Audience members having fun in the Bay Area? It seemed an anomaly. After all, this is a region infamous for its mannequin crowds of unmoving, staring hipsters. But it seems not only that some fun people are finally going to see bands but also that a new crop of local groups is actually -- gulp -- inciting suspiciously dancelike reactions from people. Now it's time to see if Numbers can spark movement in other notoriously choreography-averse scenes coast to coast.
Numbers consists of Indra Dunis on vocals and drums, Eric Landmark on keyboards and Dave Broekema on guitar. The trio's sound is varied, but a dancey New Wave undercurrent holds it all together. The band is experimental but highly listenable, artsy but not fartsy. Distorted vocals are buried alongside the instruments instead of laying atop the mix. Guitar strings are most often hit or struck rather than strummed or plucked -- "I just whack at it so it sounds bad," Broekema jokes. Landmark's Moog synthesizer bangs out synth-poppish chords that sound like a guitar tuned to an odd key. He also plays an instrument that he created called the Buzzerk, which is made of buzzers he found at an electronics store and sounds like a buzz saw cutting into a block of aluminum.
The Bay Area has long been a hotbed for offbeat "arty" musicians, but few have been as successful at combining weirdness with catchy 2/4 beats as the current crop of so-called no-wave bands such as Pink & Brown, Deerhoof, the Coachwhips and Numbers tourmate Erase Errata. Most of these bands developed separately from one another, so it wasn't until they all started playing live that the band members began to see similarities in attitude and influences.
"One of the great things about the bands here is that they all seem like they're doing their own thing," Landmark says. "There's no identifiable sound, yet somehow it all goes together. It's a general attitude."
Technically, no wave isn't a sound but a sensibility. The term originally came from some late-'70s and early-'80s bands from New York's Lower East Side that weren't doing punk or new wave but couldn't really be described as arena rock. The Contortions, Glenn Branca and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (which featured Lydia Lunch) are usually associated with the label. These days, it's come to mean any band that says no to whatever else is going on musically, a nod to the Midwest's no wave-noise rock scene of the '90s, which was centered in Chicago. Bands such as Scissor Girls, Lake of Dracula and US Maple couldn't find opening slots with any established Chicago bands, so they created their own circle. It was from this scene that the members of Numbers got their start, moving out here about five years ago from nearby Madison, Wisconsin.
"This place kind of reminds me of that scene," Dunis says. "But this scene is friendlier and more enthusiastic. People are less interested in being cool and more interested in trying to have a good time. People really go bananas here."
It wasn't always like that. When the band first arrived, its members' excited notions about San Francisco's music scene were all but squelched. "It's such a beautiful city, and it seemed like a happening place, musicwise," Dunis says. "But when we got here, it really wasn't. It's only in the last few years that it's really come alive." Numbers arrived during the height of the dot-com boom, which is blamed, fairly or unfairly, for destroying the Bay's music scene by pushing out poor musicians. Little did its members know that pockets of like-minded musicians were practicing and getting ready to beg for gigs or creating their own performance spaces. Punk performance-art bands such as Pink & Brown (one member wears an all-pink bodysuit and mask, the other a brown one) were developing a following. Erase Errata was playing and hosting shows at Club Hot, its Oakland warehouse space. The female four-piece eventually encouraged Numbers to play out as well. "A lot of bands just cropped up at once," Dunis says. "The enthusiasm of the scene here has helped a lot. People seem to have fun. That makes me have fun, relax and let down my barriers."
Dunis says her "painfully shy" nature has been somewhat overcome by the support of her colleagues. Though she laughs at the comparison, just like Karen Carpenter, she seems to have come out of her shell by parking herself behind a drum kit and singing. Her lyrics concern everyday topics such as driving to work, having a job, buying things and using intercoms.
"We are into the concept of writing songs about the ordinary, other than something that's really crazy or extraordinary," she says. "Other bands write about things that are more intense, about life or whatever. We are dry, not particularly emotional. But we are still having a good time."
As for the no-wave designation, the band seems to prefer the moniker its fans have conferred upon it: no-wave disco punk. Astute music aficionados might also notice an increasing number of mustaches painted on the tender upper lips of the Bay Area's youth. "It's becoming a more frequent thing," Broekema says, laughing.
The Lawrence crowd might not have its faux facial hair in order when Numbers arrives, but that won't matter as long as the group inspires staid club regulars to get freaky at long last.