A Hybrid Form of Pop: An Interview with Namelessnumberheadman
by dave heaton
I think there's a science-fiction axiom somewhere that says to survive in the future you must become a hybrid … or maybe I just made that up. In any case, the Kansas City band Namelessnumberheadman are following that real or imagined theorem. They've taken various strains of pop music and bled them together until they don't seem like a combination but like one unique, un-classifiable entity. Call it electronic-ambient-pop-folk-rock, or something like that. Try to label their music by any one of its components, and you come up short. The trio (Andrew Sallee, Chuck Wittington and Jason Lewis) is keyboard-crazy but don't think "1980s new wave" because that's not where they're coming from. When the Kansas City weekly newspaper, the Pitch Weekly, gave out their music awards last year they named Nameless… Best Electronic/DJ/Dance act, yet their music has a strong stream of introspective, melancholy pop songwriting running through it, and there's no DJ in the band. They can open for a quiet-as-anything band like The American Analog Set and then a local loud rock band without seeming out of place on either bill. Whatever name you throw on them doesn't matter; they're nameless. They're some sort of pop music cyborg ready to take you to new places.
While on the surface Kansas City, Missouri doesn't seem like the most futuristic of places (not counting R.M. Fischer's metallic Sky Station sculptures aimed toward the sky on top of the downtown convention center, or the futuristic-looking design for the coming-in-2007 Performing Arts Center), it makes a lot of sense that Namelessnumberheadman is from there. While by no means the cultural mecca that some other larger American cities are, Kansas City has a certain easygoing nature that makes it an easy place for great art to flourish in. Maybe it's because people there aren't trying as hard to be superstars, I don't know, but there's some really magical things going on in the city, under the radar, from the conflagration of art galleries that resides in the empty, nearly lawless industrial area called the West Bottoms to an astounding number of amazing restaurants. Namelessnumberheadman's music fits right in with a certain gentle adventurousness that exists in Kansas City. On one level their music sounds like it dropped in from space, but on another it has a very down-to-earth, personable aura. I recently got the chance to ask all three band members more about their music, over e-mail. Below are my questions and the answers that they kindly offered.
You seem to use quite an assortment of instruments; is that correct? Are you the type of band that's always on the lookout for weird keyboards and things? What's the most unusual instrument you use?
Jason: There have been several instances where people are looking to rid themselves of an old keyboard and we are the first people they ask. "Give it to nameless…they'll find a use for it." For instance, a friend of mine acquired a very old and very cumbersome Baldwin organ from her grandmother. She got it and realized right away that she didn't want the beast. So she told me that if we would haul it away we could have it. Score! So it ended up being used on a number of tracks on the latest CD.
Andrew: We will happily take your undesirable musical instruments off your hands, free of charge. Want to hear that ocarina you got from your great aunt on our next album? Send it on over.
Chuck: Yeah, we're sort of always looking for something weird and interesting, but there for a while, we would just take whatever someone was giving away and try to find a cool sound in it. The Baldwin organ is a prime example, only one register really works, and most of the sounds are unbelievably lame, but there were a couple of really creepy sounds we got out of it. I hope our friends continue to donate to the cause.
When you play live, the three of you do a lot of switching around and playing more than one instrument at once. Is figuring out who plays what when something you have to carefully orchestrate or does it come naturally?
Jason: A little bit of both. We usually start in our "normal" configuration with Andrew at the drums, Chuck with his guitar and keyboards and me with my keyboards. From there if we feel like we need to move Andrew out to play piano or Chuck back to play drums we can make those changes.
Chuck: If it's a particularly complicated arrangement, one of us might map out the changes and try that out in practice, but we generally stay in the normal configuration.
What is your songwriting process like? Is it collaborative among all three of you?
Jason: Here is the real scoop on our songwriting: Chuck or Andrew will come forth with an excellent song idea and lyrics and then I'll get the old "BLING BLING" dollar sings in my eyes as I realize that another hit single that I didn't write will be putting my babies through college!
Andrew: Jason is a little too modest. True, Chuck and I usually come in with the more "song" type song ideas. Usually, the parts we are singing are the parts we wrote. I have the high, reedy voice. Chuck has the low, reedy voice. However, Jason does contribute quite a lot to the song creation process. A couple of songs and several segments of tracks on the album are things that the three of us improvised and then honed in a room together. Plus, Jason has excellent taste. He is great to suggest the arrangement or just say, "Shut up, Andrew. You are such a loser. You call that an indie rock song?" He doesn't say that very often though.
Your music mixes a variety of genres and styles together. Do all of you have similarly schizophrenic musical tastes, or do you each bring different musical interests/influences to the table and then blend them together?
Jason: There is definitely a common ground there. The Flaming Lips is a unanimous choice. From there it varies a little bit and I think that is a good thing. Chuck may be listening to DJ Shadow, Andrew the Mountain Goats, and Yo La Tengo for me. Then we bring all of that into recording and hopefully the interesting and disparate elements produce something cohesive.
How would you describe your approach to lyrics? It strikes me that your lyrics often tackle some of the big questions of life--why are we here and so on.
Andrew: I am glad you felt that about the lyrics. When I was working on lyrics for these songs, I struggled to attempt something with some urgency and substance. At the same time I was trying to leave things a little opaque. My background is coming up with more standard, literal pop/folk type songs, but for the more fluid, sort of linear things we have been doing, I was trying to write more image-oriented words than story-oriented things. My hope is that the lyrics and the tunes are suggestive for people of memories, questions, longings, etc. My worry is that they are a pretentious pile of crap. Hopefully, not.
More specifically during the conception of this album, I was thinking a lot about the death of several people to whom I was close or family or friends were close to. Songs like "Rest Assured" and "I Know How You Got Old" are definitely written from the perspective of calling out and wondering, "Well, God, what happens now, now that that person is gone?" I suppose though, that I had hoped these questioning or hoping songs could be applied to the longing or hoping a person feels after any loss, not only death.
Now people are going to think we are talking about the "Soul Cages" or something.
Chuck: When I was consciously thinking about the lyrics I was writing (because I wasn't always), I was sort of thinking of more stories I wanted to tell. But I was trying to tell them vaguely so that they could be interpreted other ways. As storyline goes, they would have occurred after the climax, a result of decisions made before the song's story starts.
How was your approach to writing and recording When we leave… different from that of your debut EP?
Jason: Both were recorded at home, but the debut EP was recorded on analog 8 track reel to reel. For When we leave we invested in Pro Tools, which I think made a tremendous difference and gave us the freedom to take our musical "kitchen-sink-ism" to another level.
Andrew: Also, some of the initial work on the EP was done before Jason moved up to Kansas City, so in some cases the "namelessnumberhead-ness" of it was grafted on after some of the initial ideas. With the new album, we had a much better sense of who we are as a group of three people throughout the process.
Chuck: Yeah, I think during the EP we were just discovering where we were headed, and when we recorded When we leave..., we were comfortable in what we were doing and were able to work around inside of that idea.
In the Kansas City area, you open for a variety of types of bands, as far as genres. What do you think it is about your music that makes that possible, that makes the audience for a loud-and-fast rock band accept you as easily as that of a more low-key atmospheric indie-pop act?
Jason: We try to incorporate the bombastic and the subtle, which gives us a common ground with loud rock and not so loud rock. Also, I don't think we fit into much of a genre ourselves, so in any line-up (with the exception of post metal scream-o) we are an OK fit.
Do you ever consider touring? Since I was introduced to your music by seeing you play live, I imagine you'd win over a fair number of new fans by touring the country.
Jason: We would really like to get out on the road a little bit, but so far it has been a struggle. We are all stuck with day jobs and that combined with the difficulty of trying to get an out of town venue to book a band that has no following whatsoever has been a bit frustrating. But we are still working on it.
Chuck: We've actually got our first weekend outing booked for the end of January. We're pretty excited about that. Hopefully our van will be able to get us there and back.
What you can tell me about Urinine Records and your decision to have them release your first full-length album?
Jason: SiD (the one man president/CEO of Urinine) is a great person. He has been a big supporter of ours ever since the EP came out and so far I think it has been a good arrangement. He has made it possible for people in many different parts of the country to hear our music and we are grateful. Plus he is one hell of a Karaoke singer. I doubt you can say that about Gerard Cosloy or what ever that guy is from Matador.
Chuck: Truthfully, it was an easy decision. We initially sent him our EP just to get it reviewed on toomuchrock.com. We had no idea that he ran a label or anything. Well he had enjoyed our EP so much that he helped us get some of our first shows. A couple of times he off-handedly asked us when we were going to release an album with him. We never knew if he was serious or not, because really all we had initially expected was to get reviewed on his website and everything else he did for us was just icing on the cake. But we finally cornered him about releasing a CD, and our expectations matched up and we went with it.
Your music has been pretty well-received in the Kansas City area, hasn't it? How would you describe the atmosphere for musicians in Kansas City?
Jason: I would say it has been very well received. I'm amazed at the opportunities we've been given. All of the local music press has been great, and just about every music venue has given us a chance to play. Lots of the local bands here in Kansas City are great rock bands, and even though I don't think we fit into that category, we've felt like a part of this scene from the beginning.
Some of your songs ("Time Slows Down at Midnight," "Locked in the Station") sound to me like they'd make great scores for movies. Do you have any interest in scoring films or working with film-makers on projects of some sort?
Jason: We'd love something like that. In my head, there is always some sort of visual that should go along with our music. Scoring an entire movie might be a daunting task, but we'd relish such an opportunity, even if it went all wrong and sounded like Herbie Hancock.
Chuck: I've wanted to do that for a while, and I've actually tried to find local filmmakers that might need music, but nothing has panned out.
Speaking of movies, the fact that your band name comes from a Soderbergh film makes me think that you are perhaps film buffs? What are some of the best movies you've seen lately?
Jason: My goodness. Just a few days ago we went to see the re-release of Metropolis. That thing is amazing. Unbelievable considering it came out in 1927!!!!
Andrew: I rented the DVD of The Sweet Hereafter a little while ago and watched it over and over. I hereby declare that to be my favorite movie of all time for now.
Chuck: Jason and Andrew are right, Metropolis and The Sweet Hereafter are really great movies. The Two Towers was pretty good. I rewatched The Matrix last night. You know, there are some corny things in there, but it's a well written allegory, an intelligent sci-fi movie, and the effects still floor me.
Do you have any other future recording plans or goings-on that you'd like to share with us?
Jason: It looks like we'll be going back into our home studio to record another full length in the next month or two. For this one, we are going to turn up the "sexy" factor by about 74 clicks. Solid.
Andrew: What? I thought you said we were going to turn up the "Dexy's" factor. What's up?
Chuck: We're demoing ideas up, and trying some new things in preparation for recording some more. It looks like Jason is wanting to bite off another full-length, but I'm more inclined to just record and write and see what we come up with.
Jason: Double Live Concept Album! We'll call it "Use Your Illusion -Volume 3 and 4."