THE HALL LEADING INTO RCA STUDIO B IS TEEMING WITH TEENAGERS. Their bodies press from wall to wall, squeezing past each other like salmon on their way to lay eggs in the room where Waylon and Dolly each laid down tracks.
I must be in the wrong place. I’m looking for Cardboard Kids. But no one can hear me. I can’t turn back and fight the tide, so I ride the sweaty current until I can grab an exit door. “Emergency Exit Only” it reads. Check.
Outside, wiping my mouth and catching my breath, I look at the unimpressive brick building. The last remodel must have been in the 1970s. I wander around, looking for a door not protected by a phalanx of teens on a school field trip.
A woman crosses 17th Avenue, heading in my direction. Her name is Amelia Handshoe. She works with Mike Kopp, music co-manager for Cardboard Kids, and she guides me through the proper entrance. “Elvis used to roller-skate through the studio,” she tells me.
We find Mike. He looks like an offensive lineman crossed with a poet. He’s kind. He smiles broadly and ushers me to ever-smaller rooms. Through a few sets of doors, we find two young guys in baseball hats huddled over an electric piano. A couple of metal folding chairs and a thrift store sofa finish out the room.
Jake Germany, lead singer and guitarist, greets me. His bleached hair shoots from under his hat like stems of a yucca plant. Austin Cunningham, guitarist, sits on the edge of the sofa. They are exceedingly friendly, but I can’t help but feel like I interrupted something. And where is their drummer, Brandon McFarlin?
Jake, Austin, and Brandon were born and raised in Tyler, Texas. Stuck about midway on the lonesome drive from Dallas to Shreveport, Louisiana, the town is modest and blue-collar to the core. “One day,” Jake tells me, “I counted sixteen churches from school to my house.” Religion and football, which may not be mutually exclusive, held center stage in Tyler. Rock ‘n’ roll, as to be expected, lived on the fringe.
“We both went to a huge megachurch,” Austin says. “Baptist,” Jake says flatly. They list a series of nicknames: Six Flags Over Tyler, Bapti-Dome, and so on.
The guys grew up in church but don’t consider their music religious. They’d rather not go too far down that conversation path, but the influence of church— not religion—is central to their story.
Early on, Jake’s only experience with music was exploring his grandfather’s music room. Guitars, drums, and horns were littered about. “I was drawn to the saxophone,” Jake says. “When the time came to join band at school, my parents made me play the sax,” he pauses. “I hated it.” The strict classroom setting didn’t encourage his creativity. By high school, he dropped the sax.
But this is where church became important. “The youth pastor at the church asked me if I could play bass,” Jake recalls. “I said no, but he told me to show up and he would show me how to play four notes.”
That was it. He had a knack for the instrument. He was drawn in by the sheer power of the bass. “I would stand against the amp when I played,” Jake says. “It felt like metal on metal.” Far more powerful than a vibrating reed.
“I played tuba,” Austin laughs. “That was the least cool instrument possible.” He describes his band tenure as “short.” This is also a good way to describe the way Austin tells his own story. If Jake can spin a yarn, Austin is happy to take the backseat.
Eventually, Austin also found his way to the bass. He was drawn to the simplicity and nuanced nature of the instrument. With only four strings, it felt accessible. Despite the bass being a first love for each of the guys, they both switched to guitar.
Beginning in junior high, Jake, Brandon, and Austin started, joined, and ended various music projects. Untangling the storylines for when each guy was in what band and who else was sitting in or moving on is complex. They were in a lot of bands. Sometimes they played with each other. Sometimes they did not. Here’s how I understand it:
Long before the kids became Cardboard Kids, they were exploring the options available in Tyler, Texas. Growing up connected to the Internet, they were able to reach beyond the confines of their town and discover unreachable music options.
“Emo music was my thing,” Austin says. “I listened to Brand New and Taking Back Sunday a lot.” For Austin, emo music quickly led to punk, and punk led to his first band, Middle Child.
“I started playing in punk bands in garages,” Austin tells me about his early high school days. This wasn’t cliche; it was necessity. “You could only play in garages or churches,” he explains.
“All-American Rejects was my big thing,” Jake says of the music he was into during middle school. “It was the beginning of a lifestyle for me. I definitely wore a side belt,” he says, laughing.
Jake recalls his first band, The Reserves. “We were terrible.” They were a self-described acoustic, Dashboard Confessional ensemble that ran against the grain of more popular local Texas metal bands.
With these two guys playing to different crowds, a connection in the scene might have been unlikely, but Tyler’s scene was microscopic. High school bands shared the spotlight with professional bands. A show playbill might include a staggered list of metal, all-girl, emo, acoustic, and punk. Everyone knew everyone, and the style of music didn’t matter. Austin, Jake, and Brandon belonged to a sub-community of kids looking for an opportunity to rebel. Tyler was a dry county, so snagging some booze was exceptionally difficult. “The closest thing we could do to be rebellious was play music,” Jake says.
Just one problem. “There were no music venues,” Jake explains. The only spot, other than a church, that passed for a venue was a storage unit nicknamed “The Sheds.” In a series of storage rentals, local kids would gather to listen to a hodgepodge of music. But a successful show required strategic planning, especially on Fridays. “We called it the Fifth Quarter,” Austin explains. There was no point in starting a show until after the football game.
Here, the guys played their first shows for an audience. “It was strange,” Austin admits. “I was nervous and thought I would only play out once and go back to the garage with my friends.” Austin is an introvert. The thought of being on stage seemed absurd, but something about performing shot lightning through his veins. He was addicted to the experience.
“Brandon and I were in this shoegaze band called Numerals,” Jake explains. “We never knew where our singer was because he was the kid in Tyler who did drugs. We liked it.”
Each project fizzled out. Luckily, Jake had a fallback option. During high school, he was a four-year letterman in soccer. He was good, and he landed a soccer scholarship for college. He finished his freshman year, but during the summer he joined the Warped Tour to play with a new band, The Secret Handshake, and dropped out of college. “My parents were surprisingly cool with my decision,” Jake says. “My parents are rare East Texas parents.”
But the band didn’t last long. Back in Tyler, Jake reconnected with Austin.
“I had moved to L.A. for the summer to do an internship for a film company,” Austin tells me. “I went back to Tyler with the intention to move to L.A. for school, but I started playing with The Lion and The Sail and decided I liked music more than film.”
Eventually, The Lion and the Sail broke up. Austin sat on a trove of music and continued writing. Jake had also been collecting and recording his own solo music. After the end of soccer scholarships and the Warped Tour, he asked Brandon and Austin to help him record a solo album. His songs detailed his life growing up in Tyler. The album was called Cardboard Kids and was accompanied by a comic book (he and Austin are comic nerds).
“I wanted a real angsty song,” Jake explains. “So Austin and I wrote one more song for the album, and it was more fun than the rest.”
Austin jumps in, “I said, ‘Well, I have more songs if you want to hear them.’”
The collaboration felt right, and the solo act became a band, Jake Germany and the Cardboard Kids. They toured. They played at 12th & Porter in Nashville. “We played that small side stage and no one came to our show,” Jake recalls. “It was just us, the other band, and the sound guy.”
They returned home to Texas and continued writing. With all three guys contributing to the songs, Jake dropped his name and they became Cardboard Kids. But, without some serious action, this project was destined to end like all the others.
“A friend of mine told me staying in Tyler meant nothing was going to happen,” Jake says, looking at Austin. “We had to move to L.A. or Nashville if we wanted anything to happen.” They chose Nashville, and this marked the first major band decision.
Before they packed up, they laid the groundwork for their album. Austin and Jake moved out of Tyler and onto a ranch in Blackjack, Texas. Brandon lived down the road. Off the grid, they worked on music while traveling to Nashville to make connections and write with producers. For a year, they saved money, wrote, and laid plans for their siege.
“Austin took a calendar off the wall and mapped out eight months of our plan,” Jake says. Instead of creating a rollout plan for a label, they handed over a wall calendar with pictures of dogs and inked dates for photos, PR, interviews, and events, all in an effort to own the development, creative, and promotion of their music.
During the planning year, they met Tres Sasser, who was launching American Echo, an independant label in Nashville. He got funding for the Cardboard Kids’ album and helped accelerate the process. Once the pieces fell in place, the guys moved to Nashville. They didn’t have jobs or, for the most part, a proper place to stay, but they went straight to the studio.
“We wanted to come out with a full-length album as our first piece,” Jake says of their goal in Nashville. They took their time and worked with professional producers and engineers. After a year of preparing, they spent months recording what would become their first album, Echo Boomer.
The entire experience was quintessential Nashville. Joe Costa mixed the album and became a close friend. “One day, we were at lunch with Joe,” Jake recalls. “He asks us about a song where we wanted a female vocal. We said, ‘Honestly, we just want someone who sounds like that woman who sings with Jack White.’ Joe said, ‘Oh, Ruby Amanfu? Okay.’ Three days later, she was in the studio.”
From here, momentum built rapidly. They played their first show at High Watt. Jake recalls plugging in his guitar and turning around to a packed room. “I just kept thanking everyone and telling them I didn’t understand why they cared about us,” he remembers.
Fresh off the buzz, they prepared a US tour with a headline show at The Basement. The 100-person-capacity venue burst at the seams with bodies pressed to the front of the stage in a standingroom-only show. Though the tour was a success, the relationship with their management began to unravel.
By the end of the tour, the guys had negotiated a new deal with Sharon Corbitt-House and Mike Kopp, but, being considerate Southern gentlemen, they agreed to play a going-away show for their outgoing management. For this show, they were back at 12th & Porter, but this time on the main stage.
The band hung out in the perch-like green room, waiting for showtime. Their guitar tech popped in and urgently told them to look outside. “I thought, Great. Is it raining or something? What is going wrong?” Jake recalls.
When the guys descended the stairs, the room was already full of people and a line outside stretched down the block and around the corner. The opening band hadn’t started, and in a town of perpetually late music fans, people were clamoring to get in. This was a far cry from their first 12th & Porter experience only two years earlier.
“My grandmother was the only person in my family with any reservation about what I was doing,” Austin says. “I remember telling her about this show, the line, and how people couldn’t get in.” He stops for a moment. His voice gets soft and he puts his head down. The memory of that conversation moves him. Jake quickly jumps in, “We couldn’t believe it.” Cardboard Kids went back to writing and recording with their new management team. Now, housed in RCA Studio A, they stand next door to where Dolly stood when she sang “Jolene.” “The studio is so big that Elvis used to rollerskate here,” Jake says with excitement. I tell him I had heard that. “Well, I bought some Rollerblades so I could do it too,” he adds.
With Echo Boomer, they were able to take their time, but the studio time was booked and they had to follow deadlines. With the new album, they have spent a year writing and recording. “We’re used to sitting on songs for a long time,” Austin explains.
“We’re getting better as musicians in different departments.” “We’re getting better at new textures,” Jake explains. With the new album, they are experimenting with synthesizers and rhythmic patterns. I ask about the overall feel. “It’s dark,” they say in unison. “The new songs have more room to breathe,” Jake says. “They have a special flow. If it makes our hair stand up, we do it, even if it’s not technically correct.”
As of this writing, the album title is unknown. No singles have been released. The only information available is that everything will be released in fall 2016. Per standard operating procedure, the guys maintain control of every element.
I stand up, shake their hands, and find my own way out. Yes, the building is old. The narrow hallways are barren. The harlequin-patterned floor of Studio A is empty. The space is quiet.
In a moment of rare romanticism, I stop and put my ear to the wall. I listen for reverberations of Willie Nelson and Charley Pride. I search for the high cry of Roy Orbison and the rattle of The Strokes. Deep in the quiet, a sound rises. The ping of piano keys leads a voice, Jake Germany’s voice.
Outside, the high school kids are gone. People walk their dogs under the shadow of cranes. The city is changing faster than most can handle, but the music industry and those who cherish the backstory still seek out the studios with soul. At RCA Studio A, Cardboard Kids add their entry in a rich catalog of music history.