Raleigh’s King Hitter, a new band of several veteran players, released its debut EP last week, and celebrated on Saturday with a set at Southland Ballroom. Karl Agell, the singer, once led Corrosion of Conformity, just as that band began making inroads to the mainstream.
His current bandmates—guitarists Scott Little and Mike Brown, bassist Chuck Manning and drummer Jon Chambliss—boast past stints in Leadfoot, South of Heaven and Sex, Love & Money, all acts that had their own close calls with fame. On Saturday, in front of a nearly full venue, King Hitter put those veteran chops on display.
The first half of their set covered the EP’s five tracks with clarity and precision. The band’s balance of heavy riffs and bold melodies—a bridge between ’70s rock purism and contemporary modern rock—puts all in service of the hook. King Hitter’s nothing if not ripe for rock-radio airtime. Four new songs followed, showing promise for a forthcoming full-length. The set ended, tellingly, with a cover of Corrosion of Conformity’s “Dance of the Dead,” a song Agell, Little and Brown will undoubtedly play night after night on their upcoming tour as COC Blind. (They’ll hit Raleigh on April 15: “When you’re done with your taxes, come out and celebrate,” Agell says.)
Before the gig, we caught up with Agell to talk about King Hitter, how the new band fits his legacy with Corrosion of Conformity and “the great, grand cycle” of rock music’s popularity.
INDY Week: Can you give me a brief history of King Hitter?
KARL AGELL: The short answer is that we’ve all known each other for years, and we’ve all played in various bands together. The chemistry and the timing were just right for this to happen. More specifically, Scott Little and I had been playing in Leadfoot since 1999, and Leadfoot was a real departure from COC—kind of on purpose. We were exploring a different side of things. It’s more of a rock ‘n’ roll band, just dirty, fast rock. But Scott and I had always talked about doing something to go back and visit our metal roots.
We had these fellow ex-bandmates and friends. Mike Brown used to play with Scott in South of Heaven, and we were friends with the bassist and the drummer from Sex, Love & Money [Chuck Manning and Jon Chambliss, respectively] right when they had their little day in the sun with Sony back in the ’90s. Like everybody else, they were signed for a second, then got dropped. A couple of us started jamming, and there you have it. We’re just a bunch of friends who realized we all wanted to play the same kind of stuff.
Was there any eureka moment? How did you arrive at what exactly you were going to do?
There was a moment when we just realized it was clicking, and we were all writing great songs together. Everybody in the band writes. It all worked together, but nothing was exactly similar. It made sense as one picture: “Hey, we’ve got songs, and we actually like them.” Then we said, “Let’s make this a real band. This is viable.” Leadfoot had been kind of put on the backburner—not officially dead, ever; I reserve the right to do that whenever I want to—so we had just taken a long break. This was exciting and new. We’re still jamming in Mike’s living room. His wife puts up with us. It’s pretty amazing.
The EP does cover a lot of ground, without the five songs sounding like a sampler. What are you pulling from that’s different from what you’ve done before?
Some of the stuff is probably similar to what I was doing in COC, on the Blind record, or that era, at least. It’s related, but different. All of us are fans of so much cool stuff. I’m an old hardcore punk. I came out of that scene, and I was on the parallel path with the guys from Corrosion. We were all punk rockers that grew our hair out and were discovering stuff like Venom, Motörhead, old Metallica, old Slayer. It all just made sense to us. I was pulling from that anyway, and we’re all fans of everything from the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal and proto-metal like Trapeze and Humble Pie, and then the whole swath of awesome new bands playing doom and stoner stuff. We weren’t particularly trying to pick one way to sound.
It doesn’t sound retro, as such. It’s not like you’re trying to do Blind over again.
We were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just a rehash. The good thing is we have five guys writing, which was a check and a balance. We were keeping ourselves from falling into one specific trap. I’ve always felt that bands should be able to express more than one emotion. I love a lot of bands like that, but if I’m the one on the writing side of things, I’d like to express more than just rage.
That surge in the ’90s of big, guitar-rock music was pretty dominant on the airwaves until fairly recently. Now, if I listen to 95X, I’m as likely to hear some keyboard band as I am to hear Foo Fighters or whatever.
It’s true. That’s the great, grand cycle of things, right? It’s all rotating. Luckily for me, Blind has become really hip again. Prosthetic Records reissued it on cherry red vinyl, and I was kind of blindsided. Excuse the pun. It’s cool, though, and people are excited about it. It seems like good timing to be out playing this kind of music.
There does seem like kind of a counter-scene happening. Bands like ASG, who you’re playing with tonight, are doing heavy rock music, but it’s not death metal, either.
That’s a really good way of describing it. I really like ASG. I’m a big fan of melody. I guess that’s my thing as a singer: I’m big on hooks.
It is kind of a weird time to be playing hard rock that isn’t either really extreme, death or black metal, or this kind of poppy indie rock.
I don’t know if my timing’s ever been very good with what I wanted to do. Like you say, there’s a cool counter-scene that’s erupting right now, or a reaction. But I’ve never, ever set my foot down at the right exact time when people are like, “That’s the best, exact thing that’s going on now.” You’ve got to be true to yourself, as cheesy as that sounds. We’re only ever going to be able to do what we know, what we feel. You always hope that people love it and get it, but there’s no guarantee unless you’re on some grand, perfect trajectory to the top.
I’ve been around for a while, doing this kind of stuff, and it’s a totally different system now. I remember putting out vinyl with my hardcore band, pressing 7-inches and mailing them to a P.O. Box. It’s so utterly different now. It’s very hard to calculate. Movements and moments can be generated almost instantly now. That’s the world we live in.
Are there any grand aspirations for King Hitter?
One always hopes that one would be able to take it to the next level. That’s the thing. Especially if you’ve been doing it for a while, you think, “Man, maybe this is the one.” But none of us are really that delusional. We’re going to try hard and get this EP out far and wide to as many people as possible. And, if we can, we’ll take it to the next level. If we can play nationally, or get over to Europe, South America, Asia, wherever will have us, we’re game.
I know you’ve got a tour with COC Blind coming up, but are there any King Hitter tour plans in the works yet?
Well, you can’t say one without the other. The only original members in COC Blind are Reed [Mullin] and myself. The two guitar players we’re using are Mike Brown and Scott Little from King Hitter. So three-fifths of the band are King Hitter, and we’re playing every night. Obviously that’s generating interest in King Hitter as well. We’re going out and everybody’s doing Blind really good justice, I think.
Reed’s having to bow out to do some COC four-piece shows in the middle of this tour, so King Hitter’s going to play those two nights that COC Blind isn’t: April 24 and 25 with Cavalera Conspiracy and Death Angel. A lot of attention’s drawn to the legacy, special-event tour for COC Blind, but also that, “Hey, Karl actually has a current band going.” It’s not just the ‘Where Is He Now?’ file.
And you mentioned recording an album in the fall? How far along is that?
First and foremost, you must have the songs. We are about seven songs i, toward the new album. Hopefully we can write at least another seven to 10, then pick out the very best, track those in the fall and make 2016 a good year to push that out.
Do you imagine the recording process will be similar to what you did with the EP?
The EP was recorded in a very cool studio right near the North Hills Mall. James Lugo, who came out of L.A. and was part of the grand old studio system out there, decided to relocate here to Raleigh. His wife was from this area and they wanted to raise their kids somewhere besides L.A., I guess. They have this house and they built this amazing studio in the basement. It’s not big, but it’s full of amazing gear, outboard gear, a mixing console, and, most importantly, his amazing skill, his chops as a studio guy. He’s got a great producer hat. And he’s got an amazing engineer—John Wooten from Widow. I don’t know for sure that we’re working with him again. I’d like that. But it’s a little too far out to tell. They do some amazing stuff. But I’m always game for trying different approaches, too.
Well, James did a good job producing that EP, too. I couldn’t help listening to it and feeling like it was something I’d be hearing in the background of an action movie. Like one of those big rock hits I grew up with.
That’s a massive compliment. And we would love that, too. Paula Hogan from Candlelight, Plastic Head, Manic—she’s kind of a one-woman wrecking crew putting out this EP. Ger friend made this video for “Feel No Pain,” which is basically a bunch of action moves put together. It’s really coo; it’s got Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Runaway Train, Tombstone, Bloodsport. It’s just this awesome mash-up with “Feel No Pain” cranking in the background.