slapping him) responds, "Kirk was showing me a new song in the trailer; it's too hot in there for clothes." They place a bag of ice on the back of Kay Kay's neck, he's revived, and a new band is born. Back in Gatsby's van, Huffman stares out the window and snaps out of a daze. They hadn't stopped for gas, and they didn't even have a roadie. There was a mosquito bite on his arm, though.
"We wanted something different to be the centerpiece of the band, so we came up with this fictional character, Kay Kay," says lead vocalist and guitarist Huffman. "I could sing about falling in love, being on the road in this band, playing shows, being stuck in a van for five years on this big label (Fearless), and how now I'm serving you hash browns at Glo's. But Kyle and I just had this idea for something bigger."
For the rest of Gatsby's tour—in the trailer, in hotel rooms, and at sound checks—Huffman and O'Quin poured out ideas and came up with seeds of songs. Back home, those seeds sprouted into Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground—a big, weird, happy family that has come together to flesh out a symphony of psychedelic pop and rock songs.
"We wanted to put on a show that would transport people and be more of a production," says Huffman.
A production it is. When Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground take the stage, they can be up to 17 people strong. Huffman's royal falsetto is surrounded by a swerving orchestra of friends, family, lovers, and neighbors. They all play in each other's bands and mix each other's projects and live in each other's houses. Tennis Pro and Nada Surf cellist Phil Peterson conducts the strings. His sister, violinist Victoria, is married to horn player Robert Parker. "Big" Thomas Hunter from Forgive Durden, who toured with Gatsby, is on guitar. Huffman's wife, Racheal, sings backup, and the Lashes' Nate Mooter plays bass. Captaining the dirigible on the drums is the esteemed Garrett Lunceford, also seen in the Catch and the Divorce (RIP). Pretty Parlor's Anna Lange is the den mother, providing the threads, and running the sound is Nirvana engineer Tom Pfaeffle. The components and players tilt, spill, laugh, and create.
"I feel really lucky to be in Seattle," continues Huffman. "This record couldn't have happened anywhere else. I'm thankful for all these people pulling together and the way things have fallen into place."
On February 18, the band celebrate their self-titled, self-released, full-length debut, a four-sided vinyl affair based on the pop cantata (the album has been previously available as a digital download). The album encapsulates a swirling mass of this city's musical lives and inner lives. Sgt. Pepper's progressions fade into dub refrains. Ragtime keys, horns, and strings swell with drums and march back out with momentum and lyrical revelation.
Side A is uplifting and bolstered, beginning with the bright hooks of "Hey Momma." Side B gets experimental—it's still sunny, but "Bowie the Desert Pea" finds Kay Kay daydreaming, his imagining eye turned to the desert. On the instrumental track "Cloud Country," O'Quin lays lazy, slurring Marley keys into horn lines and acoustic guitar. Side C weaves through long, epic transitions. The compositions are complex and playfully dark.
Familiar harmonies and progressions weave in and out of the entire record; parts of songs reappear. It's a unified piece of music, building and splintering off into separate related sections. Lyrics flow in and out. It's all intertwined. The last song, "All Alone," goes from Tim Burton sing-along stomp into a Revolver guitar dervish, ending with a melody from the album's first song, "Hey Momma," and Huffman simply singing the word "love."
The fourth side, available only on the vinyl version, is a manic 12-minute remix of the entire record. Bits of words and lyrics distantly float by. Instruments and parts of songs you didn't hear before become forefront and magnified. Sounds are played backward. Kay Kay is having a flashback: He's at a childhood playground where he fell off the merry-go-round and cracked his skull. The dizziness overtook him. Here in the memory, the scene is reversed like the sounds on the record. Kay Kay falls back onto the merry-go-round, and the accident never happens. There's no ambulance to the hospital or trip on the gurney into the emergency room. No nurse puts him under anesthesia and tells him it will be like a dream.