What is Chuck Westmoreland singing about? It's a question anyone who has seen him front Portland synth-poppers the Kingdom is bound to ask, thanks to his tendency to hiccup indiscernible Richard Hell-esque vocals over his band's wiry riffs, chilly keyboards and crashing drums.
It's also a question anyone who talks to him about the band's album-in-progress is likely to ask. "You wouldn't really get it right off the bat," says Westmoreland, while lounging on an oversized velvet couch at XV, his speedy speak as sharp as his clear-rimmed glasses.
"There was a plan," he explains. "The plan was to tell a story. We want to create systems with internal logic where things mean different things. There's no new way to talk about things anymore, so you've got to assign new symbols, you've got to reorder the semiotics of things."
Maybe an explanation of the album's concept would help define these "things." According to the leadman, the album is about a snowmobile race that begins in Albany, N.Y., and ends in Brooklyn. During the race, the snowmobile turns into a motorcycle, then a hydrofoil and, lastly, an airplane.
But there's more. Westmoreland is also weaving into the concept the real story of a man who robbed a bank to pay for his lover's sex-change operation (also the basis for the film Dog Day Afternoon). So how does all this fit together? "The vehicle changes to mimic sexual-reassignment surgery," Westmoreland says.
Bank robbers, sex changes and snowmobiles: These are the things the Kingdom is using in its attempt to redraw the pop map with a new legend, tampering with symbolism to breathe life into stale old pop lyricism. Fair enough, but why snowmobiles?
Having written most of the album in snowy upstate New York, the snowmobile seemed as good a vehicle as any, Westmoreland says. "If I'm upset about something, I'll write a tragic song that ends up being a tragic song about a snowmobile race," the singer explains. "We all design our own systems; we all have an operating system that we use to feel less alone. You could substitute anything for the snowmobile. It's just a template-you can put in whatever you want."
Heady, and possibly complete bullshit, yet Westmoreland's ideas don't keep the band from playing an inspired roller coaster of a live show.
"Above and beyond all else, we want to write good pop songs," he says. "We want to keep it real and keep it fucking vital."
But while the Kingdom appreciates pop's sonic qualities, the band still strives to add another dimension to its music. "A lot of things are rooted in rhetoric, like pop music is just so fucking retarded, so you have to come up with a new system," he says. "Something that people can put themselves into and experience-because everybody has a pet snowmobile."
The Kingdom plays with Man Man, Invisible and Recall-Seven Thursday, March 24, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 9:30 pm. $5. 21+.