That joke isn’t funny anymore

After a painful breakup, the Kelps abandon humorous fictional hijinks in favor of real, personal stories

Cory Barringer (second from left) says personal hardships pushed the Kelps’ music in a new direction.

Cory Barringer (second from left) says personal hardships pushed the Kelps’ music in a new direction.

photo by Ryan Donahue

Catch the Kelps on Friday, November 2, at 8 p.m.; $5; Naked Lounge Downtown, 1111 H Street;

For a band that started off writing songs about supervillains, caped crusaders and magicians, the members of the Kelps now approach their music in a way that’s deeply personal and honest.

Originally, the band’s straightforward, blues-inspired rock songs centered on fictional stories. For instance, “The World Will Know Kid Chaos” is about a supervillain sidekick who decides to kill his boss and every superhero in the known universe, except for the last living one—whom he’s tied up.

The band’s lead singer and guitarist Cory Barringer says this showy bent is rooted in his time working behind the scenes for his high-school theater department and also in the short stories he has written since childhood.

Things changed for the Kelps, however, after Barringer went through a painful breakup in 2011. Then, he says, he felt compelled to actually write about himself instead of made-up characters.

“It was a matter of honesty. I was pretty much constantly on the edge of some sort of collapse,” Barringer says. “I felt like I broke my brain, and I had to rebuild it. These songs were really there to be an outlet.”

The lyrics in Barringer’s new songs are, much like the music, sharp, pointed and bluntly honest. In the “The Waltz Song,” for example, Barringer addresses a poignant what-could-have been: “I was your father’s favorite / he once told me while he was inebriated / and he said he would have loved to call me son if we had married.”

This shift in lyrical content ultimately led to a subtle but noteworthy change in the band’s sound as well. After the Kelp’s original bass player quit—because, Barringer explains, the musician wasn’t feeling the band’s new lyrical direction—Barringer didn’t just set out to find a replacement: He also added a second guitar player, growing the band from a rock trio into a fleshed out and textured rock quartet.

The lineup change happened about a year ago, shortly after the Kelps released their first album, Head Like a Mouse. The current band features Tony Reyes on drums, Donnie Weatherly on second guitar and James Larson on bass.

“There’s more sonically happening now, [including] two guitar parts—that’s an enormous difference,” Barringer says. “For the most part, [the second guitar player’s] parts are sort of melodic layers over what’s already happening. It just enhances everything.”

Regardless of the band’s changes, one element that’s remained a constant is its approach to music—writing raw, immediate rock ’n’ roll songs that steer clear of specific musical genres.

“All I really know how to do is make what sounds good to me,” Barringer says. “Any time I’ve tried to put it into a genre, it doesn’t make sense.”

While the band’s music has a certain familiarity to it, there’s also a freshness. This isn’t about reinventing rock music, but rather playing it in the same spirit in which it’s always best achieved its goal: direct, honest communication.

“What makes rock ’n’ roll powerful is the attitude, of getting onstage and saying, ’Here is how I feel,’” Barringer says. “If it’s the same three chords that have been used in a million other songs, I don’t care, so long as they are appropriate to the emotion I’m trying to convey.”

Now as a band whose primary songwriting goals are to craft personal expression, the rock format makes for an even tighter fit that helps create timeless, relatable songs.

“It’s never about trying to make the best song I can make,” Barringer says. “It’s more about taking a moment in time and making something honest out of it, trying to make the best of a bad time and try to create something good out of it.”