Dubuque, Iowa isn’t exactly where you’d go to find the next big scene upstart, mostly because this Midwestern pit stop isn’t home to a scene at all. In the words of Kayak Jones drummer Brandon Blakeley, “it’s the kind of place you would go to raise a family rather than shred gigs.” Perhaps that’s why this project – also anchored by vocalist/guitarist Tyler Zumhof – began as a partnership destined to hit the road away from this musical dry patch.
But despite what their social media timelines choose to convey, Kayak Jones is a child of divorce. Two of its founding members left before the band’s debut EP, Drugs, saw a summer 2015 digital-only release, and Blakeley and Zumhof are still in the process of rounding out the rhythm section with a steady bass player. What exists on that initial run gets its endurance from wounded statements and its second wind from a search for connectedness. Perhaps that second facet is built from Zumhof’s insistence on arrangements grounded in bridging a tonal gap, employing both the “head bob and [the] sincere.”
For those familiar with the stop-start mechanics of recent pop punk, “Snowball” and “I Could Make You Care” ooze with disjointed, but familiar guitar antics. Chords choke rather than crunch, and percussion gets assigned to accent duty, rather than a sharpened frontline. “Stigmata” – if this EP had a single, this would be a blogger’s dream – lets a regulated routine breathe. Zumhof’s vocals serve as a heightened warning cry, augmented by guitar lines which snake and slide out from under Blakeley’s shrewd cymbal play. While recorded by a friend, Drugs emerged from the mastering decks of Nada Recording Studio, a New Windsor, NY soundlab lining its walls with discs from Armor for Sleep and Senses Fail’s Drive-Thru Records days. Like those career highlights, Kayak Jones muscles up genre-bending pop-punk with its soaring delivery. It makes sense that Knuckle Puck chose Nada’s mastering services not just for the thrifty price tag, but the bolder EQ session on their breakout EPs. Drugs, like its room-packing cousin to the east, pushes forth with an authority that comes through so crisply, it doesn’t sound like a band fumbling to compensate for losing half its roster.
Drugs may not try to cover up its losses in numbers because it juggles with loss as a central theme, primarily the loss of control which comes bundled with addiction. Dubuque may be a center for families, but it’s also a catalyst for these darker human battles, many of which are fought alone. As Zumhof explains, however, these stories chronicled here are packaged to lessen the blow. “I’ve never really felt like we should take an aggressive stance towards people who are dealing with addictions and I really wanted to portray that in our lyrics for the EP. Some of the kindest people that I’ve met are addicts because they can’t handle how callous, capricious, and cold the world can be towards them and I really wanted people to understand that.” One of the vessels of understanding came from Zumhof’s addictive past. “It’s incredibly counter productive to denounce people for things such as addictions and one of the hardest things that I’ve dealt with. I believe people should take the initiative and step up when their friends are going down a bad road.” The notches in Kayak Jones’ pavement are designed, thus, not to denote the voyages of more experienced travelers, but help those slipped up by any ensuing potholes. Considering the fact that “Snowball” is written as an ode to his mother, Tyler’s mission is better viewed as an extended helping hand rather than a string of loosely-tied words of advice.
But even Drugs doesn’t hold all the answers – after all, its title is vague by default and is a nebulous encompassing of an enormous issue – but it contains a valiant effort to articulate some course of action. “Stigmata,” as expected, tackles the stigma attached to both drug addiction and related lapses in mental health, while “I Could Make You Care” flips the perspective, assuming the voice of an outsider attempting to reach those drowning in preconceived notions of their stability. These heartbreaking anecdotes can’t be read with a lazy double-click on Bandcamp, a choice which rewards deep attention and an ear for well-constructed character sketches. The key word from Zumhof’s understanding of overcoming hardship is initiative. That work needs to be put in by the listener, as well.
The other take-away from Kayak Jones’ opening statement is a call to step up and help those who need it. It seems only fitting (or at least convenient for this wordplay) that Kayak Jones’ immediate answer to Drugs is the forthcoming “Lesson.” This one-off single, to be released via the next entry in Save Your Generation Records’ TV Dinner split series, builds on Drugs‘ simple, layered formula: guitars intertwine and loop while Blakeley advances the moment with more limber, adventurous beats that tease out his entire kit. It’s the bridge of the track which explodes this young band’s potential. Zumhof, in a rare shout, aches through a request (“teach me a lesson”), after which guitars stab and stack a deconstruction of the adrenaline (and anguish) on display. Whereas Drugs saw Kayak Jones as the teacher, “Lesson” is a student’s plea. If anything, it’s an admission that Kayak Jones has much to learn.
They have so much to show us, too.
Their record was produced, co-written, engineered, and mixed by Aaron Isaacson – Sound in Silence Recordings
James Cassar is a freelance writer who has had bylines in everything from Alternative Press to Modern Vinyl, a site where he also co-hosts its weekly podcast. James is also the co-owner of the independent record label Near Mint and the publicity firm Dragonfoot PR and a proud graduate of the University of Virginia.