With sales figures for their albums often not worth the paper they were printed on, if ever a band demonstrated both the wisdom and folly of looking beyond the bottom line for artistic inspiration it was King’s X.
The Texan power trio’s unique, almost spiritual blend of soaring vocal melodies, musical muscle and lyrical craftsmanship won them an obsessively loyal cult following and a scrapbook full of the kind of gushing praise and critical acclaim that money can’t buy, but ultimately, in terms of success, King’s X were left eating the dust of countless inferior rivals.
In 2003 Classic Rock spoke to the band about how it had all gone so right, and yet wrong.
Between 1988 and 1996, bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick, guitarist/vocalist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill released half a dozen albums for Atlantic Records, the biggest-selling of which, Faith Hope Love, sold a comparatively meagre 250,000 copies.
The rest averaged about 150,000 apiece – small fry at a time when more glamorous, if less heavyweight and less talented, labelmates like Winger were selling millions. Most people who heard King’s X were seduced, and spoke in hushed tones of the life-enriching music. But with no image to speak of, and coming from God-fearing, already happily married backgrounds, King’s X were both unwilling and unequipped to compete with the type of rock bands that MTV liked to make stars of.
As a result, and despite ground-breaking moments like their 1988 debut Out Of The Silent Plant and its thematically linked follow-up a year later, Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, sales-wise King’s X spent so long in the last-chance saloon that they had their own engraved tankards behind the bar. Nevertheless, they were bitterly disappointed when Atlantic finally released them from their contract in the mid-90s.
Despite the problems they’ve faced, the band are still making records and touring 23 years after they first got together, living up to an agenda set out in their first ever magazine interview, in 1988, when Pinnick told Mick Wall: “The only bands that ever meant a damn are the ones that achieved longevity, and the only way for that is to be an innovator. If King’s X stands for anything, let it be that.”
Right from the beginning nobody knew what to do with the musical conundrum that is King’s X. Formed in the college town of Springfield, Missouri, Chicago-born Pinnick was already in his thirties by the time he met Mississippi native Tabor (then just 18) and New Jersey boy Gaskill (22).
For the first three years the trio called themselves The Edge, before becoming Sneak Preview in 1983. They spent their formative years shape-shifting to suit the trends of the decade, struggling to make ends meet by playing Police, U2, Hall & Oates and Big Country covers in clubs and bars, deeply uncertain of their own style.
“We were second-raters, hopping from one big idea to the next,” Tabor later admitted. “Every time we played someone the tape of our own songs they made a face like there was a bad smell in the room.”
Or as Pinnick recalled: “We got told by everybody that it was the most totally uncommercial, un-sellable, unable-to-book type of thing they’d ever heard. They still tell us that now, only I take it as a compliment. How many times must those same people in radio and TV have dismissed a new piece of genius because it didn’t fit comfortably into one of their easy brackets?”
In 1985 the group were lured from Springfield to Houston by the false hope of a management and recording contract. The following summer, however, they met Sam Taylor. A musician and production engineer, Taylor had been the right-hand man of ZZ Top manager Bill Ham. It was Taylor who suggested that Sneak Preview get a new name; King’s X had no particular meaning, but all agreed that it sounded good.
“King’s X was a game played in Texas right back in the 1940s,” Tabor explains now. “In the 1960s there had also been a band from Dallas with the same name but who’d never made a record. We had to ask them if we could use it.”
A deeply religious man, Taylor was a demanding taskmaster, drilling what he increasingly saw as his musical and spiritual protégés into mental shape, becoming in effect “the fourth member of the band,” as he liked to describe himself to journalists in the early days. Or as Pinnick told Wall: “Sam’s the guy who holds up a mirror to the band, then asks us if we like what we see.”
“How influential was he?” Tabor ponders now. “That’s such a difficult question. He’s been portrayed as the mastermind behind everything we did, but it’s not accurate. Sam discovered a band that already had a sound that he freaked out over and wanted to be a part of. We already had songs like Power Of Love and Pleiades, but we were undisciplined. He came in, kicked our butts and told us we had to get serious if we were gonna do this for real.”
Even with Taylor’s newly ingrained work ethic, King’s X struggled at first to make headway. Just about every record company in America had turned them down when, in late 1987, a demo found its way into the hands of John Zazula, better known as Johnny Z, and then head of his own label, Megaforce Records, which had major distribution through Atlantic.
Out Of The Silent Planet, produced by Taylor and named after a children’s book by CS Lewis, was released in the same month in 1988 as Voivod’s Dimension Hatröss, Rising Force by Yngwie Malmsteen and the debut from Led Zeppelin clones Kingdom Come. To say the King’s X album stood out like a sore thumb would be an understatement.
Hailed as the work of a “new and clear-thinking talent”, as Jon Hotten wrote at the time, reviewers still warned people to allow time to absorb the music’s finer qualities; that it made for difficult listening on first acquaintance, but persevere and it could sound mesmerising.
“As the record that introduced us to the world I’m still very proud of Out Of The Silent Planet – it got us some great reviews,” Gaskill says now. “I sometimes hear the odd track on the car radio and I’m still able to listen to it.”
In March 1988 the band flew in to make their UK debut, at the Marquee Club in London. Kicking off the hour-long show with King, the trio’s combination of lush harmonies and Black Sabbath-style dynamics was astounding. Even now, the group recall that Marquee gig as a watershed moment.
“I’ll never forget that night,” Pinnick beams. “I didn’t eat all day because I was so nervous, but I made the mistake of having some greasy fish and chips half an hour before I went on. The stage was pitch black, and as soon as the lights came on it was frightening… we’d never played to that many people before.”
Sales of Out Of The Silent Planet, however, were less than impressive.
In 1989, Gretchen Goes To Nebraska at least maintained the group’s creative growth. Another CS Lewis-inspired title, it told the story of a small girl explorer setting out for a beautiful land known to her only in her dreams. But while the album was once again praised to the skies by British critics, behind the scenes it was already becoming tougher for King’s X to work with Sam Taylor.
“He’d pick at everything so meticulously,” Pinnick frowns. “You’d write a chorus that the whole band would like, but Sam would make you try it another way, then another and another. Half of the time you’d end up going back to the original idea, but by then you’d be tired of the song. Now when I listen to myself singing those songs I hear a man trying to throw himself into a job, asking his dad for approval.”
Their next album, 1990’s Faith Hope Love, was different for two reasons. Firstly, Gaskill had finally managed to break the Pinnick-Tabor composition stranglehold. And, more importantly, it was the band’s first and only album to make the US Top 40. According to band folklore, Taylor had also placed a lengthy quote from the Book of Corinthians on the record’s inner sleeve without their consultation.
“At that time we still felt like the band was four members, but it was definitely Sam’s idea,” Gaskill says. “I personally didn’t want it there; the Christianity angle was always so popular with journalists. It wasn’t something that we encouraged, but it came up in just about every interview we did. And, yeah, it did become frustrating.”
“We were no more a Christian band than Simple Minds or U2,” Pinnick affirms. “A lot of the songs I wrote were just about relationships.”
King’s X received an invitation to open for AC/DC in Europe, but disappointment was once again in store. With the tour already sold out, the partisan audience who had paid to hear Angus and company had no interest in a mere support band, and coins and bottles were thrown at the stage. It was, Tabor admits, “the biggest drag in the history of King’s X”.
For their 1992 album King’s X, the band had switched from Megaforce directly to Atlantic. They retained many of their trademarks on the album, but also hinted at what was to follow.
They were going through a bitter break-up with Taylor, who would often work with Pinnick for weeks at a time without directly addressing him: “I was a doormat, but I took it like a good little Christian boy,” Pinnick explains now. “It was like two people who were married and hated each other.”
The eventual split between Taylor and King’s X was ugly and painful, but Gaskill says the band felt “a good deal happier and freer” once it was over. Tabor, on the other hand, still finds it hard to talk about, slamming down the shutters by announcing tersely: “I don’t like talking about Sam anymore – period.”
Two years later the group’s descent into commercial darkness continued with Dogman, another album of changes and not all of them satisfactory. By then Gaskill was going through a divorce, and his soon to be ex-wife was also involved in an horrific car crash. Inevitably, the sombre mood rubbed off on the recording sessions. Pinnick was handling all the lead vocals, and Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien had been brought in to bring out a harder, darker edge more in keeping with the then prevailing mood of gloom that successful grunge-era bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden were then having success with.
But Pinnick disagrees when it is suggested to him that Dogman was the album with which King’s X lost the plot: “Not at all,” he laughs. “I still love it. For the first time, there were drums and bass in the mix. I had a long discussion with Chris Cornell about how we were both baritones trying to be sopranos. On our own Dogman and their Superunknown [released the same year] we were both finally singing in our natural registers.”
For the first time, King’s X began to realise that their dreams were not necessarily going to come true. As Tabor half joked at the time: “If this one [Dogman] doesn’t happen there might not be a next one.” It turns out that he wasn’t referring to pressure from Atlantic to increase sales and see some chart action, but to the genuine possibility that the band might have run their course.
“Yeah, of course they wanted us to write hit singles,” Tabor shrugs. “But as far as we were concerned it was more to do with maybe having to break up. We hated being on the label.”
In the summer of 1994, King’s X were invited to join Aerosmith, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Dylan, Traffic, Peter Gabriel and Nine Inch Nails on the bill of the second Woodstock Festival. Around 350,000 watched the band on the first of three days, sandwiched between James and Sheryl Crow. Pinnick now calls the Woodstock experience “the absolute best and worst” of his life.
“Given our lack of success till then I’d kinda talked myself into believing that Woodstock would be our big opportunity. The crowd was responsive, and MTV even called us the best band of the day. So we were excited the following week when we went to Soundscan to see how many records we’d sold. It’d only gone up by 200. Then the following week it was right back down again. At that point I thought, am I the emperor with no clothes? I became more confused than ever. I went home and shaved my head and threw away all my rock clothes.”
The group’s lack of a saleable image had always been a problem. None of them were what you’d call pin-up material, and their habit of smiling and even wearing glasses on stage was less than the peak of rock’n’roll rowdiness. “Some people said that we never smiled,” Gaskill bristles. “But we could only have been who we were, so that’s kinda hard to speculate about.”
But they knew they were losing ground. And, according to Pinnick, touring across America with Pearl Jam only rubbed salt into the wound: “I’d been great friends with those guys for years, and we were able to watch them play for three hours each night at their absolute peak,” he says. “There was one night when I cried – it suddenly hit me that I was this older guy and that I’d had my chance. I went and sat with Ty and Jerry.
"Ty looked at me and said: ‘Doug, do you think we’re just a bunch of old farts who ought to give up?’ I told him maybe we should get drunk and throw our amps over like [Pearl Jam guitarist] Mike McCready, and he kinda rolled his eyes. We’re such insecure perfectionists. It’s the bands that don’t care what anybody thinks that always seem to succeed.”
With the next King’s X album, Ear Candy, a sense of doubt seemed to be spilling over into their music.
“Basically, I’d lost my faith,” Pinnick explains. “When some people found out that I’d lost my belief in Christianity they started sending me letters, telling me to go back to Jesus. But I did not. And at this point in my life it’s unlikely I ever will.”
Another difficult song, Fathers, also saw Pinnick – one of eight siblings, all fathered by different men – delving back into his difficult childhood, with the telling lyrics: ‘My brother’s on crack/My sister’s a wreck/Our mother… she tries.’
“That one still makes me teary-eyed,” he says. “My mother walked out when I was three, which I took very hard. My grandmother told me my mum didn’t want me, but I don’t think that was true; she was just very young. I really spewed that story out. It’s intensely personal.”
Ear Candy was the last record that King’s X made for Atlantic. Pinnick agrees that the label had displayed extraordinary patience, keeping faith in them while other bands like Savatage and Testament were gradually dropped.
“Doug Morris, the chairman, wanted us on the label,” he explains. “They gave us a lot of money to make the Ear Candy record. And, believe me, we spent it all! We went out to LA, we rented condos and cars, used the best studio. If they were giving us an unlimited budget, we’d spend so much money they’d have to push it. It sold 10,000 copies in the first week with no promotion, and 4,000 the next… then they told us, see ya.”
Tabor recalls things a little differently: “The story of how we left Atlantic’s been told so many different ways, but the absolute fact is that we left them, and not the other way around. We were still contracted to make more records, but they’d begun pressuring us for singles. So we pulled some strings to get off the label. If we hadn’t been able to do so, the band was effectively over.”
Up until that point, Pinnick had been fighting a private battle with depression. Now, it seemed, the fast-incoming tide was lapping around his ankles. “Being in this band was like having a mum that loved you and a dad that hated you,” he says. “One would be nurturing you, but the other would tell you that you’re a piece of shit. That definitely gave me low self-esteem.”
Pinnick’s problems with his childhood baggage and his professional frustration came to a head at around the time of the band’s split with Atlantic: “I arrived at a place where I literally hated myself,” he sighs deeply. “I didn’t like my voice, and I began to think that my music was awful, I was ugly and stupid, nobody loved me. I’d change my clothes four or five times before going out to the grocery store. If I walked on stage to a packed audience I’d wonder why everybody was there.
“I come from such a very, very religious family, the God trip was always a heavy weight upon me. If you don’t live up to expectations, religion lays a lot of guilt upon you. At school, during the early 1960s, for 14 years I’d been the only black kid; I was always made to feel like an outsider. One day I found myself going into a panic attack. I had to tell myself to stop the madness. As I did that, a physical change came over me, and I felt at peace; at last I was okay with myself and my gifts. Now I’m able to buy a mirror and actually look into it.”
Even during the group’s major-label days, Pinnick had developed a strong friendship with Brian Slagel and Mike Faley, of independent company Metal Blade. Both were long-time fans of King’s X, and wasted little time in offering the band a deal. For Pinnick, the association was fruitful for two important reasons.
“When we joined Metal Blade, I also signed a solo deal, and I made enough money to buy a house with a recording studio,” he told me in 1998. “We’d have a weekly pay cheque from Atlantic, but it was always a struggle. So it was all supposed to have been over for us. But suddenly there was all this money. Plus, the people at Metal Blade are great – if we sell our usual X amount of records, then they’re more than happy.”
“Moving from Atlantic to Metal Blade wasn’t a step down but a move across,” Tabor insists. “There wasn’t a discernible drop in sales, and we were artistically free again.”
Furthermore, the new label also encouraged the trio to make music outside of the King’s X format, something that had been taboo under the Taylor regime. Before long, Pinnick had put together his side-band Poundhound, Tabor had released his own Moonflower Lane album and joined the all-star Platypus project (which later evolved into the Jelly Jam), then formed Jughead with ex-Dream Theater keyboard player Derek Sherinian and the former David Lee Roth rhythm section of bassist Matt and drummer Gregg Bissonette.
Pinnick and Gaskill have since then also teamed up with Trouble guitarist Bruce Franklin in Supershine.
“As soon as the offers to do outside projects came in, I grabbed them,” Tabor says. “Until then we’d been advised not to do them, and I can kinda understand why. In those days it was viewed differently. If a member of Led Zeppelin went away to do a solo album it was seen [as a sign of weakness]. Now it’s all perfectly commonplace, and it helps us to pay our bills. There were also artistic benefits. By that point I’d become tired, burnt out and felt I was in danger of stopping to care.
"We were taking each other for granted. I was actually scared when John Myung [Dream Theater bassist] asked if I wanted to play in Platypus with Rod Morgenstein [Dixie Dregs/Winger drummer] and Derek [Sherinian]. At the time, I’d almost stopped playing guitar. I didn’t have the chops to play with those guys. But agreeing was the single most important thing I ever did as a musician.”
The knowledge that there was still an audience for King’s X, plus his reading of self-help books, finally revived Pinnick’s self-worth, though tellingly he still owns up to having a self-destructive streak.
“I’m well aware that any band has to have commercial, hit songs to sell lots of records, but I’ve always sub-consciously felt the need to sabotage that,” he confesses. “I don’t know why I have to screw it up, but I’ve always been this band’s dark side.”
The big question that still remains is why King’s X consistently failed to translate some of the most positive, glowing reviews in rock music history into sales. But don’t expect Pinnick to give a short answer to that.
“It’s something that I’ve racked my brains about for years,” he sighs. “We’ve been the underdog for so long that I’ve analysed King’s X till there’s nothing left to analyse – maybe that’s one of the problems. It could’ve been our music’s Christian overtones; it could be because I’m black; it could be because we were making alternative-sounding albums with heavy guitars – maybe the guitars were too metal?
"But we’ve been imitated, and those imitators went on MTV and sold records, which for a while hurt us deeply. Lots of fellow musicians have admitted to my face that they’ve ripped us off: Robbi Robb from Tribe After Tribe [who also starred Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament] once told me there was so much in one of our songs that you could take little pieces and make a complete one of your own. And that’s what people did.”
But then King’s X never did fit in easily with whatever the prevailing trend at the time was. And in fact that was part of their appeal. But as Pinnick says: “If you stick out from the crowd you’ll always have a problem. It’s been said that we ushered in a new wave of metal, and I think that’s true. But ultimately the masses didn’t know it.”
American radio played its part in the door-slamming process. Still aghast at the memory, Pinnick cites a feud between Sam Taylor and ZZ Top manager Bill Ham as typical of the way playlists were compiled: “We got no airplay in Houston for our first few albums,” he maintains, “because he [Ham] and Sam didn’t like each other. Bill had [allegedly] called the stations and said if they played King’s X he wouldn’t let them play ZZ Top anymore. That’s the kind of dirt that seems to go on in radio.”
With King’s X’s independence established, the band’s later albums, such as Tape Head (1998), Please Come Home… Mr Bulbous (2000) and Manic Moonlight (2001), have seen their sound becoming darker and more esoteric than ever. Black Like Sunday (2003) returned the band to their roots, however.
A collection of songs from their earliest days, all recorded with modern technology, it captured the group’s original fleetness of foot and earnest, youthful optimism. I was informed that, based purely on first-week sales, …Sunday had already out-performed recent King’s X records by three to one by the time of our interview. Surely that gave a good indication of what the fans really wanted to hear?
“The current climate is for lighter, happier songs. Whether or not that’s due to 9⁄11 and the Gulf War I don’t know,” Pinnick says. “We didn’t do Black Like Sunday for that reason, but it probably tapped into it.”
“Who knows what the fans want, other than for us to be ourselves?” Tabor responds dismissively to the same question. “No, we’ve done things quite differently this time. It’s on our own label [distributed through Metal Blade], and we’ve done a lot more interviews, trying to build things up again.”
The band insisted it was paying off, with a younger age group now making its presence felt at their shows. Speaking of which, a series of European dates was being arranged for that November. Ironically, these days British fans get to see more of King’s X than they did in the band’s heyday.
“Atlantic always wanted us to concentrate on America because that’s where the big sales are,” Pinnick says. “And that’s something I regret. The UK was where we had our first magazine cover and it was the place that loved us first. In America we’re still basically an unknown band."
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 56, in June 2003. King's X play The UK in September - tickets are on sale now.