For drummer John Morgan Kimock, downtime on tour became writing time. Whether out on the road with Phish’s Mike Gordon, Dead and Company’s Oteil Burbridge or his father, guitarist Steve Kimock, the musician assembled bits and pieces over the past five years that became his brand new album, “Hikikomori.”
“Every time I go on the road, I’m kind of a changed person, for better or for worse,” he told Highway 81 Revisited last Friday, the day the album was released. “You hop on the road and you get three weeks in the band, and you hop off and go on tour with another band. That pretty much encapsulated my job pre-COVID. I did a lot of recording and soaking in the culture of different countries and our own country, and I took my little recorder along. I knew I had somethin’ two or three years ago, and I was sharing it with people and trying to get it a life outside of my own ears. I was encouraged, so I kept going.”
Kimock, who has been playing drums since he was a toddler, said his limitations on other instruments actually helped shape the sounds on “Hikikomori” — a Japanese term for severe social withdrawal.
“I’d have a little realization and I’d maybe try to sit in front of a keyboard or piano, hopefully like a real instrument,” he said. “Whatever I was inspired by, there’s hopefully some sort of happy accident. A lot of what I do, at least from what you’re hearing on that record, the beginnings are really happy accidents or mistakes that turn into from the flip-side of a negative to turning it into a positive, so a lot of this stuff wasn’t exactly what it seemed. Because I don’t, like, technically play a whole lot of instruments, so a lot of things had to happen in a mistakenly way. I had to fumble around with keyboards and guitars. I could tell [if something was] weird enough to kind of start something, or kind of really started resonating with me, so I followed those leads.”
Kimock took a similar approach to blending in the work of several guest players, like his dad, Gordon, Jason Reed, Jared Bell (Lymbyc Systym), Alex Luquet (Sailcloth Sounds), Brett Lanier (The Barr Brothers) and Josh Weinstein (Kat Wright).
“It was pretty organic, and we were just hanging out, like a lot of albums are made these days,” he recalled. “You have your iPhone Notes and people end up on it that way, or send little tones or little guitar parts that they may not think will even make it on the record, or they don’t even think they’re being recorded or captured in a way” that would be used on the album. That, he said, hopefully, creates a situation where the players feel, “Wow, that’s really cool and I don’t feel like I’m in a recording session.”
“I was looking for honest moments that happen, that’s kind of where I’m at,” Kimock continued. “A guy knows the guitar solo is coming, so he’s going to rip one. As much as I love that — everyone loves that — here it comes, and there it happened.”
Growing up in Northern California, Kimock took to the drums at a young age, but he stepped away from the instrument when his focus turned to martial arts. When he moved to Bethlehem, Pa., where his father grew up, “That’s when I got back into drums and started going to a performing arts high school,” the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts.
“That was my phase where I got obsessed with playing with my dad’s music,” he said. “I ended up being good enough at the gig to do things with him sometimes. I loved playing his songs. He had different time signatures and ballads and blues songs. It was a really cool way to get into music, and he gave me the opportunity to actually play out. So I owe him a lot for him giving me stage time and getting on stage with people to play his music.”
The elder Kimock has played the high-profile lead guitar role in several Grateful Dead members’ bands, dating back to the 1990s, including The Other Ones and Bob Weir’s Ratdog, as well as Weir’s more recent Campfire Band. As a bandleader, Steve Kimock is not domineering.
“He’s a pretty awesome bandleader in the sense that he lets things naturally fall into place, and that’s a really good thing for a bandleader to have,” the drummer said. “Bandleaders who are controlling and have issues with that kind of emotion, they’re not really able to, I think, garner the trust needed to get good music.”
For the past five years or so, Kimock has also been the drummer in Gordon’s band. It all started, he said, with an email from Gordon that looked like spam, with “all different types of fonts and colors.” Kimock said the email simply said, “What’s up?” and he responded with the same, “as if we were text messaging, back and forth it literally went.”
He also wasn’t exactly sure who he was corresponding with.
“Phish hadn’t really hit my radar yet,” Kimock said. “But it didn’t take long to figure out who that was. I did know him from his movie that he worked on with Col. Bruce Hampton, that’s how I knew Mike. I knew that movie, ‘Outside Out.’ That was the movie man. I watched the movie like really, really, really stoned on all sorts of drugs in Wilkes-Barre. And that was my introduction to Mike Gordon, maybe for years before that email. And literally nothing before that email.”
The email correspondence led to Kimock playing with Gordon and his guitarist, Scott Murawski, about six months later in “kind of my first unofficial audition.”
Kimock doesn’t know how Gordon became aware of his playing, but he thinks drummer Joe Russo might have tipped off the Phish star.
“Joe used to come and play the Jazz Cafe, and we would open up,” Kimock says of the Plains, Pa., venue. “I’ve been able to tour a bit with Marco [Benevento] and his band. I know Joe had mentioned something to him, and Reed Mathis, the bass player, he had also mentioned something. I’m not sure who else might have said something. It started something of me, I guess, just getting on that list of people he wanted to play with.”
Kimock, whose wife is also an artist, had been living in Brooklyn, but with a young daughter and touring income wiped out by the pandemic, they recently moved back to the Lehigh Valley. He’s hoping to line up some livestreams to celebrate “Hikikomori.” Before the pandemic, he was playing a lot with Burbridge and is hoping to get back to that. He’s also been working on new material with drummer Al Smith, bassist Karina Rykman and his father. That’s in addition to running Astrology Days, the record label and arts collective he founded with Pappy Biondo of Cabinet.
“Beyond that, I’m just hoping to play some shows,” he says.
“I, like many other musicians who mostly tour, our lives are totally thrown for a loop by this time that we’re living in, where we can’t do the touring thing,” Kimock says. “I watched my dad go through it, I watched a lot of people go through it. It was a huge part of our lives that got swallowed up, big time. Our entire careers were thrown for a loop. I personally can speak for myself, I know that people are going through this. It sort of just drains your confidence, it drains your creativity. I would just give a shoutout to all my family and friends who are among those going through this time and say, ‘I’m herefor ya,’ and let’s play some music and create together and make something of this time that doesn’t stifle us or make us feel depressed or that we don’t have support, because I think a lot of people need to hear that message over and over again. I know I did, and I still do. …
“That’s my shoutout to my crew, including yourself, just to check in with people and try to support and put some music out into the world.”