“Youth is wasted on the young” is a famous quote often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, or Oscar Wilde. It’s a bitter old saying, combining a bit of cleverly worded elder wisdom with a large dose of grizzled envy. Researchers have traced the quote all the way back to a newspaper published in 1931: specifically, writer Ted Cook’s syndicated column, “Cook-Coos.” Which is damn funny, considering that in this century, neo-Psych Rock crew THE CUCKOOS are smashing that famous quote’s premise with jubilant glee.
This Austin, Texas based band isn’t wasting their youth, nor are they jettisoning the hallmarks of the greats who came before them. On the contrary, these four young men draw liberally from the deep well of vintage pop, heady psychedelic rock, sizzling hot funk, and even a bit of old-fashioned blues to create music that is at once classic yet forward thinking. Classic Rock Magazine rightly christened their psychedelic garage rock “spectacular,” declaring the band “hip young dudes who mine the late sixties acid rock scene for inspiration, but sound so authentic you’ll think you’re having a flashback.”
From Magical Mystery Tour to The Doors, from Velvet Underground to Jimi Hendrix, The Cuckoos roots run deep. Within the band’s swirling, trippy songs, there’s the magical alchemy of Pink Floyd, the stoic enigmatic melancholy of Joy Division, and the epic scope of Led Zeppelin. It’s all super-charged with the gritty energy of Nirvana at their most energetic. At times, one can almost feel the heat of Jimi Hendrix’s burning guitar, as the sonic vibes transport the audience to uncharted funky and jazzy dimensions. It’s all viewed through The Cuckoos young and constantly inspired lens, giving it a fresh feel.
Lead vocalist, songwriter, and keyboardist Kenneth Frost first taught himself piano to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” ignoring the recycled superficial fluff crowding up much of the modern music scene and diving headfirst into The Beatles instead. The sugary-sweet mop-top era of the band drew him in, ultimately leading the young songwriter on an evolution similar to that of the most famous lads of the British Invasion. His voice invokes the soulful baritone of Jim Morrison, with cutting edge modernity. Songs like “Run Away with Me” make magic with organ and guitar, with sinister dynamic energy.
Lead guitarist and backing vocalist David North began his journey with the sounds of later decades, soaking in the nineties punk song-craft of Green Day, then descending into the depths of vicious eighties thrash like Metallica and Megadeth. The blues came next, from Muddy Waters to Albert King, all coalescing into a young adult love for a diverse array of artists, including Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, and Nick Cave, as well as the psychedelic influences he shares with Frost. Together, North and Frost combine to make a brilliant chemistry, resulting in a continuously developing sound of their own.
The two are always making discoveries together, whether it’s a killer hook from a Steely Dan song, a rich groove from Vanilla Fudge, the exhaustive catalog of the legendary Prince, or any number of funky jams from Rick James, George Clinton, and Funkadelic.
“Once we started playing together, there are just certain moments in songs that strike a nerve in your core, which he and I really connect on…” explains Frost. North finishes his sentence as effortlessly as The Cuckoos make music together. “…Those moments we are able to really experience together and bring it onto our own plane,” the guitarist adds.
“We can just feel it when each of us locks into a certain groove.”
North introduced Frost to a pair of his longtime friends, powerhouse drummer Cole Koenning and bassist Eric Ross, whose personal transition from guitar player to bass player allowed The Cuckoos to evolve from their original three-piece incarnation (in which Frost hashed out basslines on the keys) to a more fully realized unit. Together, despite their young ages, the four of them are quickly amassing a body of work that’s truly awe-inspiring, bravely laying down a definitive pathway of their own choosing.
“New Sunrise” offers a great picture of the multiple textures The Cuckoos explore. It’s a bit of a breezy meditation on the post-party picture, the feeling of waking up after a long night of revelry to confront the bright open sky. Toward the end, there’s the heartbreak of a relationship gone wrong, and the promise that a “New Sunrise” brings.
“A Little Bit Funky” is exactly as described: a rock n’ roll song, to be sure, but with a tasteful amount of groove. It’s danceable, romantic, and joyous, like a Stevie Wonder song about new love, in stark contrast to the darker vibes The Cuckoos often conjure. A broken guitar pedal helps capture a moment of explosive intensity in the solo. North says that live, “It’s such an exciting song, I almost have to just let the tune play itself.”
The extended jam section in “Mind Breakthrough” offers a chance for discovery each time it’s rendered, with Ross and Koenning locking into trance-like steadiness that truly demonstrates their ability to maintain a strong foundation, even as a song threatens to destroy itself. Like the band itself, the song has continued to evolve. It boasts a bit of the spiritual shamanism of early Neil Young, in a hazy cloud of personal exploration.
Imagine The Doors, Joy Division, and Rick James writing songs with Tame Impala to begin to get the picture, but be aware, The Cuckoos are carving their own path, hungry to become more than the sum total of the music that has inspired them and to diligently add new elements that will inspire others. Art, after all, should be communal.
“We just want to make music that makes people feel good and feel bad,” Frost says. “We just want them to feel something, something that’s passionate and honest.”
- Ryan J. Downey