Interview with Kenneth Higney: An Outsider Musician, Both Incredible and Obscure By Ryan

Oct 29, 2012

Kenneth Higney is an outsider musician best known for his debut full length, Attic Demonstration. It was self-released in 1976 and contained nine demo songs Higney hoped would jumpstart his songwriting career. The record failed to register with mainstream artists, but over the years it has become a sought-after gem for underground record collectors—and for good reason. Attic Demonstration is both incredible and obscure.

Kenneth Higney was born in 1951 in Manhattan and grew up a music fan. He dropped out of college and worked as a truck driver while writing songs in his spare time. He took his songwriting very seriously even though he didn’t consider himself a musician or recording artist. Just prior to recording Attic Demonstration, Higney’s friend Gordon Gaines offered to help out on the session. An accomplished musician, Gaines improvised most of his parts on the record (he ended up playing nearly all the instruments on the album), learning the arrangements from Kenneth on the spot. Initially, Higney laboriously dubbed cassette tapes of the demos and sent them out to artists he felt would be interested in his work. To save time, Kenneth pressed five hundred vinyl copies. He titled the record Attic Demonstrationand sent a few LPs out for review. Word spread of the album’s merits slowly but surely.

Four years after the release, in 1980, Higney released the “I Wanna Be the King” b/w “Funky Kinky” single. It caught the attention of underground New York punk legend, Terry Ork (Ork released the first Television single “Little Johnny Jewel” in 1975). After a deal with Ork Records fell through, Higney continued to write songs, but waited nearly thirty years to record the follow up, American Dirt (2009). Kenneth released Ambulance Driver two years later. Although Kenneth has found better recording studios and sticks mostly to major chords, his recent output demonstrates that his idiosyncratic lyrics and approach to music remain largely intact.

Interview by Ryan Leach

Photos courtesy of Kenneth Higney and Nick Williams

You were a kid when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Did they leave an impression on you?

Kenneth: The Beatles did. I grew up with an older sister and an older brother. They were fans of music. One of the first songs I remember hearing from my brother’s collection was “Boogaloo Down Broadway” by The Fantastic Johnny C. He liked the instrumental “Rebel Rouser” a lot, too.

My first musical memory occurred while I was riding in the car with my parents. I was listening to the radio, tapping my foot to the music. My father said to my mother, “What’s that noise?” They realized it was me, beating on the floor pan. I was about five years old. They knew that I was going to be a fan of music.

But the Beatles really put the pieces together for me. They appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1963, when I was in sixth grade. Just before they went on the show I was at school; my teacher said, “Whoever likes the Beatles, please stand up.” I wasn’t aware of them yet, but a group of kids in my class knew who they were and stood up. The teacher said to us, “See the students standing? They’re the ones who are going to fail this year.” I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Shortly afterwards, I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It was fascinating. I loved them. My mom used to listen to vinyl records all the time. She loved Frankie Laine. My dad loved Jerry Vale. There was a lot of music in the house. Nobody played an instrument, but listening to music back then was more of a communal thing.

Ryan: Did you start playing guitar when you were young?

Kenneth: I attempted to play the guitar with some friends. We were inspired by The Beatles. We didn’t take lessons; we just tried to figure it out ourselves. It didn’t really go anywhere. I took some guitar and piano lessons for about four weeks. I didn’t have a piano because my family couldn’t afford one, so the only time I’d get to play was when I went to see the instructor. We realized it was a waste of time. Guitar lessons were kind of boring. I wasn’t interested in becoming a great classical guitarist. I just wanted to learn how to play songs.

Ryan: Most guitar teachers will give lessons that center on reading music.

Kenneth: Exactly. I just wanted to play songs. The first song I taught myself was “Play with Fire” by The Rolling Stones. That’s really what I wanted to do with music. I had a dear friend who has since passed on named Gordon Gaines. He was an incredible guitarist. Gordon played on Attic Demonstration. I’d often ask Gordon, “Hey, how do I do this on guitar?” He’d show me and say, “Kenneth, you really don’t know anything about guitar.” I’d say, “I know.” To this day I don’t consider myself a guitar player. I strum a guitar.

Ryan: You wrote the songs for Attic Demonstration between 1974 and 1976. You were working as a truck driver at the time, correct?

Kenneth: I was a truck driver at the time of Attic Demonstration. I had gone to RutgersUniversity before that, but I dropped out after a year because I was bored stiff. After college, I worked various jobs—at a warehouse, a paint factory, and a hardware store. Then I started loading trucks at night, from midnight to nine in the morning for a company. Eventually, I became a truck driver for them. I recently came across something someone wrote about me having sold my truck to come up with the money to record Attic Demonstration. If that were true, the album would’ve sounded a whole lot better. I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to record it. Those songs were done as demos. I was hoping people would record them. There were nine songs on Attic Demonstration. I always thought six of them could have been recorded by people. I understand three of them were too long, but the other ones had commercial potential.

Ryan: Being on the East Coast, I imagine you were a fan of Brill Building songwriters like Doc Pomus and Goffin and King.

Kenneth: Of course. I grew up in the era of Top 40 radio. I’m not sure how conscious I was of those writers at the time, but their music was amazing and everywhere. Later on, I eventually found out how many songs Carole King wrote. I was really impressed by how great they were and the sheer number of them. The BrillBuilding songwriters had pure talent.

Ryan: Attic Demonstration seems like a byproduct of the ‘60s—back when the BrillBuilding was active and songwriters like Dan Penn were cutting incredible demos for people to record. That tradition is now gone, for the most part.

Kenneth: Thanks. My original intention was to be a songwriter and not a performer. To this day, I think “Quietly Leave Me” could have been arranged as a great folk-rock song. When I get around to re-recording the album, people will see what I was thinking originally.

Ryan: You’re thinking about re-recordingAttic Demonstration?

Kenneth: Yeah. I want people to understand that those tracks were written as songs. I’d love it if someone were to do an Attic Demonstration tribute album. That would be perfect. Of course, it hasn’t happened yet.

Ryan: Which artists were you hoping would cover your songs?

Kenneth: “Night Rider” was a two-chord song. That could have been done by any garage band at the time (1976). I always thought that “Quietly Leave Me” would have been a good number for Olivia Newton John because it was a pure pop song. I thought that “Look at the River” could have been done by Heart. What else is on there?

Ryan: “No Heavy Trucking.”

Kenneth: Who knows who could’ve done “No Heavy Trucking”? “No Heavy Trucking” was an attempt to do a dance record. That was more of a funk song. Attic Demonstration is all over the place.

Ryan: You cover the gamut of musical genres on the record. There are a lot of morose tracks on there, too.

Kenneth: Morose is the word. People who don’t know me think I must be a depressed person because of the songs I write, but I’m actually a very happy person. I believe it was Muddy Waters who said, “I sing the blues so I don’t have to live them.” I don’t think a single song on Attic Demonstration was inspired by a real-life event. I was using my imagination.

There’s one exception: “No Heavy Trucking.” That came from a sign I’d see when I was out driving around. My family thought one or two songs on the record were about old girlfriends, but they weren’t. Some of those tracks were just exercises in writing. “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” got its title from my mother’s favorite movie of the same name. I thought it’d make a great title for a song, so I created one around it. Later on in life, my songwriting became more personal. Attic Demonstration was also released in the era of the album track; I think some of those songs would have worked better on an LP as opposed to a single.

Ryan: How did you get the group together that recorded Attic Demonstration?

Kenneth: Attic Demonstration was basically me and Gordon (Gaines). He was in three bands at the time and had played on recordings. When I told him I was going to cut an album of demos, he said, “Well, let’s go in together and I’ll help you.” That was fine by me. I taught him the songs in the studio. Being an incredible musician, he came up with most of his parts on the spot. But it wasn’t like I was consciously trying to put a band together around that album. They were just demos. Having Gordon in there was great because it just enhanced the record. Those tracks were all first takes. A couple might have been two takes.

Ryan: I know Gordon played guitar and drums on Attic Demonstration. Did he play bass as well?

Kenneth: He played bass. There’s one track where John Duva played bass (“Night Rider”). John was a really good friend of Gordon’s. We recorded the album in two different sessions, one in Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn.

Ryan: Gordon’s bass lines are all over the place. That takes nerve for someone coming up with stuff on the spot.

Kenneth: That’s the sign of a true musician. Jack Pearson, who played on my last two albums (American Dirt and Ambulance Driver), is the same way. He used to be in the Allman Brothers. Jack will come up with lead guitar lines on the spot. Gordon could do that. He was an amazing musician. True musicians can run through a song once or twice and already have a great part figured out.

Ryan: I don’t want to draw the comparison too close, but when Captain Beefheart would record with the Magic Band, he’d sometimes record his vocal parts with nothing but faint studio leakage as a cue. It gave his music an improvisational quality. On Attic Demonstration there are moments that remind me of Beefheart’s approach. Instruments will be out of time, yet there’s still a coherency to the music. Were you conscious of this as you were recording the album?

Kenneth: That was totally by mistake. The intent was to record those songs as demos. We just banged them out so quickly. I was hoping someone would record them later and clean them up. All of those songs could’ve been done acoustically. In fact that was my original intention, until Gordon volunteered to help. I believed that if you couldn’t strip a song down and record it acoustically, it wasn’t really a song. Back in the day, an A&R guy would listen to an acoustic song, decide whether he wanted to do it, and would later flush out the arrangement.

Ryan: Do you go off of total intuition when you write songs? Are you conscious of staying in a certain key?

Kenneth: I don’t really. I just pick up the guitar and play. In the late ‘70s, I would use some strange chords. Now everything is basically major chords. I realize most of the great songs are very simple, but every once in a while I’ll still try to throw in some strange chords. I really love lyrics. That’s my main thing. The lyrics almost always come first.

Ryan: The odd chords are a compelling feature of Attic Demonstration. You open “No Heavy Trucking” with two chords that I’ve never heard before. It really grabbed my attention the first time I heard it.

Kenneth: [laughs] “What the hell is that? It sounds like he’s just banging on a guitar and screaming!” That’s what I’m doing. At the time I really didn’t know much about chords. I actually have a lead sheet for the music. Someone created one for me. I was playing barred chords, so once I figured out one chord, I’d slide up and down the neck to get the next one. I selected chords based off of their sound. Back then when you copyrighted a song, you had to have a lead sheet. I actually have the lead sheet near me. The chords to “No Heavy Trucking” are Bb diminished, G# diminished, Eb major 6th…see, that’s what I’m telling you.

Ryan: That’s the oddest chord progression.

Kenneth: They’re very strange chords. I plan on recording that song again. I doubt I can play it the same way, even with the lead sheet. The guy who wrote the music out for me said, “You know, I’m having a hard time figuring out these chords.” I said, “Okay, well I’m paying you for it. Just let me know what I’m doing.”

Ryan: In your liner notes to the reissue, you mention that Attic Demonstration “snuck out.” You sent a few copies out to magazines for review, correct?

Kenneth: Yeah. The record came out because I was tired of duplicating cassette tapes. I’d make a tape and send it out to an artist I thought would like my songs. Making all of those tapes took time. I could afford to press the songs on vinyl, so I did. I pressed up five hundred copies.

When the records arrived I thought it’d be a good idea to get some recognition, so I sent a copy out to Trouser Press. The album did get some attention. I wasn’t hoping Trouser Press would say, “Attic Demonstration is the greatest album in the world.” I was aiming for them to mention it as a good demo album that other artists should listen to. That was the intention. At that point I wasn’t looking at becoming an artist. I strictly wanted to be a songwriter. I sent the record out to a New Jersey-based magazine called the Aquarian. They did a whole write up on it. The press didn’t do much good. It didn’t sell very well. Attic Demonstration surprised me by how popular it became over the years. I never thought it’d grow in popularity like it has. I’m not saying it’s a great or fantastic LP. I’m just surprised by how many people have written about it and enjoyed it. Having Nick Williams ask me to press it again was a great surprise. There’s interest out there for it.

Ryan: Your songwriting was really intuitive and unique. It’s very exciting to hear something you’ve never heard before that’s so successful. You can’t predict the music on Attic Demonstration. Although you mentioned earlier that your lyrics aren’t based on life events, there’s an intriguing starkness and honesty to them. It’s a remarkable album.

Kenneth:The lyrics could’ve come out subconsciously. I’m not sure. I don’t really like to go too in depth about the songwriting process.

Ryan: In 1980 you cut the “I Wanna Be the King” b/w “Funky Kinky” single. The shorter format didn’t lend itself to demoing songs like Attic Demonstrationdid. What was your intention with the 45?

Kenneth: The single was my attempt at becoming a recording artist. I didn’t want to do demo versions of songs anymore. I wanted to record with a full band. So Gordon helped me out again, but with more preparation. Attic Demonstration did next to nothing, but I still had a lot of passion for music. So I thought, “Hey, maybe I have to properly record my songs myself.” “Funky Kinky” was a song I had written specifically for Grace Jones. She never recorded it. “I Wanna Be the King” centered on what was happening in New York at the time. Unlike Attic Demonstration, those two songs were intended for release. They were finished songs, not demos. From that point on, I’ve always recorded as an artist. People were doing singles back then. As you know, “Funky Kinky” was released near the height of the punk movement. People were putting out singles left and right. Everything was very do-it-yourself.

Ryan: Were you conscious of the no wave scene? People like James Chance and bands like The Bush Tetras?

Kenneth: Definitely.I listened to all of those groups. “Funky Kinky” was inspired by what was happening in New York in the late ‘70s. But when I record a song, I don’t go after a particular band or musician’s sound. I record in my own way. My own style comes through.

Ryan: I’m surprised that your early work didn’t catch on with the punk and no wave crowds. In some ways, Attic Demonstration reminds me of Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbet—with its impromptu nature, immediacy, and lo-fi recording quality. Of course Chilton was a big hit with the CBGB’s crowd.

Kenneth: Right.

Ryan: And “Funky Kinky” seems like a track people hanging out at the Mudd Club would’ve liked. You released that single when James White And The Blacks and The Bush Tetras were going strong. You were doing something similar at the same time.

Kenneth: My big fault was not going out and playing live. I think more people would’ve been aware of my records had I done some shows.

Ryan: I sincerely think you would’ve done well in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had your music gotten more exposure.

Kenneth: Thank you. For whatever reason, I never got around to playing live. With Attic Demonstration, it sort of makes sense: I was a songwriter. However, when I put out the “I Wanna Be the King”/ “Funky Kinky” single, I brought it to a label called Ork Records. Have you heard of them?

Ryan: Terry Ork!

Kenneth: Terry Ork. I actually had a meeting with him.

Ryan: Amazing. Terry Ork is one of my heroes.

Kenneth: That’s cool. I had a meeting with Terry and someone else from the label at their office. At the time, Ork was looking for East Coast bands and artists because they were going to start up a label in the U.K. called Ork U.K. If I remember correctly, they said they were looking at releasing four singles by four acts for the U.K. market. They loved “I Wanna Be the King/Funky Kinky.” At the time, they were going to sign The Bloodless Pharaohs. I forget the other bands.

Ryan: Brian Setzer played in the Bloodless Pharaohs.

Kenneth: Exactly. That was the first time I had heard of them—through meeting the people at Ork Records.

Ryan: They were really good. A collection of their unreleased stuff came out years back and it’s pretty awesome.

Kenneth: I know. I tried to get Gordon and the rest of the band together really quick. But for whatever reason, the deal with Ork fell through. I’m not sure why.

Ryan: Ork Records didn’t last too long.

Kenneth: No it didn’t. But talking about doing a deal made me really excited to get everything together and start playing, but when that didn’t happen… I think had I gone out and actually played live, things would’ve worked out much better. I just didn’t want to do that. I was shier then. I didn’t have any ambition to do anything other than write songs.

Ryan: Slowly but surely Attic Demonstration sold copies. There was a re-press done in the ‘80s. Was there someone championing the album?

Kenneth: Paul Major was supportive of it. I’ve yet to meet him. He called me up one time and asked if he could re-press it. I told him I had five hundred covers left; he could have them if he pressed the vinyl up. Paul is in a band called Endless Boogie. He’s done interviews where he’s mentioned how much he likes Attic Demonstration. He said the album encouraged him to pursue music. Paul was the first person to earnestly support the album.

Ryan: After the “Funky Kinky” single, you didn’t release a record for more than two decades. What were you doing during that time?

Kenneth: I was working. [laughs] I was always writing. After the disappointment of Attic Demonstration, I decided to do what I wanted to do. I stopped driving a truck and started working in the music business. I worked for publishing companies. Up until 2009, I was the vice president of Arc Music. I worked there for thirteen years. Arc was in charge of publishing the old Chess Records catalog. I oversaw all the publishing for Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and lots of other Chess Records artists.

Ryan: That’s amazing, Kenneth.

Kenneth: My boss was Marshall Chess. I love Marshall Chess. Benny Goodman’s brother Gene was my boss, too. The Goodman and Chess family owned Arc. They are wonderful people. They would tell the most incredible stories. It was a great job.

I released an album for a guy named Joe Bendik. With Jack Pearson, I produced a record for Ashley Turba. She recorded four of my songs. I was involved with music—just not recording under my own name. When I realized that Arc was going to be sold, I decided to start recording again. In the past three years, I’ve cut two albums (American Dirt and Ambulance Driver).

Ryan: So that’s how you hooked up with Jack Pearson—through your music publishing job?

Kenneth: Yeah. A friend of mine worked at Polygram Records. She gave me a pre-release of an album. Two tracks on there sounded like Howlin’ Wolf songs. I asked her if she had licensed the songs yet, because they were under the control of Arc Records. She said, “No. Those aren’t your songs. They were written by Jack Pearson and William Howse.” I got Jack’s number and tried to get him on as a songwriter for Arc. Unfortunately, Marshall wasn’t signing anyone at the time. But Jack came up to New York. We hit it off and have been friends for a long time. I wish Gordon were still alive. He and Jack would’ve gotten along really well. Jack’s a great guitarist and so was Gordon. Jack’s so humble—just like Gordon.

Ryan: Your two recent records show your songwriting hasn’t changed at all. Those songs could’ve appeared on Attic Demonstration—only the recording is of higher fidelity.

Kenneth: Thanks. Almost all of the songs on American Dirtwere written around the time of Attic Demonstration. I just wanted to get them done. Ambulance Driver had about six new songs. The new album is about half old songs, half new songs. I want to get in the studio soon.

Ryan: Are you coming out with a record at the end of this year (2012)?

Kenneth: I’m hoping to, but it might have to be next year. Jack Pearson is setting up a new studio, but it’s not up and running yet. I seem to come up with a record every two years.

Ryan: Are you going to play a show soon?

Kenneth: I’ve been playing guitar a lot. What I have to do is find a place in New York and do small shows acoustically. Something under the radar. Then get a four-piece band. I think I could get a crowd.

Ryan: You would.

Kenneth: That’s what I was thinking. I have a joke I tell people. I think I have about twenty-five hundred fans. I figure if I played one show in the middle of the United States, it’d be a great middle ground geographically. That way I can tell people, “Okay, I’m finally playing a show. Come on out!” [laughs]

Ryan: “Come see Kenneth Higney!”

Kenneth: Yeah. I really want to start playing live now. That’s a new feeling for me. 

Thankful Bits is supported and made possible, in part, by grants from the following organizations.
Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of our grantors.