On a cool Saturday evening, the five members of Cowboy Indian Bear cluster around a metal table outside Grinders. They're about an hour from taking the stage at Crossroads KC for the venue's Spring Fling. It's not a small gig, but in the fading daylight, the group is at ease, talking on the patio and exchanging high-fives with friends as they pass by. Drummer Beau Bruns is strategically decimating a cup of frozen yogurt. Keyboardist Katlyn Conroy and guitarist Marty Hillard are perched on a windowsill, leaning against the building.
On April 22, Cowboy Indian Bear announced on its Facebook page that a new EP was coming — a free, digital-only release scheduled for May 20. Considering the three years of labor that went into last year's Live Old, Die Young, the unscheduled Vandeventer is a delightfully swift surprise for fans. It's also, say the members of Cowboy Indian Bear, an unexpected turn for the band.
"There's kind of a weird background to it," says guitarist and frontman C.J. Calhoun. "We were heading out on tour in November, and the van broke down in St. Louis, our first stop. It was too expensive to fix, so we were in St. Louis for maybe three days, waiting for someone to come pick us up."
"We were all pretty depressed about having to cancel the tour," Conroy says. "It was our last one for the year, and we had all already taken off work. So we were like, 'Why don't we do something cool out of this?' "
The seven songs on Vandeventer don't sound like music cranked out over a couple of weeks, tracked on laptops during the haul from friends' couches in St. Louis back to Calhoun's Lawrence living room. What's more, they don't sound quite like anything else Cowboy Indian Bear has put out since forming in 2009.
The recording starts innocently enough. "Figure" opens with a heavy electronic drumbeat, and Calhoun's voice carries the track over flitting synths. The next two songs begin in much the same way, with "Ruffians" building darkly over crashing cymbals and thudding bass lines.
But then the vibe changes. Conroy comes in airily on "AC," a breathy nugget of electro pop that turns out to be a mere warm-up for a bigger surprise. On "Jacob," Hillard raps at a purposeful pace over an inky beat and a whistling piano. Then Conroy swings in again for the shimmering, R&B-style "Push," her voice swinging with a playful sass that suggests Tennis' Alaina Moore. The band ties a pretty bow around the whole thing with the danceable, sweet-toothed "Candy."
Vandeventer sounds like a sampler of sorts. The band considers it an experiment — a successful one.
"It has a lot to do with the experience of working with each other," Conroy says. "A couple years ago, this EP would have taken us a long time to get through, and now it's just easy."
Calhoun adds: "We've been together over five years now, and I think this process gave us some confidence. We went into the process in a different way than we typically would. It's not at all overthought. Not to say that we overthink everything else we've done, but I think we were a little quicker to be like, 'That sounds cool, let's go with that.' "
The members seem in good spirits about their scotched tour, now that they have something to show for it. The EP's cover is a photo that lead guitarist Danny Bowersox snapped of Bruns leaning out of the dead van as it sat in a neighborhood covered with bright-orange fall leaves. The EP takes its title from a street near the breakdown.
"I don't think that if this happened three years ago, we would have made a record," Bruns says. "If it had been a band for two months — or two years — and that happened, it would have hurt. I think this EP is kind of a byproduct of being Cowboy Indian Bear for five years. It taught us to do so many things and turn negatives into positives."
Fittingly, the serendipitous EP has given Cowboy Indian Bear a fresh take on how the band approaches music — and cemented the bandmates' sense of their craft.
"I feel like we've built up a level of trust, with ourselves and with our community of listeners," Calhoun says. "People believe that whatever it is that we put out, like this EP, it's not something we were just like, 'Oh, whatever, here you go.' People know how much we care. We work our asses off, and I think you can hear that with us."
Cowboy Indian Bear's new EP, Vandeventer, comes out digitally on Tuesday, May 20.