Let's just chill down here," says Roger Lee (better known as R.L.) Brooks, a Rolling Rock dangling from his fingers. The four members of his band, Maps for Travelers, are gathered around a scarred table, sipping from cold green bottles after a long day. "I hate being in the office because I feel like I'm the boss up there," Brooks says. "And I'm not the boss."
That's not really true. In Maps for Travelers, Brooks is the boss. But he's one of the best bosses you could ask for: a stocky, friendly guy who's humble and experienced. Most important, he's not an asshole.
He comes by his boss cred honestly. Brooks was the guitarist of Flee the Seen, which catapulted to national visibility in 2006 with the release of its debut, Doubt Becomes the New Addiction. Flee the Seen splintered in 2009, and Brooks rode out the aftermath by founding a T-shirt-printing company. He operates Seen Merch in a bare industrial strip in Kansas City, Kansas. Rock posters hang on the walls of the warehouse, overlooking stained cans of eye-popping dye and skeletal printing machines. Maps for Travelers practices in Seen Merch's basement.
While taking a break from practice one recent night, Brooks sits with his bandmates at the head of a table inside Seen Merch and explains how they came together. "We were all kind of in the same circuit: screamo, mixed with breakdowns and hardcore mash-up bands. I was thinking, Who do I really like and — no offense — who could do a lot more than what they're currently in?"
The guys doing a lot more now are guitarist and co-vocalist Zac Brotherton, bassist Derek White and drummer Josh Enyart. All three agree that they're in the right place.
Brooks started Maps for Travelers with a clear vision. "I felt so tied in Flee the Seen," he says. "These guys let me do what I want to do. But I never want to put something on somebody," he adds quickly.
"He does make me keep my shirt on," Enyart says with an energetic laugh. But he agrees that Brooks' dominance is well-founded. "He's the soil, he's the seed and he's the fertilizer."
Since forming in March 2010, Maps has already released a five-song EP, Regress/Progress, and a pair of singles. Brooks' directive for Maps for Travelers — to write and record constantly — contrasts sharply with his and his bandmates' previous experiences. "There's always this open, hungry mouth for new material," Brooks says. "We've all written so many songs that haven't made it to record."
The others murmur in agreement. "We come to practice," Brotherton says, "and we'll randomly start jamming to warm up on some riff that we just randomly came up with, and two hours later, it's a song."
The songs mash together the snarling post-hardcore riffs of Taking Back Sunday and the muscular melodies of early Jimmy Eat World. Maps for Travelers echoes the savage vocal shredding of many adolescent pop-punk bands, but a more nuanced, well-developed song structure imbues Regress/Progress with refreshing depth and durability.
That's because Maps for Travelers has no interest in repetition. "I fucking played 'Wire Tap Out' 50,000 times over the 800 shows I played," Brooks says, referring to his Flee the Seen tenure. "I'm sure these guys are in the same fucking boat. They played the same fucking set for years at a time."
"Thunder Eagle played the same set, from start to finish," Brotherton says, with a laugh, about his former band. "We didn't even change the order of the songs."
"It's no knock on anybody that we played with," Brooks says. "It just is what it is."
Another difference is Maps for Travelers' attitude toward no-frills, straight-up work. "An overnight sensation? There's no such thing," Brooks says. "I think a lot of hipsters get stuck on Man, I'm too cool to tell my friend about my band. I struggle with that: Oh, this is so uncomfortable. I'm pimping myself out." Simply put, though, it's part of the modern musician's cold reality. "You're never going to make money in your hometown to get started," Brooks says.
"You're probably never going to make money," Brotherton adds. More laughter.
If the musicians in Maps for Travelers are old hands on the scene, they're not jaded. Sometimes Brooks finds himself offering advice to fresh-faced kids as he works his day job at Seen Merch. "I deal with baby bands all the time," he says. "I almost have to counsel them. 'I know, Johnny, that this is the most awesome thing. But in two months, you're going to hate Kevin. He's fucked your girlfriend, and you're going to want to be out of the band. And you just spent $7,000 with me on T-shirts that you're going to be using as napkins for the rest of your life.'"
The guys laugh again. Johnny's plight is a scenario that they're all too familiar with. Brooks hasn't set out playing again without a sense of risk. "I've got a million-dollar business here that I don't want to fuck up," Brooks says, referring to Seen Merch. "And a lot of people are like, 'You want to get in a fucking piece-of-shit band, and get on the road again? Are you fucking out of your goddamn mind?' Yeah, I probably am, but I think that most people that do anything are out of their goddamn mind," he says.
It's a gamble. But Maps for Travelers knows how to play the game.
"There's always this push-pull of grandiose dreams and reality," Brooks says. "It's just like anything: You have a degree, and you want to see where the degree takes you. We've all been schooled in rock and roll, and we just want to see where it takes us."