Goon Tunes: Kenny Becker’s Layered Aesthetic

It was the ideal day for listening to Goon; the morning light disappeared long before I awoke and the grey sky emitted a static energy onto everything underneath it....
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It was the ideal day for listening to Goon; the morning light disappeared long before I awoke and the grey sky emitted a static energy onto everything underneath it. As if there were no bodies walking up and down Elm Street below my second-story apartment window. I gulped hot tea and flipped on the stereo, prepping my ears for a conversation with Kenny Becker, mastermind and soul-provider of lo-fi new-age grunge group, Goon. Sinking into melancholy bliss, I played “Scab,” the last track on their breakout EP, Dusk of Punk: “I’m tired of sunshine / And scared to say what’s on my mind…” I pictured the changing leaves burning up along the sidewalk and proceeded to dial Kenny, who lives in Los Angeles. Before he answered, I wondered, “How could someone surrounded by constant sunshine write music like this?”

Dusk of Punk, which surfaced September 16th, has been picked out by several notable music-review sites like DIY and Noisey for weaving together multiple layers of sound to create a heavy-hearted authenticity. In other words, it seems that first-time listeners, including myself, don’t know exactly what they’re hearing. Is it rock? Is it indie? Wait, is it pop? I totally just heard a synth! This more complicated listening experience excited me. Being human, the mystery attracted me like magnetized flesh to a metal wall; I was eager to pick away at what was below the depths of the atmosphere Becker and Goon had created.

After bumbling on about the weather for several minutes, I focused up and started in on the music: “So, Kenny…is this EP the first thing you’ve ever released as a musician?”
“I guess so,” he responded, “it’s the most proper thing I’ve done.” However, Kenny informed me that the summer before he attended BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, he worked at a Christian summer camp and recorded “a little body of work” on Garage Band. This collection – “very lo-fi and weird” – was burned and passed out to whoever wanted one. This is how he met Goon’s current guitarist, Drew Eccleston. According to Kenny, “our mutual obsession with Radiohead was a natural indicator that we should be friends.” Thus, the origin story of Goon.
“Are there any sounds off of that first collection of recordings that appear on Dusk of Punk?”
Kenny laughed, seeming to find the link between this old experiment and Goon mildly perplexing. “I’d say Slab Roller is probably the closest sounding thing…happy sounding guitars to kind of a sad song…that’s always the sound I’ve been drawn to.” This may be a reason other songs such as “Green Peppers” and “Gay Rage” on the EP make such an immediate impact on the listener, temporarily confusing their emotions. And it goes far beyond the guitar: there are blissful synthesizers, a bopping drum-kit, low-key cellos, a haunting organ. All of this arranged under Kenny’s vocal direction, which tends to completely alter the feeling of the instrumentation.

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The band name, Goon, came from a college friend casually contemplating the past: “You know what sounds like a band that should have existed in the 90s but didn’t? Goon.” To which Kenny immediately responded, “I’m stealing that.” However, even though in an alternate universe, Goon could’ve existed two decades ago, Kenny made it very clear that they don’t want to be known as a 90s throwback. And I don’t think they ever will be. The bands that most influence Kenny are rooted in the 1990s, but we aren’t talking about Pearl Jam or the Goo Goo Dolls; for if Dusk of Punk sounded more like “Slide,” we probably wouldn’t be having a conversation at all. Instead, their influences are more mystical, atmospheric artists like Radiohead and Boards of Canada. Through listening to Kenny describe his attraction to them, his musical vision became much clearer. He is fascinated in the way Boards of Canada creates a feeling of nostalgia by recording with retro equipment, “like an old 70s Sesame Street episode.” However, “that’s purely their starting point,” he exclaimed. Kenny believes that it’s impossible to listen to one of their songs and come away with a simple evaluation: “That’s a nice synth sound, huh?” Instead, he said, “It feels like you’re in an atmosphere.”

I think this is where Goon intersects with its influences: atmosphere. Like Radiohead and Boards of Canada, Goon thrives off of layers within the music, which ultimately creates a sonic world that listeners can’t help but retreat into. This, is why I think Kenny is safe from falling into a Black Hole Sun of endless vowel-heavy vocals and other 90s connotations. The lo-fi guitar is in his tunes, as well as some angst in the melancholic tone, but there’s also contemporary technology transporting listeners in multiple directions all at once. Dusk of Punk takes more than one listen. While listening to “Green Peppers” for the first time, with that familiar acoustic guitar and pop-centered drum-machine, I felt like my timeline was shifting, like taking an internal elevator down through layers of personal feeling; when the mind leaves memories aside and instead focuses on the tangible thought process – how things tasted, felt and held meaning years ago – totally connected. Goon is dense stuff.
So how does Kenny bring all of these layers together?
“A lot of it is feeling the impulse to do something seemingly crazy…” Kenny describes his recording process on “Green Peppers:”

“When I first wrote it, I thought this would be a fun loud rock song, following a more traditional route, but then I had this impulse to add in a stompy, jangly drum-machine. As I continued to just give into these impulses, it started to shape the song into what it is now…For example, there is an organ sound in the chorus and it doesn’t really make sense to be there because I’m trying to be in a rock band, but I felt the impulse to do it, you know?”

Followed by possibly the best description of artistic expression I’ve ever heard, as well as some great life advice:

“Sometimes I feel that impulse and then a voice in my head, that everyone gets, and you have a crazy idea to do something crazy (the voice of reason?) and ultimately it can be other peoples’ opinions that you are imagining what they might think leading you to make a more conservative decision. But most of the time I think it’s good to give into that impulse and not listen to that voice of reason and see if you can make it work because if all you do is follow that voice of reason you’re just going to make something that somebody’s done before and something that everyone already likes…If the idea makes you kind of chuckle, take it seriously, try it.”

Kenny confirmed with me that, yes, this could be the overall philosophy behind Goon. What I find most interesting about his entire approach to creating music is that it’s all about taking risks. Which makes sense considering he told me earlier that most of his songs, along with confusion with faith, are about doubt, and regret about not taking a risk. Music, time and time again, seems to be an overpowering force for anyone’s troubles; a sonic solace in which we can overcome our deepest guilt like an ancient map to self-understanding.

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(Dusk of Punk album artwork)

Ever since my first listen, Dusk of Punk’s album cover has grabbed me: a blue, red and yellow painted monster with numbers on its forehead and a halo above them. Like the characterization of the music within, the cover appears to be a simple cartoon but has a deeper aesthetic appeal with its shading and texture. I asked Kenny, whom I found out to be the illustrator, to tell me what went into this artwork. When he arrived at BIOLA, the deeply Christian college I mentioned earlier, he was moving toward becoming a Bible major, but eventually decided he didn’t want to be a pastor, so there wasn’t much use for that particular degree. He decided to study art instead. He drew the “little monster guy” at BIOLA and decided to use it for the album art.

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(Kid A Radiohead logo)

“You know Radiohead’s Kid A bear icon?” he asked me. I told him, yes. “Well, I instantly loved how something so menacing and loud could be associated with this music that can be such a beautiful experience.” I looked up a picture of the bear and saw the white and black fangs, the cartoonish eyes: devouring slivers. Kenny tried to do something similar with his monster doodle, a cartoon that eventually became a personal icon. He welded “858” to its forehead, which is actually his childhood area code and implanted a halo above it. He didn’t have an explanation for this, but because he questions faith, it seems that it fits in quite well. I asked him if he is still religious and he laughed, responding with, “Uh…I don’t know.” He said that he went to BIOLA with questions and found some answers but left the university with even more questions than before. He’s currently at a crossroads: “Am I just choosing to believe it because it is more comfortable to believe it?”

Dusk of Punk has one other intriguing component: a multi-colored cassette tape. Kenny and the band were looking for a tangible medium for the EP, more than an audio file, or even a CD. Colored vinyl proved to be way too expensive for an up-and-comer, so their manager, Jake Whitener, brought the idea of a cassette to the table. And with the cassette, similar to Goon’s tunes, the band has taken something retro and made it new by creating the first multi-colored cassette tape ever. There are also hidden messages, both visible and audible, and according to Kenny: “it came out surprisingly well.” Because both the monster and the cassette tapes contain the colors red and yellow, I asked Kenny if they signify something for him.

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“Yes…in my paintings I’ve been making, mostly for fun, it’s weird how I’ll finish one and without realizing be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s just red, yellow and blue every time!” He goes on: “There’s just kind of a primal power in them” (Art pun). Kenny points out how fast-food chains use red and yellow because they’re associated with hunger. He informs me he’s not trying to sell burgers with his music, but instead is drawn to “the feeling of wanting something on a visceral, primal level.”

Before we finished our conversation, I asked about one more thing that possibly attracted music-reviewers and writers to Kenny Becker and Goon. It comes in the form of an illness that Kenny’s had for as long as he can remember. At first he said it wasn’t serious, but after describing his inability to smell or hear anything clearly most of the time, he sounded more and more affected by its subtle wrath. Kenny suffers from a build-up of polyps in his sinus glands that get so bad that they prevent him from smelling food sizzling on the stove in the next room or sensing a sudden rainfall. But about three months out of the year, his doctors prescribe him Prednisone, which he says is, “by far my favorite drug.” Kenny has a keen observation of detail, which emerged when he described the simple action of walking from his car to kitchen sink. He details the magnificence of the smells he never usually can detect: “I’ve already passed through like five different worlds that I would have been blind to otherwise.” We agree this would make a killer song idea. He tells me I’ll get writing recognition.

It seems that what is so powerful about Goon, vividly showcased in just their first release, is that they gain momentum and an authentic edge by utilizing what clashes in their daily lives. After having an incredibly in depth, yet gentle conversation with Kenny, I felt like he, like all of us even though we hate to admit it, is constantly conflicted. He believes in God but doesn’t know why or if he should, he writes and records music with an illness that temporarily mutes his ability to hear, he creates an entire musical aesthetic from divergent sounds: upbeat and downtrodden. He is an honest person who lives in a city of actors and models, and he follows his impulses while recording music about doing the opposite. Goon will ultimately make you feel something, and if you aren’t scared of that, then give them more than one listen. You won’t regret it.

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Stay tuned…

Goon will be headlining a show at LA’s The Echo on October 21st

And here’s the full EP:

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