It's a simple philosophy, one that Kenna Zemedkun offers up with little prompting.
"It doesn't matter what size the stage is. I give everything I've got. At the end of the day, you'll either get it or you won't. And the people that don't get it, they weren't supposed to. Because I'm so full-on and I connect so much, then if you don't get it by the third song, then you're never gonna get it. And I'm surprised that you love music. That's how it is."
He's talking about his live show specifically, and generally about how the art of performance is, if not dead, then certainly about to go to code on the operating table. Kenna, who drops his last name onstage and on record, is determined to nurse it back to health. "I'm gonna bring it back, like some of the other kids," he says. "Just be an entertainer. At the end of the day, you know, there's got to be respect for that."
Kenna performs September 26 at Gypsy Tea Room, with Fischerspooner.
Holed up in an L.A. hotel room, Kenna is nursing himself back to health, battling a cold as well as a city with which he's less than thrilled. You wouldn't necessarily notice his annoyance, other than some initial sniffles and snide comments. Right now, his voice is full of a fire that burns through the telephone line. He has been born again in recent weeks, and he speaks with the singular purpose of the recently converted. No, he didn't find God. He found Justin Timberlake.
"Whatever happened to fucking performers? Where did they go?" he asks. "I'm depressed to think of all the bands that hide behind their mike stands and play their instruments and don't even know how to move. I went to a Justin Timberlake show at the Roseland last week; he did a 1 a.m. Prince-type show. The kid was up there playing guitar and popping--like pop and locking--while playing 'Like I Love You.' Then dropped to the keys and played 'Señorita.' Then got back up and ran around with his crack team of musicians. That was a show. I was excited."
Excitement has been a long time coming for the Ethiopia-born, Virginia-bred Kenna, an emotion postponed by the long-delayed release of his debut, New Sacred Cow. How long was it delayed? Put it this way: When Chad Hugo, one-half of the Neptunes, recorded it, he was basically a no-name producer. Not the man he is now, a bankable star who's contributed his considerable skills to more hit singles than the Beatles.
"We went to high school together," Kenna explains. "And we weren't friends in high school. He was the guy who showed me that I sucked at the piano. Whenever I'd go to the auditorium, he'd show up and go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's great,' and then sit down with his classically trained ass and try to blow me out of the water. I had kind of traveled the world trying to figure out what to do and how to make my music, try to find producers that understand the vision that I had. And come to find out, he was, like, less than half a mile away, in my back yard in Virginia."
That bit of fortune soon became a diamond dropped in a Dumpster. Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst's Geffen-distributed Flawless Records was set to release the album in May 2002 and came so close to doing so that advance copies of the disc were sent out to the press and reviews showed up in a few magazines. The disc never did show up, though. Columbia Records finally released New Sacred Cow more than a year later. So, what happened?
"Um, everything and nothing at the same time," Kenna says. "It was just a debacle; it didn't make sense. I mean, everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the best thing is to part ways and start fresh...I'm a fighter, man. I don't care what anyone says. I live delimited as a person. So, for me, I just continue down my path, with or without you." He laughs. "That's not supposed to be some U2 reference randomly. That's really who I am. I stockpiled a lot of songs. I'll have plenty to do another record with. I'm like the 2Pac of rock right now. I have, like, a vault. If for some reason I decide to pull a Makaveli"--the alias under which 2Pac released a posthumous album--"or something, we're going to be selling records for the next 20 years." He laughs again. "That's great. I love that: 'the 2Pac of rock.'"
(On the subject of Durst, Kenna initially declines to comment, then says, "Everybody's got their demons. Fred's got plenty of his own. But I have to say, as it pertains to my music, he's always been an angel to me. I just would rather let that go.")
New Sacred Cow sounds no worse for the wear. It's the kind of Teflon-coated disc comparisons don't stick to, a made-to-order melange of Depeche Mode, Björk, U2's Pop, Devo, Duran Duran and latter-day Beatles albums. Among many other things. No two songs sound alike; the whole thing is held together by Kenna's theatrical voice, as pliant and powerful as a sledgehammer made of Silly Putty. It's a snow globe of sounds, jittery and glittery bits and pieces of several decades of pop music blanketing Hugo's rock-solid and, occasionally, rock-blocking beats. The disc could have sat on the shelf for a few more years, and it would still sound like the future. And the past. And the present.
Which is probably why critics have had such a difficult time wrapping their minds around New Sacred Cow; Kenna straddles so many genres and decades, he might as well be playing Twister in a record store. So, as they did with Radiohead's Kid A, music scribes are giving it good grades without ever getting a good grip.
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"I think that they're trying to find the word for it, but they won't acknowledge the fact that, um..." He trails off. "I mean, electroclash--what is that? Who fits the electroclash movement? I call my music 'freebase.' Because I figure the music has no home, and it's free of all base and mentalities. And I also like the drug reference, even though I don't do drugs. I'm very Nancy Reagan about my stuff." He laughs. "Just so you know."
Kenna's more than happy to take his act on the road and let his audiences make up their own minds. "I've figured out that all the bullshit you go through is for that 40 minutes onstage," he says. He spent the weeks after New Sacred Cow's release opening for erstwhile Depeche Mode front man Dave Gahan, and will spend the next month doing the same for Fischerspooner, before heading to Europe with Gahan. (When the Gahan tour came to NextStage in August, it was the first time Kenna's extended family--his grandmother and all of his aunts and uncles and cousins live in Dallas--got to see him perform.) It all goes back to his philosophy: He's going to do his thing, and you'll either get it or you won't. It's working so far.
"People are starving records, man. Starving. They're dying. They're like, 'Ugh, what do I do? This music is important to me, and I can't find anything that I love.' I'm very happy to be playing, because the people that come to Fischerspooner are people who are avid about music and avid about theater and that kind of stuff--more open-minded. And the people who have gone to Dave Gahan shows are the same kind of people. Rabid almost--forget avid.
"And they've embraced me because there's melody," he continues. "They're not looking at Depeche Mode like, 'Wow, this is Goth music.' And they're not all coming with white faces and, you know, black fingernails. They're just regular people. They're excited that they have a chance to see one of their favorite artists play music that they can relate to. That's what I write: music for the people."