The Jersey-bred ska-punk band's folksy alter ego, Bandits Of the Acoustic Revolution, is about to headline the storied New York City venue
"I think Streetlight Manifesto is one of the biggest small bands, or one of the smallest big bands."
Tomas Kalnoky hasn't talked to the press in a decade, or much publicly at all for that matter. Maybe if he wasn't so meticulously private and the band released albums more frequently than once every half-decade, their size and scope wouldn't be so hard to pin down. What's much less ambiguous is that Streetlight Mainfesto just plain matters.
Without a studio release since 2013's The Hands That Thieve, the brass-inflected seven-piece has been able to take its panoramic ska-punk on big theater tours and play to a couple thousand fans per night, while diehards pore over every bread crumb towards long-rumored new music. There's good reason to: Hands is such a thunderous call-to-arms of an album, you could make a good case for it as Kalnoky's most memorable since 1998's Keasbey Nights, his first band Catch 22's debut and a sealed-in-time classic within the genre. Even less ambiguous? Kalnoky will very soon be leading a band that's literally very big.
Bandits Of the Acoustic Revolution, the enigmatic folk-punk collective he founded in 2001, will play New York's Radio City Music Hall on Saturday (May 4), backed by a 45-piece orchestra. Bandits released only one recorded project -- 2001's A Call To Arms EP -- then lied relatively dormant until last year, when they reconvened to play New York's Beacon Theatre and Los Angeles' Orpheum Theatre. Keep in mind Streetlight hadn't released anything since 2013, so while the diehards pined for a new album from Kalnoky's much more famous band, the singer-guitarist hit them with an insurmountably ambitious live project from a group with only five recorded songs to its name.
Promoters were understandably hesitant to take such an obscure project to such prestigious venues, but Streetlight's touring credentials convinced them; selling out those dates got them coming back for more. This year's Bandits docket (which also hits Chicago May 11 and L.A. May 18) figures to include orchestral renditions from the Bandits and Streetlight catalogs, ahead of another batch of recently-announced shows from the latter.
And about new Streetlight Manifesto music -- Kalnoky isn't giving any dates, but he insists it's a very real thing that's being worked on now. When it does arrive, it will be the first Streetlight music self-released through Kalnoky's own imprint, Pentimento Music Company. Following The Hands That Thieve, the band was released from a long, unhappy relationship with Victory Records, Kalnoky's label since Keaseby Nights. "I can’t wait to actually have something to put out," Kalnoky says. "This is gonna be the first time we get to put something out on our own terms, on our own label, with no one else being involved."
Kalnoky has been chasing true independence for much of his life. Now that he can finally taste it, what's he going to do with it? Billboard recently chatted with him about exactly that.
So how did you guys wind up playing Radio City Music Hall?
Last year was the first year we did the orchestral thing, with the Bandits Of the Acoustic Revolution, and it was actually difficult to find a venue at all. Bandits Of the Acoustic Revolution is not really a band; it was more of a side recording project I put together 15 or 16 years -- shit, almost 20 years ago -- in my basement. So there was no history of the band.
Streetlight obviously had a history of 15 years of touring, playing larger and larger places. None of the promoters wanted to take on this weirdly-named project with a full orchestra, so we had to put the Streetlight name behind it [along with] the clout of a booking agent to get us a venue that could even physically fit what we wanted to do on the stage and still have a seated area for the crowd, as opposed to general admission. None of the places we normally play could host an orchestra.
Last year we got the Beacon Theater and that sold out so fast, which gave us some currency with promoters. We were not expecting Radio City, but we got to choose from three venues and as soon as we saw Radio City on the list, we were like, hell yeah, we gotta do that. IF for no other reason than New Jersey and Tri-State area bragging rights.
What's it like organizing and arranging an orchestral show around these songs?
We’ve been playing for a million years with seven instruments -- electric instruments, amps, drums, and whatnot. And now we have essentially about 60 wooden instruments onstage with a microphone for each one... I think it’s just as daunting, humbling, exhausting, excruciating, and painful as you would imagine. I haven’t slept properly in probably the last month or so.
I'm interested where the drive for a project this ambitious comes from. You mentioned these orchestral versions have been in your head for years -- how do you think they get there?
I think for everyone, every musician, there’s music that’s always playing in the background when they’re growing up. For me in my house it was classical music -- a lot of Eastern European folk music -- but primarily there was always a radio station or CD player playing classical music. My brother [Achilles Kalnoky] is a violinist, and he’s also in the Acoustic Bandits orchestra for these shows.
Was your family's interest in classical music linked to growing up in Czechoslovakia?
No. Well... Maybe there is a little more emphasis on classical music in Europe, not particularly Eastern Europe.
It was a typical immigrant story, where I was supposed to play piano and be an engineer, and my brother was supposed to be the doctor and play violin. When you’re small and malleable your parents can get you started on these paths, but once puberty kicks in, you rebel. So I rebelled and quit piano and decided I didn’t want to be an engineer -- but my brother stuck with it. They would drag me to his classical concerts and I would hang out in the parking lot, a lot of times skateboarding.
Your family came to the United States when you were five, right? What made your folks want to come over?
The general awfulness of communism... My parents decided, more for the kids, that they were gonna get out and head to America. So they put a very complicated escape plan into motion, which I won’t get into the details of now. They managed to escape with their kids to America to get a better life for everyone. I went ahead and played music instead of staying in school. [Laughs.]
Your bands came out of your college years, right?
I grew up going to the Stone Pony [in Asbury Park, NJ], cutting my teeth in the punk rock scene... I started college at Rutgers [in New Brunswick, NJ]. My first band Catch 22 was the Rutgers years. I was actually studying engineering but I decided to leave and go to art school. I was 19 or 20 when I left for [Savannah College of Art and Design]... I’d just quit Catch 22, so I wanted to get away from everything. I didn't go to any shows, just ignored it for a couple years. I spent six or seven years doing the whole college thing, just taking my time with it -- that’s where I got my degree in graphic design.
Streetlight Manifesto was born then. I would finish classes on Friday afternoon and drive the 12 hours back up to New Jersey. I built a... you can’t even call it a recording studio. It was essentially a two-human-sized box. I had egg crates in there and whatnot in my parents’ basement. I would invite buddies from the New Jersey punk rock scene in the Catch 22 years over to record stuff. That’s how the Bandits Of the Acoustic Revolution got its start. It was more of a recording project than a live band at the time.
So you were regularly driving back and forth from Georgia to New Jersey?!?
Yeah, driving for some reason has been almost a form of therapy for me. I can drive for a day straight. I've done a lot of cross-country driving in my life. I think my longest drive was 21 hours straight, with bathroom and gas station breaks, in a 20-foot U-Haul with all our gear in the back. It’s funny because we’ll play a show, wrap up, go out the back door, and usually our contingent of hardcore fans is there to say hello, get autographs or selfies. And then they watch me walk over to this massive truck, get in there by myself, and drive away. [Laughs.]
I think Streetlight Manifesto is one of the biggest small bands, or one of the smallest big bands -- I’m not sure which one. People don’t realize how, to this day, we’re about as DIY as it gets. Just the fact i’m talking to you now... you’re the first interview I’ve done in over 10 years. We don’t necessarily partake in all the traditions of a band of this size. We never read the manual on how to do it, never followed other artists.
I think that has contributed to the fact we’re still around while we've seen so many bands come and go. Bands that we’ve taken on the road, that have opened for us… a year later they're massive and then two or three years later they've imploded or got into fights, bad management, this and that. It’s the charm of Streetlight but it’s also an unspoken secret as to why we’ve been around so long -- doing it ourselves and doing it our own way.
You recently announced some new Streetlight tour dates to come after the Bandits shows. What can fans expect?
We’re just coming off of two years of doing the [Everything Goes Numb 15-year] anniversary tours. We got to play a bunch of songs we normally don’t play and hadn’t played in years. This year is a nice catharsis where we get to relax and play exactly what we want to play. We’re also going to be adding a lot of songs we’ve never or rarely played before -- the band favorites, as opposed to fan favorites. We see requests for some of these songs too, but it’s not going to be the most obvious songs we’re playing this year.
What about new songs?
We might have some snippets... That’s probably the most requested thing we get right now. And by requested, I know people are people are mad at me for taking so long to put out new music. I was speaking to my mother a week or two ago and she came at me about it: “When are you gonna do a new album? It’s been so long since the last one!” Like, geez mom...
I think the older I get, the more critical I am of myself. I’m constantly playing guitar and I’m constantly writing music. But there’s the innate fear of repeating myself. It’s not an insecurity per se, but at this point there’s so much expectation that I want to make sure when it’s time for a new album, it’s not just a new album for the sake of having a new album -- that it’s something I can stand behind. For every album I do, the recording process takes months, if not years, because I'm so unfortunately meticulous. By the time the album is wrapping up, I’m about as close as a human can get to a nervous breakdown without having one. And I’m pretty much convinced: This is the last record I can put out; I can’t possibly write songs better than the ones I just wrapped up; I’m spent; I’m done. And of course I put together another album years later.
So I think I’m in that phase now where I’m starting to put together songs and sketch out what a new album is gonna look like. I’ve got a couple ideas that are definitely non-traditional. I think I’m gonna pursue those. It’s gonna be a little bit of a stretch, a little bit longer.
I learned over the years not to talk about release dates and things I’m working on because I don’t want to make any more promises I end up not keeping. If there’s any sort of question about it, we absolutely are working on new music, I’ve got a couple non-traditional ideas I’m fleshing out now but I cannot -- for the sake of everyone’ sanity -- give out any dates. Because of my history with dates.
Does being free of Victory Records make it easier for you to move forward with new music?
I don’t know because we haven’t released anything since we left Victory… since the lawsuit that wrapped up... We all work on new stuff so when that stuff does come out, it’s gonna be a whole new ballgame for us because we’re gonna be behind every aspect of it, in terms of distribution and the release process. We got what we always wanted, which is absolute freedom -- not just from Victory -- but from everyone.
Now, as of two years ago, Streetlight is completely independent. We owe nothing to anyone. No one takes a cut. No one pressures us to put out a new record, et cetera... We’ll see what it’s like to release a record without a record label when we do it soon… soon-ish! Shit, I sort of just gave the timeline.
You recently bought back all your masters, right?
Yes. [Victory] sued us. I’m not sure how much I can talk about. I’m not gonna say anything bad about Victory; I have no intention to… And that’s not because of the lawsuit. That’s more because of the way I look at life. I couldn’t stand them. Without naming names, they were my mortal enemies for 18 years of my life. They made my life excruciatingly difficult. On the other hand, I’m sure I made their lives difficult too.
Thinking of some of the people who just work there, who were expecting, for example, me to fulfill a date, and [I wasn't able to] able to meet it. It was a very antagonistic relationship and I’m sure the blame falls on both sides. But once it was over, one of my few talents is the ability to walk away from things and never worry of think about them again.
From interviews over the years, I've learned it wasn't just Victory -- other established labels in that punk scene would use their allure to take advantage of young bands with terrible contracts.
Especially back before digital distribution and whatnot, you did need a record label to have any sort of success, or to make a career of music. Over the years that's changed so much. As sad as it is for anyone’s business to go under... the saddest part is a lot of the people that work at the labels lost their jobs.
But I’d be lying if I said part of me wasn’t watching the whole label system, that whole ship sink, with glee to a degree. They got to do whatever they wanted for so long and always got the upper hand over bands. Then file sharing kicked in, digital distribution kicked in, the whole democratization of the music business kind of killed all of these companies who were really just bastards. A lot of these labels which called themselves “punk rock labels,” “indie labels” or whatever were worse [than major labels] from my observations.
I only had experience with one label, but from my estimation a lot of these indies that hold up the, "I'm your mom and pop record label" flag were worse than the majors because they could hide behind that supposed innocence. A lot of them were shitting on their bands more than the major labels because with the majors, there was some sort of accountability. It wasn’t just some guy cooking the numbers in the backroom, where it could be that with a small label. I’m not saying that about all small labels -- there are definitely tons of altruistic independent record labels -- but I don’t think it’s enough to be like, “We're independent so you should just assume we do right by our bands.”
I really appreciate you doing this interview after doing so few in the past. So I gotta ask -- why have you avoided interviews for the past 10 years?
Oh man… You got another hour to talk about it? [Laughs.] I have a set of really peculiar beliefs about music and I'm clearly going against everything I'm about to tell you, everything I've believed for the last 15, 20 years.
I believe in musicians making music. I don’t believe that because someone’s in a mildly successful band that they have the right to have access to some sort of celebrity. People tend to idolize people in bands and I’ve known enough people in bands, been backstage at a million festivals, and a lot of these bands that we grew up idolizing are crummy people. Or at the very least, they're massively egotistical. I’m not saying I’m not a crummy person -- I’m not here to judge that about myself -- but I wanted to remove any sort of personal aspect.
On a very basic level, I don’t know people and people don’t know me. I’m a stranger to them and I don’t want them to think they know me through my songs. I wanted to remove anyone in the band's personality from the larger picture. That's the exact opposite of what everyone does these days on social media, over-sharing stuff. We don’t post pictures of our breakfast and vacations; we don’t talk about our religious or political beliefs. Anything we want people to know is already in the music.