For many who saw Junker play its first show in over a year this past summer, the band seemed to come out of nowhere. Now, with a newly recorded album and a plan to up their live show regimen, the members of Junker—songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Stephen Brooks, pedal steel player Zach Wright, drummer Joey Cathey and bassist Aaron Philyaw—are finally making themselves seen. Sort of.
“Part of the reason for the time off was adjustment to being a four-piece," says Brooks, referring to the exit of former guitarist Robin Blanchard. "Another part of it, for me, is that I'm writing new stuff constantly. Time off from playing is time on for changing and experimenting as a band. We certainly never intended to take a year off—that time whipped by, and it was surprising to us how fast it was gone. [It's] kind of frightening. I really don't have much memory of that period.”
The thing is, they have other things to think about. Junker's slouching, end-of-the-road doom-folk is crafted such that the band is ensconced in its process most of the time—and likes it that way.
“Playing out is not a priority, in comparison to playing the songs together as a band, and learning and growing together," Brooks says. "[The] priority [is] to constantly reinvent and create and re-envision. But playing out is about to be more of a priority—generally, because it's fun, and we have more momentum now than ever, more of a sense of Athens as our audience, a world, a place of belonging. And there's something about playing live, whether for an audience or not, with a loud amp and crashing drums and thumping bass—and the atmosphere itself—that just can't be reproduced.”
The band's upcoming album, tentatively titled Somewhere in These Transmissions, was live-tracked at Full Moon Studio this past month. Most of the songs on the record are new compositions; according to Brooks, many are merely a few weeks old. The six-song release will land on the group's Bandcamp site first (and in all honest probability only). But like all other existing Junker material—a smattering of 2011 demos and Brooks' solo album The Brain Is a Beautiful Junker—it will be available at any price the downloader chooses to pay.
“The most important thing, obviously, is that the music be heard and shared by those who want to hear it," Brooks says.
The two core elements of Junker's music, it may be argued, are Brooks' vocals and Wright's pedal steel. The former is a howl, a cry, a voice one might sing to oneself in nightmares. The latter is the road this voice travels, a heart-piercing twang that, in cowboy terms, far more suggests bloody western expansion than good-time campfire sittin'. The rhythm section compliments these two elements perfectly.
If there is a single track that captures Junker's je ne sais quoi, it's “Vegas.” Recorded by the band proper in demo form last year and in a slightly different style on Brooks' solo record, this is the song to hear before making any decisions about the group. There's a line in Casino that goes something like, “There's a lot of holes in the desert.” With "Vegas," Junker transforms that desert into one never-ending stretch of apocalyptic emptiness, an emotional echo chamber whose resonance never dissipates but gets louder until it's simultaneously too much and not enough.
Given the intensity of the internal fire that propels compositions like these, it's quite possible that if the band was more focused on becoming a public entity its music wouldn't have quite the same impact.
“I've written tons of songs," Brooks says. "Some of them, I just can't play anymore. I've lost touch with something at the core of those songs, at least for now, it seems, because I'm a different person now than I was when I wrote them, a different person than I was yesterday. Another writer once told me to never underestimate the gap between who you were yesterday and who you are today. That has helped me in writing, and it's helped me in life.”