It’s a chilly, rainy night in Merriam, Kansas. The perfect night for a storm, and the perfect night for in-your-face rock tunes. Then again, every night is the perfect night for that if you’re Maps For Travelers. For the Kansas City area band, who recently released their indie label debut album Change Your Name, this Monday night is typical — they spend it practicing, smashing through their energetic list of songs.
The band has their hands full, setting up their gear in a small white studio space tucked behind a series of distribution warehouses in a local business district. The interior reeks of aftershow exhaustion and fresh sweat. The group trekked to and from Omaha, Nebraska the night before. It’s 10 p.m., and the guys are still a bit stiff from yesterday’s lengthy car ride.
They’re tired, but they can’t stop playing. The music is their lifeblood. After years of playing in different local bands across the city, the four members came together and created the current Maps For Travelers lineup. By now, the tunes they play are practically muscle memory.
“Music is all I really know. It’s all I know how to do anymore,” says guitarist/vocalist Zach Brotherton.
Brotherton founded the band in 2010 along with guitarist R.L. Brooks. Both members played in area bands in the past, Brotherton in hardcore punk bruisers Thunder Eagle, and Brooks in post-hardcore/screamo outfit Flee the Seen.
Eventually, the other half of the current lineup found their places. Kevin Medina, drummer, jumped on board in 2011, and bassist David Fleming joined this July. The four members combined their perspectives and talents to create the Maps For Travelers sound — one characterized by rocky, emotion-filled sections, relentless hardcore crunch, and sometimes, a bit of chilling melodic instrumentation. Medina says of the band’s musical ferocity, “We hit you where it hurts.”
Medina, who is also a technician for indie rock band Now, Now, brings his previous experience as drummer for ambient post-rock band Walking Oceans. “I think coming from different bands has taught us all how to play with all types of musicians, in a bunch of different styles,” he muses.
So, after years of music shaping the lives of the members, Maps For Travelers has come to the point where they are today. And today, not even a day after returning from a late-night gig, they’re getting ready to do a quick run-through of their songs. Brooks sparks up conversation as the band sets up their practice stage.
“I made my appearance in court today,” he says.
“How did that go?” asks Fleming.
“It was alright. I was running late, and was beginning to freak out a bit,” he replies.
“Just a little incident while on the road,” he tells me.
Taking a break from lifting 40-pound amps and rearranging awkward guitar stands, Fleming lights up a cigarette in the parking lot next to the band’s van. As the smoke hangs in the air, the rain falls from the overhang of the building, but slowly, in calm droplets.
You’d think for a group of musicians, this is the rock and roll life, talking casually about $400 fines in between puffs. But between dollar meals at McDonald’s and dollar nights at empty bars, it’s becoming more and more obvious that the stereotype of being in a rock band isn’t always what it’s made out to be. While Maps For Travelers doesn’t necessarily call themselves a “punk” band, they fit the punk attitude of not following the status quo. Fleming says the band doesn’t play what they think “everybody wants to hear,” nor are they out to “impress everybody.”
“I love that [punk] can have its own form, so you can feel free to do whatever you want,” Fleming says.
Punk doesn’t have any guidelines. That’s what makes it punk. It doesn’t adhere, it doesn’t conform, but it doesn’t go against either. It just goes. With this ideal in mind, Maps For Travelers is going too, and they’re moving at a steady pace.
The band has spent the last three years writing songs and playing in the Kansas City music scene. This led to the creation of their first full-length album, Change Your Name. The album is defined by the group’s hint-at-their-influences approach: a throwback to ’90s punk, rock and hardcore bands like Cave In, Quicksand and Far.
“We just really love the sonic qualities of those bands. It just kind of seems to be where we fell in. We just started gravitating towards that part, just kind of mixing it with a few new things, and a little faster pace stuff from time to time,” explains Brooks.
During the album’s making, the band let their writing form honestly and organically. Many of the lyrics deal with personal experiences, especially relationships and the end of them. But while they originally had a different title in mind, a common idea within the album had the group calling the record Change Your Name instead.
“All of a sudden Zach was like, ‘You know, a theme that keeps coming up over and over is “change your name.”’ A lot of these songs really send out the fact that you really wish that you could change things you’ve done in the past and start anew.”
Whether it’s the chaotic hardcore underbelly of “Get a New Face”, the versatile “Matter of Time”, which transitions between heavy guitar and horn sections, or “Good Life”’s tomahawk chop of a chorus, this record finds the outfit at their most vulnerable, which in turn has led to increased exposure and notoriety in the Midwest.
The rockers owe a lot of their success in getting their name passed around to their relationships with fellow local bands. These bands range in sounds and personalities, which Brooks says helps enhance their mutual respect for each other. “It’s like anything in life: the more you connect and the more you get into what they’re doing, the more they’re going to get into what you’re doing. That opens up a lot of doors.”
For the band, their friendship with Lawrence, Kan. natives and No Sleep Records signees The Casket Lottery, having Medina working with Now, Now, and meeting Chris Hansen, owner of the label, on the road opened up a door. They shipped their record to Hansen early in 2013, signed with No Sleep in July and released Change Your Name in August. Brooks feels the band fits in well with the label’s musical aesthetic, having played alongside fellow No Sleep acts like Balance And Composure and Touche Amore in the past.
Following the release of the album, they’ve been in constant touring mode, playing in cities in and around the Kansas City area. According to Medina, a lot of touring life is sitting around. Other times, it has given them the opportunity to play for fans and hang out. However, considering that they manage and book shows themselves, playing live requires a lot of effort.
Medina sums it up by saying, “Touring brings all kinds of emotions.”
Back in the practice facility, Maps For Travelers tears through “World On a Wire.” The studio is full of boxes of Christian merchandise: shirts with pictures of Jesus on them, books with personal testimonies. Just from the decor, one would’ve thought the four guys were meeting for some late-night worship. But the music is their worship. It’s who they are. It’s their proclamation. Most of all, it’s their ability to do what satisfies them.
I ask Brooks, who mentioned growing up in the church to me during conversation, “So, how did you get involved with this place?”
“It’s a long story. We’ll have to get drinks sometime and I’ll tell you about it,” he replies.
To think that guzzling down beers and discussing Christianity go hand-in-hand is anomaly. But, if anything, at least it fulfills the band’s definition of punk.
Thanks to Maps For Travelers’ established branding as a sincere, down-to-earth band that does things their way, people are beginning to pay attention. This year alone, the rockers have played shows all over the Midwest and have made connections with fans and bands of different shapes, sizes and styles.
At the end of the day, though, the band’s outward growth only makes them keener to stay grounded and shy away from thoughts about the future.
“I try not to think too far out. The minute I spend making grandiose plans, like ‘Oh, we’re going to take over the world,’ that’s the minute everything stops,” says Brooks. “For me, it’s a day-to-day thing. I just want to live day-to-day and see what happens and where we’re going to go.”