Hannah Ford and Kaleb Asplund are the couple behind Austin, TX band You Make Engine. They met in college while both working for their university radio station. Kaleb, a real karaoke hound, got Hannah hooked on the activity as well. They loved karaoke, but found that very little of the underground music which they both loved was available. Not to be deterred, the couple set out to create a traditional karaoke event for the untraditional. What came next was Karaoke Underground, a night of karaoke singalong for fans of the grittier side of the musical landscape. We sat down with both Kaleb and Hannah to discuss Karaoke Underground as they approach Chicago on their current tour.
You guys mentioned that you play in a band together. What bands from your expansive karaoke list would you say were the biggest influence on your personal sound?
Poster Children is Kaleb’s favorite band, I know we have tried to sound like them. The Minutemen and Stereolab are an influence, as is Metric, but we don’t sound anything like them either. Our guitarist Brian, who we met through KU, is really into Hot Snakes, Murder City Devils and Shellac. KU has been a great way to good people who aren’t afraid to be seen having fun.
Karaoke Underground is based out of Austin, TX. Given that Austin is one of the most vibrant music cities in the country, what kind of crowd response do you typically get at your shows?
Austin is definitely a great town for this sort of thing. The tough part about putting on any kind of show in Austin is that on any given day there are 5 amazing things to do, and 15 if it’s the weekend. So there’s a lot to compete with, but when the crowd is there it’s amazing.
Your website says that you take requests for songs not already on the list. What would you say has been the strangest request you’ve received?
We’re sort of set up to attract “strange” requests, so that’s a hard one to answer. We’ve definitely been introduced to a lot of obscure music via requests, which is very welcome. Recently we did a wedding reception and the happy couple requested Hefner’s “The Science Fiction,” a great song that wasn’t on our radar. We added the video and it was great to see them sing “I need your body underneath me, every single night” in front of their whole extended family and friends.
When you add new songs to the catalog, what is the process behind it? What goes into constructing a new video?
In deciding what to include on the list, we’ve had to evolve a sort of working definition of “punk and indie rock” for our purposes. So first we determine whether a song fits into that, then we just use basic audio editing software and video titling. The process for a new song takes about an hour or so. Some of the songs are black screen and some have video footage. The videos are fun to put together. One of our best videos is for Modest Mouse’s “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine.”
Your song list is extensive, reaching almost 600 songs at this point. Do you guys have any personal favorites?
There are definitely songs I love to hear or sing. Many of them have become personal favorites through other people’s singing. I love it when ladies sing “Gloria” by Patti Smith, it’s an ambitious choice and we’ve had several people nail it. Fugazi and Guided By Voices always get the crowd involved. In some ways, the point of KU has been to make a list of personal favorites, and we take requests for other people’s personal favorites and discover a whole lot of great music.
Some of the media on your page seems to illustrate a pretty wild time. Do the Karaoke Underground nights take on the feel of live shows more so than your typical karaoke bar night?
There’s an element of diva-ness to it (traditional karaoke) maybe? And a much higher percentage of ballads than what we’ve got. The energy of a KU show is closer to that of a house show. Fist pumping, hollering, standing on tables, a very occasional crowd-surfing. It’s the feeling of being in a room with a bunch of other people who not only know the song you’re singing, but like it and can sing along with honest appreciation – rather than just a shared “yes, I too was repeatedly bludgeoned by that song on the radio.” (Kaleb: That’s not to say fans of the various pop genres aren’t genuine. Many fans of pop genres spend tons of energy seeking out their favorite songs and throwing their whole hearts into karaoke, but they have all the other karaoke nights in the world. This is for us.
Given the success of your traveling shows, have you considered branching out and setting up a network of permanent KU nights in other cities?
You know, people have occasionally asked us if they can do this in their city. We’ve told them how, but only one group has ever followed up on it at all, and they mix in a lot of pop music. The level of geekitude required is quite high, it’s a real commitment. We’re moving toward touring more, though, and would love to have a regular circuit set up.
You mentioned in our initial email that you’re raising a child together. What advice would you have for parents trying to balance the struggles of creative careers with the struggles of modern parenting?
Our main struggle is time. We make time for things that are important to us, and support each other in taking time to do creative stuff. Our kids are awesome, our day jobs keep things working, and when we can carve out time for anything else, that’s a bonus. Sometimes I feel like I wasted my 20s, not realizing how much sheer time I had to work with! If we had that kind of time now, we’d probably take over the world.
Since doing KU I’m sure you’ve seen some pretty awesome performances. Do any of them stick out particularly in your mind?
The two shows we did for the Matador 21 party in Las Vegas last year were definitely highlights. Lots of enthusiastic people getting really into the idea. And seeing some of the artists on our list get onstage was pretty neat. Ted Leo was all-time MVP, singing a Beat Happening song and crowd-surfing onstage for the finale of Pavement’s “Summer Babe.”
In the last year you’ve done a lot more touring than before. How has life on the road been going so far?
We’ve started touring a little more deliberately this year, and there have been some great shows. Mickey’s in Madison has been crazy every time we’ve been there (we’ll be back on 11/4), and the Cactus Club in Milwaukee was just crazy, ending with a gang-vocal thrashing of “New Noise” by Refused. The first Rock Shop show had a crew of punk rockers repeatedly jumping off the stage and stomping through the crowd. The Quenchers show in January was crazy too, my favorite memory from the Quenchers show in January was the spontaneous slow dancing when somebody sang Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” Can’t wait to be back on 10/27!
The current Karaoke Underground tour includes dates in Nashville, TN (10/26), Chicago, IL (10/27), Milwaukee, WI (11/3), and Madison, WI (11/4). Check out their website at http://karaokeunderground.com for more information.