Features | Interviews

NamelessNumberHeadman

By Sean Ford | 10 September 2004

Namelessnumberheadman are an important part of a burgeoning independent scene in the Kansas City/Lawrence area (along with CMG faves Minus Story). Their second proper full length, Your Voice Repeating, came out earlier this year and received about as much acclaim as the online indie community could muster. Conjuring images of the vast open spaces of the American Midwest and comparisons to post-rock icons of future and past, the album is certainly no small feat. Lucky for me, I had a chance to sit down and trade a few emails back and forth with the band late last month covering everything from Carmelo Anthony to Steven Soderbergh to the continuing mystery of who plays what on their album.

Also: CW = Chuck Whittington, JL = Jason Lewis, and AS = Andrew Sallee, just in case that wasn’t clear.

CMG: Okay, so I just watched Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis last night, as I’ve heard you guys took the moniker Namelessnumberheadman from a character in that movie. It’s a pretty weird movie that I won’t attempt to summarize here, but I thought there were some interesting ideas about language being either some sort of place holder, something misleading, or something completely useless. Were the themes of the film important to your choice of the band name, or was it more aesthetic?

CW: I think it was partially both. I think the original suggestion was aesthetic/silly. I personally liked the sound of it and thought that character was really funny. But the more I thought about it, the more a reference to that movie worked. Its experimental nature really fit what we were doing, toying with established structures to come up with something that sometimes works and sometimes all one can do is appreciate the experimenter's effort. The other element is that the initial viewing is a little overwhelming: it's long and bizarrely hard to follow, but the more time you watch it, you sort of begin to peel away the layers; figure out what's really going on. We hope our music is not overwhelming (though we may hope for the live show to be a little overwhelming), but we do know there's more in there than you can pick out on the first listen. Different melodies or counter-melodies will hop out on subsequent listens.

CMG: What’s the music scene like in Kansas? Are you all from there originally?

CW: Well, we actually all live in Missouri. That's actually a common mistake, and you're welcome to alter your question if you print this. The historical Kansas City is in Missouri.

CMG: No problem. I revel in my mistakes.

CW: But there is no denying the fact that the Kansas City/Lawrence music scene is symbiotic. Lately, the mathy and the emo scenes have kind of slowed down and indie pop is coming to the surface. Most bands still have mathy or emo elements, but the catchiness is more prevalent. The bands I'm thinking of are The Golden Republic, Ghosty, Doris Henson, the Elevator Division, the Belles. Much more song or melody-oriented than riff-oriented. I like a lot of the rock/mathy/emo bands that are still together, but the poppiness of these other bands is refreshing.
AS: Also, Kelpie and Somnambulists, just to add to the list a bit.
JL: And don't forget Minus Story!!! I think we are all pretty excited about some of the interesting sounds coming out of the Kansas City/Lawrence area at the moment.

CMG: Any bizarre stories that define the Kansas City/Lawrence experience for you (performing or otherwise)?

JL: About a year and a half ago we had the opportunity to play a show in nearby Lawrence, Kansas, opening up for the Delgados. Well it just so happens that the show took place on the very same night that the University of Kansas (based in Lawrence) basketball team was playing Syracuse for the national championship. So they pretty much put our show on hold while the entire city was watching its basketball team play. So we were just sort of sitting there with these Scottish people in the Delgados, watching some basketball. The truly strange part happened as the game ended. The University of Kansas lost the game in the final seconds and right after it was over the sound guy at the venue said "Go start your set!" So basically it was "3...2...1... the hometown team loses! And now here is Namelessnumberheadman!!!" It was kind of awkward to play for a bunch of downtrodden sports fanatics. Wow. That story was lame. I wish I had something truly bizarre, like us playing the Kansas state fair and getting accosted by a cow.

CMG: That’s actually pretty cool. I’m a big Carmelo Anthony fan (member of the 2002 Syracuse Orangemen). Your Voice Repeating seems like a bit of a jump from When We Leave… It seems like you’ve really sort of filled out your sound. Was there a conscious process change on this album? Was it more of a natural progression?

AS: I think we definitely had the idea of wanting to progress and make a little different album. Whether our goals were realized is a different matter all together. For instance, I thought When We Leave was pretty consistent in tone and themes, but those were all pretty serious, sober tones and themes. I wanted this album to be a big, buzzing summer nostalgia record. I don’t think we quite got there, but it feels like we did a better job of being ourselves and knowing a little more who we are as a group.

CMG: Can you talk about your recording process? Do you like the home studio aspect? Are the songs written in the studio?

JL: Recording at home is pretty much the ideal situation for us. It gives us as much time as we want to manipulate and layer the songs, and I think we've become experienced enough with our recording set-up to make the music sound almost exactly the way we want it. I wouldn't completely rule out a future recording that takes place in the studio, but for now I think that we are content to record at home. Plus it is a whole lot easier to justify a couple of hours recording and jacking with backwards mandolin parts when you are doing it for free at home. As far as the songs go, chuck or Andrew will usually bring in a song idea or some chords and we'll start with that and layer from there. So the foundations for songs typically come from outside the studio, but everything usually comes together amongst the three of us.

CMG: There are all sorts of rumors going around---how many keyboards do you actually use? Also, who plays what? Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, but you guys seem to be very secretive about who does what, like say, for instance…singing?

AS: Sean, we really have nothing to give us any rock star mystique. No mystery about us, whatsoever. Can we please just have this? I am not telling you who does the singing or how many keyboards we have. Never.

CMG: Do your live shows differ much from what’s on record?

AS: They do differ, somewhat. Our recordings get pretty involved and densely layered at times. When we play live, we don’t use any pre-recorded sequencing. Other than using some looped samples for occasional beats or drone sorts of things, the three of us play live. So sometimes we have to boil the songs down to the more essential parts and make as much noise with those as we can. Personally, I like that there is some variation from the record. A live version may have some surprises, but I hope that it really has the impact of a ‘live’ experience.

CMG: “Tension Envelopes” (along with a few other tracks on YVR) is pretty dancy, which is a nice element. Any thoughts of making a dance record?

JL: I'm not sure we could actually finish an entire record of dance music. I imagine us starting out with grand ambitions of something consistently dancy, but I guarantee you we'd end up with parts of it that were totally sad bastard. That's just the way it works with us. We would definitely kill the rump shakin' buzz and leave the party people in a contemplative stupor. Sorry, party people.
AS: Why can’t the party people learn to dance to some slow, sad waltzes too? Isn’t variety a good thing, party people?

CMG: Seriously. Okay, if you each were to pick to pick five albums that you had to hear before kicking the bucket, what would they be?

CW: The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds; The Beatles, White Album; DJ Shadow, Endtroducing!; The Cure, Disintegration; and Rich Mullins, a liturgy, a legacy, and a ragamuffin band.
AS: XTC, Skylarking; The Beatles, Revolver; Flaming Lips, Soft Bulletin; Neutral Milk Hotel, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea; and Sparklehorse, It’s A Wonderful Life.
JL: Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand; Flaming Lips, Soft Bulletin; The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat; and Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.

CMG: Is there anyone making music right now that you’re in to?

CW:
I'm really into the new Modest Mouse, Sleepy Jackson, Frankenixon, the Race.
AS: Sufjan Stevens, Tortoise, Iris Dement, Greg Brown, Robert Wyatt, Dntel
JL: Deerhoof, Sufjan Stevens, Blonde Redhead, Joanna Newsom, !!!

CMG: Joanna rules! People seem to be pretty positive about your new album (CMG included; our review can be read here), has it made a difference in how you’re approaching the band? Any big plans for a next record?

JL: I don't know that much will change with the way we approach the next record. I think we'll be even more comfortable with writing and recording together, so hopefully it will be an improvement. But don't ever rule out the possibility of it being a total stinker.

CMG: Alright, anything I missed? Do you want to just rant a little?

AS: Hey, Sean. Sorry about the never-telling-you-about-the-keyboards-and-singing thing. I guess if really want to know, I can tell you.
JL: I have a rant about Andrew. He is always trying to act tough and mysterious with the media, but later he regrets it and repents and folds like yesterday's laundry. Fortunately, he has the heart of a champion so we’ll probably keep him around.