Kelley’s Heroes founding member John Kelley has never seen the 1970 movie “Kelly’s Heroes.”
The indie rock band’s name reflects Kelley’s desire for a musical project that he had more control over. After a decades-long experience in the Austin music scene, the rise and fall of groups had started to take its toll.
“It was just this lack of control. Bands could fall apart for reasons outside what you can control, it’s something I didn’t have a lot,” says Kelley. “But I knew there was still so much I wanted to do and play and say.”
The band, as well as the album, exists in large part thanks to the creative connection Kelley formed with Rochester bassist Jon Gary in a post-pandemic world.
The two began their collaboration with Gary sometimes sending along a bassline as a favor to Kelley for a song he was developing, and vice versa. They realized quickly that they had similar inspirations: many indie rock standards like Elvis Costello, the Steve Earle Band, Wilco and others. From there, they decided to start actually writing music together.
Gary, who also plays in local band Woody Dodge, says the process was unlike any he had been a part of before.
“It was really that we were writing together as an activity. As opposed to, the band gets together and we’d create songs just sort of by jamming. The singer would start mumbling something, then he’d write lyrics and come back,” the bassist says. “This was really from the lyrics or melody; we were very intentional.”
“And I think we fill each other’s gaps really well,” he continues as Kelley nods in agreement.
In fact, half the songs on the “Who’s Gonna Save the World?” are collaborations between the two musicians. Some songs, like “God’s Not Listening,” were started, more or less, from scratch while others, like the titular track, were one songwriter’s idea that was added on by the other.
Jim Conner, who plays drums in the group and is a self-described music snob, noticed that closeness between the two right away and said it was key to his decision to join the band.
“These are very nice men and there’s no substitute for that,” says Conner. “Musicians are assholes, but these guys are not assholes. They’re great people and, even better, they’re great songwriters.
“So, I wanted to come in, help with making that process and expand what they’re doing,” he continues. “Making original music, not covers.”
While heavy on wailing guitar and a raucous upbeat drumline, the band’s self-identified genre of “indie rock” definitely fits better than “retro” or “classic” rock. The album brings a unique blend of both musical and lyrical depth into serious topics.
For example, there is a certain playfulness to the music video for the song “Don’t Pass Me That Bottle.” (A sequence of the band members looking at various art books from M.C. Escher, Edward Munch, Art Speigelman and Wonder Woman ends with Gary pulling down a magazine foldout of Spinal Tap.)
However, the song itself was born from examining the public’s growing mistrust of the media and the chaos that was building from that fallout.
“That was an answer song to right-wing media,” Kelley says. “I originally wasn’t thinking about it that way, but I was angry about it and (the lyrics) came out that way.”
Similarly, “School’s Out,” a bouncy uptempo number, was written by Kelley and Gary the day after the school shooting in Uvalde. The song directly contrasts the usually celebratory “school’s out” phrase with a tragic trend across the county and contains a clear point of view, condemning the violence as well as conspiracy theorists.
(“Don’t try to say it’s all just a lie/Actors on stage with false flags to fly/But they don’t get curtain calls/To play the victim one more time.”)
The album’s title track has a strong point of view too. Gary intended it as a direct refutation to racist attacks made on actors of color portraying previously white characters, such as with “The Little Mermaid.”
(“That little mermaid was never real/Can’t catch her with rod and reel/Half human half fish in the sea/Any kid could dream to be.”)
This duality of catchy tunes and a humorous mentality combined with controversial or dark topics is something Gary thinks is reflected in his other work. Cartoons he has drawn, for example, can be political, comedic, and grim.
That too, was a factor in why Conner wanted to join in with Kelley’s Heroes.
“There’s a certain defiance you have, that’s rock and roll right? A defiant nature,” the drummer says. “I want to be able to laugh and have fun and, when the time is right, fucking kill it. I’d rather not play than play with people who are boring or sedate. Let’s go in and when it’s time to stand on it, let’s kill it.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].