Detroit’s Koffin Kats promise return to roots

While many recording engineers and producers prefer the comfort of the studio to the hardscrabble life on the road, John Kay jumped at the chance to join Koffin Kats as its new guitarist last February.

“That was part of the reason I dissolved my last band. I wanted to tour so bad,” says Kay, during a phone interview last week.

Kay had already uprooted his life in 2008 when – after a decade in retail sales – he started studying audio engineering in Arizona. “I walked away from ‘normal,’ ” he says.

Touring is now the new normal for Kay, who will be at the Milestone Club on Saturday with Koffin Kats. Previously, he had produced several of the Detroit-based group’s releases, including its latest album, “Born of the Motor.”

“Vic’s a really good songwriter,” Kay says of bassist/singer Vic Victor, who founded Koffin Kats in 2003. “These guys are putting together some catchy, hooky stuff. ... The latter part of the discography has to do with daily life situations, becoming a better person and carving your own path. Those things might sound cliché, but those are the things that resonate with people.”

The band mixes rock n’ roll, rockabilly and punk, then colors it with dark imagery.

A perfect example is its song “Giving Blood”: “The lyrics have a great allegory to working a corporate job,” says Kay, who cites it as a favorite.

He also singles out the final track, “Gone to See the World.”

“Vic makes his own bass pickups by hand and was making them in the studio using this Honeytone (mini amp) to test his pickups,” Kay says.

Kay decided to capture that vibe for the song.

“On the recording, he’s strumming with his fingers. His guitar – given to him free (when the Koffin Kats were sponsored) by Gretsch – running through his handmade pickup through his little practice amp. It’s very sentimental to me.”

Athough its roots are in rockabilly and psychobilly, Kay is careful not to pigeonhole Koffin Kats’ style – taking a cue from Victor, who describes it as “a rock n’ roll band with a heavy punk influence.”

“The older we get,” he says, “the more refined our musical palette becomes.”

But that’s not to say the group doesn’t cater to old-school fans. In fact, he predicts its next album will lean more in that direction.

“We want to harken back to the early stuff,” he says. “A lot of the early fans say the new album sounds great and it’s really polished, but the songs don’t hit the way the old stuff does. What we’re going to do is harken back to the older vibe, but produce it similar to what we did with ‘Born of the Motor,’ with a lot more faster, breakneck stuff.”