By David Wicik
What the scene lacks these days are characters, in the sense that your mother might have diplomatically called that shaggy, sass-talking friend of yours, who she always pegged as a sure-fire dope-user, a “character.” Magic Milk founder Kenny Alden is, if anything, that kind of character. In fact, if you knew him as a child, your mother probably wasn’t too fond of him. Take, for instance, Alden’s first musical project, a little collaboration in the fifth grade called Saturday’s Children, whose big number was a Black Sabbath cover. As Alden recalls, “There was a Black Sabbath song about pot, and we had never even seen pot, but we thought pot was cool.”
While Alden grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, it wasn’t until college that he really learned his chops. Alden attended University of Arizona, originally planning to go into teaching, but quickly lost focus. “I tried to go to college and I just ended up skateboarding.”
It was in Tucson, among the student community of a school he had less and less interest in, that Alden found his calling as a performer. As he remembers the transition, “I was really just into being sort of a bad kid… I wanted to be someone who affected people, and at first I didn’t care how I did that, like I might break stuff or steal something. But soon I realized I liked it a lot better if I affected people in a really positive way that made them smile. And that was great because I could see it right away and people smiled when I played funny songs on my guitar, so I started doing that a lot.”
Alden’s Tucson band, The Fuckin Kennies, operated as his own version of higher education. When he started it, Alden admits that he had to write original material because he couldn’t play the guitar well enough to perform any other group’s music in a recognizable way. And in keeping with Alden’s irreverent personal style, The Fuckin Kennies’ repertoire was full of songs with skewed narratives. “I didn’t feel comfortable playing songs unless they were hilarious in some way… Which is funny because I think when you decide to do that it takes people that much longer to take you seriously.”
While getting people laughing was a good first step, it wasn’t long before Alden decided that the best way to get people happy was to get them dancing. Perhaps this is a brilliant neurochemical ploy, realizing that the release of endorphins and adrenaline while dancing will effectually bind memory of a specific band’s music with pleasant bodily experience. But Alden has a more practical outlook on the matter: “When people are all dancing together, then people start meeting each other because they’re bumping into each other, and people get together and get laid. And if you get laid right after a show, you’re like, ‘Man, that band was awesome.’”
Alden moved back to Chicago in early 2009 and formed Magic Milk shortly thereafter. The group is just Alden and drummer Isaiah Price, who certainly has a full plate, also playing in local bands Disrobed, We Repel Each Other and Get Up With The Get Downs. Alden rates Price’s greatest features as being able to pick up any song with little or no practice and being able to say yes to practically anything.
Together, the duo have crafted a set of songs that reflect the vintage garage rock of groups like the Sonics and Standells, low frills and a whole lot of attitude, and their self-released, eponymous EP reveals as much. It opens with the slow-building surf-guitar burner “Return of Tiki” before launching into the heavy vocal distortion and band-saw guitar of “Pink Flamingos,” which could be pegged as early White Stripes if it wasn’t for the jacked-up blues-harmonica solo at the end. Alden shows off his pop sensibilities in the Casio version of “So So Cool,” coining the memorable line “You go and smoke your Camels and I’ll smoke shampoo.” This song as much as the others matches the group’s MySpace self-description as “minimalist,” resting on nothing more than a muted guitar line, a mini-korg riff and a drum kit.
While Magic Milk writes original work, they aren’t afraid of borrowing from others. Underscoring the importance of showmanship in his work, Alden “steals” from the classics in his own compositions, putting anything into his live show that he thinks will engage an audience. One of their best live pieces is a cover of “Night Time is the Right Time” where Alden tries to sync with the Sonic’s own gristly version of the Ray Charles classic.
As a showman, Alden takes as his patron saint James Brown. It was the Godfather of Soul’s own emphatic, almost automatic style of performing that laid the pattern for how Alden wanted to influence his crowds. “James Brown, when he gets on stage, is just the master of getting loose. He’s like ignorant to the rest of the world. He’s in James Brown land, and then everybody else comes into James Brown land.” Like Brown, Alden can be confrontational, often urging the crowd to get closer, directing them to fill in a chorus line, even singling an individual out.
In the end, Magic Milk makes its mint on having a good time. And while no account of Magic Milk would be complete without mentioning confetti, to avoid spoiling the surprise entirely, let it just be known that in Alden’s opinion, “Magic Milk is all about confetti.”
Magic Milk performs January 17 17 at Crown Liquors Tap Room, 2821 North Milwaukee, (773)252-9741, 10pm.