Though drummer/vocalist Rachel Carns and guitarist/vocalist Tae Won Yu only released one full-length (1994’s Alien i.D.) and one 7-inch single for the indie label, they were an ideal fit: a tumble-down, minimalist duo who licked at the flames of New York City’s noise-rock and psych scenes and warmed themselves on the glow of the primitive twee pop coming from the UK.
Like their brethren in the state capital, they wrote songs that were starry-eyed and turbulent that embraced and emphasized their musical limitations. Yu played with a slashing simplicity, cut through with feedback from his inexpensive amp. Carns, who had never drummed before, learned on the go with a cobbled-together stand-up kit (à la Moe Tucker), which she assaulted with a delighted fury.
But what you’ll hear if you take a spin through This Being the Ballad of Kicking Giant, Halo, a compilation gathering tracks from 1989 to 1993 that will see a vinyl release on November 17 by Drawing Room Records, they stood well apart from the rest of the twee punk scene into which they carpetbagged their way. Among the hip-swinging pop tunes are formless sonic experiments in ambient guitar noise and atmospherics.
And while they enjoyed K Records’ cutesy, childlike aesthetic and the blushing romantic sentiments of bands like Beat Happening and Courtney Love, Kicking Giant’s songs were unapologetically sensual and forward. When they sing about riding a rocket to the moon on “Rocket,” they’re not talking about intergalactic travel.
“It’s one of those things that just comes out of us,” Carns says, speaking from New York a couple of days after the band played a reunion show at the 25th-anniversary party for Chickfactor magazine. “It just has to do with who we were and who we are. There’s a certain darkness and complexity to the lyrics. I always felt a little like we were a little misfitten [sic] on K Records and being categorized with those bands. We never really fit into any particular place. We were versatile in that way.”
The band got their start when the pair befriended each other as arts students at Cooper Union in the East Village, Yu recognizing a kindred spirit when he spotted Carns wearing an Einstürzende Neubauten T-shirt. In pure DIY fashion, they threw themselves into the concept of being a band, even though Carns had never drummed before (her first kit consisted of a few cardboard boxes). As they gained equipment and strength as songwriters, they started playing more shows around the East Coast and self-releasing cassettes of their jagged, joyous compositions. They were finally introduced to a larger audience via a small feature in that ’90s bible of cool, Sassy magazine.
“That was really such a fortunate confluence of people and events at that time,” Yu remembers. “Sassy was this very public, nationally-available codex of people doing interesting things. It was through them that I connected with Allison Wolfe [singer for agit-pop trio Bratmobile] and the DC punks. It was spreading the seeds and making available things happening on a regional local scale to the world at large.”
Their second boost was an invite from Calvin Johnson to perform at the inaugural International Pop Underground Convention, which took over downtown Olympia for one week in 1991. Mapping a small tour around it and traveling on Amtrak, the pair spent the better part of a month there and fell quickly in love with the city and community.
“There was such a momentum of female energy and youth energy that was a relevant as anything happening in London and New York, if not more so,” says Yu. “They were creating a vibrant scene that challenged and supported each other. I feel so lucky to have been invited into it.”
The pair moved to Olympia soon after graduating from college. Yu became the in-house designer for K Records, setting the visual tone for the label’s releases by mixing together typefaces and paper cut art. And Kicking Giant would create their finest statement in Alien i.D., a free-flowing album that saw the duo’s songwriting and musicianship take huge leaps ahead (including their catchiest and lovestruck tune, “Lucky”) and threw in a bit of spoken word from poet Sue P. Fox, for good measure. At the same time, the friendship at the center of the band started to fray.
“I felt frustrated and depressed and having problems with substances,” Yu admits. “When you’re young and dealing with these things, you look for something outside yourself to blame. So, I blamed the band and Rachel. We actually didn’t speak for a really long time.”
He stuck around Olympia for a bit, taking on more design projects before moving back to New York where he’s been paying the bills doing magazine work and doing passion projects like a recently published pop-up book that helps teach rudimentary sign language to babies. Carns stayed in the Northwest, continuing to play music with the snarling duo the Need and her current gigs playing synths in the bands Nudity and госкино.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that the two finally reconnected, inspired by offers to play a few reunion dates on the West Coast. As tends to happen these days, those performances begat more shows and the eventual issue of the new double LP. More importantly to Carns and Yu, it has helped tighten their unique bond.
“She’s my best friend,” Yu says. “I’m so much more me when I’m with her. Musically, there’s no one else I want to play with. I’m so lucky to have had this relationship in the ’90s and to have it again now.”