When I meet Emily Kempf for the first time, she tells me that her band the Back Pockets, the subject of my interview with her, is finished. Well, sort of. It’s hard to tell. She uses phrases like “permanently retiring as far as the summer goes” and “kind of going away for now.”
We’re meeting for an early-morning coffee at Aurora, near the apartment she shares with her sister in Virginia-Highland. In a nightgown-sized T-shirt and with her blond hair tousled, she reminds me of a small child who’s been pulled out of bed early in the morning to greet a visiting relative. I get the sense that the moment this moderately unpleasant but politely borne obligation is over, she’ll go home and crawl right back into bed.
It turns out that the night before, her drummer had told her he was leaving the band. “I spent my night sobbing and screaming and gritting my teeth,” Kempf says. “I’m still processing it, but I’m accepting it.”
Her uncertainty about what exactly the drummer’s abrupt departure might mean for the group is understandable. Uncertainty, in fact, is a trademark of the Back Pockets. Since its inception, it has been more of a shape-shifting collective, a nicely amorphous jumble, than a traditional rock band. In its four years of existence, an incredible 50 members have passed in and out, with Kempf acting as a sort of den mother. Their shows playfully ignore the lines separating concert, performance art and playroom. The whole thing often has a haphazard “let’s-put-on-a-show” vibe that would be unbearable if not for the often remarkably executed visuals and the overarching, compelling musicality of it all.
The decision to “take a permanent break for now” seems to have to do with a bit of exhaustion. The band recently returned from a two-month tour around the country. Beginning in Atlanta, the group drove westward through the South, from Texas to Los Angeles, up the West Coast, east to Chicago and New England before heading down the East Coast into Florida, playing gigs all the way. “I’m very type-A organizationally,” Kempf says. “But when you’re on the road for that long, everything gets really simple. You’re on a bus with the same nine or 10 people. It’s like living in an apartment for two months with everyone in the same room the entire time.”
Kempf never planned to be a musician, never planned to perform on stage, and never had the intention of forming a band. “In my head, I was never like, ‘I’m going to be a musician,’ ” she says. “I didn’t see it coming at all.”
Kempf grew up in Buckhead in what she describes as an “encouraging, creative” environment. Her mother, Virginia Parker, wrote for Atlanta Magazine and later became a painter. Her father, Robert Kempf, is a key grip on various movie and TV sets. She refers to them as “ex-hippies,” and in spite of the nurturing home life, she was a rebellious kid. “I was a troubled youth to say the least,” she says. “I just drank a lot. I was a horrible teenager.”
She seems so calm and even-keeled now that this is hard to imagine, but she attests that for her last year of high school, things got bad enough that her parents gave her the option of attending school independently in upstate New York. It was an offer she accepted, and she used the year to get herself together.
Her primary interest was always visual art, and when she got back she began to gather a group of like-minded visual artists around her. “I learned the power of making a flier and having people just show up. I’d bring some plywood and a bunch of markers to a coffee shop. A bunch of people would show up and we’d do group doodling. It’s an interesting adventure, learning how to herd people and manage them.”
Eventually, Kempf decided to see whether the group could pull off a show and booked a venue. “We had four weeks to make something happen,” she recalls. “I thought it was going to be a weird play with some art in it.” Because it was unpredictable who would show up for rehearsals and who eventually would even have the nerve to actually get up on stage, Kempf settled on some music as a way to tie the developing variety show together. The name the group chose for the evening was Back Pockets, as in “pulling a plan out of their back pockets.”
“I got enough people to say they’d play a couple of songs,” Kempf says. “But the show itself ended up just being the songs with these weird set designs and costumes. That’s how I came to sing. It just kept going from there because people loved it.”
At first, she says, she hated being on stage and had a lot of anxiety about it. “I would get on stage and I would be shaking and totally terrified. I’d want to throw up. But I learned how to get over all that stuff. A lot of bands practice and make their band happen behind closed doors and then reveal themselves. I don’t know why things unfolded the way they did for me, probably because I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. It was so awful at first, but I couldn’t stop performing. That’s one reason why I was like, ‘This must be what I’m supposed to do.’ ”
The band has earned plenty of fans and praise. But the strong reactions it provokes aren’t always positive: in its recent annual music issue, Creative Loafing named it one of the most hated bands in Atlanta. “It’s better to be loved or hated than this middle ‘whatever,’ ” Kempf says. “Of course, it’s hard to hear that someone doesn’t like what you’re doing or is intentionally cruel about it, but it’s taught me to grow up and deal with it. It’s a good skill to have and I wouldn’t have it otherwise, so I’ve learned to appreciate it.”
It’s just one more reason why it seems clear that the Back Pockets probably haven’t truly come to an end (and even if they have, Kempf will remain a fascinating artist to watch). “I’m not scared to get on stage anymore,” she says. “I feel like I own the stage and I feel comfortable there. I crave it and I feel more at home on stage than I do anywhere else.”
Toward the end of our conversation, she talks about what’s ahead for the Back Pockets: there’s a new poster, a first vinyl release planned for the fall, and the recent tour across America was filmed and will become a full-length movie in the winter. It sounds like an awful lot of activity for a defunct band.
The Back Pockets are dead. Long live the Back Pockets.