BUSAN, South Korea -With Klickitat, you’ll never see the same show twice. The jazz-rock-whatever trio of expats dish out a set of sophisticated funk one night and then the next they hit you with something completely different—like a full set of Beatles’ tunes with a near perfect version of “She Said.” All of which shows the depth of this immensely talented group.
Klickitat has enough musical sense to pull off most anything on stage and the savvy to mastermind one of a kind performances night in and night out. Improvisational jamming is the backbone to a majority of their work, which demands a clairvoyant reading of each other’s next move that would make even Bobby Fischer blush. It’s these off-the-cuff live arrangements that are fueling a growing fan base that come to expect the unexpected on stage.
All three were earning their chops many moons before arriving in Korea. Gino Brann, who pulls the crowd along with tight riffs and pinpoint solos hails from Columbus, Ohio. What better way for a kid from the Midwest to pass the time than by mastering the fretboard? He grew up on Dylan and other singer-songwriters, but once he heard the white chocolate of Steely Dan he never looked back.
During college, Brann was turned on to the improvisation of Miles Davis, stirring up a quest for songs that can be manipulated into new territory. As he put it, “These days, it’s anything improv. It doesn’t have to be just jazz.” That mantra is reflected in the wide range of eclectic artists Klickitat covers, from Wilco to Radiohead to Herbie Hancock to Grant Green.
The rhythm section, with Jim Batcho on drums and Kurt Gough on bass, are both products of the San Francisco Bay area who attended the same university but never crossed paths until living overseas. Gough slugged his way through high school on the thug side of town and found a solid refuge in music. He’s a hard core jazz nut, versatile on both the upright and electric bass, and also plays a little trombone, most recently on a recording session with fellow Busan expat singer-songwriter Trey Yip. But he also loves to rock and branch out into other genres as well—even some metal from time to time. His musical diversity is further evident in his nickname, “Kurtis Blo.” It’s an homage to hip hop pioneer Kurtis Blow. “I’m a huge fan. He was the beginning of early rap,” Gough said.
Jim Batcho brings an appreciation for jazz as well, but as he put it: “I’m a sucker for a well-crafted pop tune. I’m into things like complex harmonies, melodies, changing time signatures, and progressive rock, anything that takes the pop format and bends it in interesting ways.” Back in the Bay, he accompanied numerous recording and touring musicians, including Shana Morrison, daughter of Van the man. Presently serving as a visiting professor, he instructs courses on sound for digital image and video.
The combination of Gough and Batcho produces a methodical precision and jazzy finesse. The two combine forces to lay down an evolvable foundation that Brann can interact with, allowing things to take a new course if they feel the urge. Their shows are typically a few hours long, and have been known to stretch even further. Some tunes contain a lengthy jam while others quickly run their course. “When we play Fela Kuti’s ‘Expensive Sh*t’, it can be up to twenty minutes long,” said Gough. The energy of their live sets is charged by the musical language they speak and their instrumental interaction that belies a deeper relationship both on and offstage.
To hear them tell it, the three of them are self-proclaimed music geeks. The hours of practice and endless debates over what good music should be, merges with their different backgrounds to mold the layers of an intricate sound that is distinctly Klickitat.
The three got together and started playing around three years ago at Ol’ 55 in Kyungsung, while joining in on Kim Dong-ha’s Wednesday Open Mic Night. Dong-ha is behind many of the popular acts in Busan today that are quick to credit him as the catalyst for their opportunity to play. He operates four different venues, and his love of anything live draws in many other like-minded folks. As Brann put it: “Dong-ha provides people in this town with a place to play and an open door to meet other musicians. He’s a bar owner, but a music lover first.”
Gough tips his hat to Dong-ha too, explaining that “he started the Busan music scene. If he didn’t open his bars, we wouldn’t have much of a foreign music scene or even a Korean music scene. He got everything off the ground and running, and everyone else came after. But he also supports new clubs and the diversity it brings to the fans.”
Eventually the guys forged together into a band with other local musicians called Rev Mac & the Funk Attack. They built a solid following, but at the top of their game, two members left town. Guitarist Sean DeGregorio fled to Portland Oregon by way of South America, and keyboardist Mark McGrath ended up in Singapore. This all went down two years back, and since their farewell, the remaining guys have evolved into Klickitat. Despite living on opposite ends of the world, the Funk Attack still keeps strong ties to one another. Gough, Batcho, and Brann have played gigs with their old chums while visiting or traveling with them in Singapore, Malaysia, and Portland.
Portland is, in fact, the genesis of the band’s name. If you happen to take a stroll through the avenues of the city, you may eventually stumble across a street by the name of “Klickitat.” Brann describes the day they discovered the unusual word. “We were all there visiting for Sean’s wedding and to get the chance to play together again. We kept walking by Klickitat Street, and we all thought it would be a great name for a band.” The street got its name from a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Batcho, Klickitat doesn’t necessarily have a favorite venue to play. But they are partial to Dong-ha’s clubs. “Ol’ 55 and Vinyl Underground, for nostalgia and loyalty,” Batcho said. He added that the group enjoys sharing the stage with Busan’s vast network of musicians when the occasion allows. “We’re all friends and collaborators here.” They play out as a trio about half the time, but are often accompanied by others. Saxophonist Jesse James Halpern is their most steady addition, and has essentially become a fourth member of the band.
Anthony Garcia, half of the celebrated local duo Poko Lambro, and Gordon Bazsali Jr. from the horn section of the mighty One Drop East, are two other notables that will share the stage. Garcia abandons his famed guitar playing in favor of a vintage Fender Rhodes. “That’s the thing about Anthony,” said Brann. “He’s known for guitar, but he’s just as impressive on the keys.”
Bazsali is the guru behind Klickitat’s hidden treasure: Each Thursday, the gang gets together with other local musicians as a jazz reading club. This serves as an outlet for even further improvisation, and gives Gough a chance to pluck his upright. “The Thursday jazz thing isn’t a show, even though sometimes we wind up with an audience,” Batcho said. “It’s really just
a chance for us to read some charts and improve our jazz instincts.”
Klickitat does all of this simply for the joy of playing music and sharing the love with people, and because they have a passion for jamming off into undiscovered domains. Brann put it best: “We love music, and there’s no other reason than that. We have the freedom to play whatever we want to play. And no show, ideally, is the same twice.”
Photo by Mike Dixon