Standing outside the Bottom of the Hill during a recent visit to S.F., the gregarious Franklin recalled how quickly things originally jelled for the band. Though he and Loper had played together since high school, Smith's arrival marked a turning point: "Gene came to the house to play guitar and sing with another group, but [after] me and Scott ended up jamming with him ... we're like, 'Uh, our guitar player isn't here, but we're going to [ask] if you want to be in the band right now.'"
By the next year, the foursome had adopted the moniker Kai Kln (a ridiculous mythical figure Franklin dreamed up) and amassed a solid body of material, moving from playing keg parties to packing local spots like the Cattle Club. The band's first self-released effort the cassette-only Rhythm of Strange in 1991 presented relentless riffs and epic tunes, but it wasn't until the brilliant follow-up CD Vigoda that the group truly captured the neck-snapping power of its live show. Packed with swaggering, two-fisted rockers like "Punker Than Thou" and "Blur" while touching briefly on a softer acoustic side, the album attracted major labels like Reprise, Mercury, and Capitol.
So why didn't Kai Kln rise to world domination? As often happens, Smith's home life intervened. "When we were getting bids from record companies, an A&R woman started talking about living on the road for months and I'd just had a daughter," he explained in a later phone conversation. "And I thought, 'I don't want to sell myself to the record company.'"
It took time to heal from the sudden split, but the band's musical bond brought the members back together in 1995. Kai Kln picked up where it left off, giving incendiary live performances and reissuing its earlier work before finally releasing a third album The Matter of Things in 1997 and parting ways once more. Smith and Franklin have continued their partnership in a jazzier direction as the Ricky and Del Connection, while Smith recently issued a solo acoustic debut that deftly juggles intricate Leo Kottke-style 12-string workouts, mandolin blues and spirituals, and country-tinged songwriting. Still, the constant badgering of Kai Kln fans finally prodded the group to fly the relocated Anderson up from Los Angeles recently for a test-run gig at a Sacramento party. Word has it the fire between the players was still there in abundance.
Smith says he has material written with Kai Kln in mind, but no one in the band can predict the future. "I don't know what will happen," he says with a laugh. "In our minds, we never really broke up and we never will. We're like the phoenixes of rock and roll; we rise real quick and then die." Here's hoping Kai Kln burns longer and brighter this time around.