Dasher’s deliverance

Kylee Kimbrough lost everything. And then she found drums.

On a brisk October night, several dozen people migrate from 529’s patio into the nearly sold-out East Atlanta dive bar. It’s a few minutes after midnight, and local punk trio Dasher is preparing for a headlining show to celebrate the release of its latest seven-inch.

Kylee Kimbrough, Dasher’s drummer, vocalist, and founder, runs through a quick line check with the venue’s sound tech. Guitarist David Michaud and bassist Rob Sarabia flip on their amps and test their pedals. Kimbrough sips a bottle of water, takes one last drag from her cigarette, and sits behind her drum kit. The silver snare drum doesn’t match the red floor tom. Bright yellow paint is peeling off the kick drum. The neon orange-and-pink drumhead broadcasts the band’s scribbled logo.

“Thanks for coming, we’re Dasher,” Kimbrough says somewhat timidly into a microphone suspended over her ride cymbal. She carefully rests a spare drumstick against one of her kit’s lugs. The lights dim, the house music quiets, and the crowd turns toward the stage. The room is silent for a few seconds. Then it rattles.

Dasher opens with a blistering version of “Soviet,” the new seven-inch’s A side, and sends the crowd into a frenzy. Several half-full Miller High Life cans fly past Sarabia’s head. Fans mosh in the middle of the venue, and a few people are knocked onto the stage. A professional photographer with an expensive camera in hand lands on Michaud’s pedal board. Kimbrough pummels her kit and screams into the lone microphone. Her intimidating shrieks, delayed and distorted by an effects pedal, sound primal.

Dasher performs for a total of 30 minutes, including the encore, because that’s as long as Kimbrough can last before her body revolts. After a show she’s always exhausted, frequently hyperventilates, and occasionally vomits.

“I don’t throw up anymore,” Kimbrough says. She’s drenched in sweat and struggling to catch her breath while winding up a microphone cable and hauling gear offstage. “That’s as long I don’t eat pizza beforehand.”

Kimbrough appears fearless on stage with Dasher. But the 31-year-old drummer is terrified of where Dasher will lead her next. She has played drums seriously for only six years, and screamed for fewer. The band’s early success has come quickly. Her songwriting helped land the trio a multirecord deal with Jagjaguwar Records. The influential independent label, home to a diverse roster of artists from indie-folk (Angel Olsen, Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten) to noisier rock (Black Mountain, Dinosaur Jr.), has sold millions of records and won Grammy Awards. Dasher is the label’s first punk group.

It’s hard to blame Kimbrough for being apprehensive. Kimbrough spent the first 25 years of her life losing nearly everything worth living for: her self-worth, her sobriety, even her son. Then, at her life’s lowest point, she stumbled upon the drums. That discovery unexpectedly set her on a different, more positive course despite still being fraught with struggles.

“I don’t understand why music is the thing that worked out,” Kimbrough says. “Sometimes I wish it was something else. But it’s the one thing I’ve put energy into that keeps going.”

A few days before the release show Kimbrough sits alone in front of Candler Park Market, warming her hands with a cup of coffee. She recently moved near the McLendon Avenue commercial strip, into a half-renovated carriage house. She landed a sweet deal for the place: free rent in exchange for helping the owner spruce up the light-blue house out front and cleaning up the rest of the property.

The lot is a mess. We head down a long driveway and cross a backyard filled with paint buckets, saw horses, and miscellaneous construction equipment. Inside, a couch and an acoustic guitar lie beneath her lofted bed. Records fill the white shelves next to her living room table. She stores her drums inside Dasher’s practice space at Thunderbox Rehearsal Studios in Old Fourth Ward.

As Kimbrough finishes giving a short tour of her new home, the conversation gradually shifts from her latest move to her early childhood. She pulls a cigarette from a full pack and asks permission to smoke before flicking her lighter and taking a seat.

Born Kylee Parke, she says she was the “artsy black sheep” of her family and felt trapped growing up in her tiny hometown of Cayuga, Ind. The 1,100-person rural town, located an hour west of Indianapolis and near the state’s western border, has three bars and one stoplight. Endless acres of farmland surround a community too small to have its own school system. It’s a place where no one goes unnoticed.

Cayuga was largely devoid of a creative community. Kimbrough’s first exposure to music came from within her family: Her dad performed in bar bands, her brothers played guitar, and her grandma recorded gospel songs. Kimbrough describes her small-town upbringing, one dependent on welfare and food stamps. She continues on another train of thought, recalling early obsessions with Kris Kross and the Smashing Pumpkins, before eventually plopping one of her grandmother’s cassette tapes on the desk.

“I wanted to play something,” she says. “But other things like drawing and painting came inherently easy to me. When I tried guitar, I wasn’t amazing right away. Sucking wasn’t that awesome. I didn’t want to play in front of anybody. It was really uncomfortable.”

Kimbrough’s family also exposed her to substance abuse struggles. Her father, a General Motors factory worker who only visited around the holidays, drank and used drugs, according to family members. She idolized her father but clashed with her mother and siblings while growing up.

“Kylee always wanted to be her own boss,” says Kimbrough’s mother, Jamie Konen. “She never really got along with other kids. ... When she did make friends, she fell into the wrong kind of crowd. She started wearing goth clothes and became a little rebel.”

One day when she was 11, Kimbrough and a friend went to buy candy after school at the corner store. A local drug addict struck up a conversation with them and eventually offered to get them high if they retrieved a power saw and PlayStation console from a nearby house. He said both things belonged to him. Kimbrough and her friend did as asked. He pawned both items and bought them drugs that, unbeknownst to Kimbrough, ended up being crack.

“You could’ve told me that was pot,” she says. “I didn’t know. I was out of my mind, definitely causing a lot of problems. The last thing my family thought, because I was 11 years old, was that I was on crack.”

Kimbrough’s drug use intensified. Her relationship with her family deteriorated and her mother sent her to live with her father in Hartselle, Ala., a 12,000-person town where god, guns, and football dominated the local culture. Kimbrough managed to find a tight-knit group of friends interested in punk and alternative music. According to Kimbrough and another family member, there were often drugs in her new household and she partook. When contacted for this story, Kimbrough’s father declined to comment in detail. In a follow-up conversation, his girlfriend declined further comment on his behalf, citing health concerns.

In the wake of a blowout fight, during which Kimbrough says she beat up her stepmother and knocked out her dad’s teeth, she returned to Indiana. Her mother placed her in rehab, which was followed by a stay in a psych ward, before her return to Hartselle. At 16, she dropped out of high school after her first boyfriend died in a car accident. Kimbrough left home soon afterward and crashed with a friend in Mobile. They embarked on a monthlong bender that she says involved the purchase of $7,000 in cocaine, among other drugs.

“There was an O.D. that was going to happen eventually,” Kimbrough says.

The party ended abruptly with a positive pregnancy test. Kimbrough, 17 years old at the time, cleaned up and returned to North Alabama with a renewed sense of purpose as an expecting mother. But she didn’t know the first thing about caring for a child — she had never visited an OB-GYN or heard about Medicaid — and had no one to turn to for guidance. In search of a sober community, she started going to hardcore shows at a nearby church, where she met Seth Kimbrough. They became close friends. She helped dye his hair, something that she often did for herself in a variety of colors.

During a trip with Seth to her home, Kimbrough says her father “went on one of his rampages.” Seth persuaded her to move in with his family that evening. Seth’s mother, Sheri Stanford, ended up as a guiding influence during the pregnancy and helped out once Trey, Kimbrough’s son, was born. Kimbrough married Seth, only to divorce 10 months later. She lost some of that support network in the process.

Kimbrough kept her married last name, though, and reconnected with her dad. According to Kimbrough, he’d recently moved to a halfway house in Sandy Springs and resumed working for General Motors. At age 19, she moved to metro Atlanta and joined her dad at the halfway house. Things went well for a while. But one weekend her dad went car shopping. He left her $60 and never returned, she says. An eviction notice arrived stating that rent was several months past due, according to Kimbrough.

“Typical dad shit,” she says.

She remained undeterred in her quest to better her son’s life. She asked Stanford to temporarily take care of her son in Alabama. That let Kimbrough focus on creating a long-term plan. She worked odd jobs in Atlanta, obtained a GED in 2005, and enrolled in an engineering program at Georgia Perimeter College, hoping to transfer to Georgia Tech. But she struggled, partially due to her drinking, and dropped out after one semester. She eventually moved back to Alabama, picked up shifts waiting tables at a local restaurant, and rented an apartment to see her son on the weekends.

Things fell apart in Alabama. A new boyfriend moved into her place. He introduced her to heroin. She grew well acquainted. Within six months, she lost her job, went broke, and burned bridges with nearly all of her friends. Her world had spun out of control. Out of options, the 23-year-old mother relinquished custody of her 6-year-old son.

“Losing my son, by my own hands, destroyed me — it totally ruined everything,” says Kimbrough, who sighs before lighting another cigarette. “I had nothing to lose. I didn’t care anymore. No one could embarrass me. I didn’t care if I was dead or alive. ... It was death without actually dying.”

It’s nearly impossible to stumble upon Southern Tracks Recording Studio. The two-story gray stucco building is set back from Clairmont Road, near its junction with I-85. Its discreet, fenced-off environs make for an ideal recording space for major-label acts such as Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen, plus countless local artists.

Three days after the release show at 529, the trio is set up in the massive recording space. There are high ceilings, soundproof panels, and polished wood floors. Kimbrough, Michaud, and Sarabia set up their instruments, practice a few last-minute parts, and listen to each other make noise through headphone monitors. From behind her drum kit, Kimbrough guides Sarabia through one of her bass melodies. “Don’t blow it!” she quips.

In her dirt-caked Chuck Taylors, Kimbrough steps out to the studio’s parking lot, where she chain-smokes a few cigarettes and swigs from a gallon jug filled with blue liquid containing diluted nitric oxide. It’s supposed to dilate her blood vessels, she explains. In a few minutes, Dasher will cut a new version of “Teeth,” an unrelenting four-minute post-punk song that slowly unravels into uncontrolled bursts of noise. The song is slated for the trio’s debut LP.

Kimbrough says the forthcoming record’s title, No Power, partially nods to Michaud’s former band of the same name. But it mostly serves as a reminder of Kimbrough’s ongoing struggles with addiction. She wrote most of the record’s songs around the time she became sober in 2013.

No Power touches on the crux of recovery and fits with the other songs that lean more towards a relationship I was dealing with when I wrote the lyrics,” she said in an email. “Accepting I have no power over xyz sic has colored my life for the last 6 years. When I can accept it, I do OK in life. When I fight it, I start to fall.”

Kimbrough has learned that lesson since returning to Atlanta. In 2008 she began attending DIY punk concerts that were a part of the city’s thriving house show scene. At one of those gigs, she met WonderRoot co-founder Witt Wisebram, a local singer/songwriter who was on the lookout for a drummer. Kimbrough, who occasionally messed around on other people’s drum kits but had never played in a band, drunkenly approached him about his call.

“Kylee said, ‘I’m a drummer,’” Wisebram recalls. He enthusiastically agreed to jam with her the following afternoon. But Kimbrough says she blacked out that evening, had no recollection of the conversation the next day, and had to be dragged to practice. “Kylee didn’t actually play the drums,” Wisebram says. “She knew one beat. Once we started playing together, we had this really cool chemistry. We became really close after that.”

Kimbrough and Wisebram kept practicing in WonderRoot’s basement. They soon brought in other musicians and formed the Wild, a folk-punk group that afforded Kimbrough her first real experience in a band.

Back then, I didn’t care if I sucked,” she says. “The silver lining in losing everything was that it made it possible for me to start playing music. I was barely able to keep a beat, but I didn’t care what anyone else thought.”

One month later, Wisebram received an urgent call from Kimbrough. She had overdosed at a friend’s house and landed in Northside Hospital for several weeks. She tried to play off the incident with Wisebram. “I had this ability to always laugh at it,” she says. “‘Oh damn, this is embarrassing! Here we go again.’” He took the overdose more seriously and gave her an ultimatum: Sober up or leave the band.

Kimbrough initially didn’t want to become sober. She also didn’t want to lose her spot in the Wild, so she went through the motions of recovery. The group soon attracted enough interest to sign a recording contract and tour nationally — a first for the novice timekeeper. She began receiving compliments about her drumming.

She parted ways with the Wild in 2010. Three weeks later, Knaves Grave guitarist George Asimakos asked her to replace former drummer Erin Santini. The power-pop group’s songs provided Kimbrough with a crash course in faster drumming. According to Knaves Grave frontwoman Sunni Johnson, Kimbrough quickly developed her strengths as a drummer, especially after she got past the initial struggles that came with learning a new musical style.

“She was still kind of raw, but in that really awesome way like the riot grrrl bands from the ’90s,” Johnson says. “They were maybe not technically the best, but they were so badass and powerful.”

Kimbrough doesn’t have much time to dwell on past mistakes. That’s especially true in the throes of a jam-packed four-day recording session that will help define Dasher’s future. Following another cigarette break, she heads back inside Southern Tracks with producer Jason Kingsland (Band of Horses, Washed Out), who soon cues that he’s rolling tape for the session.

Dasher begins walloping its way through the first take of “Teeth.” Kimbrough mouths her lyrics — they’ll record vocals separately that evening. Each of the three musicians is about 15 feet away from the others, instead of crammed next to each other on a tiny stage. Michaud plays swirling and distorted riffs on an electric guitar over Sarabia’s steady bass notes. They’re forced to adjust to listening through isolated headphone monitors rather than their blaring amps.

“I play at my best when I’m almost inside the songs,” Kimbrough says later. “There’s a big disconnect when you’re in the studio. You’re playing with muscle memory the best you can. You hope you’re hitting the drums right.”

By the session’s end, Kimbrough has broken four kick pedals because she couldn’t hear enough of the sound made by her right foot. Her snare drum keeps falling out of tune. Kingsland carefully supports the trio in moments of doubt (“Let me know if I can do anything, we’re still rolling”) and challenges the group (“That one sounded like you knew it”).

The absence of Kimbrough’s howls noticeably throws the trio off-kilter. Kimbrough and Sarabia’s eyes meet while attempting to stay in lockstep, but they misfire on a breakdown. Second, third, and fourth takes follow — all with hiccups. Kingsland forces them to take a break and gather their thoughts. After nailing the fifth take, he urges them to record the song one more time for good measure.

“What’s neat about Kylee is that Dasher is dangerous,” Kingsland says a few days later, from Nashville, en route to a recording session with Band of Horses. “It’s not always the same. It’s catching lightning in a bottle. It’s taking a photograph of a GIF.”

Night falls over Southern Tracks. Kimbrough regains her focus. She asks Kingsland a flurry of questions as they listen to the rough mixes at the soundboard.

“I’m trying not to be a princess here,” she says, expressing concern about the brightness of her cymbals. She heads upstairs for a dinner break — Cuban sandwiches are on the menu — before burrowing back into the studio for a new song called “Weightless.”

Her meticulousness led to frustration in other bands. She didn’t compose music before Dasher. So when she left other bands, she grew disheartened that she could no longer play those songs. In late 2011 her friend Jordan Gum gave her a bass and encouraged her to write her own songs.

Kimbrough, who briefly played in local shoegaze band Abby Gogo after Knaves Grave, started teaching herself bass and recording original melodies on her phone. Aaron Smith, now a member of local hardcore band Manic, says they listened to lots of records, including ones from Crisis and Nü Sensae as she figured out Dasher’s sound. The music of older acts (Patti Smith, Wire) and local peers (GG King, Predator) rooted in punk seeped into Kimbrough’s consciousness as a songwriter.

For guitar parts, she originally planned to play basic power chords and later add feedback. But she decided to show her earliest post-punk demos to Nevin Lyle, a fellow co-worker at the Five Spot. He instead offered to help record shoegaze guitar textures that ultimately gave the songs more depth than traditional punk songs. She also brought in bassist Jacob Anderson, whom she was dating at the time, to play the bass parts she had written.

Lyle was playing this noise wash over her bass riffs that allowed those pop songs to become this abrasive thing — great pop songs through this punk filter,” Smith says.

Despite her initial plans, Kimbrough assumed lead vocal duties at one of the trio’s earliest practices. Her unexpected transition to frontwoman forced her to make changes to her lifestyle. She got in better physical shape to sustain herself screaming and drumming simultaneously for an entire set.

In summer 2012, Dasher debuted at the Highland Ballroom. The trio’s performance was so loud that 11 guests at the upstairs inn demanded refunds from the front desk due to the excessive noise. The historic hotel stopped regularly booking concerts after that night.

“In a weird way, I thought, ‘Yeah, we’re doing something right!’” Kimbrough says. “But I also felt bad.”

Dasher’s first lineup didn’t last long. Kimbrough replaced Lyle and Anderson with guitarist Jon Allison (Abby Gogo) and multi-instrumentalist Ian Deaton (God’s Balls), respectively. When Allison missed shows, Deaton started playing bass with an octave generator, a pedal that turns his single notes into chords, to split his bass signal and send it into two separate amps. Deaton says the musical hack created the sound of a “ghost guitar” that effectively let him play two instruments at once. The cheap trick replaced Allison when he was absent. As a trio, Dasher’s sound transformed from loud to leviathan.

Kimbrough, who had returned to intermittent drinking and drug use after leaving the Wild, cleaned up again in March 2013, following an ultimatum from Deaton. On the heels of Yeah, I Know, a tape released by Scavenger of Death that captured the trio’s strident sound for the first time, crowds began feeding off the music. Deaton remembers audiences reacting to the band’s assailing performances in ways unlike any of his live performances over the past decade.

“Maybe by the sixth or seventh show I had played with Dasher, people were freaking out,” Deaton says. “I haven’t seen that much response in my life of playing music.”

Less than a year later, Allison and Deaton left the band. Michaud, a multi-instrumentalist from Charlotte, took Deaton’s place. Deaton agreed to walk his replacement through the ins and outs of his intricate setup, by then an integral part of Dasher’s sound. Kimbrough replaced Allison with guitarist Kelly Stroup but fired him after a few months. The unexpected change prompted Michaud to shift to guitar and simultaneously teach bass parts he’d just finished learning to Sarabia.

“A lot of people, given the variables that this band has gone through, would’ve broken up,” Michaud says. “But Kylee’s had a lot of drive. She’s stuck with it and done what she wants to do. It’s become something that’s respectable.”

Despite the instability, Dasher’s music started to earn short, positive write-ups from Pitchfork, Spin, and other music outlets last spring. Kimbrough began receiving random emails from Dasher fans. The outpouring of support also included a Facebook message from Secretly Label Group co-founder Chris Swanson, who had stumbled across Dasher’s “Go Rambo” seven-inch. He immediately fell in love with Kimbrough’s ferocious screams and drumming.

“What first grabbed me with Dasher was the vocalist,” Swanson says. “He just sounded ferocious. I dug into it a little deeper and realized the vocalist was a drummer. I thought, ‘Man, I love drummers who sing, they’re such a rare breed.’ My next discovery was that the drummer-vocalist wasn’t a guy. ... It was Kylee.”

Last May Swanson drove nearly 500 miles from the label’s headquarters in Bloomington, Ind., to watch the trio perform at Star Bar. He sensed a genuine excitement about Dasher in the room, where Kimbrough also works behind the bar, and felt like the band straddled genres. But it was her songwriting that ultimately sold Swanson. He began making overtures to sign the trio, helping them put out a seven-inch with Suicide Squeeze Records, and inked a larger deal over the summer.

“People who end up liking Dasher are from all different walks of life,” Kimbrough says. “People ... I wouldn’t expect to be interested in the band, are. It’s not like we’re stuck with the punks or indie rock people like us. We have, for some reason, crossover appeal.”

The trio’s newfound success doesn’t surprise Kimbrough’s peers. To her friends, Dasher represents the culmination of her work ethic, musical taste, and growth as a songwriter. It’s even given Deaton some hope for music in a city where, he says, wider audiences often ignore talented local musicians.

“Kylee’s just getting up there and being herself,” Deaton says. “She’s not trying to be pretty or ugly. She’s a real person, and a strong woman writing good songs and playing solid drums doesn’t hurt. ... She’s a great musician and a good songwriter. That’s most important. It’s what keeps people there.”

Kimbrough is trying to keep pace with Dasher’s momentum. Right after the four-day No Power session, the trio embarked on a weeklong Florida tour. The string of opening tour dates had its highs — converting concertgoers into devout fans — and lows — Kimbrough had a brief relapse near the tour’s end.

At her house on a chilly November night, Kimbrough mostly keeps the conversation focused on her music. “I wish we had more time in the studio; we might go back and do some more stuff,” she says, noting they had to scrap “Weightless” during the recording session. She hasn’t heard the final mixes yet. But she says the band saved a portion of the studio budget to re-record some parts. Just in case.

The road forward is uncertain. Last week Kimbrough left to attend a recovery program in California for a few months. If it goes well, Kimbrough, Michaud, and Sarabia could tour during the first half of 2015. They’ve also discussed a possible SXSW appearance. By early summer, No Power could hit record store shelves nationwide.

“They’re just now learning what they can do,” Swanson says. “The next few chapters of Dasher are going to be to really exciting.”

Kimbrough understands the potential pitfalls, both personal and professional, that lie ahead. She considers rehab this time around to be an opportunity. “I’m really lucky to get to do this,” she wrote in an email the day of her departure to California. “It’s a good thing, really.” She also knows she must keep pounding drums and screaming like her life depends on it. To a degree, it does.

“This is it, I guess,” she says, referring to her music. “I don’t have a choice in the matter.”