Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney
James Duft is driving around Lawrence, Kan., Friday morning, running some errands at the ass-crack of dawn, a time when a "hot" sign in front of the cinnamon crunch bagels at Panera Bread is redundancy, as if one were calling a kettle black, as the saying goes. He was up when it was time to make the doughnuts and read the morning newspaper. The lead singer for Conner had a mid-day voice on him and there was some get-up in his tone. "Can I get back to you in an hour? I have to pick up some drywall stuff," he said, politely relieving himself of a phone call. He called back in an hour and before long he saw his crew arrive and begin hauling off the heavy construction materials that he'd just purchased and he politely cuts things short again. Such is the moonlighting for the man and his band, a four-piece that seems to be transcribing the private conversations of bar shadows and the people behind them with its danceable exhilaration, its smoky grooves and scratchy tempest that sounds like the things hidden inside old LP covers, worn almost bare from use and the things that all those sexy New Yorkers and Las Vegasites have been thumping their trendy soles to. There's the new and the old spread all over the band's second full-length record, but first official release "Hello Graphic Missile," eagerly anticipated in Europe next week, where the band's already attracting some ballyhoo through the grapevine. Similar to what happened to The Killers and Louis XIV two years ago, Conner is causing a minor sensation in the UK and Germany before anyone in the republic back home even cares.
"Everything's going well. We're just waiting for things," said Duft of the prospect of his hype-worthy band, which opened a string of five shows for The Killers just before Lollapalooza in the summer of 2005. "I guess it really hasn't sunk in yet. I hear what you're asking, but it's kind of hard to gauge something like that because we haven't really done anything over there yet. It's weird doing interviews with European magazines because you can't understand any of them. I felt bad the other day. I did an interview for a German magazine and I couldn't understand anything he was asking. I was like, '...I'm sorry. I don't know what you just said. I'll just talk for a little while.'"
He's been putting in the long hours to stockpile the Benjamins for an October tour of the U.S. that was going to be a bill with either Ratatat or Hot Chip before it fell through and a November tour of Europe, which should be a nest of hot and bothered-ness by the time Duft, bassist Phil Bonahoon, drummer Bryce Boyle and elder statesman/Iggy Pop look-a-like/guitarist Tom Wagner show up with their percolating carry-on luggage.
"I'm kind of a jack of all trades. In my freshman and sophomore years at college, I got a job with a contractor. I did some drywalling and some electrical work. It was a job where I could work as I felt like working," he said. "I've been working from seven in the morning to seven at night lately. I'm also moving a museum. Last Friday, I did that all day, went to my house just to shower went to the Granada, did the Sparta show (for a concert promotion company he also works for), got home at like four in the morning and then got up and did it all over again. I'm kind of tired lately."
In his late teens, Duft lived in San Francisco and worked as a lowly intern for Alternative Tentacles Records and Fat Wreck Chords before he moved to Lawrence and screwed around for a while, meeting the other members of the band individually four years ago. He and Bonahoon were friends since high school, but the two met Boyle in a bar (of all places) and Wagner is a local gear junkie/gear doctor who owned the recording studio where they recorded "The White Cube" in late 2003. The material on "Hello Graphic Missile" seems to run headlong into an assumption that inspiration was found at the bottom of a drink or simply acted concurrently with various last calls and the melodramatic aftermath of a long night on the town. There's an aloof quality to the liveliness in what Duft sings about women and the other obsessions in life. Though born and bred in the Midwest, just as Robert Pollard's birth certificate claims Dayton, Ohio, Duft sings with an accent that would place him, strangely enough, as a next-door-neighbor to Keith Richards or Noel Gallagher.
"We get that a lot," Duft said of assumption that the four are Brits. "If we've talked to people before the show, they know we're not, but there was one band we played with recently that came up to us after we played to talk and when we all responded, all of them just looked at each other. They thought we were from England. They were confused. It's so bizarre to assume that a band's from anywhere based on how they sound. Unintentionally, I sort of sing with an accent. I've tried to sing without the accent and I can't do it. Really, I blame it on Guided By Voices. I've always wanted to sing like him. I know that's not cool to say, but it's true. No one ever thinks we're from Kansas."
The Daytrotter interview:
*How was Jeff Stoltz (one half of Drakkar Sauna) as a co-worker?*
James Duft: Jeff is a great man and I'm a big fan of him and his music.. I can't put it much better than that.
*What did you do at Fat Wreck Chords and Alternative Tentacles when you worked there?*
JD: I was an intern -- mail room, nothing to write home about. I ran into Jello (Biafra of The Dead Kennedys and Alternative Tentacles founder) at one of our SXSW shows. He had no idea who I was if that gives you an idea of my importance.
*What's the hardest part about this rock and roll thing for you?*
JD: Nothing is hard about rock and roll. It's all the things I have to do to rock and roll that are hard.
*What are some things that you remember most from the Killers tour last summer?*
JD: It was 104 degrees and the air wasn't working in the van. I remember that and making money for the first time ever on the road. Those guys were also very good to us. I can't thank 'em enough.
*Tell me again how everyone met.*
JD: Phil and I met in high school. Over time, we moved to Lawrence for KU. We met Bryce at the Replay Lounge, hit it off and started playin'. Tom owned the studio we recorded in, so when we lost our first guitarist to music school, Tom just sort of stepped in for a few shows. Almost four years later he's still here.
*Are you a big Robert Pollard fan?*
JD: Huge. I always wished I could sing like him.
*With the work you're doing right now, could you literally build a house? Would you know how?*
JD: I have built a house before and will do it again. For us, music is something we love to do, but because we love it so, we have to do jobs that we don't always love. And since we lose those jobs as soon as we hit the road, we have all become the jacks of all trades. The old starving artist story.
*Does Tom ever get mistaken for Iggy Pop?*
JD: Yes. Almost every show.
*Which famous musicians can you claim as your friends? If I'm not mistaken, you know everybody.*
JD: We have made some friends, but we don't run with Robert Pollard. So what can I say?
*With drummer Bryce Boley*
*First thing's first Bryce -- what the hell are you doing where you have to be at
work at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning? I'm perplexed.*
BB: I work as a customer service rep for a communications company--that's paying the bills while we are not on the road--that's my day job. Unfortunately, Saturday mornings are required for this gig.
*How do you account for James' singing accent?*
BB: That is something that occured naturally, really that's just the way he sings-- I guess it probably evolved from avoiding a midwestern drawl.
*It sounds like James could build a house. Has he ever done any handyman work for your residence?*
BB: No, I am the only handyman at my house. I recently constructed a practice space in the basement for my drums out of plywood and foam -- it's actually quite nice. It kind of looks like a padded cell, but, hey, sometimes I feel like I need a padded cell. The neighboors really like it -- it took the noise level down about 80-percent.
*What do you remember about that Killers tour last summer? Was that the first time you guys felt you had a leg up in your four years as a band?*
BB: It was definitely a great opportunity -- to go from 200 people a night to 5,000 people a night was very nice. We sold all of our merchandise. The CDs were flying off the table. We had a great response from the crowds. It was as if we were headlining. It's something you don't want to end. I didn't want to come back home. We realized on that tour that we've got what it takes to do this all the time.
*How have you guys changed as a group over the years?*
BB: We are more cohesive musically. The songwriting process is a lot easier, songs come together faster. We have become closer friends. We can spend a lot of time cramped in a van and not be at each others throats.
*Can you tell me some things about Phil and Tom?*
BB: Well let's see, Tom is a genius in the studio-- he owns the studio we record in -- Underground Sounds." He handles all the recording and he can fix anything that breaks -- guitars, amps, etc. And Phil, he can play the banjo and also does an incredible Ronnie James Dio impression.