Even though you’d never know it from listening to Fake Shark Real Zombie’s game-changing new album Liar, the last couple of years were not exactly banner ones for Kevin James Maher.
“I had a girl that I really let take advantage of me,” says the bleached-blond singer known to his fans as Kevvy Mental. It’s the type of grey, wet, and miserable winter day that keeps the manufacturers of Paxil, razor blades, and malt liquor in business. The nonetheless upbeat Maher is picking at a plate of Cajun potatoes and eggs at the New Orleans–themed Ouisi Bistro on Granville Street.
“She moved in, and it turned out the whole time that she had never broken up with her ex-boyfriend,” he continues. “So I wanted to address that in a way that was done so bluntly that there was no mistaking what I was talking about. But I don’t want her, or anyone, to think that the album is called Liar because of her. I wouldn’t want to give her that much credit.”
The inspiration for the title of Fake Shark Real Zombie’s third and most accomplished full-length, he notes, goes much deeper.
“I felt like I dealt with a lot of dishonest people in the last couple of years,” Maher reveals, “whether it be me letting go of half my band because they wouldn’t just admit that they were trying to start their own thing, and weren’t into this [Fake Shark Real Zombie], or whether it be ex-managers being dishonest with us. It was also about me deciding to be honest about what I wanted to hear in a record.”
Looking back, the singer had what might charitably be described as a shit run of monumentally bad luck. The dark days also included the death of a close friend, former You Say Party! We Say Die! drummer Devon Clifford, who passed away after collapsing on-stage in 2010 from a brain aneurysm.
“It was a really terrible year,” Maher says bluntly. “I felt like I had no stability in anything, whether it be my abilities or my friends or my band or anything. Also, we were being managed by a couple of guys—I don’t want to say who they are, but they know who they are—who completely obliterated my musical confidence. We got an offer from a major label, and they were trying to force us to write the kind of songs that we weren’t just feeling.”
There are all kinds of ways to respond when life goes a cancerous shade of black. You can take solace in the delicious misery of the Smiths, assume the fetal position in a darkened bedroom, or embrace the reality that drugs and alcohol sometimes help dull the hurtin’.
Maher did something better: he went out and made a stunner of a record that’s as laudable for its audacity as it is potentially ruinous for the band’s career.
“There’s definitely a risk being a white blond guy rapping over guitars,” he says with a laugh, part of the joke being that this statement only begins to describe the sonic scope of the album.
A better way of putting things is this: fuck wallowing in the darkness—Liar is the sound of Kevvy Mental not only moving on, but having a blast doing so.
“Who wants to listen to someone feeling sorry for themselves?” he asks, the answer to his question being obvious. “I wanted to make a fun record. I wanted to make fun of myself. I wanted to make fun of everybody else. I wanted to be like Matt Stone and Trey Parker, where nobody is safe.”
If his time spent with the Georgia Straight leaves one overriding impression, it’s that Kevvy Mental is in an impossibly charmed place at this point in his life. No longer known solely for fronting Fake Shark Real Zombie, the singer has emerged as a multitalented threat over the past couple of years. He’s blossomed into an in-demand record producer, working on releases that include Louise Burns’s Polaris Prize–nominated Mellow Drama. He’s also established himself as an accomplished songwriter for other artists. For a good indicator as to where he’s at today as a music-industry player, consider this: not only does he have a writing credit on Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop smash Kiss, he also counts her as one of his closest friends.
Maher, to his credit, doesn’t come across as a name-dropper when he discusses records he’s worked on and stars he’s met; instead, it’s more like he feels blessed to be able to hang out with creative people. When he brings up Jepsen—which he does numerous times—it’s always glowingly, not because she recorded one of his songs, but because she’s made him countless dinners, partly to improve his admittedly appalling eating habits. And when Maher notes that he’s been working with American tattoo mogul Kat Von D, it’s mostly to share a story he’s excited about.
“I’m producing a song for her, and she and I talked for four hours about the Misfits and Black Flag,” he says with a sense of awe. “She’s the coolest girl. When we started talking, she was like ‘Black Flag? Here it is,’ and showed me her Black Flag tattoo.”
Maher recounts such moments with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of someone who genuinely loves music, which comes through whether he’s raving about the genius of black hardcore pioneers Bad Brains or professing his admiration for multiplatinum icons like Whitney Houston. Hip-hop (including Busta Rhymes, the Pharcyde, and OutKast) runs deep in his blood, as does an undying affection for, in no particular order, Mindless Self Indulgence, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, M.I.A., and every act (from Faith No More to Lovage to Mr. Bungle) that Mike Patton has ever been associated with.
If you want to get him really revved up, bring up renegade filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Maher once read an interview where the director revealed that he buys a journal, starts making notes, and knows he’s ready to make a movie when the journal is full. The singer emulated that process for Liar.
“He’s one of my heroes,” Maher gushes. “I think I write the same way that he makes movies. His movies are choked with references to things that he loves. So is my music.”
Take, for example, Liar’s wah-wah-guitar–propelled funk-metal workout “Wish Upon a Star”.
“I reference the Clash in that song,” Maher says. “My lyric is ‘When I get a grudge I give it back times 10.’ For them [the Clash] it’s ‘Give it back two times.’ I also reference Slick Rick in that song, but I change his ‘la di da di’ to ‘party party’. Because that song sounds kind of like Faith No More to me, I made the whole thing kind of a love letter to ’80s and ’90s rock bands and rappers that I love.”
The trainspotting on Liar doesn’t stop there.
“ ‘Blonde Friends’ is me writing a Stooges song,” Maher reveals. “ ‘Transylvania Bitch’ is a song I wrote while watching the video for the song ‘Monster’ by Kanye West. When we did ‘Afterskool Special’, the reference points were all Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff from ’91.”
What all this makes clear is that the Fake Shark Real Zombie of today doesn’t much resemble the band that made past face-melting assault manifestoes like Meeting People Is Terrible (2009) and Zebra! Zebra! (2006). For a start, there have been lineup changes, with Maher and long-time guitarist Louis Wu now teamed with bassist Tony Dallas and drummer Jason Crockford.
Where things have really been shaken up, however, is in the way that the band’s founder and creative engine approaches the business of making art. When Maher formed Fake Shark Real Zombie in the mid 2000s, he was a teenager on a mission to fuck shit up. The band’s first two records were a vicious roar of car-bomb punk, extreme industrial wreckage, and spazz-core dance music. You didn’t so much listen to Zebra! Zebra! and Meeting People Is Terrible as hang on and hope to survive the enraged onslaught.
Somewhere along the way, Maher decided that was too easy.
“I hate what punk rock has become,” he says. “The stuff that’s called hardcore music today is basically glam rock.”
Far more daring than the bands that pass for punk in 2013, Maher suggests, is Frank Ocean, the Grammy-winning MC who came out as proudly bisexual last year, knowing full well that homophobia runs deep in the world of hip-hop.
“He is taking greater chances and saying things way more provocative than any Bring Me the Horizon or bands like that,” he says. “The fact that today’s punk bands are uttered in the same sentence as bands like Black Flag is ridiculous. They aren’t doing anything new, or bringing anything new to the table.”
Maher, on the other hand, radically messes with the program on Liar, which is as epically adventurous as it is flat-out fucking crazy. It doesn’t take long for things to go deliciously off the rails; after giving dance-party techno a soft-candy coating for the opener “Boys”, Fake Shark unleashes the codeine-dosed freak-out “Get Weird”, wherein Kevvy Mental comes on like a hip-hop–loving white boy with an endless appetite for purple drank. The big-top pop confection “Girls” (featuring Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays) shows that Maher has mastered the art of stick-on-first-listen hooks, while “As Far as I Get” is panty-removal music straight from the playbook of Tim Meadows’s Ladies’ Man.
Well aware that his new hip-hop, pure pop, and G-funk reference points are going to piss off those fixated on his caustic past work, Maher heads his critics off at the pass with the slinky jam “Fuck Kevvy”. Sample lyrics include “Fuck Kevvy—I thought his band was heavy” (to which Maher responds with “Inspiration can be evolutionary”) and “Fuck Kevvy—such an attention whore”. The answer to the latter charge? A simple “Yep. Yep.” Matt Parker and Trey Stone would be impressed.
To Maher’s delight, Liar also features cameos by some of the musical renegades that he admires the most. Former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins chimes in with a quick love letter to Fake Shark titled “Service Announcement”, while Mindless Self Indulgence’s Jimmy Urine joins him on the entirely NSFW ode to drinking, fucking, and drugging that is “Afterskool Special”.
If Liar seems like a genre-jumping exercise in out-of-control ADHD, that makes sense when you know where Maher comes from. Born an only child in Edmonton, he moved to Langley at age three, where he was raised by a single mother. Displaying a talent for drawing, he ended up focusing on visual arts at Langley Fine Arts School, which runs from Grade 1 to 12.
“I didn’t major in music, even though I loved music, because I didn’t have the confidence,” Maher says. “It’s funny—I was cursed in a way. I was at a school that had a great music program, where I felt like I couldn’t take the music program. I also loved basketball, but I was at a school that had no sports.”
In hindsight, he’s always wanted the spotlight, which probably explains why he never made it to graduation day at Langley Fine Arts.
“I was a smart-ass,” he admits, and that trait eventually led to him being kicked out in Grade 12. “I basically had material ready for every class just to try and make my friends laugh. I actually had a teacher who was like, ‘Kevin, if you’ll shut up for the class, you can have the last 10 minutes to do whatever you want in front of the class.’ I was like, ‘Great,’ and then stopped paying attention because I was so busy preparing material. I love that my teachers told me ‘Shut up’ all the time, and now that’s exactly what pays the bills.”
Maher finished his high-school education at Langley’s idyllic-sounding Walnut Grove Secondary.
“It was horrible,” he offers. “I hated all of high school. I don’t think that I learned anything past seventh grade. It was like warehousing all these rowdy kids until they were old enough to get jobs. But while I was at Walnut Grove I started going to audio school, and I had a really cool counsellor. My grades were terrible, but she was like, ‘You obviously know what you’re doing—keep going to audio school and I’ll make sure that you get passed.’ ”
Based on where he finds himself in 2013, Maher clearly did know what he was doing.
“Music has been good to me,” he says with a smile. “I don’t have to couch-surf anymore, like I once did—I have my own place now, near Granville Island, which I love hanging out at. I’m paying the bills doing a lot of production work now. I think that’s kind of an interesting story—going from being the frontman for a punk-rock band, doing super-low-budget tours, to writing pop music for people.”
That some of those people are folks in exalted places is now paying big dividends. Consider, for example, that Liar will hit the streets on Light Organ Records, which is owned by Vancouver-based major music-industry player Jonathan Simkin. Simkin, who now manages Fake Shark Real Zombie, has helped guide the careers of artists ranging from alt-pop hitmakers Marianas Trench to Jepsen, who was seen strutting down the red carpet at last weekend’s Grammys.
“One of my biggest supporters, and maybe the reason that I’m on the label that I’m on, is that Carly Rae Jepsen is a big fan of Fake Shark,” Maher says, beaming. “She’s the one who sort of passed the word on to Jonathan Simkin, and was like, ‘This band is good, and you should sign them.’ She really championed us.”
And she hasn’t been alone, to the extent that Maher is as thrilled by Fake Shark Real Zombie’s new and challenging direction as by the way his career as a behind-the-scenes player has exploded.
“I definitely had that downward spiral, but I got out of it somehow,” he reflects. “And I’m glad I did. It’s crazy—it’s so out-of-control right now, to the point where I don’t have time to do everything that I want.
The dark days, it would seem, are officially over.