The Redemption of Christian Kiefer

Posted on December 6, 2010 – 12:24 PM | by OldManFoster
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By Dennis Yudt Photos by Aaron Seminoff

One would think that if you were a local English professor, writer and musician who had made a stack of CDs with such notable talents as Sharron Krause, Califone, Bill Calahan/Smog, Tetuzi Akiyama, Garth Hudson from The Band, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low, and members of Wilco, that you would have a pretty high profile around town.

Unless your name is Christian Kiefer. And then you are a pariah.

How this smart and talented musician and writer became marginalized in our community is a sad statement on Sacramento’s thin-skinned local music scene. For three looooong years, Kiefer wrote ‘Clubber’, a column on live music, for the Sacramento News & Review. Sacramento was not ready for Kiefer’s brand of unbridled and often harsh criticism. For the close-knit musical community of Sacramento, reading Kiefer’s column was akin to watching a stranger taking a shit in your backyard. Vitriol poured forth into SN&R’s letters to the editors section – and in the back rooms of every music venue in town.

For the record, I was one of the naysayers – and a vehement detractor at that. Let’s just say I didn’t care for his sense of aesthetics. In the meantime, the cry-babies came out in force, angered at Clubber’s lack of uncritical back-slapping, something that, frankly, the musicians in this town had long been accustomed to when it came to music journalism. I’ve partaken in it at times myself. Kiefer didn’t expect it.

“I came into [Clubber] thinking that Sacramento should be treated like a big town,” he says. “I had been trained in graduate school to have an aesthetic point of view on art.”

Asked if he now regrets the column, Kiefer shifts his body, betraying the discomfort of the subject even years after the fact. What was earlier a rush of words is now pointillistic and deliberate, taut and weary.

“Yeah. I would never do that again. Never. One of the worst decisions that I ever made was doing that column. That really isolated me from the music scene here. It made me not want to play here, not want to play with bands. It gave people the weird idea that I was out to ‘get them’ or something, when I just wanted people to just have an opinion. It definitely wasn’t seen that way.”

“Having an opinion. That’s all. An opinion and hopefully support it in such a way that it sounds intelligent. Well, that community successfully drummed me out of that job, they can go pat themselves on their back all they want now.”

Kiefer has every reason to be embittered by the experience; it was a flawed experiment from the get-go. As the responsible party at the only media outlet reviewing live local bands at the time, his singular voice – and importantly, one not birthed from the womb of Midtown – was the de facto voice of a whole diverse scene. Without several writers to give a broad spectrum of opinion, Clubber was doomed to burn bridges with certain segments of the Sacramento band scene. Kiefer seemingly burned them all.

Originally from Auburn, CA, Kiefer began playing music as a teenager. The drums were his first instrument; his father had played in his younger days. “I started with drums… but I gravitate towards melody.” Finding an old acoustic guitar in the closet, Kiefer tried his hand at approximating the pre-war acoustic blues of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson. That led him to pre-bluegrass – the “old-timey” music of Doc Watson and the Stanley Brothers. An eighth-grade teacher proved to be a major influence, teaching Kiefer how to play banjo, and introducing him to the folk tradition and later, recording his 1st record, Welcome to Hard Times. An epiphany with the works of Terry Riley piqued Kiefer’s interest in the avant-garde and experimental music that he later came to fuse seamlessly with the traditional folk and Americana. The music that he makes under his own name is a beautiful blend of the familiar and the other; it should be investigated by all adventurous listeners.

Kiefer is well-regarded as a musician here in the US and abroad. As proof, he was recently hand-picked by legendary underground troubadour Jandek to accompany him at his recent show in Davis, an experience that ended with a big hug from the representative from Corwood industries. In fact, it went so well that a CD and DVD are already in the works.

He studied Creative Writing at USC with noted author T.C. Boyle before heading to Iowa for grad school where he says he “got a degree in divorce.” Kiefer is currently on the faculty at American River College teaching creative writing, and has recently written a manuscript, his fourth. But, he says, “This is the first one where I felt that my apprenticeship is over. This is really something.”

The book is tentatively titled Gravity, and he has recently found an enthusiastic literary agent. Its story revolves around a depressed astronaut. “It’s really about a man who has the best job you can have and his life sort of derails for reasons he can and cannot control. It’s about the American will to move forward all the time, then running into a situation where forward motion is not possible and not having a game plan to do anything else. It all takes place in the endless American cul-de-sac suburb where everything is self-similar in all possible directions. It’s kind of about him slowly in a dysfunctional way climbing out of that. But he’s a Saul Bellow kind of character where he doesn’t change as much as fictional characters usually do. There’s no epiphany, no big moment.”

So, five years after Kiefer retired his column, he is enthusiastic about his prospects, both musical and literary. He has not let his Clubber experience taint his prolific work as a writer and musician, but neither has he been allowed to forget it.

“It’s certainly never been the same for me here in Sacramento after that. People have a short memory about a lot of stuff but they don’t seem to have a short memory about that.”

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  1. 4 Responses to “The Redemption of Christian Kiefer”

  2. avatar

    By Chip on Dec 7, 2010 | Reply

    As the silent wing man on a handful of Christian’s outings which later became review fodder for Clubber, I’ll say he was often more generous than the bands deserved, even if his reviews were not entirely positive. The music was not at a caliber that is could have been, and there needed to be someone to say that.

    Unfortunately, the voice of the News and Review since has been of an overrated hipster scene that seems to have their applause-o-meter dialed in to the cool factor, rather than actual quality.

    By the way, Kiefer’s new book should be read by everyone.

  3. avatar

    By Keely S. Dorran on Dec 7, 2010 | Reply

    I really enjoyed this article and the photos are excellent. Since I met Christian and became acquainted with his work (many facets thereof: poetry, music, literature, academic) in 1999-2000, I have enjoyed it’s singular and haunted quality (though I would describe his academic work as clear and engaging). His intelligence is well-grounded in progress and his criticisms are constructive, in my experience. There is a connection I feel through his music and poetry to nature and memory, in a universal yet distinctively local orientation which honors so many aspects of human experience. Regardless of his struggles in the Sacramento community, I’m glad we have him around- for purely selfish reasons: I am an artist, musician and writer myself, and grateful to have him as part of this interconnected if dysfunctional family! He has been both a great support to my own growth and a unique influence.

  4. avatar

    By Rod Siegfried on Dec 8, 2010 | Reply

    Christian is a breath of fresh air–well, most of the time. A real iconoclast with a well tuned bullshitometer. As a musician, writer and teacher he’s willing to take chances, which, after all, is how people grow and evolve. Problem is, many people have an extremely thin skin because they’re afraid of growth, afraid of being embarrassed, so it’s not hard to imagine how he alienated people by speaking out in the News and Review. Five years ago–hmmm, was that when Christian had blue hair?

  5. avatar

    By john "milky" smith on Mar 15, 2011 | Reply

    Redemption? This guy’s got to be a masochist to be playing in the same town where he would regularly write publicly, in explicit detail, how flawed he thought its musicians were. Sure each article started and ended with wording to give it the form of constructive criticism from an empathetic supporter, but without fail he would point out to all of the readers the reasons why they shouldn’t enjoy a band’s performance. If I saw that he had written about a band I wanted to see, I made sure not to read his review. I thought it was hilarious when I started seeing his name in show listings. It’s probably reasonable to assume that he wants a little public humiliation.

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