In the Great North, they've got the aurora borealis. For everybody else, there's Rock 'n' Bowl.
It's Wednesday Night Quarter Mania at Mission Bowl, and grease is in the air. Hot dogs, fries, tots, nachos and other treats are going for mere quarters. At the snack counter, a young man in a long-sleeved, tomato-red shirt squeezes ketchup evenly onto three hot dogs lined up side by side.
This man and dozens of other townies have driven through torrents of ice and snow — weather shitty enough to make Johnson Drive a death luge — to be here.
There's a certain amount of pride that comes with feeling right at home in a suburban bowling alley. Especially on a night when the TV weather people are telling you to set your ass at home and stay there.
A special ribbon should go to tonight's visitors, here all the way from midtown Kansas City.
Tonight's celebrity bowlers: the Republic Tigers.
Having paid their $8 each for unlimited bowling from 10 p.m. to midnight, the five rock-and-roll dandies lace up their pink-and-neon-yellow shoes. No one rushes up for autographs. Local music celebrity doesn't get you far in Mission. Two of them are married. One of them isn't yet 21. All of them are poor. Tonight they just want to have fun.
As the black lights come up, setting aglow shoes, lanes, white clothing, teeth, eyeballs, dandruff and pet hair, a screen descends over two of the center lanes, and music videos begin to play. Sound blasts through the bowling alley.
Finger Eleven, Nickelback, Angels and Airwaves, Sevendust — bathetic mainstream bands sell their products on the screen.
The Tigers hurl their 10- and 12-pound balls down the lanes with the grace of ballerinas whose feet are planted in buckets.
"I'm not very good," says Ryan Pinkston, the 20-year-old keyboard player. "But I give it my all."
The band's frontman, Kenn Jankowski, 30 years old and taking this shit seriously, has just bowled two strikes in a row.
"Kenn's got good form," guitarist Adam McGill observes.
"I am the most competitive person in Kansas City," Jankowski says as he returns to the table where his bandmates smoke around the same ashtray.
The Tigers' leader makes these sorts of bold statements all the time, though it's hard to know whether he's done the research to back up his claims. A week ago, over drinks at the Twin City Tavern, he said of the Tigers, "There's more talent in this band than any band I've ever heard of in the world."
Jankowski isn't so much arrogant as defiant. He and the other Tigers are desperate to make music, make a name for themselves — or at least make a living.
"Dude, I got fired from Radio Shack a year ago," bassist Marc Pepperman, 26, says. "I couldn't keep a $6-an-hour job to save my life. I suck at everything but this."
Though Jankowski was in a band that had a short run at the top before falling apart, the other Tigers have never been part of an outfit this serious or with this much potential.
The band arrived on the scene just over a year ago with inspired, guitar-and-keyboard-based pop more layered and majestic than anything else in town. Now, the Tigers have signed a deal that should put the band out front of an industrywide change in the way bands get their music heard.
The contract is with a new label called Chop Shop Records. It's an imprint of Atlantic Records that was founded last spring by a woman named Alexandra Patsavas, whom you may know better than you think.
If you associate the swooning indie rock of bands such as Death Cab for Cutie, Snow Patrol and the Fray with Roswell, The O.C., Grey's Anatomy and various other prime-time TV dramas, then you're familiar with Patsavas' work.
She is the most influential music supervisor in television. She has started a record label. And the Republic Tigers are the label's first act.
Several weeks before the Tigers' bowl-a-rama, I stand in Jankowski's bedroom, watching him trace vocal patterns in the air with his hands. I've just asked him how many vocal tracks are in "Made Concrete," a soaring composition with call-and-response choral singing. He doesn't have a number. He gestures with his hands: a track in the upper-right corner of the mix, one in the upper-left, high harmonies here, Adam's backing vocals here.
More than just a singer, Jankowski is a vocal architect. Almost all of the vocal tracks for the upcoming album, which is still being mastered at a studio in Los Angeles, were recorded, manipulated and layered to the high heavens in Jankowski's bedroom.
Here, bare walls frame a dirty hardwood floor. Clothes are strewn over instrument cases and video-game controllers in the corner. The bed is a mattress propped on its end against the wall. A bare bulb with a dangling cord lights the spartan squalor.
It's a strange environment for a guy who claims he brushes his teeth 20 times a day and stays in the shower "until there's no chance of any soapy residue being on my body."
The son of a preacher, Jankowski was born in Louisiana and lived in Philadelphia and New York before ending up in the Springfield, Missouri, suburb of Republic, where the high school mascot is the Tigers. There, he decided to pursue music rather than go to college, a path that eventually led him to Kansas City.
Were he not so even-tempered, focused and confident, Jankowski would come off like a lunatic. This 30-year-old man who sleeps on a mattress on the floor has two main expressions, which can be labeled "intense gaze" and "sudden giggle." And he giggles a lot for a musician with no day job who has been selling his possessions in order to eat.
One day earlier this month, he woke up around lunchtime and sold his Game Boy and two games for $70 at a store on the Plaza. His first stop after scoring: Panera Bread. "They made me a grilled cheese sandwich with my tomato soup, even though it's not on the menu," he says.
"See? I can be a rock star," He says, then laughs.
The oldest in the band by four years, he is also the poorest — a mystic sleeping on a pallet in midtown, dreaming up strange voices and words.
At home, his recording studio consists of a Mac Book flanked by hefty, black studio-monitor speakers on an age-stripped desk that's missing most of its drawer knobs. Next to the desk, a shiny silver Sputnik tube microphone the size of a trailer hitch sits on a stand. Headphones and preamps with knobs — and an ashtray full of Pall Mall menthol butts — complete the rig.
In his messy little corner of the music scene, Jankowski is rebuilding his career.
You see, he has heard assurances of fame from high places before.
Three years ago, he played lead guitar in a band that was freshly signed to a major indie label. The Golden Republic had a deal with Astralwerks, a high-profile label with an electronic- and dance-heavy roster (Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers) that was looking to expand into rockier territory. Astralwerks had tapped Jankowski's untested band to lead the way.
The label shoved Golden Republic into the studio and hustled it onto the road before the band members were accustomed to packing venues at home. As Jankowski signed autographs in faraway cities, he was still thinking about coming back to his job delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John's.
In a February 2005 article in The Pitch, the Golden Republic's then-manager was quoted as saying, "Bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü made people find out who they were. Same thing with the Get Up Kids. You get in the van and make things happen by playing great shows night after night after night."
The Republic wasn't fully formed or ready for such a task. Its debut album flopped, and things fell apart after the original bassist and drummer left and were replaced before a tour of Europe in 2006.
But that was a different band, and these are different times.
Touring is still essential, but it's no longer the most effective way for a band to get noticed.
The Golden Republic had a great live show, but what really got attention was its nascent online marketing campaign. First, it had a song on a popular Internet radio station (WOXY.com), and second, Astralwerks had created a hilarious video game on its Web site to promote the band. Game players made a rock star run through a motel room and jump on a hotel-room bed, catapulting objects out the window to crush the people below. It was the same style of spacebar-operated online game used on sites for Nebraska emo band the Faint and the Mini Cooper car.
A band must be really special, I thought at the time, to be sold like that.
No one wanted the band to fail, but when it came down to it, the members weren't getting along, and they lacked creative energy as a unit. They had a few good songs, but not enough to power the beginning of a career.
Two years later, Jankowski sits down at his laptop and pulls up a song in Pro Tools. He clicks on various screen controls, cutting out almost all of the instruments. Over a simple keyboard part, a woman's voice croons sweetly then breaks into a sensual hah hah hah pulse. Meanwhile, a chorus of reverb-laden male tenors (all of them Jankowski) intone monklike harmonies. The beat is slow, the sound both medieval and erotic — sex and High Mass.
A sound repeats in the mix. It's an electronic clicking that starts slow then becomes rapid, like a BB bouncing to rest on a tabletop. It turns out that the sound is a sampled recording of a coin hitting the base of a lamp. Later in the song, a resonating tink suggests a coin hitting the floor, as though fallen from a reclining lover's pocket.
The song is "Cast On, Cast Off." Kirsten Paludan of the Kansas City band Olympic Size is singing the female parts. Jankowski says the song isn't about sex, but it sure sounds that way.
In his bedroom, Jankowski gives me a preview of the album, which is titled Keep Color.
Some of the songs have been circulating locally for months, but compared with the shallow-sounding demos, these newly mastered versions could rattle a submarine. Of the older songs, there's "Made Concrete," which appeared on the local First Blood compilation almost a year ago. There's also "Buildings and Mountains," the catchy, stargazing acoustic strummer that started out years ago as a Golden Republic song.Buildings & Mountains by the Republic Tigers
The new songs show the Tigers building a daring, massive approach to writing. Though it will invariably be lumped under the banner of indie rock, it's more 2001: A Space Odyssey than goddamn Garden State.
"Feeling the Future" is a Queen-like rocket ride with a minor-key, male-female duet on the chorus — it would sound killer over the opening credits of, say, a James Bond movie.
"Golden Sand" begins with Jankowski singing a clipped, nervous baritone line over an echoing synth reminiscent of Kraftwerk. A rising sense of paranoia escalates into a dance-floor seizure when the drums and guitar kick in.
The whirling, polyrhythmic "Give Arm to Its Socket" combines pretty sounds with morbid ideas, like a collaboration between XTC and Radiohead, with Thom Yorke on lyric duties. C4 in my pocket, and I'll show you what for, warns the song's narrator, a suicide bomber. It's the most political song on an album in which most of the lyrics are fanciful (one song is about a robot that wants to be a real boy) or contemplative ("Concrete" is about Jankowski's failed marriage).
Other songs just play. There's "Fight Song," a big-riff, big-drum salute to Gary Glitter and the Kansas City Chiefs. And "Sinkin' Annie Down, Down, Down, Down" has a high-harmony, sing-along chorus worthy of Brian Wilson.
As of this writing, Keep Color was still being refined at Mark Needhams studio in Los Angeles, where hit records for the likes of Fleetwood Mac, the Killers and Chris Isaak have been mixed. The Tigers recorded the original tracks themselves in various home and pro studios around town and took them to Needham's studio this past December. The band has since vetted Needham's work by MP3 and e-mail and shipped him discs of Jankowski's home-recorded vocal tracks. This long-distance method is no longer an unusual way to build an album.
"I've always had better results this way," Jankowski says of the process. "I get deeper into the world of the song. Creating a world for each song is tough. It's like mathematics."
Needham, who has done major-league studio work for 35 years, struggles for words when I ask him how he would describe the Tigers' sound.
"Musically, I'm not sure what category I'd put the band in," he says. "It's fairly interesting, a little outside of the norm, which makes the stuff really interesting. They definitely have the big choruses, but it would be tough to pick a band that I think they sound like," he says.
He's especially impressed with the Tigers' vocal ambitions, saying that he hasn't heard such extensive layering since working with Fleetwood Mac.
"That's one of Lindsey [Buckingham]'s big production concepts: the very large, lush vocal pads that are sometimes complementing lyrics in a verse — things that aren't just singing along with the lead vocal but answer the lead vocal," Needham explains.
For her part, Patsavas — whose job is mainly to listen to and evaluate new bands — praises the Tigers' originality.
"I was hoping to find a band that was very unique, was really musical, wrote amazing songs — the same sorts of things that I hope to find when I look for television and film products," she says, speaking by phone from her office in Pasadena, California. "I feel really lucky that they turned out to be our first band."
Any struggling indie band would covet that kind of praise and attention from an industry tastemaker like Patsavas.
I never got into The O.C., but I have friends who did. They all described it as a guilty pleasure, an updated Beverly Hills 90210 — histrionics and high jinks in the lives of beautiful Southern California adolescents, but with cool music punctuating every pivotal scene.
MusicFromTheOC.com, then, is a good catch-up tool. The site lists every song from every episode, along with a description of what was happening onscreen when the song played.
For example, one of my favorite songs of the past five years or so, "Hello Sunshine" by the Super Furry Animals, was used in a season-one episode called "The Heartbreak." Scene: Song plays in Summer's bedroom as her and Seth get physical.
Another recent favorite of mine, "Big Sur" by Beach Boys-influenced Irish band the Thrills, was also in the first season, in the episode "The Rivals." Scene: Song plays in the student lounge as Oliver taunts Ryan about stealing Marissa from him before Ryan punches him.
To look at the site is to understand the emotional jukebox that Patsavas created for the show. There's even a link to a separate page on the Warner Bros. site where you can listen to six albums of O.C. music.
Just about every band featured on the show is bigger now than it was back then — in some cases, arena-sized (the Killers, Death Cab).
Patsavas screened lots of music that was too heavy; very little could have been too gentle. The music she chose is sonically easy to digest. Between four and 10 (or more) songs played during each episode, an assemblage of the latest in the sentimental and the just plain fun: the Kaiser Chiefs, LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz, Stars, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Imogen Heap, enough Beck to fill a Honda Element. The music was more memorable (and much fresher) than the show's melodramatic storylines.
Patsavas first heard the Republic Tigers when a Chop Shop employee named Brittany Warfield played some of the band's songs for her. Warfield (then working at Atlantic Records) had found the Tigers on MySpace and liked what she heard. She contacted the band and kept in touch with them as the new label imprint formed.
Not long after hearing the Tigers for the first time, Patsavas and Chop Shop President John Rubeli (also formerly of Atlantic) found themselves watching the band in a packed Record Bar on a hot July night.
Jankowski was a fan of Patsavas before he knew who she was. He says that when he was with the Golden Republic, he'd lobbied that band's manager to get its music on The O.C. Even after he found out that Chop Shop was interested in the Tigers, it didn't dawn on him who Patsavas was until he heard that she and Rubeli were coming.
"I almost had a heart attack when I realized it," he recalls. "I'd been trying to get her interest for a long time."
The day after the show, the band and the Chop Shop founders met at the Classic Cup on the Plaza and began hashing out a deal.
By then, the Tigers had already been courted by bigger figures.
Patsavas and Rubeli saw the Tigers play on July 7, 2007, a month to the day after the band was visited by an A&R guy from Columbia Records. After seeing the Tigers at the Brick, the Columbia rep met with the band at Jack Stack Barbecue and talked to the members about the possibility of working with the monstrously famous (and monstrously bearded) producer Rick Rubin.
"He was an awesome guy, so enthusiastic about music," McGill says of the Columbia rep. "He wasn't jaded at all. He was so cool compared to a lot of guys you would meet doing A&R stuff. But he kept grooming us with the idea that Rick Rubin would be in charge of everything and what that meant."
To the Tigers, it sounded like Rubin, not the band, would be calling the shots. Columbia had just hired Rubin as co-president of the label, in hopes that his "guru" rep and skills would help save the company.
The Tigers didn't want to surrender creative control to anyone, not even Rubin. And with Chop Shop, they wouldn't have to.
"According to our agreement, both us and the label have to come to terms and approve anything that happens — imagewise, soundwise. Like, the album, we have to all agree on the songs," McGill says.
But then again, when you've got Rick Fucking Rubin at the front door and a Hollywood music fixer at the back door, answering the back — isn't that a little ... commercial?
Patsavas has heard that argument. As music supervisor for her first major show, the WB Network's Roswell (1999-2002), she struggled to convince indie bands to sell their music to the UFO-enhanced teen drama.
"By the time I worked on The O.C.," she says, "I think that with the kinds of bands that we had at the Bait Shop [the show's live music venue] — the Killers, Modest Mouse, Rachel Yamagata — not only did bands become interested, but labels and publishers became interested as well, realizing that this could be a great way to put their band in front of more people."
The first Republic Tigers song on TV was a Christmas carol — a woozy, acoustic version of "Deck the Halls" that was included this past December on an episode of the Schwartz-produced, Patsavas-tended CW Network's Gossip Girl.
Patsavas' TV connections might help break the Tigers at a time when the recording industry is imploding. Major labels are suffering the consequences of being greedy dickheads — pouring millions into pushing crap-filled CDs when consumers have always just wanted the good stuff.
Meanwhile, indie labels that do produce strong records by good bands struggle to get their music out and get money back for it. Independent record stores are closing. People aren't going out to discover bands at clubs. The Internet is the chief means of discovering new bands (MySpace) and acquiring new music (iTunes, torrents).
"Labels are not doing what they should be doing," Tigers drummer Justin Tricomi says. "They're not searching enough, so MySpace is compensating for their mistake."
Or, as McGill puts it, "Our entire well-being is based on the fact that the industry is on a decline right now and labels are looking for bands to save the industry."
Jankowski cradles his cue and lines up his shot. He's as serious about pool as he was earlier about bowling.
Outside, neon beer signs cast their light on falling snow and rising drifts that are going to make it hard to get home tonight.
We have ended up at the Clarette Club, a strip-mall sports bar across the street from Mission Bowl. Young Pinkston has gone home, but the rest of the Tigers continue their gaming among the expanses of pool tables and TV screens not far from a refrigerator-sized vending machine stocked with cigarettes.
"I'm gonna take care of the jukebox problem," Pepperman says as he hops out of his chair and strides across the room.
Moments later, "Dazed and Confused" howls in the air.
It's times like these when rock and roll matters more than just about anything in the world.
"I miss days like these," Tricomi says.
Tricomi and his bandmates will probably get fewer days to relax as their life as a national-level band kicks into motion. They're lined up to play at South By Southwest, and there's talk of Coachella, too, plus spots on the late-night talk shows.
Who knows what flavor of buzz will surround the Tigers when Keep Color finally arrives in early April. But it should be a good, solid buzz because people need to hear this album, get drunk to it and pull it out years from now when they want something reliable.
With the telltale ringing of clocks and chimes, "Time" from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, sounds from the jukebox. Pepperman does his best David Gilmour: Ticking away the moments that make up the dull day!
For rock musicians and teenage boys, that 1973 album is a sacred tablet. For snobs, it's a goofy relic for adolescent geeks who have outgrown The Hobbit. In any case, Dark Side has sold around 34 million copies, and people keep buying it.
Before Dark Side, Pink Floyd had moved well past its Syd Barrett days, cranking (or, in some cases, shitting) out half a dozen records. The point is, classics rarely come about unless a band has time to develop, time to experiment freely in the studio and test its powers on the public.
If one of Jankowski's other bold claims is true — that the Tigers already have enough material for five albums — then we may be looking at a band that's going to stay around.
"Time" winds down. Soon, a slide guitar arrives like a house cat. Cymbals sizzle, an old Irishman announces that he's not afraid of dying, and drums let in the freezing night air of Dark Side's "The Great Gig in the Sky."
"Do we have any more questions to answer?" Pepperman asks.
Not unless he can see the future.