By Olivia Feldman
Fort Pierce natives Gravel Kings have come a ways since funding their self-titled EP with a Kickstarter account a year and a half ago. Since the release of Gravel Kings last March, the folk-rock quartet has lost two members (upright bassist Mike Seniuk and drummer Johnnie Schumacher) and been signed to West Palm Beach label Decades Records, which represents other popular local bands the Band in Heaven and Wake Up.
Gravel Kings have embraced these changes with Arrows and Maps, their first full-length album, released yesterday. The upright bass has been tossed in favor of a regular bass guitar, played by James Dickens, says Zack Jones, guitarist and lead vocalist. "With James, we were able to go in a different direction with the same style," Jones says.
In preparation for recording Arrows, the band turned to the road for inspiration. Each of the album's nine songs revolves around tales of the band members' travels both within and outside of the Sunshine State.
Jones, who writes most of the band's lyrics, drew from many of his experiences after graduating high school, including when he moved to Buffalo and lived there until 2008.
The album's penultimate track, "Silver Skies," is about a girl from Okeechobee whom Jones met at the Boozgeois Saloon in Fort Pierce. The girl, he said, had been through some troubling times.
"She seemed very down in life, unhappy about how things were going," Jones reflects. In the song, he croons about how she took the time to tell him why she came to the area and how she wanted to start over in life.
Four of the songs on Arrows, including "More Alive" and "Kentucky Wine," are off the EP and have been retooled. The original version of "Fountain of Youth," for example, had a more dominant banjo-acoustic sound, but the Arrows version takes out the banjo and adds bass guitar and more percussion, making for a smoother ballad.
Whereas the EP took about two weeks to record, Gravel Kings put "a lot of work and time" into Arrows and Maps, Jones says. The band started writing the album after its EP came out in March 2013. The group then toured and played several new songs on the road to work out the kinks in each one. Jones says each member of the band takes a huge part in writing each song's structure.
After Gravel Kings came back to South Florida from touring last October, Decades Records scooped them up. The label, Jones says, has been extremely helpful in recording the album and making last-minute changes. For instance, new drummer Douglas French replaced Schumacher after the latter had already recorded his parts for Arrows, he says.
The band decided to display the member changes into the production of their music video for "Left Alone," the album's first single. "Since the 'More Alive' video is shot in the woods, we thought it would be funny if Joey [Johnson, banjo, dobro, and vocals] and I came out of the woods without the other members, then met the two new ones in the clearing to perform our new song," Jones says.
"Left Alone" is a catchy, jangly tune that reflects the subtle changes in the band's sound. The bass guitar gives off a cleaner effect, and Johnson's smooth banjo playing meshes well with Jones' guitar and Schumacher's polished drumming.
"'Left Alone' is the last song we wrote and first song we recorded for the album. I think it's one of those songs that show how far we've come as far as writing," Jones says. "There's a transition between the players and upbeat, folky sounds. We're superexcited to get that song out there."
Gravel Kings recorded at the Hit Box in Port St. Lucie, the home studio of Mike Bamonte, guitarist of the band Hot Noise and a friend of Gravel Kings. Created in June 2010, the Hit Box is Bamonte's home/studio, built with the musician/producer's entire savings. Dickens and Bamonte spent a lot of time there, sometimes leaving stacks of empty pizza boxes for days at a time, Jones laughs.
"We could check out what was going on whenever we pleased. It was so close to our houses that we could monitor what was going on," Jones says.
After playing "Left Alone" at one of their shows this past year, an Army veteran came up to him and said he could relate to the song, having had to go fight in a war and leave the one he loved behind. "With [all the songs'] lyrics being about traveling, there a lot of different stories everyone can relate to," he says.
He hopes listeners will "gain a huge smile on their face when they listen to the songs. As depressing as these lyrics are, the way we presented it kind of gives hope for someone going through a struggle," Jones said.
Arrows and Maps is available on Bandcamp for $7 and iTunes for $8.91. The album was officially released Tuesday. See Gravel Kings live October 25 at Moonfest in West Palm Beach and November 15 at Respectable Street with Reverend Horton Heat.