Monday, March 12, 2018

TREEFORT 2018—The Evening Class Interview With Field Medic (Kevin Patrick Sullivan)

Photo: Michael Guillén
I first met Kevin Patrick Sullivan (aka Field Medic) when his band Rin Tin Tiger was invited to play Treefort a few years back. I was walking by the Bouquet and the timber of his voice pulled me into the venue to listen to their gig, which enthused me to introduce myself and to ask if we might find some time once back in San Francisco to talk about his music? That opportunity kept eluding us until a few weeks ago when we met for breakfast at Kate's Kitchen on Haight Street. The timing couldn't have been better. Having recently signed with Run for Cover Records, Kevin was about to be sent out on a national tour to promote his first album for them, "Songs From the Sunroom", a compilation of his favorite lo-fi songs released earlier on his self-distributed EPs, in anticipation of his first album of original material for Run for Cover, releasing in late Summer or early Fall.

His tour wraps up at Treefort, where his bio reads: "Field Medic is lo-fi bedroom project of Kevin Patrick. Field Medic began recording songs to cassette in his house in 2013 and has released a handful of EPs and a full length album. Drawing inspiration from Joni Mitchell, Fionn Regan, Nick Drake, and Bob Dylan, Field Medic makes freak folk/post country with emphasis on fingerstyle guitar & lyrics." He plays Treefort on Saturday, 11:00 at The District and again on Sunday at 3:45 at The Linen Building. Over crab benedict and cheddar bacon pancakes, I asked Kevin to recount his transformation from Rin Tin Tiger to Field Medic.

* * *

Photo: Unknown.
Kevin Patrick Sullivan: Rin Tin Tiger used to be called Westwood & Willow when I graduated from high school. It was a solo project. Then my brother joined me. Then we got a drummer. With the addition of the drummer, the sound became more rock and less folk. We became Rin Tin Tiger, for whatever reason; but—when we were changing our name from Westwood & Willow to Rin Tin Tiger, like six years ago—I wanted to call the band Field Medic. They decided it sounded too singular and the purpose of the name change was to make it plural, I guess, for everybody involved. We played for a long time and I had these folk songs that I wanted to put out, but we as a band wanted to be democratic where everyone was involved in choosing every song.

So, instead, I started playing as Field Medic in 2013 slowly on the side. Even by the time we played Treefort as Rin Tin Tiger, I had put out a couple of Field Medic releases. As I kept putting out music, I started my own tape label out of my house when I lived in San Francisco. People became interested in the Field Medic music and I was enjoying more at that time than the band. I don't particularly like to rock. That's just what happened at a certain point because we were a band. I told the boys that I needed to take a break from the band in the middle of 2016. Then, in 2017 I moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of January. So Rin Tin Tiger is on hiatus. We're not officially broken up but I'm focusing more on Field Medic.

I wound up getting really lucky with the people I was meeting at the time. This time last year I did a short living room tour with Evan Stephens Hall from Pinegrove and this girl Alex from Thin Great Grandpa. Then I started hanging out with this band called The Neighborhood and a band called Bad Sons in Los Angeles and they helped me get some cool shows there. Somehow I ended up getting signed with Run For Cover, which is crazy. I got very lucky.

Michael Guillén: Well, luck usually abets talent. I believe you're very talented. 

KPS: Thank you.

Guillén: You're a great wordsmith. You have a little bit of anarchic romanticism in your writing, which I like. Field Medic, however, is still affiliated with the Bay Area? 

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: The Valencia Street song is specifically Bay Area; but, a lot of people don't realize that I've left the Bay Area. I do feel that I am still Bay Area though. It's definitely still where I'm from but I don't always live there. I'm pretty much there half my time.

Guillén: You're being billed as "new folk", and yet you remind me of old folk, a little bit of early Dylan, and there does seem to be a protest element to some of your music. 

KPS: The Valencia Street song got a lot of press because it was super aggressive and relevant....

Guillén: Well, you were talking about slashing tires. 

KPS: That's really one of my only protest songs. Most of my songs are about love and confusion and anxiety. They might be using "new folk" to describe me, but to me they're just songs. Some people have called my music "freak folk" and others say it can't be freak folk because it's not psychedelic enough. It's been called DIY, which it actually is, though it's interesting that DIY is used as a genre to classify a certain type of band. But my music is fully DIY because I write everything, record everything, make my own videos, do all my own shit. My shit is DIY in the literal definition of the word. Though I just call my music songs, there's some weird connotation with the singer-songwriter that's kind of corny.

Guillén: As an older guy, I have a great respect for the singer-songwriter. I don't think it's corny at all. Singer-songwriters created the music that I grew up on. But I understand what you're saying because it does seem to be perceived as a mark against a musician these days. Like no one's supposed to single themselves out. When I first moved to Boise and listening to music in clubs, my first reaction and complaint was that I couldn't understand anything anybody was saying. No one would articulate their lyrics. I'd get excuses that the words were incidental and that they were only in service to sonic texture, which I considered one of the silliest rationalizations I'd ever heard. How would you describe the newest album that you're taking out on tour, "Songs From the Sunroom"? Talk to me about how that was set up.

KPS: The new album is not necessarily new. It's a compilation of a bunch of tracks from the EPs that I released when I was unsigned and living in San Francisco. It's called "Songs From the Sun Room" because I lived in a sun room and that was where I recorded everything. We decided to put out a "best of" selection to let people find out about my music before we put out the new album, which should come out in the Summer or the Fall. Right now I'm touring the reissue, I guess you would call it. It's cool. It's a dream of mine. I always loved the lo-fi stuff I was recording and I didn't want to re-record it. The label agreed to put it all together and that's really chill. The tour is going to take me to Washington D.C., New Jersey, then Philadelphia, then New York, and then I have to fly back to San Francisco to play Noise Pop, and the day after Noise Pop I fly back to Chicago. Then I tour for two weeks through all sorts of crazy places, hella places I've never been, I can't even remember where we're going.

Guillén: I presume the label arranged the tour for you? 

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: I have a booking agent now who is actually the one who introduced my music to the label. He found out about me through somebody else. He was excited about the music and sent it to them. I actually have him to thank for all of this. He organized the first part of the tour because we had an offer for a college show in Madison, Wisconsin and then just at a certain point this other band contacted us to be support for the second part of the tour that starts after Chicago. I didn't arrange it. I didn't do anything. I just have to fly around. I'm definitely a little nervous because I'm alone. A lot of bands go out and they have each other, but I'm going to pull up alone.

Guillén: Keep in mind the old traveling proverb: "One meets two; two meets three." You're never really alone. You'll meet people wherever you go. 

KPS: That's true. I'll have friends everywhere. I just don't like flying with guitar. I'm always worried my guitar is going to be broken by the time we land. It's too big to put in overhead. Oftentimes I can store it in the closet, but there have been a couple of times that I've had to check it at the gate.

Guillén: Can you wrap it in bubblewrap?

KPS: I don't wrap it in bubblewrap, I just detune the strings because when the pressure changes it could really break your guitar. Also, if it's under the plane it gets really cold.

Guillén: Are you only playing your guitar on tour? You're not taking your banjo?

KPS: I've never really toured with the banjo because I don't drive. I'm surprised that I'll be covering so much ground without driving.

Guillén: All that matters is to stick to your guns because no matter what decision you make, you will go in and out of fashion. Like, I notice your finger polish doesn't match. But it doesn't matter. It's who you are.

KPS: I just do whatever, y'know? 

Guillén: I like your song about fashion and going into thrift stores.

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: "OTL." That song's funny because I didn't think anybody was going to like it. I wrote it really fast one day. I thought it was just funny.

Guillén: It's funny, but this is where—when I describe your music as protest music—it's more of a romantic protest and less a political one. You're protesting how hard it is to find someone to love.

KPS: It is hard.

Guillén: And it seems to be getting harder all the time. I can't even imagine what it's like for a young guy these days with so many sexual allegations being levied right and left for even looking at someone the wrong way. Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that women are speaking up for themselves and defending themselves, as they should. But I came from a youth culture of free love and loving the one you're with if you're not with the one you love: attitudes that are simply not politically acceptable nowadays it seems. But I enjoy the forlorn romanticism in your writing. I'm glad that you found yourself a girlfriend because I was thinking, "This poor kid...." 

KPS: My experience with women has always been that I've always been able to find people that I liked but—perhaps because I have red hair and weird interests—I've never been that kind of guy where girls are like, "Oh my God, I need to fuck that guy." So no problem with sexual allegations.

Guillén: Let's talk about Treefort. How did Eric Gilbert first find you as Rin Tin Tiger? 

KPS: Through a guy named Greg who has a blog and lives in Boise. He had been reviewing Rin Tin Tiger since the inception of the band. He's the one who put forth our music to Eric. When we first played Treefort, our band was an acoustic-driven folk rock experience and there was more hype about us and people were pumped to see us. I just remember playing Treefort was so much fun! It was at the end of one of our tours as well. I still use the Treefort water bottle that I got in my swag bag for artists that year.

Guillén: When I was listening to your music this morning, I found it melodically diverse. I know it's an intuitive thing and difficult to describe, but how do you hear these melodies? Do they arrive as snippets in your mind which you then try to find on the guitar? Or do you hear a snippet and then try to use your voice against it? Can you speak to your songwriting process?

KPS: What happens for me is that I write all the lyrics first. I don't write a chord progression and then sit there and think, "What should I sing over it?" I write stuff all throughout the day. I write little observations or poems. I write a lot of haiku.

Guillén: So you consider yourself a poet first?

KPS: Yes. I only started writing music so I could make a living doing poetry. I love words. I'm a big fan of lyrics. I listen to a lot of rap music because they're both vocally and lyrically centered. For me, the lyrics themselves tend to write the melodies. I practice guitar. I sit there and finger pick and maybe I'll write a little something but I'll store it away. Then there will come a point when I'm overwhelmed with these lyrics that match a feeling that I'm also overwhelmed with, so I'll sit down with the guitar and maybe cycle through whatever weird things I've just written on the guitar and just start singing them until they match. But I would say, yes, the lyrics write the melodies.

Guillén: Do you play covers? 

KP: Never done them. I've learned a couple—Bob Dylan, John Prine, Joni Mitchell—songs. But I've never done covers, ever, other than for myself. I like to write so much that I would just rather play my own stuff. Some people talk about learning how to play music by playing other people's songs; but, I just taught myself. I needed to sing. I made my own vocabulary musically. My dad bought an acoustic guitar when I was 15 and so I would play with it because it was in the house. Do you remember that song "Collide" by Howie Day? It was a radio hit where he was just strumming. I taught myself to strum that song by ear. I took those chords I learned and wrote a bunch of songs. Then when I moved to San Francisco at 18, I started going to City College. My brother was living with me and he had a job already. He was working at SF State until three in the morning every night. I would go to City College during the days, Sundays I didn't even have class, and I had no friends, I was all alone, and then I bought a book about finger picking because that was my goal. I love Tallest Man on Earth and Fionn Regan, old Bob Dylan, travis picking stuff. Then for an entire six or seven months, I chilled in my room alone and taught myself how to fingerpick. But I've never had official training. I taught myself. For me that's the only way to learn. You do it because you need to.

Photo: Ben Decastro.
Guillén: You also have a strong online visual presence. You have several videos on YouTube that you share freely. Like myself, you seem very persona-driven. One of my favorite photos of you is a gender-fluid pose where you're wearing a dress and looking just this side of delicate.

KPS: Am I wearing a polka-dotted blouse?

Guillén: I enjoyed its playful, carefree attitude. Do you have any particular image, or persona, that you feel Field Medic is trying to fit?

KPS: My whole life I've always liked to dress weird or to have a weird inclination. I got in trouble at the old school for having orange shoelaces because we had a uniform. But I had to wear orange shoe laces for some reason. I've always been inclined to dress weird and I don't know why. When I moved to San Francisco during the Rin Tin Tiger years we had a cowboy aesthetic. We were wearing bolo ties on denim shirts or pearl button western shirts. I do like that cowboy aesthetic as well. But then when I started to hang out with a few friends in L.A., I was noticing their fashion sense. These guys dress hella crazy and they don't give a fuck. I'm a big thrift shopper and I had all these crazy pieces already so that when I embraced my Field Medic project, I embraced these crazy fashions. Part of my bit early on was looking super crazy—I would have, like, tons of layers, super tight pants, wearing lipstick, earrings, hairspray—because I wanted to roll up to the songwriter show and have people be, "Who the fuck is this guy dressed like a crazy rock star?" I like being ridiculous. It's not about being fashionable. It's more about people reacting,"Who does he think he is? Why would he do that?" When I started wearing exactly what I wanted to wear, I felt empowered. I felt really good going as redic as I wanted to go.

Guillén: You want to be noticed.

KPS: Yeah, I want to pop. In L.A. I crash on my friend's couch and in SF I live at my girlfriend's house so I had to destroy a lot of my fashion when I moved out of SF. That's been a major blow to my speed. I have a very limited closet now because I live out of a suitcase. Especially on this tour to the East Coast, all my suit case is full of merch. All I have is one extra pair of pants, two shirts, socks and underwear. Fashion is taking a back seat for these winter tours. I keep telling myself that once I "make it" or get to a comfortable place, I'll have all the fashion I want.

Guillén: You don't feel that you've made it yet? 

KPS: I do feel that I've made it in a lot of ways, yeah. The only thing I'm missing is financial security.

Guillén: You and five million others, brother.

KPS: Yeah, right? But I want to get to a place where I can afford to rent a room of my own. Although it's great that I have people to stay with, I do miss my own personal space.

Guillén: I'm aware that busking has been an important aspect of your music. Can you speak to that?  Why you did that? Did you have to? Was it the only way you could get your music out there?

KPS: We started busking with the band in 2011. It was the drummer's idea. He said, "We should go busk on Market Street." We started doing it and it was going well. We'd sell a lot of CDs and make a lot of fans, honestly. A lot of the gigs that we got early on were because people saw us busking and all of a sudden we were getting paid gigs to play at people's parties or larger outdoor events in San Francisco. When we first did it, it was because we had to. My brother and I were both unemployed so we were busking five days a week and that money was paying the rent. At a certain point we both got jobs. We'd still busk but the police were cracking down harder than before and we started getting shut down. We'd lug all of our shit, set up, play for like 20 minutes, and then have to leave, which was a bummer.

Guillén: They wanted you to have a license to perform? Is it illegal in San Francisco to busk on the street?

Photo: Unknown.
KPS: Most of the time you can get away with it; but, for whatever reason, we were just hitting a lot of bad luck with that. We would busk on Powell Street at Market. We had tiny amps so we could break through the noise. But then we slowed down from busking. I started busking alone in the BART station because if you're in the tunnel it's chill for the acoustics. I did it to supplement my income because I only worked three days a week. I made maybe $120 a week in busking, so it paid off. But also, I just really liked it. I never played any cover songs so it was a good way to see if people responded to my own songs. If I was playing a new song and somebody turned and smiled, or put in a dollar or whatever, it was sort of good way to gauge that. The mantra I always told myself while I was busking was that I was the benevolent friend to all. People were coming off work and they were tired and angry and I just wanted to sing songs to them and connect with them, but in a non-committal way. It's not like they're at a concert where they're expected to listen. They can just walk by or they can choose to stand and listen or they can put in a dollar or maybe just give me a quick smile. A ten-second interaction. For me, it was a good energy to put out there, to just be chilling. Nobody hates a busker. I feel everyone appreciates when they see somebody making music. Busking is great that way.

Guillén: Would you ever busk in unfamiliar cities on tour?

KPS: I've definitely thought about it. I've always had a dream of being super successful and secretly showing up to busk at a BART station. Let's say I was as big as Prince, and everyone recognized me. I'd show up and cause a scene. But I would do that even without being that successful or recognizable. I busked as recently as a couple of months ago. What I learned with the Field Medic stuff was that it important for everything to be free. Everything on Bandcamp is still free. That's what I learned with poetry and songwriting too. People get caught up with, "Oh, this poem is so good. If I put it out, someone's going to steal it." But if they stole it, that would actually be chill. I feel that you honestly have to give everything away for free all the time. You have to. If it's that good that someone's going to steal it, it will get back to you.

Guillén: It's what I would call mutual indebtedness. We all owe each other what is the most creative within ourselves. If I can give you a good breakfast, I'll do that. You need fuel in your belly to be creative. For me it's important to bless the young, to feed them, to encourage their creativities and that draws me into the domain of love, which I believe is unconditional. I'm not buying you breakfast today because I'm trying to get something from you. I'm doing this because I want to know that at least at one point in our lives we can intersect and I can bless you and tell you your music is strong and beautiful. I'm excited for you that you're going on your first national tour and I hope you send us notes from the field.

KPS: Yeah. I get spooked out about getting "big" because it's what I've always wanted but now that I'm on the cusp of it—it may be happening? Who knows if it does or it doesn't?—but, it's making me a little afraid now.

Guillén: You have to watch out. You have to not want fame. Fame will happen to you. It's like fashion. Fame will happen and then it goes away. But with or without it, you remain who you are. The singer-songwriters who I have admired since I was young are those who have gone through, and often been robbed by, agents and recording labels, but ultimately found their own source of production, grabbed the creative reins of their careers, and continue to do the music they are meant to do whether they are famous for it or not. If there is true poetry, it will always persevere.

KPS: I just want make a living, dude. That's my goal. If things go well, I think music can allow that. But it's also the only course that I have now. I better hope that it allows it.
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