by Rob Mair
photo: Michelle Johnson

Content note: Discussion of mental illness and suicide

I never said I loved you, I guess I thought you knew,” considers Kali Masi’s Sam Porter in a moment of stark reflection on the quite brilliant opening track to the Chicago quartet’s second album [laughs].

At nearly six minutes long – and moving through several styles as it progresses – ‘Still Life’ is an outlier in the band’s catalogue and a wildly ambitious opener. It’s also a de facto manifesto for everything else that follows, on a record that is not afraid to tackle some weighty themes as it careers towards a thrilling conclusion on ‘The Stray’. 

Between, there’s plenty of weight given to discussing issues related to mental health and suicide, chronicling Porter’s own mental health experience but also ruminating heavily on the death by suicide of close friend Mike Scott in 2018.

Scott was best friends with Kali Masi’s Anthony Elliott, and a central figure in the Chicago music scene. ‘Still Life’ reflects on the complex feelings experienced by Porter while at his friend’s funeral. “I felt like it shouldn’t have happened,” he says, as we catch up over the phone one evening in late February.  

“It’s a tricky topic to talk about,” he says. “There’s a lyric in the song about “it doesn’t end the pain, it just pushes it around” – and that was truly evident at the funeral. Like we were all shouldering that pain. And it was ridiculous how many people were at that funeral – there were so many fucking people – and I wish we could have known better. We would have done anything we could.

“But the other thing about that song – and the record – is that we didn’t just want to focus on this one thing. There’s so many bands out there that are like, ‘here’s my tragedy, listen to how fucking awful it is, look how sad I am.’ To me, that’s a half-baked attempt at where we need to be with mental health. It should be about getting better.”

While [laughs] neatly sidesteps this pitfall and provides much-needed nuance to a difficult conversation, Kali Masi appreciate there are no easy answers to the questions they pose. For a mid-west melodic punk band, cheap sloganeering would have been an easy avenue to provide crowd-pleasing wins, but there’s little of that on display either. 

Like Touche Amore’s Stage Four, Iron Chic’s You Can’t Stay Here, or even The Menzingers’ After The Party, [laughs] is a coming of age punk story where the protagonists have been forced into some messy and difficult realisations before they were ready.

Twenty years ago, [laughs] could have been a paint-by-numbers emo/punk record, with two-dimensional characters and a one-track narrative. Equally, it feels like we’re at the pinnacle of bands wanting to discuss such heavy themes, to the point where we’re teetering on a ledge overflowing with clichés and buzzwords. It’s to Kali Masi’s immense credit that they’ve faced such issues with maturity and an almost philosophical resignation. 

Evidently, not everyone can talk about depression with such poise as John K. Samson, but there’s no question the conversation needs to be broadened if it’s to continue to strike a chord with listeners, rather than simply becoming a lyrical marker bands feel they need to hit. To this end, [laughs] is a fine starting point, demonstrating the band’s understanding that such topics shouldn’t be seen in isolation and often need their own space to breathe.

“Mental health, depression and toxic masculinity… I don’t want to say that’s what the record’s about because those topics are way broader than what we would give them credit for,” considers Porter. “My lyrical approach to it was to talk about every aspect of it. I didn’t want to be ‘right’ in a song, and I didn’t want to write something that people would give me credit for feeling – I just wanted to be like ‘hey, there’s a lot of stuff going on here, and it might not be totally fair and accurate’ – and I want to talk about that stuff, too.

“And even though I’m afraid to say a lot of those things out loud, I think if you’re feeling it and you put it out there, then somebody else is probably feeling the same way too. So even the scary shit, someone might be like, ‘well I feel the same way and I’ve never been able to talk about it’.”

This idea of talking about mental health and opening up is something that comes up time and again during our conversation; whether that’s through acknowledging the people that have stuck around for Porter, to the breakdown of childhood friendships when the decision to open up has led to a fracture in the relationship. 

Likewise, there’s the idea of finding help and comfort in unusual places, which in turn has provided validation for Kali Masi (completed by John Garrison and Wes Moore) and Porter’s artistic endeavours, leading to an increased realisation of the fact that they are on the right path and what they’re doing is valuable and valued.

A case in point comes from their place in the Chicago punk scene. Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. reached out to the band after unearthing a hand-crafted pedal constructed by Mike Scott, with the intention to raffle it off together for Hope For The Day. Such a gesture came out of the blue and floored Porter and co.:

“I was like ‘I’ve loved your band for so long, what even is this!?’ jokes Porter. “It was so cool. Like we’re friends now, and that’s something that’s happened more and more as people have started to pay attention to our band.

“It’s still a bit like, ‘holy shit, are we really supposed to be here, like playing Riot Fest or whatever’. There’s so many cool bands in Chicago that it’s starting to be a little bit like ‘eyes on Chicago’, which is kind of weird.”

Some four years ago, Kali Masi played their album launch party for Wind Instrument at a packed Cobra Lounge. They’d roped in friends from bands across Chicago to support, and although there was little synergy between the groups, they were all examples of DIY music at its very best. Sadly, none of these other bands have become particularly well-known outside of Chicago.

Porter will say that there’s so many cool bands in the city, which never blow up because they never leave. “We toured our first EP forever, and we got so much traction off it. I’m like, ‘you guys need to get out as much as possible as people will lose their shit over you,” he laughs – but it really does feel like a hotbed of talent at this moment in time. Recent releases by Ratboys, Retirement Party and Hospital Bracelet have helped elevate those bands to prominent positions on the undercard – if not to key headline status – while heavy-hitters Into It. Over It. and American Football have both released career-defining albums over the past 18 months.

“I think a lot of the bands in the city – Ratboys, Into It. Over It., Typesetter and so on – it feels like all those bands have levelled up,” says Porter. “But there’s so much other cool shit going on in every genre, too. There’s wicked hip-hop and pop scenes too, so people are starting to talk about it because it’s all happening at once.”

With typical self-effacing Midwest charm, Porter jokes that the problem is everyone spends so long working on their craft, they never really talk too much or promote what they’re doing. While East Coast and West Coast acts approach self-promotion with confident nonchalance, he says there’s a fear that people from the Midwest don’t want to talk up the cool project they’re working on too much. 

But word of mouth, a ferocious touring ethic and some very smart music videos has helped put Kali Masi on the road to breaking out. For example, the video for ‘Guilt Like A Gun’ is a wonderfully smart example of camera trickery and expert direction, built around mobile phones on a table, several sets of hands, a pocketful of change and plenty of alcohol. A low-key viral hit, it’s a masterclass in budget filmmaking and storytelling.

Equally, with each tour Kali Masi have pulled more people into the fold. This is especially evident when looking at the group’s popularity at Gainesville’s Fest over recent years. In 2019, the queue to get into Rockey’s Duelling Piano Bar for their set extended an entire block down Main Street, highlighting how much Kali Masi’s profile has grown. “It makes you feel like you have so many fans in the world when you play Fest because there’s always so many people singing along. It’s the best audience for a band our size,” says Porter.

If there’s any justice, Kali Masi will see an increase in said size when [laughs] finally gets its claws into the audience. While punk rock in 2021 comes in many different guises, the ability to tell stories and write powerful narratives will never go out of fashion, and Kali Masi have done just that. 

While there’s a long-standing argument that second albums are invariably difficult to write, Kali Masi have built on their debut in every conceivable way, making something lyrically bolder and more accomplished musically. Porter may deflect and defer to the scene elders when he praises them for levelling up, but it’s a charge that could also be applied much closer to home.