The last time Republic Tigers singer and multi-instrumentalist Kenn Jankowski was in Denver, he destroyed his guitar and punched his effects pedals after finding out that his wife had been cheating on him. It was late 2005, and Jankowski was in town with his previous band, the Golden Republic, which was on tour with Swedish alt-rock band the Caesars. After Jankowski got the bad news, he got so drunk he could barely walk.
"The Caesars took me out to a strip club and kept handing me $5 bills, and I ended up breaking my boots on a stripper's stairwell," Jankowski recalls. "So a bunch of Swedish dudes are carrying me into this strip club. It was funny. I mean, it wasn't funny at the time; I was totally messed up. But those guys were awesome. They took care of me."
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While that particular night didn't inspire a song, his now-ex-wife inspired more than a few, including "Made Concrete," which appears on the Republic Tigers' debut album Keep Color. The disc was issued in May as the first release on Chop Shop Records, the label started by veteran music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, who has overseen a number of films and television shows, including Grey's Anatomy and Gossip Girl, both of which feature music by the Tigers.
After the Golden Republic split up, in early 2006, Jankowski fell in with fellow Kansas City musician Adam McGill, and the two bonded over a fondness for modern pop and avant-garde electronica. Over the following months, they brought in guitarist/pianist Ryan Pinkston, bassist Marc Pepperman and drummer Justin Tricomi. Since every band member had a home studio, each one recorded material and then passed the sound files around, providing the genesis for many of the tracks on Keep Color.
"Everybody just comes up with ideas with MIDI controllers and sequences them," Jankowski explains. "We've got hundreds of ideas, and they bring over my hard drive and load all the ideas onto it. Then I put it on my iPod and listen in the car. Ideas come to me, or when I'm going to bed or something, I'll sit down in my room and forcefully listen and write. It's just cool. A lot of the songs start out like that with keyboards. But some songs start out with an acoustic guitar."
Most of the tracks that ended up on Keep Color were recorded in those home studios. The band took the songs to mix engineer Mark Needham, who's also worked with the Killers, Louis XIV, We Are Scientists and a slew of other artists. Jankowski said Needham did a great job beefing up the album and fighting through unwanted sounds of crickets and police sirens that appeared in some of Jankowski's vocal tracks.
"It's really interesting watching him work because he's like the director of an orchestra with his faders," Jankowski says of Needham. "He kind of dances behind them, and he does a lot of it in a live-type feel. I think he has a lot of natural ability for what he's doing."
Keep Color, which Jankowski sums up as being half organic and half synthetic, turned out beautifully, with the songs steeped in gorgeous layer upon layer of vocals, guitars and keys. Since the guys all share a mutual fondness for Radiohead, Aphex Twin and Air, those bands' influences seep through some of the tracks, especially the Air reference on "Weatherbeaten," which runs parallel to Air's "Cherry Blossom Girl" at times.
As for how all of the lush production and layers of instruments and vocals translate live, Jankowski says it's just louder and more energetic. "You can do it without all the vocal layers," he explains. "It's kind of a different experience, I guess. There are a lot of background vocals live, but just not quite as many as the record. But since we're singing louder and our tones are a little more intense, it would sound pretty ridiculous if we had that many vocals live."
Although each member of the band is a multi-instrumentalist, the guys pretty much stick to their instruments, with the help of a laptop, when they play live. "Right when we started, Marc was moving around on the accordion and piano. But we've actually taken away the piano and keyboard live, just because it's not quite as interesting," Jankowski states. "Sometimes we'll all have three guitars going. But we all play different style things. One might be playing acoustic, or one will be playing one note at a time, and that will usually be me."
Even though Keep Color has only been on the shelves since May, Jankowski says the band is already looking toward the future. One thing that appeals to everyone is more soundtrack-type records. "We all want to compose for movies," he says. "I have some ideas for Ender's Game, but I don't think that movie will ever be made. And if it's animated, I don't want to do it. I want it to be live action."
Jankowski also has an idea for a blues and electronic combo. "Like instead of the acoustic, have some really nice blues electric tones happening with slightly standard blues-style playing, but have it surrounded by more minimal ideas in electronic music than this record. We'll probably be a little more minimal with the next one, or just choosier." And while Keep Color was spawned primarily from swapping audio files around, the band might record some jams in the rehearsal studio during its month off after the current tour.
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When Jankowksi gets back home to Kansas City, he won't be too far from Republic, Missouri, where he went to Republic High School. It was that school's mascot, the Tigers, that inspired the band's moniker. As a student at Republic, Jankowski sported a ponytail on top of his head and played sousaphone in the school's marching band. As the assistant drum major, he tried to be like Bram Stoker's Dracula as he directed the marching band.
It was in high school that Jankowksi got his first guitar; he also got a karaoke machine for his seventeenth birthday. Instead of using it for singing along to backup tracks, he figured how to overdub with two tapes and began using the machine to record his own music.
Writing lyrics didn't come until a while later. Jankowski says the lyrics for the songs on Keep Color are like different short stories. Each is a part of its own world with specific rules, but never the same rules. "They all mean something. They're put in a mysterious way; they could mean different things to different listeners, so I try not to go into too many specifics on my personal meaning," he explains. "I'm going to leave that to the listener, at least for now. 'Fight Song' means three different things to me, and they all make sense, so that was a really tough one to do. I had to change a few words just so that one story would completely make sense while the other two did."
And if he ever hits a writer's block? He's got a lot more written about his ex-wife.