Drawing on Intensity – Kali Fontecchio, Musician

Kali Fontecchio is hard to pin down. This is partly because she’s a successful animator, partly because she’s a bold rocker, Kali Kazoo, and for all this work she brings an intensity that she prides herself on being the raison d’etre for any and all art she sends out to the world. When she says the word “intensity” in our conversation, what sparks in her eyes and over her face is no mere smile: it’s a realization and actualization of self. Kali Fontecchio is intense, and it’s incredible.

Check out her music including her recently released third album, Bleed Darker & Deeper Than the Seas of Hell on Bandcamp and check out her original illustration work at her Etsy shop. From existential quagmires, to artistic burnout and even video game music, she started our conversation discussing a new pursuit on her plate:

Photo Credit: Anthony Mehlhaff

KF: I love designing living spaces. I did it for myself in a specific way, then I did it for my friend. Now I’m going to do it for a wage and I’m really into it! This might be a side job that turns into my full time job.

OI: A side job to a side job to a regular job. You’re a triple threat from what I’ve seen.
KF: [Laughs] I like that, a threat. I’m very threatening. It’s always been something I’m into, I think because my mom was into it, and growing up poor how do you reinvent your living space? Rearrange everything, give it a new coat of paint. That’s what I’m really into at the moment. 

OI: That’s why I got into writing: pen and paper is pretty cheap.
KF: Exactly. My parents were so happy when they figured it out. I’d gotten kicked out of everything: I’d gotten kicked out of ballet, out of tap class, out of cooking class. They held me back from kindergarten one year because I got pulled out of preschool for being tied up by the people that were running it because I was so chaotic.
When my mom found out they had tied me up because I wouldn’t sleep at nap time she took me out of preschool, then I was behind on kindergarten and hadn’t been socializing as much, so that’s why she tried all these different classes. None of them worked until they figured out I did well in drawing class, and I’d be quiet and just draw. The teacher said, ‘she’s actually very good,’ and my mom was like, ‘nice.’

OI: Was there ever any lingering desire to go back and try those other activities?
KF: Oh definitely not. I do like that the reason I got kicked out was for being distracting and telling too many jokes and stuff.

OI: Seems like it comes in handy.
KF: I’ve always been a distraction to others. 

OI: I want to get to the question from my prior interviewee, Emma Buntrock-Muller early with you: If you were to die tomorrow, what would you create today and what message would you want to leave to the world with what you create? How would you do that?
KF: It would be music. That’s my passion project. I would quickly record an EP and if I had access to everything? I’d say, ‘let’s get David Byrne in here, let’s Björk in here.’ If I knew I was about to die, death would be the theme.
When we were looking for producers for the third album there was one producer we talked to who produces Animal Collective. He asked me what my songs are about and I realized no one’s ever asked me that. So when I sat down and wrote what each song was, he was like wow, all of your songs are about death or ‘what’s the point?’ in existential ways.

OI: Universal topics. Everybody dies.
KF: [Laughs] I didn’t realize that until someone pointed it out. 

OI: Tell me about the band you’re currently working with.
KF: The short gist is I was solo, I had kind of given up music because my guitar had been stolen when I was a teenager- my electric guitar, so I still had an acoustic. I got more into doing acoustic stuff and I started getting more into animation. I got mixed up with this prolific animator- people that know who I am probably know who it is- but he discouraged me from music because he made me feel I wasn’t very good at it, but he liked it when I would do country covers so I got more into that. There was this girl that I met through him who also liked doing country covers so we would do covers together and that’s the first time I used the name, Kali Kazoo- it was Kot’n Katie and Kali Kazoo and we recorded an impromptu cover album.
I had basically given up having actual bands, I just got discouraged after my guitar got stolen and I had a band that was going to premier at The Smell. I was in a band with a drummer when I was a teenager and he disappeared. I found out he checked himself into rehab and I didn’t even know he was a drug addict. I got really discouraged because I’d had a band all throughout high school and that was what I wanted more than anything, but I focused more on animation, got really good at animation, and because of the person I was working with got a bunch of connections and just focused on that.
Then I met these two people, Myke Chilian and Tommy Meehan who have a band called The Manx. Back then it was folk-punk, now it’s more weirdo metal music. When I met them they were working on their music and I showed them the stuff I used to record and they asked, ‘where’s your new stuff? What have you been doing?’ I was just like, ‘I stopped.’ but they said ‘we’ll help you, you’ve just gotta get back into it.”
I got inspired by them to just do it. I’d been in this dark void with this dark person that discouraged me from being creative. Tommy produced my first album. We recorded it in his apartment in Silverlake. I’d open for their band and met all sorts of cool people.
My first show back in action was playing for a bunch of teenage boys at a skate park late at night because it was going to be a house show and then it fell apart. It was just teenagers and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so much older than a teenager.’
Since then I’ve been slowly crawling back from that. I met this drummer who came to see The Manx, and he saw me play so I told him I’ve been wanting to play with a drummer. He thought that would be cool, so I played with him and Max Winston, who’s a prolific stop-motion animator, very talented. Then I met a bassist, Anthony Vanchure. Then Max left and I got a new drummer, Evan Sinclair, and lead guitarist Mike Adams. Now this is like an actual band but I still play solo on occasion.

OI: What got you back on the horse after your guitar was stolen?
KF: This is a crazy story about my guitar. When I was born my dad’s friend had this Les Paul he didn’t want anymore, a 1973 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst, so my dad bought that guitar the day I was born.

Photo Credit: Anthony Mehlhaff

OI: Your birth guitar.
KF: Even sadder that I lost it. Cut to years later, it was my first electric guitar I used in my band in high school. When I was eighteen I bought a giant half stack, at the time I was living with my parents in Manhattan Beach but my ex-boyfriend in high school had found his grandpa’s Les Paul but it was all gutted, just the body. He said if I wanted I could take it, buy all the stuff and figure out how to make it into a real guitar again. He brought it over to my house, I had the Les Paul case, brought it up to my apartment. That’s important because I did not know there was a lady in the car parked next to the apartment had broken into our neighbor’s car, staking out people all day.
After she saw I had a guitar, she waited until night to break into the apartment. This is the sad part: I forgot to lock the door. She went into my room and the guitar case was next to my actual Les Paul, so she took that one, left the empty Les Paul, took off her clothing, put on my clothing, took jewelry and shit, put on my converse, and it woke up my mom and dad at three or four in the morning. My dad realized it wasn’t me, and my mom called me at the same time, ‘did you just come in and leave with your guitar?’ I was like, ‘no?’
My dad started chasing her down the stairs but he didn’t have any pants on. So he was like ‘wait a second, I don’t have any pants on,’ but that was his big mistake, he should’ve just went after her! She did like a hand off, gave the guitar to someone to pay off something so it was gone. The police did find her and arrest her, but the guitar was long gone. I got back there and was looking through the whole neighborhood by the beach because as she was running around she kept shedding things from my room like a jacket or a shoe or a bracelet so I was hoping the guitar would be somewhere.
It was funny though: as was the style I had these stupid punk converse where I’d taken out the laces and replaced them with safety pins. So that’s why she abandoned them, because when she was running the pins opened up and were stabbing her feet. They were all bloody and I was like, ‘ugh.’ I had just bought the half stack, and I just didn’t have the money to get a new guitar.

OI: Any solo tracks coming out in the future?
KF: Probably, it depends, but right now I’m very into the band. The new album, that’s the one I’m most proud of because we recorded it in a studio with a prolific producer, Toshi Kasai who produces and works with The Melvins and a lot of metal bands. That’s always what I heard in my head, but I like doing solo stuff. It has been annoying sometimes where I know people mean this as a compliment and I get this from friends a lot where they say, ‘there’s something about your energy when you’re live by yourself,’ that they like better. Maybe because it’s less common than seeing a band.

Photo Credit: Anthony Mehlhaff

OI: I’ve always championed the groups that have solid studio work, but bring a next level energy to their live shows, The Decemberists are my favorite example of that. 
KF: The best band that sounds crazy amazing live- and I love the album too- I got to see Neutral Milk Hotel perform when they got back together. So intense and amazing. I saw Neutral Milk Hotel at the Hollywood Bowl and I brought someone who didn’t even know about them but by the end of the night he was a fan.
They were so impressive live, beyond amazing. Same with Devo, even as old guys, they’re just a powerhouse of energy and intensity. I like anyone who’s intense, that’s what I’m attracted to musically and well, with everything [laughs].

OI: It sounds like your music comes from a place of intensity. It’s not ‘performance,’ it’s release of a real and true energy you have. Tying back to the energy that made you a distraction in those other classes, here it is being directed into the music you’re producing.
KF: Totally. It’s a total release [laughter]. Big time. I still draw a lot, but I think I’ve burnt myself out at the moment. Last year and the year before I was working from home a lot and I did a drawing every day in addition to work. Right now I’ve been taking a break from that because I think I overdid it. That and I had a show in development, that really burnt me out.
I just realized I needed to take some me time, do some other things. Also I’m fulfilling kickstarter stuff still.

OI: That leads me to ask how the outlets differ for you in terms of expression between your animation and your music if your music is a release of energy and intensity?
KF: So are my illustrations. They’re expressions of my pent up rage or joy or any strong feeling. Basically, I approach everything exactly the same. Everything is intensity funneled into an outlet. It has to come out, it just can’t be in me. All my art is existential, one hundred percent.

OI: I sympathize with burnout and have my own experience with it. 
KF: Burnout is real man. I was talking to Nigel Walsh about this, I feel like the way our world and society is built right now we’re all in a high anxiety state of mind at all times doing and thinking about too many things at once. Not necessarily as hard as things way back when- I’m sure our parents and grandparents dealt with much more trying things, but I feel like we’re expected to do and juggle a lot more.

OI: Technology and connectivity comes with higher expectations.
KF: Right, your attention is pulled in a million directions and you have to juggle everything simultaneously. It’s weird because we’re the generation that saw both- the end of one and the beginning of another, which is the weirdest generation to be in. I equate it being in the early twentieth century: having a horse and buggy then all of a sudden driving in a car and having electric lights.

OI: We push ourselves to work faster and produce more, so burnout happens. That’s why I busy myself with a variety of things.
KF: Like Pokemon [laughter].

OI: I still have those constipated Pikachu drawings.
KF: Poor Pikachu.

OI: Thank you for honoring that impromptu request from my podcast.
KF: I’m used to much worse. The following day I did a caricature thing at a metal show. That was fun and interesting. Drawing different random metal-heads. It is fun. I hadn’t done it in a while. I got kind of timid being mean, so I was more nice. I could never be mean to women, because I feel like I sympathize with the overanalyzing of how you look. Men? I don’t care as much.

OI: Nor should you. We’ve had it easy for a while.
KF: Mm-hmm. I’m friends with the guys who run Everything is Terrible, but there’s this guy under them who was at the show who said ‘you should do caricatures for the storefront opening.’ I said yeah, I’m down. It’s weird because that was just a one off thing but now I’m doing it again. I hadn’t done it in forever. The last time I’d done caricatures was a year ago and that was also the first time in forever.
I had to do it live at Comic Con for a panel on camera. It was very nerve wracking. I was also doing it with much more talented artists than me, all these old school Disney guys, one of whom was the Director of Little Mermaid and co-directed Aladdin. He did a bunch of them but he also did Moana more recently before he retired.
I was like, ‘why am I up here?’ I was so nervous that I just kept drinking rum and coke. Not only was it an audience of 500 people, you had to draw in front of them and not fuck up. Usually when you’re drawing a caricature they can’t see you drawing, so doing it live on camera and having to talk about why you’re doing what you’re doing hurt my brain.

OI: Do you think that contributed to the animation burnout you’re describing?
KF: Last year was an intense year in general. I feel like I have a few reasons for having burnout, top is my mom died.

OI: I’m so sorry.
KF: It’s cool, but ever since then it’s been a lackluster sort of, I just wanna go home and play video games. 

OI: What’re you playing lately?
KF: I have a Switch, I was just playing the HD remake of Final Fantasy X, but I lost 3 hours of work because I died right before a save spot, so I went back to Stardew Valley

OI: I recently replayed Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
KF: Replayed it? I’m still playing my one file on that. It’s got maybe 500 plus hours. Right now I’m working on getting every single Korok seed even though it doesn’t matter. I’ve already basically gotten everything in the game. I’m a perfectionist. I have everything and I do mean everything except the Korok seeds. I have about 600 out of 900.
I have every shrine. You know what the trick is? Music. There’s different musical cues for when you get close to a shrine. There’s the hidden shrine theme song, the beachside shrine theme song, there’s a snow covered shrine theme song, the hills. When the music comes up out of nowhere, that means you’re close to it. That’s how you can find every shrine, there’s a musical shift and there are variations for each area you’re in.

OI: Of course a musician would notice that. 
KF: I’m surprised everyone I’ve told has been like ‘what?’ when I tell them that. One of my biggest musical influences is a video game: Chrono Cross, the sequel to Chrono Trigger. A lot of people don’t like it but I do because I played it first. That’s all the chords I know, these weird jazzy chords so that’s what expanded my whole guitar knowledge.
My dad taught me how to play but he only taught me the basic chords, but when I started learning video game music it was a lot more sophisticated. I am very proud that I got the high school band to play the theme song to Chrono Trigger. My boyfriend at the time transposed it all because we didn’t have the right instruments. I was so happy.

OI: First time I’ve heard the Zelda music tip. I only know about the sensor.
KF: Well, now you know. I even have all the castle weapons and the old school shield. I’ve always liked games where I can explore, do puzzles, and play at my leisure. 

OI: Given the Zelda musical tip, have you scored or considered doing any scoring for shows or games?
KF: I did do one song that was used for a horror short, my friend directed it. Tommy, who recorded my first album, he’s a composer and does that full time. He did it for that show Uncle Grandpa and now he’s doing it for a new Cartoon Network show. He took my song and reimagined it to sound like a 1960’s vintage Roy Orbison song, which was amazing because it sounded nothing like that originally.
It’s definitely an interesting world, but I don’t feel like I’m that musically inclined. I never learned technical stuff. I only ever could read drum music because I played drums in high school, I was in concert band, marching band, jazz band. I only ever learned that, and I can read guitar tab, but I can’t read notes. Growing up my music sounded a lot like video game music. Video game music mixed with all the old stuff that I listened to that my parents got me into.
The only time I ever officially did that other than the horror short I mentioned, I wrote a theme song for the show I developed at Nickelodeon, but the show died. That was really fun, it was a whole situation.

Photo Credit: Dillon Vaughn

OI: So how about upcoming music production?
KF: I have a show on July 1st at Zebulon, so I’ve been rehearsing for that. Overall I want to tour more, and keep recording albums and get better. I don’t have any sort of delusions of grandeur, it just makes me happy doing it. I want to keep doing it and keep getting better.

OI: I don’t think you need a delusion, I think it’s enough if other people are enjoying it.
KF: Yeah, and I lucked out because I already had a mini audience from having animation fans. That’s good enough for me.

OI: That’s where being a triple threat comes in handy.
KF: Oh yeah. I wouldn’t have been able to do the Kickstarter successfully for my album if I didn’t have an audience. We signed up to do this show at the Viper Room on July 30th, should be interesting.

OI: Do you have a favorite venue you’ve played?
KF: The Hi-Hat. The sound guy there is super sweet and awesome, and the sound is good, it’s a big venue, it has a good vibe. I actually went there before that whole area of Highland Park was gentrified and it was a Mexican pool bar. They have a big standing room space, and there’s a restaurant in the front that faces outward.
It’s big and I know some of the people there and it’s friendly. That’s the thing, having connections to different places is the hardest thing. I’ve seen a lot of good shows at The Hi-Hat as well, but I’ve enjoyed playing there because I can actually hear myself. Having a good sound guy and a good sound system, that’s everything.

OI: Closing question: what should I ask my next interviewee?
KF: How much money for you to sell out your art form? What is your price to sell yourself as a brand and your soul?

Kali Fontecchio will be performing at Zebulon in LA on July 1st and the Viper Room on July 30th. You can listen to and download her albums on Bandcamp and follow her on Twitter – @kalikazoo, and on Instagram – @kalikazooband for music updates, and @kalikazoo for artwork.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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