New (and Old) Sensations
New (and Old) Sensations
A Q&A with Cory Massi
Of KICK: The INXS Experience
By Geoff Gehman
Cory Massi is the founding front man of KICK, which performs bold, burrowing, 360-degree versions of songs minted by INXS, the bold, burrowing, 360-degree refiner of old and new waves of rock, soul, R&B, funk and orchestral pop. He channels the seductive spirit of Michael Hutchence, INXS’ late lead vocalist, lyricist and matinee idol, so well, he might as well be a shaman. He’s got the whole shamanic package: The tunneling, towering, shooting-star voice. The shoulder-length, carefully careless hair. The lanky, agile body. The detached attachment; the casual ecstasy. The crouching, prowling, conducting, Jim Morrison-reincarnation moves and grooves.
A native of Maple Shade, N.J., Massi was mentored as a rock fan and man by his older sister. He was an elementary schooler when he first plugged into Cheap Trick and KISS. He was a middle schooler when he rocked out to Cinderella and Britny Fox with a fake ID. He saw INXS at the late, lamented Spectrum in Philadelphia, marveling at Hutchence’s off-the-chart charisma. In 2004, seven years after Hutchence’s suicide, he auditioned for Hutchence’s role in the TV reality show “Rock Star: INXS,” competing with the likes of Chris Daughtry, the 2006 “American Idol” finalist. He lost, partly because he was uncomfortable singing “Mystify” without a band. His consolation prize that day was a surprise, surprisingly long hang with Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s sidekick, co-star of “The Sopranos” and a garage-rock radio guru cool enough to wear Superman pajamas in a record shop.
Massi launched KICK in 2014, two years after INXS stopped touring and a year after an Aerosmith tribute band helped convince him a tribute band was his calling. On May 19 he and his KICK comrades will take over the Mauch Chunk Opera House with sparking, sparkling renditions of “The One Thing,” “New Sensation,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Listen Like Thieves” and “Mystify.” Below, in a conversation from his home office in Greenville, S.C., he discusses his memorable experiences with Hutchence, Van Zandt and Jimmy Page.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, mind and soul?
A: The first song that really knocked me on my ass was “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin. Once I heard that killer riff and that menacing sound, I thought: I want to do that. It was the first music that really pulled me in, that made me want to get involved with music.
I was probably 12 years old and I had listened to a lot of music since I was a small kid. My sister Michelle is about seven years older and she was pretty in tune with the music that was happening in the mid-’70s. She was a teenager and she really turned me on to KISS, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper and stuff like that. She’s actually a midwife now.
Q: Tell me about that fake ID that got you into shows in New Jersey and Philly you shouldn’t have attended. Sounds like it was quite a calling card for adventure.
A: I got a lot of mileage out of that fake ID, which I bought at the Pennsauken Mart. This thing looked archaic; it would never pass today. But it got me into a few really cool places–as long as I kept a low profile.
Q: What were some of the memorable gigs you saw armed with your counterfeit badge?
A: The first band that left an impression as a teen was the Firm with Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers. Another great performer I saw was Rod Stewart, one of my all-time favorite singers. There used to be a show pretty much every weekend at the Spectrum or the Tower Theater. The Spectrum had just terrible sound but a lot of magic. I was glad to witness a little of that magic.
Q: What was the first INXS song that reeled you in, that convinced you this band needed to be tracked?
A: “Listen Like Thieves.” There was a lot of MTV airplay for the video. It was really cool, with a lot of “Mad Max” fire and flames. I liked a lot of the other INXS videos. They were fun, danceable, real good pop-rock.
Q: What convinced you to audition on “Rock Star: INXS” for the lead-singer role opened by Michael Hutchence’s death?
A: I loved his singing and his personality. I saw INXS when I was a teenager in ’88 and ’89; they were great and people were just gaga over them. Michael left a big impression with his star power; he really had it, that guy. Our range is similar and I just went for it. I had to sing “Mystify” a cappella so I was kind of nervous because I didn’t have a band behind me. There was a camera a foot away from my face and it was out of my comfort zone; I would probably still feel uncomfortable today.
I didn’t get the gig: I was one of the last people to try out and I think by the time I auditioned they had already made their selection. No excuse: it was a good experience. We include “Mystify” in our set and when I sing it, I have my band with me and we love the music, so we play it with lot of heart.
Q: How sharp was your learning curve for sounding and looking like Hutchence, for getting under his skin? I’m sure you already had the voice but did you have some of his off-the-chart charisma?
A: I guess the hardest thing, the most challenging thing, when I started KICK was capturing the great variety in Hutchence’s voice. He can sound sensitive and soft and he can be super strong and really belt it out and sometimes that all happens within one phrase or even a word. It took a lot of self-control to capture how he projects his lyrics and the music, It’s impossible to really sound and look like him; he’s an Adonis, another Jim Morrison, Morrison in a pop sense. I can’t mimic that; all I can do is do my best to capture his spirit. Sometimes I think I do great; sometimes I think I fall on my face.
Q: Before you decided to take on the role of Hutchence, you sought advice from tribute-band veterans like Rick Murphy, who plays the Bob Seger part in Hollywood Nights. What were Rick’s tips? [Check out the Mauch Chunk interview with Murphy, a fellow youthful fan of KISS and the Spectrum, at http://mcohjt.com/category/full-volume/page/4/]
A: Rick said: You’ve got a really unique thing going for you. He also said: You’ve got a long road in front of you. It’s a tribute band, so it’s not unique by any means. What is unique is INXS’ music. It’s not straightforward; it kind of comes from left field. A lot of the samples that [KICK drummer] Johnny Dee handles are tricky. The bass lines are just left of center; the guitar riffs are like a mesh between rock and funk and pop. The keyboard parts are pretty complex; Mark Goodnough, our keyboard player, has spent countless hours putting sounds together to replicate the music. I’ve spent countless hours of long, deep listening to get anything I can pick up from Hutchence—a little inflection, a breath.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you seriously thought about settling on an easier profession?
A: I guess the worst times involved the death of someone you’ve made music with for a good while. Mario [Parrillo], our guitarist in LOW, was probably 36 years old when he got sick with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He didn’t stay sick for long; he was gone within a couple of months. He wrote a lot of music and came up with a lot of ideas, so it was sad that he was so young, sad that he had a lot more music left, that he had never given birth to per se.
Q: And what was your most rewarding time in the trade, when you thought that, hell, maybe I’d do this for free.
A: I’ve had a lot of those times—basically, it’s any time you play well for a fantastic crowd. People say you’re only as good as the last time you played; we’ve done many gigs as memorable as the one before it. The last time we played Mauch Chunk [in July 2016] we had a super-enthusiastic audience; people were yelling “KICK! KICK! KICK!” at the end of our second set. Most of the people moved up front and there were ear-to-ear smiles. They were really digging us; it was one of our best, if not our best, shows. That definitely keeps you going to the next gig.
Q: So, Cory, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I guess I don’t have anything material but if I could add up all the little snippets of Bucket List paper it would add up to peace, love, happiness and a harmonious world. Materially speaking, I’d like a Corvette. It seems like just a lame answer, but I’m working on that one. I’d like a C3, between ’75 and ’76, with a manual transmission, black or blue or hunter green. Something that’s really cool but doesn’t say: Hey, look at me. I love those old cars. They’re just beautiful; they’re works of art. They have faces; they just have balls.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I would say politics and racism and terrorism. At this particular moment it’s just all so ugly I wish I could just turn my back on it and live in a fantasy world but you can’t. It’s just part of life; you really can’t kick.
Q: You tantalize visitors to KICK’s Web site by asking them to ask you about meeting Steve Van Zandt—Miami Steve, Little Stevie–the day you auditioned for “Rock Star: INXS” at CBGB’s, the late, great rock mecca in Manhattan. How about ending the tease by telling us what happened between you two?
A: I was shopping in [Greenwich] Village with my wife and a friend. I was standing on the corner with my guitar and Steven Van Zandt walked by on his way to a record shop. Actually, I was not sure it was him and we gave each other a nod. I’m a huge “Sopranos” fan but I’m not an extrovert; I get nervous when I’m approaching a celebrity. My wife is not that way; she’s an extrovert. So she went up to Van Zandt in the record shop and told him: “My husband wants to meet you.”
Van Zandt was on his own personal time and he probably didn’t feel like meeting me. But I think he appreciated the fact that I appreciated him. We hung out for half an hour and talked music and took pictures. The only request he made was not to put any pictures on the Internet, probably because he didn’t want to be seen wearing Superman pajamas under his overcoat. I remember he left with a massive stack of DVDs; maybe he was doing some research. He probably had 40; I don’t know how he carried them out.
It’s funny: my friend was hanging out with us because he was in trouble with his wife and needed some time away. She’s a big Bruce Springsteen fan and it was her birthday so I asked Van Zandt to write “Happy Birthday” on a napkin. My friend took it back to her and let’s just say they made up, big time.
Cory Massi: The Scoop
His early Philadelphia/South Jersey musical heroes included the Hooters and Robert Hazard & the Heroes.
Johnny Dee, the drummer in KICK, was a founding member of Britny Fox, the popular Philadelphia-based glam-rock band that Massi enjoyed as a teen.
Massi started LOW with Dee and two other members of DORO, named for Doro Pesch, a well-known heavy-metal singer from Germany.
Another tribute-band veteran he consulted before starting KICK was Paul Sinclair, founding front man of Get the Led Out, which performs the songs of Led Zeppelin, Massi’s first pivotal music makers.
He competed with 14 singers on “Rock Star: INXS,” which was co-hosted by Dave Navarro, who played guitar in Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
He and KICK bassist Don Leslie have performed together in three bands, including Sweet Crude and the Brood. “When you play with someone for quite a while you can kind of speak without saying words,’” says Massi. “You kind of expect certain things to happen, when someone is about to do something great, or fuck up. You build a rapport and you know what to expect, good or bad. It’s like kismet; it’s like the shining.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Cory Massi’s appreciation for INXS’ cool, funky MTV videos for the likes of “New Sensation” and “Listen Like Thieves.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.