Last October, Markus Kuhlmann was drumming in one of Savannah’s most popular bands, the Train Wrecks, loving life and living high on the musical hog.
In February, he was voted Employee of the Month at a McDonald’s in Statesboro.
His transition from layin’ the beat to flippin’ the meat was brought about by a rollercoaster dependence on alcohol, compounded by a festering dissatisfaction with the band he had co–founded.
Following his third DUI, Kuhlmann spent five weeks in the Chatham County jail, then was shuttled off to Statesboro, where he lived, for six months, at a privately–run rehab center called Damascus House.
They got him the gig at Mickey D’s, but since the house rules required “residents” to be safe at home before dark, he never worked more than 30 hours a week.
“They want you to get a job, but they don’t want you to get a good job,” says Kuhlmann, 41. “They want it to be humility–slash–humiliation.
“I thought there would be more freedom there than there was. They were like ‘Oh, no. We’ve got you. You’re signed up.’ What are your options at that point?”
He wasn’t there when the Train Wrecks accepted the award for Best Country/Americana Band, for the third consecutive year, in the Connect readers’ poll.
Released at the end of May, Kuhlmann bee–lined back to Savannah, where he embraced sobriety, a new job, a re–kindling of his musical fire, and his partner of four years, Foxy Loxy Café owner Jennifer Jenkins.
In the months before his trio of arrests, Kuhlmann says, things were getting out of control. He was, to put it bluntly, not an easy drinker.
“Jen’s miserable, the people that I play with are miserable. I feel like shit all the time. So now, it can never, ever get back to the way it was before.”
Last fall, he was processed through the State Court DUI Court system, for multiple offenders, and was being a good boy, taking their calls, peeing in their cups. Unfortunately, he says, after staying totally off the sauce for a couple of months, “my tolerance was down. One night I was playing a gig, and I got hammered. It just obliterated me. I didn’t take up any offers for anybody to drive me ... and I got another DUI.”
It was Oct. 17, 2011. “That’s when the shit hit the fan, pretty much.”
Jenkins had opened Foxy Loxy just a month earlier. Kuhlmann’s pet project, an acoustic band with his buddy Tim Warren called Clouds & Satellites, was already a regular attraction. He’d taken over the music–booking chores for the café, too.
She’d come to SCAD eight years earlier and earned a Master’s degree in fiber art. The college hired her as a printmaking instructor, and sent her to their campus in France to teach the art to English–speaking students.
But Jenkins was waffling on the “full–time teaching career” thing, and the 11 weeks she spent in Lacoste and Paris gave her a new, exciting — and somewhat scary — idea.
“The café culture there is so awesome,” Jenkins says. “I knew I wanted to leave academia — and I’ve always loved coffee shops, coffee shop culture, and I thought it would be a good way for me to have a ‘cultural impact.’ You know, if I’m not going to be an artist fulltime, maybe I can do it this way. This is still a creative outlet.”
And so Foxy Loxy opened in September 2011. It started with a cozy coffee shop, leafy outdoor café and print gallery — with many of her own works on the walls, as well as other Savannah artists’ — and eventually came to include desserts, Tex–Mex food, beer and wine. Once a month, she has a French-style crepe party.
It’s in the old Pizza Rustica location on Bull Street. “This one came up way earlier than I was ready, but I was like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to grab it.’ And then I just figured out what the hell I was doing as I went along. I signed the lease and figured it out after,” Jenkins explains.
“I knew it would be intense, I knew it would be exhausting, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to actually go through that and be that physically exhausted. The City had me in tears a couple times.”
“After living here for eight years, it wasn’t until I started my own business that I realized I need to pay attention to what people are doing. Go to the town hall meetings, and vote. I wasn’t doing any of that,” says Jenkins.
“It’s just a whole ‘nother level of importance when you have your own business, and you’re sending all that money to them every month. ‘Wait a minute ... I need to make sure you’re doing right by me and this money.’”
As Foxy Loxy became a runaway success (the 35–year–old Jenkins estimates that SCAD students account for half the café’s business), Kuhlmann was cooling his heels in Statesboro, as one of 16 men living in two bedrooms.
The routine was straightforward: You rose at 6 a.m., were home by the late–afternoon AA meeting, and for the first six weeks you weren’t allowed mail, phone calls or Internet access.
According to Kuhlmann, the men who ran Damascus House were extremely strict.
“They work during the day. But they come around, and if you’re caught doing something illegal as far as the program is concerned, they can make your life miserable,” he says.
“If you were caught taking a nap, they’d make you sleep in a tent outside because you didn’t appreciate the rules and you didn’t appreciate that they were housing you. But you still had to pay rent that week.”
In October, his third–time–guilty offer had been: Stay in county lockup, or go to Damascus and pay $175 per week for six months.
“Almost half the people there were from DUI Court here in Savannah,” he adds.
(The rehab center eventually opened a second house in Statesboro, easing the crowded conditions somewhat.)
During his enforced absence, the Train Wrecks replaced him. When Kuhlmann returned, his discovered the fill–in drummer had been made a permanent member of the band.
He’s not thrilled about it — there’s still a bit of bad blood in the air — but he says he was ready to go, anyway.
“I was frustrated with the band, because communication was really bad,” he admits. “And it was becoming a grind. Sometimes there would be spikes of cool gigs, but after a while it was just hammering away at the same seven Johnny Cash songs. I want to dig up Johnny Cash and kill him again.”
With Clouds & Satellites, Kuhlman plays guitar and piano, and sings, none of which he says he was “allowed” to do in the Train Wrecks. He’s put together a home studio to work on his new songs.
The future looks bright for the re–united couple. Jenkins has just signed the lease for a second location, on the corner of Broughton and Whitaker. Provisionally called the Coffee Fox, the new place has less square footage than Foxy Loxy, and will primarily — at least in the beginning — sell just coffee and, maybe, desserts.
“The discussions about the second location started three or four months ago, because this wonderful guy — he wants to be a silent partner — just popped out of nowhere and offered to help me go downtown,” Jenkins says.
“He said ‘I want to be part of making this happen, but not involved in it.’ And I said ‘Awesome.’”
Kuhlmann, who’s running entertainment booking, social media and taking care of other jobs for his girlfriend, will most certainly be involved in the new venture, which should be up and running in October.
“When he had to ‘go away,’ Foxy Loxy had just been open a month or so,” Jenkins says. “I was blindingly busy starting my first business, which helped as a distraction, but I of course missed his companionship and support. We struggled as expected with the distance, and I’m thrilled to have him back.”
For his part, Kuhlmann knows what he’s up against — alcoholism is an all-too easy tune to play for anyone who works long, late hours in bars. He’s had his wake–up call.
“At the beginning, I was bitter and resentful, because you hear about these people who have four or five arrests, dead to rights guilty, and they wiggle out of it. They get the right lawyer or something,” he says.
“And you know people downtown, from playing around in bands, that should by all rights be in the same situation I’m in. It was real easy, at that time, to be like ‘Poor me, poor me. Why me?’”
He has another six months of probation, after which he says he wouldn’t mind having the occasional glass of wine with dinner.
“But I can never go back to the way I was, health–wise, the way it affected Jen, the way it affected the way I played.
“People’s perception of me was ‘Man, that guy gets fucked up.’ When you’re in it and you’re messed up, you don’t realize how ridiculous you are.”