Koi Kingdom: ‘Our sound is quirky, considered, groovy and brooding’

There’s a certain kind of empathy that is characteristic of some bands — the ones we call ‘great’ bands, that is. When they play, they convey each other’s thoughts and emotions, as if all  members share a psyche. Koi Kingdom are that kind of band; saxophonist Cheryl Durongpisitkul, guitarist Marcos Villalta and bassist Stephen Hornby have been performing as a trio for five years now and in that time, they have created a very distinctive signature sound, marked by airiness and fluidity. Listening to their music means being absorbed into a spiral vortex of soundscapes, where musical genres melt into each other and the term jazz is illuminated in all its nuances. Now they have a new, spectacular album out, Pink Milk, adding more textures into their mix of sound. 
Marcos Villalta, Stephen Hornby and Cheryl Durongpisitkul | Photo: Lisa Businovski

How is Pink Milk different to Menagerie‘?

Stephen Hornby: Our first album was hard work and sounds like it — in both a good and sometimes not so good way, I think. We pushed ourselves technically and explored a range of textures and arrangement possibilities to find what works in our ensemble. This album came together a lot more quickly and easily and has a more effortless feel to it overall. We have defined our sound on this album to some degree and were able to dig more deeply into and expand upon that. As a result were able to focus more on the subtle details in the pieces and our blend and interaction as an ensemble.

Marcos Villalta: I agree that this album came together more easily than Menagerie, even in the time of COVID restrictions and lockdowns. I think this is partly due to us improving as performers and composers, but also maturing and using our time more efficiently. I think there’s more variety in this one with compositional techniques, and maybe the one thing I’d say different to Steve is that I think we explore texture more in this album.

Cheryl Durongpisitkul: We were very excitable during our first album — I think the thought process was along the lines of ‘more equals better’. We were figuring out our sound and the way our three voices can work together and were keen to experiment with different sounds we had available. Because of this there was heaps of post-production on our first album and lots of layers of sound on some tracks. We seemed to have settled into a groove with our sound and really appreciate the live performance aspect of our band. I think because of the band ethos of rehearsing heaps and memorising songs we were keen to capture some of that live sound and intensity on this album.

Speaking of “defining your sound” — how would you describe it?

Stephen: I think the three of us are very open and I think we also look to push the limits of what we can do sonically and the range of moods we can create which makes it hard to define. That said there have been some themes that have emerged over the last two albums. Long episodic pieces, interlocking contrapuntal melodies, latin grooves, humour and playful interaction come to mind. We tend to focus on detailed arrangements and use improvisation as a composition tool. If we have to give it a label, I usually just go with ‘Jazz’.

Marcos: I think describing our sound is a little complex, because we have a very wide palette of sounds that we use to make our music, but also our inspiration is quite diverse. I think as individuals we have more command of the sounds that are coming out of our instruments as we continue to practice and grow. But I also think we are more familiar with each other’s sounds because our relationships have grown too. So when we’re composing for the band, we know a little more about who and what we’re composing for, so I think some characteristics make reoccurring appearances because of this. For example, long complex and technically difficult melodies for Cheryl and myself come up a lot, because we like that and are used to it. As a guitarist I notice when the bass is providing a lot of harmonic and melodic material, and I notice that in Steve’s playing, which I feel is a big part of the sound, he’s covering a big range and also really provides solid grooves for this drummer-less band. I feel Cheryl often brings attention to small details, like articulation, and that brings a lot more colour to our sound.

Cheryl: Our sound is at times quirky, at times considered, sometimes groovy, and sometimes brooding.

The best part of being in the band is how open and free each member is with each other’s compositions. I guess the foundations lie in the players that we are, so you hear heaps of Marcos’ signature whammy sound and b9 chords, Cheryl’s rhythmic and sometimes atonal blowing and Stephen’s songlike phrasing and free-blowing grooves. 

When I saw you play last March, you were already performing new material, so I assume that you had it ready before the lockdown; has the pandemic affected the course of this album in any way? 

Marcos: From memory, it didn’t affect the material much because everything had already been composed as you have said, and overdubbing had been planned for one tune which also wasn’t an issue as that was done at our homes. I guess keeping the material well rehearsed was a challenge because of the first lockdown, so we had to rehearse it fresh again when getting close to the recording. Apart from that, surprisingly I think the album hasn’t been that affected in terms of outcome. That’s coming from my end, I’m not sure about the other two.

Stephen: The timeline is a little hazy but my recollection is that we had most of the songs written before lockdown, although there were a few that hadn’t been finished. I think the lockdown might have shaped them, allowing about more time and space to work on them.

The lockdown forced us to postpone our recording to the middle of the year. Because we weren’t able to rehearse through the lockdown, when it was lifted, we had a limited time to prepare for the recording which meant that we spent a lot of time together in a short period, including a couple of weekend sleepovers. It was a nice bonding experience to cook together, watch a movie and hangout in a more casual context.

Cheryl: We have been performing some of this material since our 2018 tour. We were pretty much ready to record before Covid-19 but there were a few stragglers to be finished. A few of our tunes were finished during the first lockdown but it certainly made rehearsing and playing together basically impossible. We had a week-long rehearsing intensive before the recording and we had just got in with the recording date as it fell on the day before the second lockdown began, but Koi Kingdom were put pretty much on hiatus in 2020. 

Marcos Villalta, Stephen Hornby and Cheryl Durongpisitkul | Photo: Lisa Businovski

What are the stories behind the new tunes? 

Stephen: I can speak to the pieces I wrote for the album. 

‘Pink Milk’ I wrote because I felt like we needed something a bit looser and more open. The title comes from a particularly cute video of Cheryl’s two-year-old nephew reading a book in which possums drink pink milk.

‘French Tips’ was inspired by the Punch Brothers’ piece, ‘Three dots and a dash’, ‘Prose’ by the composer John Hollenbeck, and ‘Ghosts’ was my attempt to break your heart, that piece means a lot to both Cheryl and me and when she plays it, she puts everything into it.

You mean break the listener’s heart?

Stephen: No I mean specifically yours, Nik! Ha ha no, everyone’s really. I love / need songs that help me get the waterworks going and I hope that this piece can help people exorcise some of those feelings if or when they need it. I named ‘Ghosts’ after I read the letter that Nick Cave wrote in response to a question he got from a fan. He talks about ghosts and when I play this song I like to think about someone who has passed but might still be present in some way, kind of like a musical eulogy.

Marcos: ‘Summer Sandwich’ was just me wanting to write a samba-ish tune with a long melody form. ‘Cloudscapes’, I have no idea why I chose that name, I can’t remember. The title ‘Portrait of a Black Hole’ was chosen after I had written the music, it had a very spacey and emotional feeling to it, and there was that photograph that came out in 2019, the same year that I wrote the piece which got me thinking. Something about black holes are eerily beautiful so I thought it’d be fitting to call the tune that.

Why did you choose ‘Pink Milk’ as the album’s title?

Stephen: Marcos suggested ‘Pink Milk’ as the title. I think he likes the silly playfulness of it and the imagery it creates which he drew on when creating the album art, which looks amazing I should add.

Cover artwork by Marcos Villalta


Cheryl: I think we generally like to think about the mood of the album and the imagery associated with the album. We did toss up between a couple of names but ‘Pink Milk’ really spoke to us in more than one way. It feels somewhat strange and not too serious.

Where do you position yourselves in the jazz and improvised music spectrum?

Marcos: Doggy — no haha, I don’t know, I think we have the background and inspiration but I’d put us somewhere more central, at  an intersectional point of different styles.

Cheryl: Somewhere between art music and poop music.

Stephen: I like the word ‘jazz’. I think its meaning is more conceptual then prescriptive and as a result it’s able to hold a lot of very diverse sounds with in it. Our music doesn’t fit neatly into a box but jazz is open and broad enough for us to find a place within it. Wynton Marsalis might have something to say about that but I think Herbie and Wayne would be into it!

What is your idea of jazz?

Marcos: Hmmm, maybe at the moment I like to think of it as a lineage, an evolving art form that doesn’t have super specific characteristics.

So the lineage part is it’s evolutionary path, the music created by those musicians who helped make swing, bebop, avantgarde jazz, fusion and so on, and it extends to the people today who use that language, whether they are doing the same thing, or using it in a fresh or ‘new’ way. The only characteristics that hold true for me today in my opinion is improvisation, and the practice of using chord progressions to drive your improvisation, and the virtuosity that you hear it, of course not always shredding but you probably see it more in there than you do in some other genres.

I often think of swing related to jazz and blues, but there’s a lot of what  I’d call jazz nowadays that I don’t think utilises the swing, so jazz for me doesn’t necessarily need swing.         

Stephen: I agree with Marcos’ point about being connected to a tradition but I would add that it is an art-form that accepts and embraces each person’s unique perspective.

You are all involved in a series of different projects; how does this band fit in with them?

Stephen: I feel like for the three of us, this band is somewhat of a home for us. It doesn’t matter what else is going on in our musical lives, we always know we have this to come back to. It’s a space we know we can bring our whole messy selves too, a secure base from which to explore our weirdest and wildest ideas.

Cheryl: I still see Koi Kingdom as my number one creative outlet. I love playing with my best friends and favourite composers. Of course, rehearsing is often followed by a lovely hang and it makes creating music together a thoroughly enjoyable experience — when were not annoying the hell out of each other! I think that all of us are really affected and influenced by the other groups we play with. They affect the music we listen to and what headspace we are in when we get together. We like to approach coming together as a meeting of wherever each of us are at musically and are all open to our tastes changing or developing. 

Marcos: I guess all the other band experience builds you to be a more intuitive player with more language, so when were playing together again there might be some fresh ideas, and we’re a band that like to refine our work so this happens every now and then. 

If you could invite anyone in the world to join Koi Kingdom, who would that be?

Stephen: Probably Sarah Galdes — she’s our close friend who plays drums but has been living in New York for the last few years. If she was here, she’d be in the band. She’s probably the only person I can think of who would be up for playing our crazy music and be able to handle hanging out with us for long periods of time. If not her, maybe drummer Dave King from The Bad Plus.

Marcos: I would invite Chick Corea, who recently joined the dead sadly, or maybe Hermeto Pascoal.

Cheryl: I feel like if anyone were to join Koi Kingdom it wouldnt be Koi Kingdom! We’d have to make some other band up! We’re also far too annoying for anyone to be able to tolerate, they should be glad they’re not invited. 

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

Marcos: Sound-wise, maybe ‘Cloudscapes’ or ‘Pivot’, they’re both hectic, and at the moment I feel like my brain is running around a lot as it’s a super busy week for me. Title-wise, I reckon maybe ‘Pivot’, I feel like I’m swinging around in all directions, haha.


Stephen: I agree with Marcos — maybe ‘Pivot’ or ‘Cloudscapes’. All the busyness of preparing for an album release makes it hard to focus and feel creative. That said it’s also fun and exciting. Definitely going to do a long meditation tomorrow before the gig.

Cheryl: Definitely ‘Cloudscapes’ for me. The last minute scramble to cross the finish line has been a feature of my last month. I’m looking forward to becoming a lot more ‘Pink Milk’ after the launch!

Koi Kingdom launch ‘Pink Milk’ tonight at the Jazz Lab