Josh Kmak, in his own bubble
"The big news,” Josh Kmak says, “is that I finally met up with my mom.” Kmak’s parents had an unfriendly split over 18 years ago, when he was 6. Raised by his father, the boy and his mom had zero contact — until a month ago. “She came out here and visited. It wasn’t hard at all,” he says. “It wasn’t awkward. She actually came to a show. She said ‘Shady Francos’ sounds like a place she’d take her husband for dinner. I said I wouldn’t eat at a place with ‘Shady’ in the name.”
...live at Mays
In 2013 Kmak went by Joshua Scott and later by Josh Duhs (owing to bad blood with his dad, he explains, a sometime-drummer named Johnny Kmak) when he released his first CD: the eponymous Nformals. Critics liked the demo. It was also apparent that Josh Kmak had taken much inspiration from Kurt Cobain. “I used to be scared of singing. Something happened,” he told the Reader back then. “When I was 18 or 19, I came out of my shell. I started yelling, and I liked it.”
The Kmak name in and of itself is an East County music dynasty that consists of brothers Jeff and Joel Kmak, Josh Kmak’s uncles, from El Cajon. The two elder Kmaks have performed in some of the most famous bands to have come from San Diego. Drummer Joel Kmak cofounded the Penetrators and gigged with the Crawdaddys and the Hitmakers. He eventually joined the Beat Farmers following the untimely death of Country Dick Montana and presently performs with a post–Beat Farmers act known as the Farmers. Bassist/vocalist Jeff Kmak likewise played in a post–Beat Farmers group with Jerry Raney and Joey Harris called Powerthud and then later joined Harris to form a present-day band called Joey Harris and the Mentals.
Josh Kmak had a singular goal three years ago: “I would love for my music to be successful so I could have the means to find my mother.” Now, three years and dozens of shows later, one can’t help but ask if Kmak’s leave-it-all-on-the-stage live shows are the least bit self-destructive. “I’m really feeling it from last night,” he admits of his Belly Up show with Shady Francos. It’s clear that he puts a bit more than he has into every performance. “Yes, I do.” With both the Nformals, and then Shady Francos, audiences have seen him as a front man/guitarist bent on thrashing himself to sweaty exhaustion.
“I was totally going about it all wrong when I started. A friend in the music business told me I had it backwards. I thought you had to make a great record to get people to come out to shows. No — he told me that you had to put on great shows to get people to come out and buy records. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think it’s a big part of being an artist to doubt yourself.
“So, right around the end of the Nformals,” Kmak says, “at our last show, I said I’m gonna just lose it. I’m gonna give people a reason to talk about what they saw.” But Kmak says he has little recollection of what happens at his gigs. “Everything goes blurry when I’m onstage. I’m in my own bubble.”
Earlier this year, Kmak started work on a side project he calls Creepseed — a collection of surf-ish rock ballads with somber undertones and loads of reverb. “I’ve never gradually grown up,” he explains. “I’ll be the same person for years, and then I’ll have these growth spurts, like, over the weekend. In 2011 I heard this lo-fi garage rock and I was completely taken over by it. That’s when I became who I am.” He began writing the songs that would eventually fuel Shady Francos.
Now on bandcamp
“Well, last year, I had another growth spurt. I began writing this slower, melodic stuff. I mean, maybe two songs a day. These things would just come to me. I was listening,” he says, “to a lot of doo-wop at the time.” Right about the time that “the shit hit the fan with the Francos [the trio would eventually regroup with new members], I started recording this new music at Earthling Studios.” Kmak plays all the instruments but one. “And it’s changing,” he says of the Creepseed gig. “The next record isn’t gonna sound like this one.”
Meanwhile, Kmak’s mom: “Something interesting happened after the show,” he says. “We exchanged phone numbers. And after that, she texted me, like, every five minutes or so with messages that said she loved me, and that she would never leave me again.” Is he still getting texts from her? “Yeah,” he says. “But they’ve kind of slowed down a little.”