Kevin Kawano and Matt Lau first met as roommates attending UC Santa Cruz. A few years later, the band Joker’s Hand was born, a band with a strong concept of melodic rock ‘n’ roll and lyrical storytelling. They began putting together their first EP while gigging across the L.A. club circuit, and eventually attracted the attention of producers Steve Ornest and Wyn Davis at Total Access Recording Studios.
The duo released their self-titled debut EP on March 5, 2020, and have had several singles ride to the top of local radio stations, notably the station KROQ’s Locals Only.
Read on for our interview with Joker’s Hand, where we discuss their songwriting process and musical aspirations.
I know you guys met at film school and ended up working on your debut EP after meeting producers Steve Ornest and Wyn Davis, but how did the band get started? Whose idea was it to just start writing and playing music together and how did that evolve into Joker’s Hand?
Kawano: Matt and I first spoke through email prior to meeting as a way to get to know each other a bit before rooming together in our first year in college. I learned that Matt was also a musician, playing both viola and guitar. I remember thinking, “Nice, I’ll have someone to jam with!“ I had no idea if our music taste would even be remotely similar, but I was excited. When we actually met in person, we bonded immediately over skateboarding, video games and music. Over the next three years, our friendship continued to grow; we’d jam every now and then, but the idea of becoming a band didn’t come up until our fourth year in college.
Prior to college, I played in a number of bands and had been writing music since I was a kid. I continued to write music through my college career, but music overall had been put on the backburner. One night during one of our casual jam sessions, I started sharing some of my original songs with Matt. Rather than mirror exactly what I was playing, Matt colored in my songs in a way that no one else had, adding new guitar parts and harmonies. At its core, the song was the same, but he added a level of polish to the music, planting a thought in my head: what if this WAS something we could do? It was then in our fourth year that we decided to really go for it: demoing, playing shows, and writing like crazy. Now, all we would have to do is break the news to our parents: we’re going to try something risky that has nothing to do with our degrees.
Arts seem like a theme for you guys—you met at film school and started making music—what made you focus on the music as a creative outlet? Are you still focusing on film to some degree, or has that taken a backseat to Joker’s Hand?
Kawano: Playing music was a huge part of our individual lives before Matt and I met. Before Joker’s Hand started, I’d have described us as hardcore music hobbyists, but as we went through film school and jammed together more and more in our free time, we found our music grew into something we held onto and didn’t want to let go of. We were evolving, co-writing original songs, playing local shows and slowly gaining a reputation. Film took a backseat to Joker’s Hand—until we decided to start filming our music videos. All of our prior knowledge in that field has really helped us in the process of creating our own visuals.
Can you talk about your experience performing in the L.A. club environment?
Lau: Sure! Since we got our start together playing out in Santa Cruz, we were starting fresh in the LA music scene when we moved back home. We had a collection of demos we recorded ourselves, we played at open mics and sent our music around to venue bookers in hopes of playing bigger and better shows. We’ve had the pleasure of taking the stage at legendary clubs like Whisky a Go Go, The Viper Room, and The Mint, sharing bills with other local and touring bands and showcasing original songs with some covers here and there.
Was the decision to get in front of a crowd to perform difficult to arrive at, based on your social awkwardness or anxiety? Has performing helped ease that awkwardness in some way?
Lau: It was definitely a journey bringing ourselves in front of a crowd at the beginning, especially for me. I grew up with a classical music background, so most of my performance experience was as a violist in an orchestra. Coming up to a hot mic as a guitarist and singer for the first time was gut-wrenching and exhilarating all at once, and having my best friend up there with me made it all the more significant. Performing has given me a lot of fulfillment and led to personal growth, so I’d say the band has definitely pushed me out of my shell and helped ease my social anxiety.
Can you talk about your general songwriting process? Is it a collaborative effort; do you start with music or lyrics; how do you turn a theme, concept, idea or riff into its finished product?
Kawano: Our songwriting process is all over the place. Sometimes a song is written by one of us and other times it’s a collaborative process. Our song “Madhouse,” for example, started off with just a riff, the very first thing you hear in that song. Matt had left that riff with me, and I wound up adding some chords behind it and creating a melody. Pretty soon, we had a song with a pretty unique structure sitting in front of us. The next time I saw Matt, we worked to “trim the fat” on the song and structured it further. Some of our writing is done separately from each other like that, but my favorite songwriting sessions are when we’re in the same room creating something from nothing.
Can you discuss the experience of putting together an EP and the reaction that this debut EP garnered, with song placements on local radio stations? What was this musical venture like from behind the scenes?
Lau: The making of our debut EP started with a long list of songs at various stages of completion, and what I’d describe as a feeling more than a vision. We had the pleasure of connecting with producers Steve Ornest and Wyn Davis of Total Access Recording in Redondo Beach, and we worked with them for days on end lovingly crafting what became our self-titled EP. We chiseled that list of songs down to some of our best and chased down a compelling and diverse rock EP that garnered a positive response, with radio play on the world-famous KROQ and other local and out-of-state stations. It was an awesome experience making the EP, and we celebrated it with an EP release show at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach just days before the country’s initial COVID shutdown.
Is there a direct inspiration behind the single ‘War Profiteer?’
Kawano: There isn’t really a “direct” inspiration behind “War Profiteer.” I wish there was. I wish when I explained that the song makes fun of people who profit off of the suffering of others that we could all just picture the same person… but the unfortunate reality is that definition applies to a myriad of people from all over the world: dictators, arms dealers, and even elected officials. These types of people will likely never show remorse for their actions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t slam them in our song.
For “War Profiteer,“ what kind of purpose or thought went into the music behind the lyrics and the story you’re telling? The reggae feel and drum kit (plus the sound effects) seem very purposefully placed and organized to add to the complexity of the song—was it difficult to settle on the right instrumentation, or did it come out naturally?
Kawano: I wanted to make a bright, summery sounding song with dark, sarcastic lyrics. I love the idea that people could sing along to this song without knowing what it’s about. And yes! Every note, hit or sound in this song was very purposefully placed. We had a percussionist, Rob Humphreys, add in a shaker, güiro, and even a call bell on top of Aviv Cohen’s tasty drum groove. We had Matt Denis create a super pocketed bassline that really brought the song to a new level. Then we sat back and listened to the mix with our producer, Steve Ornest. We all agreed that there was one element to the song that was missing: scratching. We contacted LDontheCut, who currently tours with Sublime w/ Rome, and got a killer performance out of him! All of the parts seemed to come together naturally, fitting in with one another to create a song that we are truly proud of!
Is there a song you’ve written so far that is either your favorite or maybe means more to you than your other tracks?
Kawano: We have a new song that isn’t released yet called “Hibakusha,” which is a Japanese term meaning “those affected by the bomb.” After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WW2, those who survived the blast were plagued with radiation that would affect them for generations to come. The Japanese, who, like the rest of the world at the time, knew nothing about the long lasting effects of radiation, quickly turned on those who were in the vicinity of the bomb, deeming them subhuman. We played at a number of AAPI #StopAsianHate rallies last month, and this song was a big part of our set. We related the stories of the Hibakusha, who were shunned by their own countrymen for fear of the unknown, to the stories of Asian hate crimes that we are currently facing here at home. We cannot let fear drive a wedge between each other. Hate only creates more hate.
You’ve released an EP and a bunch of singles—is there any desire to eventually look into putting together a full length album?
Kawano: Definitely! We’re not sure at this point when that will be, but the idea of an album is something that we’ve been toying around with since the beginning of this year. We’re aiming to get a few more singles released before then!
With the pandemic winding down, what do you see on the horizon for Joker’s Hand? Where do you want this band to go?
Lau: Now that the world is approaching a new “normal,” we’ve got a bunch of shows lined up that we’re stoked for. After what length of time we had away from live music, I’m really excited for us to showcase our live set with a new mentality shaped from months of waiting for our next shot to perform. We’re so looking forward to our show at the BeachLife Festival in Redondo Beach on September 11th. It’s crazy thinking about how our name is on the same bill as bands like Counting Crows and Fitz and the Tantrums. Beyond the horizon, I want us to push this band as far as we can go. I’d love for us to play stadiums one day, like Wembley or Madison Square Garden, and to share the stage with some of our heroes.
You can check out Joker’s Hand here.