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Living the life of Rilo Kiley

The indie band garners a chance to expand its following as the opening act on Coldplay's tour.

Published September 8, 2005

If there's ever one perfect time for an upstart band to make its mainstream debut, that time is now for Los Angeles-based indie popsters Rilo Kiley.

Credit iTunes or television's The OC, which regularly features emerging artists, for eroding staunch boundaries between indie rock and the mainstream world. This year alone, mass audiences have eagerly greeted bands including Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, fronted by waiflike Conor Oberst. Both bands have close connections to Rilo Kiley, but back to that in a minute.

First, a little history of Rilo Kiley: Since its formation in 1998, the Jenny Lewis-fronted band has excelled at literate, Americana-tinged pop. With Lewis, the band's fiery redhead singer and co-songwriter, guitarist Blake Sennett, who shares vocal and songwriting duties, bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel, Rilo Kiley has attracted fervent critical praise and attention in the indie rock world. And now, add to that celebrity fans, including Coldplay's members, who picked the band to open its tour, which comes to town on Wednesday.

When Rilo Kiley played a show in Las Vegas with Coldplay, the members of Coldplay came early to catch Rilo Kiley's set.

"Just the fact they watched us at all was cool," says Sennett, calling from his car while driving around Los Angeles with his girlfriend. "They seem like super nice guys so I think it will be a fun tour." It will also be the band's biggest. Last time Rilo Kiley swung through Tampa, the band played the sweaty Orpheum in Ybor City. Now they'll be singing to thousands at the Ford Amphitheatre.

This newfound exposure is flattering, Sennett says, but not exactly surprising.

"(2002's) The Execution of All Things record was one a lot of indie kids came to know us by," he says. "I think that (last year's) More Adventurous is very different, so it was one of those leap of faith things where we hoped our audience would grow with us a bit."

More Adventurous, released on Warner Bros. - the band signed to a major label after years on Saddle Creek, Oberst's label - expands the band's melodic touch, weaving together brass and strings. It offers cutting critiques of foreign policy on songs like It's a Hit. But the band offers penetrating explorations of personal relationships, too, such as the Dusty Springfield-esque torch song I Never or power-pop first single Portions for Foxes, which sports one of the brightest lyrics in recent pop memory. Lewis sings, "There's blood in my mouth 'cause I've been biting my tongue all week" over a springy guitar riff.

For that song, there was another first for Rilo Kiley: a music video. Despite its eerie taxidermy theme, the video earned airplay on MTV. But that kind of exposure is only part of growing the band's fan base, Sennett says.

"The interest in alterative music, like an indie-minded music, has grown," he says. "I think that we've come out of such a pop time as far as what people are interested in. A lot of our fans are 17- or 18-year-old girls, and probably some of them listened to Britney Spears at 13 but then maybe turned away from that aesthetic and into something completely different as people are wont to do around that age. Maybe indie rock as a whole is just benefiting from coming out of such a trite period."

Now, back to the menu of indie rock options orbiting through mainstream pop culture: Rilo Kiley members remain friends, and occasionally, collaborators with Oberst. In Lewis' spare time - when she's not fronting Rilo Kiley or readying material for her solo album debut due in January - she sings with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard's winning side project, the Postal Service. And Sennett has a band on the side, an alt-country rock outfit, the Elected.

This host of musical options is both heartening and inspiring, Sennett says.

"I think when people used to make records, you could put out a record every eight months or every year, and now you don't get to do that as much," he says. "I think we all love making records and Jenny and I are both very prolific and we like to write a lot, so the side projects are a good place to still put that material out.

"In some bands, it's possible that side projects break them up," he says. "But I think it's a healthy thing - not to break the band up - but some space, a way to make our visions more realized. I think it's also circular, that Rilo Kiley feeds into our side projects, but at this point too, the side projects and the things we learn feed back into Rilo Kiley and I think our next record will be better for it."

[Last modified September 7, 2005, 09:26:06]

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