Out of the Swamp

After nearly breaking up, Abandon Kansas hoists up the bootstraps and pulls out from the swamp of disconnection and into the living rooms of supporters


It was 2008 when I first heard Abandon Kansas. They were performing on a plywood stage in a tiny commercial building that doubled as a church. Before they were even signed to Gotee Records — the label founded by former DC Talk member Toby McKeehan (TobyMac) — the group was still developing their own sound. Tracks like “I Wonder if it’s Me” and “What if it’s All in My Head” have stuck with me through the years, even as my tastes have swung from genre to genre. Any band can evoke nostalgia as the years go by, but not every group can continue to connect and to be relevant.

It’s never easy to start over and turn away from opportunities being handed to you, but Abandon Kansas’s new album, Alligator, wouldn’t exist if they had stayed the course with their previous label. The album’s sound takes another step away from the mainstream rather than toward it, while the sincerity in the lyrics reaches audiences in a way music for the masses can’t. Vocalist Jeremy Spring has been the driving force of Abandon Kansas through the years, and as many bandmates have pursued family life or left to target other ventures, Spring has continued on. “What You Meant” really exemplifies the heart of Abandon Kansas, which makes them as relatable and emotionally stirring for me now as they were when I was younger.

When so many artists are looking to be bigger and do bigger every year, Abandon Kansas stands out as a group continuing to stay level with their fans. Nothing shows this quite like the Living Room Tour that rewarded backers of Alligator with intimate house shows. I was able to talk with Spring between tour dates to get a glimpse inside the journey he’s been through with Abandon Kansas in the last year.

I saw you guys when I was in high school when you came to Fort Smith to The Regeneration. It’s been really interesting to see how things have progressed. How did you feel about putting this album out and going through Indiegogo to get support in the beginning?
Well, I hated it. That’s the worst. I don’t want to do it again. It was a very stressful process. I’m not business-minded. I’m not great at money-managing. I’m not very good at organizing.

We pushed to record on the same day that we started the Indiegogo. It was devastating for me to split my brain up like that and my time up like that. Me and my wife had just moved to Nashville. When the producer shot down some of the songs and asked me to write something real quick, I wrote four of these songs for this new record while we were in the studio. The lyrics are real aggressive and came out right there off the top of my head, what I’m feeling right then. I think you can hear that in the first half of the record.

I never want to do a crowdfund again. It was very stressful. We shot low with the goal because we were afraid we wouldn’t get it, but the Emery guys and Bad Christian helped me manage the campaign. It was mega-stressful. We tried to be creative with the perks we came up with. I’ve seen a lot of other bands do Indiegogo with really lame stuff. The tour was a big part of the campaign; all the stops on this tour were for people who donated a pretty significant amount to the record. We got to do a disc golf outing with a couple of different fans. That part’s been fun.

I think the stressful part for me was the money. We paid for our own record. I don’t think people realize how much it costs. We asked for $15,000; we got $19,ooo, but I spent the whole 19 on the record. Then when you have to turn around and do things like ship out the CDs, order CDs and order t-shirts, the poster prints, all the perks you promised — then it gets pretty complicated. Honestly, it’s stressful. We tried something different, but we’re still seeing how it pans out.

When you guys started recording, were you already in talks with Emery and moving to Bad Christian? Or was that still in development?
Yeah, I filled in on tour for Emery (for Devin Shelton), for a couple of tours with Norma Jean last fall. It was fun. I got to get onstage and freak out and act possessed for an hour, but it was really fun to get up there and try something different. I had never played bass, and it was interesting. I grew up loving Emery when I was in high school. To tour and play some of the songs I knew was really fcking cool. The thing was, I was on the bus with Ben, and we were talking about frustrations with the music business. I explained to him what happened with us on our label and getting totally screwed in the end.

“I wrote it and kind of sat on it for a long time, but the first time I really sang it and performed it all the way through was the one that’s on the record.”

But that was their whole mission: to try to do something outside the box. We had that artist guy to process, but then help with some connections. We put our heads together, more like a co-op than a free for all. I showed him some of the songs. We stopped on tour in Anaheim and recorded that Indiegogo video on the route for the Emery bus in the parking lot. I did it that quick. I played in the intro. The lead song was called “Alligator.” They were like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” That launched the whole thing. It’s pretty cool.

You said that a lot of these tracks are really raw. You’re really trying to connect with the lyrics. Do you have a favorite song, or is your most memorable song from this album that stands out to you?
Yeah, I think that’s pretty easy. I think the one about my dad. I’ve never really put anything that intimate on an AK record. Actually, that was the first time I’d ever sang the song all the way through. I wrote it and kind of sat on it for a long time, but the first time I really sang it and performed it all the way through was the one that’s on the record. So, it’s a song for my dad called “What You Meant,” and it describes the past year. A lot of different emotions are wrapped up in that.

Some other stuff I address all throughout the record — and it kind of comes to a head on that song — but it’s the only acoustic track on the record; it’s real stripped down. I just wanted to have a moment that felt a little too real, didn’t feel like a studio moment. I kind of lose it at the end of the track, which is a little bit embarrassing, but we tried to keep it and wanted to make it what it was — more of a performance piece.

We’ll see what people think. So far, every night that song has kind of made everybody weep (laughs). I hate having that effect, but it’s been rad to see people connect with what the song means to me. The whole record, I want to create a safe place to be ugly and talk about the ugly stuff in life, and I think the best way for me I found was just to start sharing my sh-t. People just meet you there, then they can sigh with relief.

It hasn’t been near so many gasps as it’s been like, “Ah, OK, I’m alright. This guy’s got stuff, too.” Saying things out loud that I know are going on in people’s heads. I want to be the one that’s bold enough to say that, and help people move on. I think sin wins, for sure, when you feel like it’s a secret or it’s a one-of-a kind, unique thing. So, talking about my mine out loud, it can be freeing for people.

Has the rest of the band been pretty supportive of, not just that style, but of your message and personal things  you’re sharing? Have they tried to get involved with that as well? How has that worked out?
The band’s gotten involved over time. They’ve always been really supportive. I went through a major lineup change. Our bass player, Nick Patrick, is still with us, but other than that, everybody changed. I moved to Nashville in the fall and tried to chase down some other music projects as well. I wasn’t sure Abandon Kansas was even going to stay afloat. Everybody had to quit for different reasons, got married, took over family businesses, life stuff. And we’re getting older — it didn’t look like this third record was ever going to happen. So by the time we amped up for this Indiegogo and the new record, the band had changed.

I made this record in the studio with J Hall and hired a drummer, Miles McPherson out of Nashville. He played drums for Paramore and for Kelly Clarkson. Me and Nick Blazina, the engineer, and J Hall really just made this record together. A pretty intense process, but we kind of did it all in six weeks around Christmas break, which was absolutely insane. I think you can hear that tension in the songs. It was the right fit. I’m so glad I met J Hall. He’s an incredible producer, and he mixed the record, too. We had a really good time.

Is there anything else you want to add about this whole process, moving to Bad Christian in the last year and the whirlwind that is Abandon Kansas right now?
It has been a whirlwind, indeed. I think this deal with Bad Christian will be good. I think you’ll see us on tour with some of those bands this year.

Another thing: I’ve been trying to catch up with the fans. I actually had this podcast going long before I ever really knew about Bad Christian or Matt or Emery. In the same way, we have a podcast, a way to keep content coming out of here every week throughout the year when there’s not any AK stuff to talk about. I love talking about music and movies so I have a podcast with my friend John back home in Wichita and I’m in Nashville. We talk about new music and movies and TV shows and shoot the sh-t about what we do in our spare time. It’s called Dead Space. Recently we’ve been doing a special focus series on Alligator and AK records. On Dead Space we have guests. We had Jay Hall on there. We had our bass player on there. We have some other guys from different bands and they’re going to be coming on to talk about a bunch of different things, and what they think about the new record.

“I used to have this image of social networks and Internet life being like these alligators swimming around in a pool together, very close but not interacting, just our eyes above the water, watching each other.”

It’s been a really cool outlet as well. People into podcasts can check out Dead Space.

I got to ask, why did you choose the name Alligator?
(Laughs) That’s a long story. Do you want the short or do you want the long?

Whatever you feel like telling.
I guess you can chop it up however you want. You’re recording it. The album, as a whole, is a reflection, like looking at yourself in the mirror. That experience that life hands you — maybe not actually in front of the mirror, but some situation throws up a mirror in front of you  — and you find out who you really are. You get a chance to overcome or win or fail. You get to see what you were, not just what you thought you were. That feeling is regret and shame in that moment. That’s what this record is focused around.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw more of a monster, an alligator. I used to have this image of social networks and Internet life being like these alligators swimming around in a pool together, very close but not interacting, just our eyes above the water, watching each other. If somebody would bump into somebody or piss somebody off, we’d chomp at each other. I read this story online about this group of rednecks that had been hunting alligators in the South. They had found this old alligator and they found Civil War bullets in its hide after they killed it. To think that alligator was that old and had been carrying older bullets and had lived that long… The image spoke to me. Baggage and being sensitive around people. Like I said on the Internet, “If we’re all swimming around and people poke your limbs, you should bite their head off.” There’s no real love or real interaction. There’s a lot of talk about that disconnectedness. Being so connected on the phones, on the social networks, but really feeling alone and trying to break down that barrier there. That’s the gist of Alligator.

That’s very interesting.
The cover art is really rad, too. Our old guitar player, Brad — he had quit the band, got married, went back to school, that kind of thing but he’s still a close friend — came down to play guitar on a couple songs and do the cover art. His artwork right now is really dope. He’s on another level with that stuff. He did some iconic overload on this cover piece for Alligator. I want you to check it out. We’re really trying to blast the artwork, but there is no text on the cover and the art on the t-shirts and stuff. We’re really trying to get fans to support the artwork — I feel that it’s all text now. I really wanted to support that dude’s painting. It looks exactly how the record feels. I’m really stoked with that.

Abandon Kansas was posted on May 24, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by .