The 10 Best Krill Songs
| July 13, 2020 – 11:14 am
CREDIT: Stephanie Griffin
Krill, Krill, Krill forever! If someone you know was super into the Boston strain of indie rock that came up in the 2010s, you have probably had this refrain shouted at you, most likely brought on by a long bout of listening to Krill, a band that developed a cultishly devoted following before they broke up in 2015. For a brief period of time there, Krill represented all that was good in the world, music that made you feel better by being about all of the things that make you feel infinitely worse.
They were never particularly popular outside of certain DIY circles, but within those circles they might as well have been the Beatles. Those that latched onto their music found something to celebrate. The evangelical nature of their fanbase was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, the cult of Krill’s chant of “Krill forever” derived from the opening and closing tracks of their sophomore album, Lucky Leaves, the band’s tongue-in-cheek way of canonizing themselves that actually worked.
Krill are intrinsically tied to Boston — and by extension Exploding In Sound, the label that gave all of these Boston bands a chance — though their roots are from outside Chicago. As the story goes, the band started playing together the morning after a house show, a basement improvisation that would spawn a group that would last for five years and three albums. “We’re just boring people doing hard work,” the band’s leader Jonah Furman once said in an interview. “It’s kind of liberating to know there’s not some huge end goal. We’re never going to get consistent checks.” Indeed they did not, though the legacy they left behind is impactful.
Theirs is a story of small house shows and passionate crowds. They played their first show in the summer of 2010, at the underground Boston haunt Whitehaus, and in 2012 they released their debut album, Alam No Hris, with a lo-fi sound that’s as inscrutable as its title. They followed up Alam No Hris with Lucky Leaves the next year, which refined their scuzzy and driving hooks. They almost broke up around this time, when founding drummer Luke Pyenson left the band, but found a new drummer and continued on, establishing Krill as something of a Boston success story, a group who put in the work by virtue of being embedded in the scene they were coming up in. They had a goofy social media presence and energizing live shows, performances in DIY spaces where you could feel the dedication and admiration of the crowd feeding into itself.
They fueled that energy into the raucous Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears, which came out in 2014, and their story ends somewhat abruptly with 2015’s A Distant Fist Unclenching. The album presented a fully-realized Krill, their songs muscular and well-produced and surgically constructed. But a few months after it was released, they announced that they were breaking up, wanting to go out on top rather than chase diminishing returns. A series of farewell shows followed for the Krill acolytes to lay the band to rest. Krill never stayed broken up for very long — they’d reunite basically once a year like clockwork, and they released a posthumous EP in 2016 — but the band was no longer a going concern.
Krill songs were catchy and sloppy and cathartic, Furman’s distinctive yowl rising out of the muck to mythologize the frustrations of being young and insecure. They were smart and perceptive. Furman wrote with a surrealist bent, his heightened reality of ordinary events and existential crises made you feel like whatever you were going through mattered. He pulled from Kafka and Dostoyevsky and created an ethos and language that was progressive and inclusive. “If you were having a good time when everyone else was suffering,” he wails in one of their songs. “Then you were the oppressor.” Their songs were serious and self-effacing at the same time; they were a band that was trying not to be disaffected when everything around you is screaming for you to give up.
“It was very much about ethics and morality,” Furman said when asked to sum up Krill’s narrative in a recent interview. “One’s moral responsibilities to oneself and to other people and trying to be in conversation with other ethical art or moral art. I think it was a lot about duty and a lot about responsibility.”
Krill songs were also about personal politics. Furman wrote hooks about how not to be the shittiest person in the room, about how to channel your own anxieties into something productive or at least not destructive. Their songs were often about how to be a better person, a better friend, a better member of society, all while going through your own shit. They laid out internal contradictions in their music, interrogated themselves and their emotions and their place in the world. They often came up empty, but that search for answers was life-affirming and invigorating for anyone who listened.
Last week, the Krill lineup as it existed when they broke up — Furman, Aaron Ratoff, and Ian Becker — announced their first album under a new name, Knot. With the name change and the addition of a new member, guitarist Joe DeManuelle-Hall, the Knot era represents a new chapter for the group and an official close to Krill, at least for now. As a way to memorialize Krill and welcome in Knot, we decided to take a dive into Krill’s 10 best songs.
10. “Self-Hate Will Be The Death Of Youth Culture” (from Alam No Hris, 2012)
Krill had a way of packaging big ideas into one-liners, hooks that are fun to sing along to but that will also keep you up at night. “Self-Hate Will Be The Death Of Youth Culture” is one of those. There are barely any other discernible lyrics in the song, but the constant repetition of that phrase gets you thinking: about how shame and self-deprecation can lead to a general feeling of powerlessness, how that might then lead to depression and, indeed, self-hatred. If we didn’t feel so bad about ourselves all of the time, maybe we wouldn’t be so prone to isolating ourselves? Krill don’t offer up any solutions on this song, just a general banging-about feeling as the band echoes off empty walls, wiry and insistent and gloriously messy.
9. “Phantom” (from A Distant Fist Unclenching, 2015)
“Phantom” builds to a tense conclusion in which Furman tries to find himself in this universe and keeps failing. “What is the proper orientation of myself to my non-self? What is the proper orientation of my non-self to me?” he wails. “What is the proper orientation of the world to my non-self? What is the proper orientation of the world to me?” That attempt to find some moral compass is the drive of a lot of Krill songs, and nowhere has it been so elegantly rendered as it is on the opening track of A Distant Fist Unclenching.
It comes after five minutes of build-up, one of the band’s most accomplished slow-burns, filled with little hints that the world is not adding up to what it should. Depression is personified as a lingering ghost, an odor from a forgotten glass of milk in a microwave. “The phantom keeps on coming/ And the phantom won’t relent,” Furman sings. “And from the kitchen there rises/ An unblinking, awful scent.” Nothing you can do will wipe out the smell.
8. “Never A Joke” (from Lucky Leaves, 2013)
Krill were often very funny, both online and in their songs, but they made a point to not punch down. They went so far as to make a song about it. “Never A Joke” sounds greasy and tangled, uncomfortable and itching to move on. Furman’s voice modulates up and down as the band tumble over themselves; he sings of over-caffeinated late nights and feeling like a loser.
Feeling like a loser often results in wanting to make others feel like losers, and Furman is well aware of when he stoops down to that level. “When I said I hated you, you didn’t call at all and that made me feel so low,” he sings, his voice ping-ponging back and forth. “I was just joking, but I know it’s never a joke to make someone feel zero.” That last phrase is turned into a mantra, a way to remember to make sure you never make someone feel as bad as you might feel about yourself.
7. “Fresh Pond” (from Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears, 2014)
The geography of Boston often plays a big part in Krill’s discography, especially on their Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears EP. Malden, a town just outside the Boston city limits; “Fresh Pond,” the neighborhood of a movie theater that becomes a potential respite in this song. Furman asks the listener if they want to go see a movie, to watch something on a screen other than the passing of people down in the street below.
“When I go home/ I stare out the window/ But all I see sometimes/ Is the window pane,” Furman sings, pleading and a little pathetic. “You claim that I’m not turd/ How could I just take your word? When all that feels real sometimes is my own shame?” Calling back to another great song on the same EP, “Turd,” “Fresh Pond” is one of Krill’s most intricate compositions, a swirl of guitars that leads to a twitchy breakdown and then a calming relief. It’s hypnotic and comforting, an outlier in a discography that so often prefers the anxious. Life slows down for a moment in the darkness of a room, even as the world keeps moving.
6. “Tiger” (from A Distant Fist Unclenching, 2015)
“Tiger” is an ambitious song, a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives and coiled tension that unspools over seven minutes. It alternates between balmy looseness and bugged-out noise, and Furman sounds disaffected, singing of unavoidable everyday catastrophes. The focal point is a villager who was mauled by a hungry tiger. “The tragedy is/ The villager was well-liked,” Furman sings, his voice curling inward.
Bad things happen to good people; fate dictates our endings but we don’t know why. “In the distance, there is a fist unclenching,” he sings. “To hand down the judgement/ But withhold the sentence.” “Tiger” makes death feel inevitable, the natural order of the world playing out as it’s supposed to. It’s complicated and undulating but also quite simple, a giant exhale at the end of a long day as you prepare for the drudgery of the next.
5. “Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears” (from Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears, 2014)
Steve Hears Pile In Malden And Bursts Into Tears is a love letter to Pile, the Boston band that served as both Krill’s forebears and contemporaries. The whole EP is the remnant of an abandoned concept album about Steve, a Pile fan who gradually comes to the conclusion that he’s not a real person and is actually just a character in a Pile song. The EP’s opening title track takes off at a gallop, Furman singing from his character’s POV and comparing himself to his favorite band. “Did you hear the latest Pile album?/ Not a stinker on it/ I feel like I’ve never done anything good,” Furman’s voice curdles, like he’ll never live up to his inspirations.
The whole song’s an adrenaline hit, the band going for broke and playing scrawled, melodic punk. At the end of it, the imagined Steve emails Rick Maguire, the leader of Pile, and asks if he’ll play a show with him. Maguire’s busy, though, and Furman turns that inaccessibility into another way to fall deeper into admiration for this band. “That’s cool, man/ Busy is a good problem to have,” he shouts, his voice howling into the distance. “That’s cool, man/ I’ll catch you laaater.”
4. “Purity Of Heart” (from Lucky Leaves, 2013)
On “Purity Of Heart,” Furman engages in philosophical discussions with the nature around him. He has conversations with the trees, the grass, some twigs, and imagines them also trying to just be content with what they are and struggling to do so. It’s sincere and soul-searching, a rambling and fantastical search for meaning conceived of on a nice long walk. “Do you ever try to just think one thought? To think it all straight and think it a lot?” Furman asks. “Think it all through and see where you get/ And when you arrive, just think it again.”
That’s a lot to package up in a jittery rock song, and none of it is necessarily apparent on first listen — “Purity Of Heart” is one of Krill’s most immediately likable tracks, a squall of noisy guitars and upward energy — but it’s something you can’t help but think about the more you listen, a way to make you more attuned to the world around you and search for purity in the littlest things.
3. “Brain Problem” (from A Distant Fist Unclenching , 2015)
Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. A lot of mental health problems are just chemistry, an unlucky combination handed down at birth or brought on by uncontrollable factors that can, theoretically, be altered. There are a lot of drugs for this. But the worst part about feeling bad, acting like an asshole, or not caring about someone or something that you should care about is figuring out whether it’s your specific brain juice that’s making you act like that or whether it’s just, well, you.
“Brian Problem” is Krill’s fiery and furious song about their frustration with chemical imbalances. Furman is sardonic on it, leery of his own mind. “When I was 16, I realized I had always had a brain problem,” he sings. “I wanted to drop dead right then and there/ I want to live forever/ And I can’t believe I made it to 23 without a scratch on me,” the rest of the band cavorting and crackling around him.
He borrows language from 12-step programs: “So god grant me strength to know what is a brain problem and what is juuuuuust me,” he sings, adopting a jokey drawl borrowed from sitcoms. It’s a deflection tactic but also an admittance that, as he sings, “the problem comes and goes with the weather.” “Brain Problem” is an acknowledgement that sometimes our greatest flaws are immovable, that sometimes bad moods are out of our control but that doesn’t let us off the hook for not trying to be better.
2. “Infinite Power” (from Lucky Leaves, 2013)
The best songs make us feel bigger than ourselves. “Infinite Power” does that, takes hold of the rare few minutes when everything feels great and turns them into an armor. It’s a moment of faux bravado, of course, a place in your head you can escape to when it all gets to be too much, but Furman’s cockiness at the beginning of the song is infectious. “How can I be humble having learned of my infinite power?” he asks. “Why should I be quiet when everything else keeps on screaming?”
The song gives yourself permission to be as sad or as happy as you need to be. In its first half, it’s triumphant and effervescent, but the band switches gears toward the end, launches into a line that’s been shouted along to at Krill shows since they first started playing it. “If you wanna feel like a failure, that’s your right!” Furman repeats the phrase ad nauseam. His voice twists and groans and mangles and screams until you can almost taste blood. To have a whole room shouting that back at you, justifying and celebrating feeling low while choosing to feel high, is power on a near-infinite scale.
1. “Solitaire” (from Alam No Hris, 2012)
“Solitaire” is a song about being alone, and it’s joyous and distressed, frustrated and freed. Furman is heartbroken from a breakup, or at least he wants to feel like he’s heartbroken. He’s singing about the song as he’s writing it, immortalizing fleeting feelings in a piece of art that will live on for eternity. “These three minutes/ Well, these are just a distraction/ Just a momentary lapse in form,” he sings. “Dumb garage rock for some stupid girl I don’t miss/ A face floating in nothingness.”
Furman is excoriating, beating himself up over even pretending to care. He calls himself a “weakness doofus champion,” a phrase that has probably looked nice on a tattoo. His voice is punctuated by echoing coos and the song’s sloppy, driving momentum, all leading to a line that once again incites group singalongs: “I could be in a bad mood/ Every day all day,” he sings, petulant and bratty. But there is one thing keeping his head above water: music. “Put on some Arthur Russell, see how fast I change,” he follows. “It’s embarrassing.” “Solitaire” captures that feeling of jamming out alone in your room and forgetting all your problems by being that song you can jam out alone to.
“Solitaire” has a place in Krill’s own mythology, too. It was the last song performed at their “final” show. They were joined by Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline, who covered the song in its early days and always remained a supporter in Krill’s orbit. It’s easy to sing “Solitaire” and replace Russell’s name and add in the name of any musician that gets you through the day. Hell, you could add in Krill. Krill became the music that can help us feel better about ourselves, or at least meet us on the same level of sadness. Put on some Krill and see how fast you change. It’s embarrassing.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.