During a recent KNDRGRDN gig at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, frontman Jonathan Teeter looked up from his guitar mid-song. Bodies were packed in tightly, close to the stage, and he could see people bobbing up and down and singing along to “Your Shadow.”
“Your shadow is coming in / Coming into my room / Your shadow is coming in / You, me and the sandman / Hanging, hanging, hanging / from the roof,” Teeter sang, grinning, joy apparent in his eyes behind his dark-framed glasses as he charmingly swayed back and forth.
He says it was “so, so cool” to have an audience full of friends and strangers connect to the music and sing along to one of his songs. “It’s exactly what I live for.”
Teeter, 26, has been playing in bands around Charlottesville for about five years. Before forming the three-piece KNDRGRDN (pronounced “kindergarten”), he played with the Co-Pilots, and he still plays the occasional solo gig for material that doesn’t quite fit with the loud-and-fast KNDRGRDN sound.
His catchy punk-lite songs with a Brit-pop edge will stick in your head for hours, even days, after hearing them. They stick because Teeter builds most of his songs around vocal melodies.
He says he knows he’s come up with a good vocal melody when he can imagine a trumpet playing it.
Teeter started writing songs when he was about 16. His parents bought him a guitar and he spent hours at a time playing chords in his bedroom and listening to Blur, The Clash and Pulp. During one of those sessions he started improvising lyrics over a chord progression. He says he didn’t know—at least not right away—that he was writing a song.
Now, his songwriting is much more intentional. He strives for simplicity, both in his solo material and in KNDRGRDN songs, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. “I want people to know…it’s pretty simple, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s all very meticulously put together, and it takes a lot of work to make something so simple sound good,” says Teeter.
The frontman is pretty open about the KNDRGRDN elixir. He tends to write complex lyrics, so he puts most of his energy into singing; that limits his guitar playing, so he sticks to power chords, bar chords and just a couple of distortion and delay pedals. With no lead guitar, KNDRGRDN relies on bass player Eric Nelson to pump sonic blood through the veins of a song. “Eric will work forever on bass parts that work both as bass and lead instrument,” Teeter says.
It’s unusual, but that deep, rhythmic lead, coupled with Teeter’s vocal melodies, is what makes KNDRGRDN so damn catchy. There’s plenty to hear, but the songs are simple enough that if you’re standing in the audience, you can hear everything that’s going on, from vocals to power chords to rollicking bass and relentless drums. It’s music to sing and dance along to.
If you listen closely, you’ll hear great variety in Teeter’s lyrics. He wrote the audience favorite “Your Shadow” about Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic book series. “Tama Changes Stations” is about the death of Tama, a stray calico cat who became station master of a train station in Wakayama, Japan. “Police” is a protest song examining righteousness: “The stylish kids put in their false teeth / They cut off their hair and occupy Wall Street / I wish I were pure enough to believe / I wish then again that all the fakers would leave / Then there’s the problem with the police / They cut their hair and keep the peace / They keep it with guns / and they keep it with mace / They keep telling me I’m in the wrong parking space,” Teeter sings, his voice hinting at Ray Davies, Damon Albarn, Joe Strummer and Modern Lovers-era Jonathan Richman all at once.
Teeter sees music as a way to conjure images and tell a cinematic story in sound. “The Orange Grove” is an image-rich tune about a man who is told by angels he must watch over an orange grove. He decides he doesn’t like being isolated, “I need a family / and a good place to stay / I need love / I need money and change,” so he escapes from the orange grove only to realize that the outside world is just as horrible.
Sometimes it’s heavy stuff, but it’s life and it’s real, and KNDRGRDN tackles it all with youthful aplomb.