Bands to Watch: Hangout at the Beach With... Kopecky

The band's namesake sees a maturing progression in their work after most of them experienced both ends of life's spectrum in recent years. And the album and its climactic title track suggest there are many ways to get high (or low) without a little help from your friends.
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As Kelsey Kopecky found out about eight years ago, playing in a band is a lot like growing up with your family.

So it made sense when her fellow student at Belmont University first suggested half-seriously/half-kiddingly that they put the two like-minded entities together with her name to create Kopecky Family Band in 2007.

"Gabe is a hoot," the engaging Kopecky said over the phone in April about Gabe Simon, a co-founding member, guitarist, singer-songwriter in the group that includes four other members -- all of whom are unrelated.

It was only about a week after the two had their first songwriting session when they were sitting in a Nashville coffee shop that he created the name because he said it sounded "like a Polish family band," Kopecky recalled, laughing. "We thought it was funny. And it was kind of like the joke was on us because people who hear the name 'Family Band,' they assume more folk or bluegrass music, when what we're doing is just kind of like indie pop-rock. Like just grooving music. So we're like, 'Ah, maybe that association is a little confusing, too.' "

That realization led them last December to become a one-name band that -- from the sounds of their latest album -- will not be a one-hit wonder.

Kopecky will release Drug for the Modern Age on May 19, two days after their first appearance at the Hangout music festival (5 p.m. May 17, Salt Life Stage) on the golden sand beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama.

The band's namesake sees a maturing progression in their work after most of them experienced both ends of life's spectrum in recent years. And the album and its climactic title track suggest there are many ways to get high (or low) without a little help from your friends.

"What is your drug for the modern age," Kopecky asked rhetorically. "Is it the love of your child? Is it something great like realizing we're all in this together? Or is it something you're sucked into like painkillers? It can be anything. It can be really great or it can be something that actually causes your destruction.

"The themes on the album are pretty emotional and dramatic. But it's all set on kind of this backdrop of just such a nice groove that we feel like as our sound has matured, we've gotten to this point of just finding the way to do a song justice. ... The album ... I'm really proud and really excited for people to have it and to bring it into their earbuds and their cars and their homes and just see how it resonates."

Members of Kopecky (from left): Steven Holmes, Markus Midkiff,
Kelsey Kopecky, Gabe Simon, Corey Oxendine, David Krohn.

Of course, the band's family-treelike growth, camaraderie and musical spirit still exist despite the name change. Kopecky, a singer-songwriter who also plays keyboards and bass, mentioned how her band mates have struggled to overcome a litany of family or personal obstacles. They include drummer David Krohn (his parents' divorce), bassist Corey Oxendine (his mother's breast cancer) and guitarist Steven Holmes (rehab), while she dealt with a huge breakup before "finding just the most amazing partner now."

"You don't realize if you're in a toxic relationship how that affects your work, affects your overall sense of OK-ness," Kopecky added. "So all of us we're going through these personal evolutions or personal struggles. ... But we were all there for each other through it all."

Contributing new songs such as the intimate "Closed Doors" and the sensual "Thrill of Passion," the latter "all about this temptation of being unfaithful" that Kopecky called a "moody ballad" and "just a little more provocative than the songs we used to write," helped her to reveal she's "growing up as a woman and being unashamed of my femininity and I think that's been a beautiful thing to capture."

Another song that grew out of their nonstop touring experiences was "My Love," which began in rehearsals with a chorus and the band jamming on a chord progression that Kopecky eventually took home and turned into a real-life Cinderella story.

"The song is about meeting a lot of people on the road and it's like, 'Oh, is that Mr. Right?' You'll never know because you're on to the next city when the clock strikes midnight," she said. "So it's kind of like realizing that touring is very unnatural and crazy but also just something that I've chosen to make my lifestyle. So it's fun to let songs just be our diary, so to speak."

If there's one that definitely will connect with audiences this summer, though, it's "Drug for the Modern Age," the powerful album closer that essentially is the recently married Simon's love letter to his bride, taking the "she completes me" line from Jerry Maguire to a grander, deeper level.

With Simon's swelling chorus serving as an emotional crescendo that sounds like the best of the New Pornographers, "Drug for the Modern Age" is a magnificent example of a group effort. "It was really cool to kind of all put our mark on the lyrics of that song and the fact that we found that random chorus and that became kind of the thread through the entire album," said Kopecky, singling out Holmes' contribution by reciting part of a verse he wrote:

I've been chained to a script in my mind / What I'd give to forget all my lines

The band also includes Markus Midkiff, who plays cello, guitar and keyboards and is the only band member on the album cover, portraying a zonked-out drifter literally floored between two cheap motel room beds.

"We kind of liked the album cover because it looks like the phone is off the hook and you're wondering, 'Did he just get bad news? Did he just like call someone and tell them something he wish that he didn't?' " Kopecky said, revealing that the photo shoot took place in one of those $35-a-night motor inns in Murfreesboro, outside Nashville. "There's kind of a story there. And It's such a familiar setting for us because we go from hotel room to hotel room and usually they're those shitty, gross motels." (laughs)

Having toured extensively since the release of their first full-length album, 2012's Kids Raising Kids, all the members of Kopecky can certainly identify with Midkiff's cover character, arriving from different parts of the country to eventually team up in Nashville.

Kopecky and her older sister Lindsay were raised in Minnesota, where they both took piano lessons and listened to "amazing" stories told by her great aunt, Jan Northrup. She played accordion in an all-female band called the Rhythm Ranch Gals before joining band mate and best friend Patti Williams (bass, guitar) to form the North Sisters. Kopecky called them another "faux family band," this one embracing country and rockabilly in the 1950s while touring the country with the likes of Johnny Cash and George Jones.

Kopecky also wondered about the members of another band with her last name, three brothers from Racine, Wisconsin, whose career playing progressive rock began in 1999, then continued until one of them died in 2009.

Knowing there was an actual Kopecky family band out there in the Midwest before she was old enough to go to high school astounded Kelsey.

"How crazy is that?" she said of the coincidence. "I don't know that we're related but ... actually our attorney had to talk to them and make sure we were all squared away with the name change and all that stuff." (laughs)

Maybe the North Sisters were the indirect inspiration behind that "family band" concept, which was dropped when the group made a collective decision, according to Kopecky: Simplify our sound but still evolve musically and establish "this new identity" while still being "the same people" their fans know and love. That covers a lot of territory, much like the group.

The origins of Kopecky's members stretch across three-quarters of the continental U.S., including South Carolina (Simon), North Carolina (Oxendine), Dallas (Midkiff) and Denver (Krohn). Holmes spent his formative years in the Philippines, where his parents were medical missionaries.

Yet it was Kopecky who first brought her future band mates together by inviting them to play board games in her dorm, where she served as a resident assistant.

Just days later, while dressed as Mother Nature with a lacy dress and sticks in her hair for Halloween in 2007, Kopecky wrote seven songs with Simon that became their first EP.

The band has practically been intact since those Belmont days, with an early replacement at bass the lone lineup change.

Attending Belmont based on a recommendation by Greg Walters, a friend she made through the Minneapolis music circuit, Kopecky initially aspired to be a solo singing-songwriting performer named Kelsey Joy, using her middle name instead of her surname. She did release "a little EP" then. And though the group remains her "first love and first priority," Kelsey Joy will one day emerge as Kage, a combination of her first two initials, for a solo project she's worked on in her spare time.

Having already written 20 songs and recorded demos, Kage (the nickname created by Oxendine) will be her further exploration into electronica.

"It's cool to have other outlets of music," she said. "Some synth stuff, really cool drum tracks and loops. ... I like stacking my vocals and treating my voice like, kind of like arranging instruments. ... Creating just a very lush sound with tones of my voice. It's really been interesting to experiment. Kind of like no rules."

Kage will have to wait a while, though, while Kopecky presents its own set of new songs for public consumption en route to the Hangout in two weeks, the band's first time at the beach festival.

"I am so pumped because, for one, I love anything to do with water," offered Kopecky, who said their set will also include "crowd-involved songs" like "Heartbeat," "Are You Listening" and "My Way" from Kids Raising Kids. "In the summer, I always wear my swimsuit under my clothes. ... Then if you sweat, you're like, 'Oh this feels right, I'm in my swimsuit.' ... So it's kind of funny because it's finally socially acceptable to be in a swimsuit at Hangout Fest."

With Kopecky among the spirited groups ready to make a splash, expect the Hangout to be like one big happy family affair.


1. Since it will be your first time there, what do you think might separate the Hangout from other music festivals you've played?

KJK: Well, the ones we've played before, Lollapalooza, ACL, Bonnaroo, any other ones, they're all either in a field or a grassy place and you're hot. And all you want is water. All you want is a sprinkler. And so I feel like it's perfect 'cause it's like, if you want to run and take a dip, you can. If you want to just get a tan, you can. The ocean air just sounds amazing, having that air just flowing in all the time sounds refreshing.

2. When you're not making music, where do you like to hang out?

KJK: Ooh, that's a good question. I love visiting my family up in Minnesota. They're just north of the (Twin) Cities, in this town called Ham Lake. And it's because there's a lake shaped like a ham. But, yeah, so I do a lot of traveling and I'm also a yoga instructor. So I travel and teach while we're on the road. Sometimes we'll do pre-show yoga where I'll offer a class for free if you have a ticket to our show. Right now when I'm in Nashville I teach at different labels or different businesses that want yoga in the workplace. I work with people with chronic pain or with high stress and just go and help them in the middle of their workday. ... I love my life in Nashville. ... Very busy, but with things I like. That's the dream. Fill your schedule with things that inspire you.

3. Complete this sentence: If life is a beach, then Gulf Shores is ...

KJK: I know there's something here. Hold on. (pause) Then Gulf Shores is ... my retirement. It's like a Leisure World (a resort community in Mesa, Arizona). I just visited my grandparents (there). They know what they're doing. The stress level in zero. They're all just riding around in golf carts and I'm like, "This is the life. We all need to retire earlier and have tiny houses and just live the dream."

4. Which of the following Alabama-themed songs makes you wish you lived there (and why)?
a. "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd
b. "Alabama Getaway," Grateful Dead
c. "My Home's In Alabama," Alabama
d. "Alabama Pines," Jason Isbell

KJK: Oh, man. I want to say "Sweet Home Alabama." That's just the classic. I was roller skating in my dad's garage while he was washing cars. So even when I was up in Minnesota not really aware where Alabama was, we were like, "This is a good song." So that just brings me back to roller skating. That makes me want to live in Alabama.

5. What band or artist in the Hangout lineup would you pay to see?

KJK: I would have to say Beck and My Morning Jacket. Beck's Morning Phase album was not only just great to put on just to listen but also I taught every yoga class for like two months, I would just put on that album. It's really perfect for yoga. Forward moving but also very ambient. I loved it. ... And then My Morning Jacket (which releases The Waterfall on May 5) because they're actually our label mates (ATO Records) and I'm such a fan of Jim James. Man, so good.

First in a series. See more in the weeks leading up to the Hangout festival. Publicity photo by Shervin Lainez.

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