When he was 17, Kevin Morby dropped out of Blue Valley Northwest High School, got his GED, and did what you do if you want to be in a successful indie-rock band: He bought a one-way ticket to Brooklyn.
He had learned to play guitar when he was 10 and, before he could legally drive, formed bands with names like Creepy Aliens and Little Indian Boy. On weekends, Morby would hang out at places like the Stray Cat, the seedy all-ages downtown venue that fell prey to the construction of the Sprint Center. He got a fake ID so he could go see Arcade Fire on its first tour, at the Jackpot. When he announced his intention to move, his parents, Jim and Sandy Morby, were understandably concerned.
"He was so young," Sandy says. "But he was adamant. He was never really into school. He just didn't like the whole cliquey suburban-school setting."
For his first few years in New York, Morby bounced from crash pad to crash pad, working café jobs.
"My life was kind of a mystery to them," Morby says of his parents. "But at the same time, they embraced it."
Morby was working as a delivery boy at one of those cafés when he became friends with some guys in a fledgling band called Woods. One of the members was about to quit and move to Arizona, so Morby took his room in the band's compound in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, an old tenement building that serves as a combination recording studio, practice space and boardinghouse. Not long after moving in, Morby joined as Woods' bass player. "I'd never played bass before," Morby says. "I played guitar."
Not long after, the folksy psych-rock band released its fourth album, Songs of Shame, to rave reviews, including a coveted Best New Music nod from Pitchfork, which helped propel it from obscurity to DIY-darling status. "We started getting write-ups," Morby says. "My parents thought I was finally doing something with myself."
Jim and Sandy's affection for Woods went beyond mere parental support, though. The two (both in their 50s; Morby is 24) have evolved into borderline hipsters. They now buy records at Love Garden in Lawrence and find new underground music by typing "Woods" into Pandora. They've traveled to Woods' shows in Omaha and Iowa City and California and New York. "Sandy elbows her way right up to the stage," Jim says. "Afterward, she goes online and makes DVD scrapbooks."
The Morbys have even opened up their home, deep in the 130th-and-Antioch heart of Johnson County suburbia, to roving indie bands. "We've had Woods, Crystal Stilts, the Vivian Girls," Jim brags.
This weekend, they'll host the Babies, Morby's new band. The Babies are a collaboration between Morby and Vivian Girls guitarist Cassie Ramone that started more or less as a joke. Out carousing in New York one night, Morby spotted Ramone, whom he'd known since his earliest days in the city. They discovered that they were headed for the same party, and Ramone asked Morby if he'd like to get a couple of "road sodas" for the walk.
"What are road sodas?" Morby asked.
"You know," she said, "beer."
He laughed and said they should start a band called the Road Sodas.
"And she took it seriously," Morby recalls. "She said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "
Later, Morby asked Ramone if he could move into her living room. She said OK. He brought over an air mattress and bought four 99-cent plastic tablecloths, which he hung from Ramone's ceiling, creating a sort of fort. "It was funny," he says of his days at Ramone's place. "You could only get the Internet — could only steal it from the neighbors — in the corner where I was. So I would wake up every day to Cassie sneaking in to use the Internet. The drapes I put up eventually got torn down by the cat that was living there. It was described many times as a 'jack shack.' "
The two started writing songs together, added a drummer and a bass player, and changed their name to the Babies. The initial idea was to do something low-key, a party band, to relive the days before Woods and the Vivian Girls (a much-buzzed about, hazy, retro garage-rock act) got too popular for house shows. But soon they were touring, releasing singles and then a self-titled debut garage-pop LP in 2011. "Everything I do, I do as seriously as possible," Morby says. "I invest every ounce of energy into it."
Jeremy Earl, Woods' lead singer and guitarist, also runs Woodsist, a record label whose early releases by now well-known acts like Real Estate, Kurt Vile and Wavves have earned it the kind of Brooklyn street cred that other labels only dream of. He's scaling back Woodsist's output this year to put all his resources behind Woods and the Babies. Woods' latest, Bend Beyond, dropped in September; the Babies' sophomore effort, Our House on the Hill, was released last week.
The Babies dug in and spent more time on Hill, relocating to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks to work with producer Rob Barbato (Darker My Love, the Fall and Cass McCombs). "We were able to concentrate better, not having the distraction of going out every night in New York," Morby says. "And the studio was fantastic, a beautiful studio." As a result, the new album is richer and more varied than the first Babies record; organ, piano, saxophone and even strings mingle with the band's punkish guitar-drum-bass foundation.
After the recording comes the tour, and Morby has had a busy fall. Woods toured through September and October, opening for the Walkmen on some East Coast dates. Now the Babies are out for another lap, which has the group on the road until Christmas. First, though: Thanksgiving in Kansas City, where the Morbys, their son and the whole band will gather for turkey dinner before a Friday-night show at the Riot Room. "I'm excited to be having Thanksgiving there," Ramone says.
Another scrapbook opportunity? "Kevin likes to make fun of me for making them," Sandy says. "But all the other band members like them."