Standing in the Doorway: The Music of Kendall Street Company

by | Mar 17, 2023 | MUSIC

There are those who reject the application of genre definitions to music as they feel it can be limiting and putting the art inside unnecessary cages. This view, however, neglects the idea that there are schools of thought that riff off each other developing a distinct language and style that becomes a self-actualized sound that people try specifically to achieve, and can be helpful in identifying and categorizing subcultures. A consistent and understood sound is a perfectly reasonable ideal to strive for – Kendall Street Company does not do this. 

In December of last year I was at my annual attendance of The Infamous Stringdusters who have done a run of shows leading up to New Year’s Eve for the last few years, and I had heard that a band called Kendall Street Company was opening for them. The name had been  mentioned to me on multiple occasions around town, but I had yet to hear any of their music. They came on-stage to thunderous applause, and launched into a performance that had me guessing at every turn. In one moment I thought that I had them pegged and understood their sound, then they would pull a musical switcheroo and I would find myself disoriented and astounded with no real idea of how they had made such a drastic turn. The players powering the sound I would come to find out are keys and saxophone player Jake Vanaman, the underrated soundscape controller, lead guitarist Ben Laderberg, the silent soloist with an explosive sonic catalog, and Louis Smith, the charismatic frontman leading the charge into unknown territory.

The members of KSC from left to right: Ryan Wood, Louis Smith, Brian Roy, Ben Laderberg, Jake Vanaman. Photo by: Sixx Bayne

Often described as a jam band, KSC is far more than that. While they do have the superficial display of a jam band, what with the prolific output of music, lengthy extended live shows, and runs of location based performances encouraging repeat attendance, KSC is a chameleon of a group who have put out records in the style of singer-songwriters, novelty songs about differently named sea creatures, calypso music, and even just straight up psychedelia. Smith has been heard describing themselves as “standing in the doorway, one foot in one room, one foot in the other.” I decided to sit down with KSC to find out who they are, and where this absolutely bizarre music comes from. 

All hailing from the state of Virginia with members like Smith and Laderberg coming from Virginia Beach, and Vanaman coming from the Northern Virginia area, all of them grew up loving music. Smith recounted to me a story of annoying his parents by singing opera in the car on road trips, but confessed that he never really “knew” when he considered singing and playing the guitar to be a serious route in life to pursue. Meanwhile, Laderberg, who said of his early life that his mother, “always wanted me to be a rockstar” regaled me with a truly bizarre story of a moderately successful band he found himself in high school that peaked with a performance opening for the comedian Sinbad who ended up joining the group on-stage for a song due to his wanting to learn to play the guitar at the time.

Coalescing in Charlottesville in 2013 while the majority of the group attended UVA, the members of KSC were studying a variety of topics from architecture, physics, foreign affairs, but all of them who were there began studying music to some degree when the band began to become successful. After putting out their first EP in 2014, KSC released their first album in 2016 and have only picked up speed since putting out another album the next year, three albums in 2018, an EP in 2019 four singles and an album in 2020, two albums in 2021, an album last year, and that’s even leaving some things out. They have the kind of output associated with the most prolific of jam bands like The Grateful Dead or Phish, but what does that mean for the music itself?

Many bands, especially groups that get picked up by a large label, can fall into a sophomore slump and produce a terrible second album given even a year or two make it. This can be due to the constant touring to promote their first work, or that they spent more time on the first record and didn’t give the second the love it needed, or any number of varied reasons. Kendall Street Company is never not playing, and they are always planning two steps ahead as to what they are going to record next. Does this prolificity come from the Jam band like coating, and does it lead to a dip in quality? Not according to the band. When asked where their output came from, Vanaman frankly stated, “Five song writers.” “Everyone just always has songs going,” added Smith. Furthermore, they seemed quite unconcerned about the quantity being a priority. On the subject Vanaman said, “there are some bands that say ‘that song’s not good enough, we can’t put it on the album,’ and then they never release it. We don’t do that.” Adding to that Laderberg chimed in to say, “there is always someone who will connect with it.” Smith, thinking more practically, said, “the release strategy is important, with the amount of music that we put out.”

And on the subject of release strategy, for the last two years KSC in the month of February have engaged in what they call the “Kendall Street is for Lovers Tour:” a series of residencies in the month of February all over the state of Virginia. What I thought to be a strange approach in general, for a band like KSC, it might actually be a work of genius. 

Said Laderberg, “We got tired of promoters telling us to starve the market!” What Laderberg is referencing is anyone booking venues or promoters will generally tell a group to keep performances in a city sparse; don’t overplay so that there is demand when you do and fans will come out to see you play. Again KSC found themselves playing into the jam band aesthetic, as this is not really a problem for fans of that genre. 

“The jam band community is very concerned with location. Madison Square Garden is the Mecca for Phish fans, and they play 13 times in a row and people will go to every single one. It signals to our crowd that we’re here and we’re gonna give you something different every single time,” said Vanaman.

This improvisatory nature is one of the aspects of KSC that makes them unique in the Richmond music scene. The group even managed to bring that improvisation into the studio with them when in the Summer of 2020, while on lockdown and with no shows on the horizon, they went into White Star Recording for a week and managed to improvise not one, but two albums. The Year the Earth Stood Still Ninurta/Inertia are the two projects that came out of the week of sleeping on couches and putting in twelve hour days. This stands out to me as one of the more bizarre things that they have done, and I had to know what the process was. 

“We didn’t have a plan,” said Laderberg, which is surprising given the cohesive nature of the works; the fact that they are two separate yet interconnected albums with what feels like complete and utter intention. With most days starting off with a warmup and then a jam, Vanaman said “we got an idea of a song, and then moved on to the next one. For the latter half of the five days we went back and flushed out ideas, and people had written lyrics by then.”

Photo provided by: Steven King @Mindbend3r83

Smith followed up with, “on the last day of the studio we didn’t know what it was. It was pretty stressful at times because we were like, ‘what are we doing?’” This jump into the abyss most certainly paid off though as The Year the Earth Stood Still Ninurta/Inertia are two wild albums to be sure, but the psychedelic and claustrophobic nature of them speak to a surrealism that I think we all as humans experienced together, and were unable to put into words. There will be much art that comes from the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think that these two records will stand out in the future as a testament to our collective suffering, and a monument of the time in which they were created. 

A band like KSC is already at a level where they are functioning and working at making the music almost full time. Beyond superstardom it interested me to know what a band of this caliber could want. Mostly having thoughts on the resources a label could provide, Louis said, “[A record label] could do the marketing better. They can provide capital.” 

Jake, the band’s de facto in-house producer, echoed that, but brought up another concern, saying “In-house producers, if you’re looking for a specific sound, can be a valuable thing. It also comes down to how do you make sure the quality is still good. Self releasing… getting the promotion to the level worthy of what’s being released is impossible by yourself. We are artists, it’s hard to promote your own stuff.” 

While it’s one thing for the band who made the music to tell people it’s good, it’s a whole other thing for someone else to believe in the music enough to reach out to people and venues on your behalf to spread the word.

But really, when it comes to success for KSC, it seems to be mostly about spreading a message. Louis voiced it most eloquently by stating, “an important goal of ours is to help foster community through our music. We want people to come to our shows and engage with the music and meet a new friend or a group of new concert buddies. We will often use humor to help people connect and connect us with the audience. We have a song called Stanley Birdogmouth about an oyster, and when played live we will ask the audience to dance along and sing ‘you’re so high, I’m an oyster’ to the people around them. It’s pretty silly but it helps people connect with the people around them with a BIG smile on their faces. We encourage our audiences to engage with the music and the people around them because it’s fun as hell, builds community, and spreads joy. We want to evoke other emotions during our sets too such as nostalgia, longing, sadness, regret… but joy is a big one for sure.” Who can argue with that?

You can find Kendall Street Company all over the east coast, but in terms of what’s happening right now, they just released a cover of The Beatles “The Fool On The Hill” on March 17th, the same day they will be playing Aisle 5 in Atlanta, Georgia, and they will be back in Virginia on April 8th to play North Street Press Club in Farmville, VA. Keep an eye out, and make your way to see one of Virginia’s most prolific and unique groups that might just rocket to the next level of national stardom any minute. Go dance around like a crab and scream, “I’m an oyster!” before it’s too late.

Top photo by: Ashley Travis

Follow Kendall Street Company: @KendallStreetCompany

Follow Steven King: @mindbend3r83

Follow Sixx Bayne: @sixx147147

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

But you may call me Bones. I'm the Associate Editor of RVA Mag, and a writer and musician living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing I have gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, an album of original music, and perform lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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