Ken Bone's secret history as a Christian rock drummer, revealed

Before he was the guy in the red sweater, Ken Bone was the dude in that hat.

Before he was the guy in the red sweater, Ken Bone was the dude in that hat.

Ken Bone and his red sweater became the delight of a politics-weary nation during the second presidential debate last Sunday.

Before that, the Bone-ster was just a regular dude in a band, cruisin' around small towns, tryin' to pick up chicks.

The band, Broken Vessel, was a Christian cover group remembered fondly as “the epitome of lame” by Joshua Burkett, a St. Paul man who played keyboard. According to Burkett, the guys were hit-or-miss with their pick-up attempts.

But, for the church-going crowd of southern Illinois, Ken tore it up.

City Pages caught up with Mr. Burkett, now copy center supervisor at Northwestern University in St. Paul, to learn more about his time making music with Ken Bone.

City Pages: So how do you know Ken?

Yeah, that's your boy, Kenneth Bone, dead center, hangin' with the crew.

Yeah, that's your boy, Kenneth Bone, dead center, hangin' with the crew.

Joshua Burkett: We went to school together from junior high onward. I had him in multiple classes, he was my buddy. We were in some podunk town in southern Illinois called Granite City, right across the river from St. Louis.

CP: How did you guys end up playing in the same band?

JB: So basically, after high school I came up to school in the Twin Cities. I went back in the summer after my first year, and I'm pretty sure Ken just called me up and said, “Hey Josh, we need a keyboardist and a vocalist for our band." And I was like, “sure, OK, cool.” It was more or less some people who all went to the same church who just decided to start a band. For a couple summers after that, I went back home from college and we played gigs.

It's funny too, I was just talking about it on Twitter as kind of as a joke like, “Hey, I was in a band with this guy.” And everyone had totally different images of what that would be -- was it a marching band or was it an actual band? Was there an album? Was there a video? It's funny, younger people are asking me, “Dude, are there any links?” Come on, this was back in the day when there was no such thing as links!

CP: Well shoot, I guess I won't ask for your BandCamp. So what kind of band was it then?

JB: The band was just, you know, was just for all intents and purposes, really lame. We hit the church crowd hard. We played Christian pop covers from like the '90s and 2000s, like from DC Talk and Newsboys. We were all good musicians, but totally just played the church crowd. It was the most tamest of people. Actually very Ken Bone-style, like you probably saw some of on Sunday.

CP: So there’s no great story of a hard rocking party god Ken Bone terrorizing southern Illinois?

JB: Oh no, we were way too nerdy for that. We always joked about it, but it never happened. Ken was naturally gifted at the drums, and at one point he was planning to move to the Twin Cities. I almost had him, he actually applied at the school I went to [North Central University in Minneapolis] but then he met his wife and fell in love, so he stayed in Illinois. Just so you know, I was very close to making Ken a Minnesotan at one point.

CP: What was the height of your band’s success? Is there any show or moment in particular?

JB: So probably the biggest show we did was this youth convention, for like teenagers from 11-15 or so. You always have those aspirations when you're young and you're single that you can leverage the "Hey, I'm in a band!" But we were the epitome of lame. That's really kind of the narrative of our band. In the summer we used to just drive around all the time, there wasn't much to do in the area, and we'd just drive around.

I remember Ken and the members of the band liked to talk cool, like we could pick up chicks and things like that. One time, we were at a drive-thru of a restaurant and there were these girls behind us in a convertible listening to the same radio station we were, and we were like "Let's go talk to them," and then, "Alright, OK, let's do it!"

So we got out of the car and go up and they look at us like "Who the hell are you creepers?" We were trying to be so smooth and talk ourselves up, but we just ended up going like “Uh, uhhh, mmm, uhhh” and Ken ended up just saying "Well, God bless!" and we got back in our car.

CP: Oh man, that is the kind of Ken Bone smooth I’m talking about. The ol' "God Bless" and back away. So what was the band called at the time? Was it "Epitome of Lame" which, sounds like a pretty great name now that you say it.

JB: Oh no, it was called Broken Vessel. It's funny, we did these covers all the time, but in terms of how cover bands go, we really weren't that bad.

CP: So did you know Ken was going to be featured during the debate?

That's Kenneth Bone on the far left, in the hat, and our interview subject Joshua Burkett seated to his immediate right.

That's Kenneth Bone on the far left, in the hat, and our interview subject Joshua Burkett seated to his immediate right.

JB: You know, I saw on Facebook that he was going to be in it, but I didn't really know he was going to be so front and center - and I'm not sure he did until he got there. So it was kind of like a "Oh, holy shit" moment. When you know him, you go "Oh yeah, he's this big happy guy that's super smart who happens to be wearing a gaudy sweater. That's Ken!"

CP: Are you surprised at the huge response he’s gotten?

JB: I was sort of expecting that other people would see that and see his name and go "Oh my gosh, this is hilarious and amazing." But I didn't really expect how big it was until I saw everything on Twitter. I mean, all of our friends were like "Hey, I just saw Ken on TV!" But that's just because we know him. Now I’m realizing from an outside view everyone saw him and were just like, "This is incredible."

He's definitely unique. He just exudes personality and he's got that noble geek factor -- you know, with that whole disposable camera thing -- it’s just the best. He does it all so matter of factly, and because he's confident in his awkwardness, it comes off as super charming.

CP: When you’re watching all of this new buzz, how do you feel about the way Ken, the undecided voter, is becoming a symbol in this election?

JB: I don't know, like seeing the hype of something on Twitter or whatever, it’s wrapped in the message of -- I don't know, like William Hung from American Idol- an element of poking fun, maybe. But I think with Ken it's not as much [that]. It's more, "This guy seems really legit, and someone who I could chill with. Plus he seems to ask smart questions about politics."

It's nice to see after all the vitriol and negativity coming out of the election -- which I think has reached a boiling point -- it's nice to see a little levity that's a little more whole-hearted. The attention Ken’s getting right now, it's just... it's nice.