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In the beginning, all Emily Kempf wanted to do was stage a play. But from its inception in August 2008, Back Pockets quickly turned into a Frankenstein's monster, pieced together from Kempf's musical, artistic, and theatrical endeavors, along with anything else she fancied. She chose a banjo as her axe, mostly because she'd never really dug playing guitar all that much, and over the next few years her unrestrained vision grew into a living, breathing entity of dreamlike symbolism wrapped in shambolic music and performance art dirges. Her instincts not only carved out a niche for Back Pockets as one of the most bizarre musical acts in the city, she became a local pied piper of sorts.
Kempf's primal, avant-garde instincts and Southern hippie aesthetic left a mark on everyone who filtered through the group's ranks. But her unorthodox ways became something of an Achilles heel, provoking just as much seething animosity from audiences as she did endearment. It was as if Back Pockets suddenly had become a bad word; but Kempf would get the last word.
The outsider punk-gypsy plod of such numbers as "Break Up Song," "Leave Me Alone," and "Making Out is Great" seemed weird for weirdness's sake. At times, the songs lacked melody and the defining structural qualities that came naturally for Kempf's obvious influences: David Bowie, Crass, Of Montreal, and so on. What's more, the elaborate costumes, theatrical productions, and excessive size of the group — often incorporating as many as 15 members — felt like a gimmick to mask her lack of legitimate songwriting skills.
But Kempf never set out to create easily consumable pop songs, and Back Pockets' ramshackle aesthetic still holds true to her original vision. Through it all, the group has drawn scores of curious participants, many who never made music on their own prior to joining the band. While Kempf hesitates to guess the number, it's safe to say that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 people have called themselves members over the course of four years. She certainly created a fertile stomping ground for many of the city's more adventurous spirits — including members of nearly two dozen burgeoning local acts such as Wowser Bowser, Faun and a Pan Flute, Christ, Lord, and others — thereby perpetuating a grassroots legacy of experimentation and primitivism. Despite the group's shrinking ranks in recent years, Kempf's vindication lies in the influence she has wielded over so many young musicians who walked away with an indelible piece of her sound and vision. — Chad Radford
Let no band put asunder
From purveyors of experimental art-pop to one hip-hop co-op, Back Pockets' offshoots run the gamut. The following are 23 past and present Atlanta acts that contain former members of the fanciful underground band of merrymakers.
Noisy, high-energy art pop
Billy Mitchell (drums), Philip Frobos (bass)
Summertime reverb punk ditties
Suzanne Baker (vocals)
Danny Bailey (drums), David Gray (drums), Suzanne Baker (vocals), Gage Gilmore (bass)
Ghostly murder ballads
Suzanne Baker (vocals, banjo, broken plates)
Dirty, mathy rock
Danny Bailey (drums), Gage Gilmore (bass)
Billy Mitchell and Brandon Camarda (trumpet)
Britt Teusink (vocals, guitar), Gage Gilmore (bass), Kenneth Figuera (keyboards)
Dreary post-punk/gothic rock
Adam Bruneau (drums)
Textured, droning majesty
Michael Potter (guitar)
Earthy reggae jams
Lazy-day pop melodies
Heather Buzzard (vocals), Michael Jordan (guitar)
David Gray, Heather Buzzard, George Petis (performance art)
No-sense dance mess
Billy Mitchell, Danny Bailey
Staccato rhythms and weirdness
Billy Mitchell, Henry Detweiller (theater), Stephanie Pharr (theater), Brandon Camarda, Casey Hood, Gage Gilmore, Danny Bailey
Casey Hood (vocals), Jared Pepper (guitar), Mikhail Ally (bass)
Bluesy rock 'n' rollers
Jared Pepper (drums)
Jazzy hip-hop co-op
Britt Teusink, Suzanne Baker, David Gray, Danny Bailey, Cameron Stuart (electric guitar)
Drivin N' Cryin.
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