Somehow, Larry Ann finds out that I've come to this college town with a rock band from Kansas City called the Roman Numerals. Despite my attempts to tell her that I'm not in the band (I'm just there to write about it), she turns on a falsely overpronounced hick accent and begins ridiculing me: "Y'all are a rock band from the big city? Why aren't y'all getting laid right now?"
It's the tail end of an all-local-band festival we stumbled onto in some venue a few blocks from where the Numerals played earlier in the evening. Packed full of rowdy Oklahomans trying to deal with drunk Kansas Citians, the club's a fitting end to a day in the life of this band. They came to a town, they helped 'em party down.
Earlier that day, drummer Pete LaPorte had pulled his wife's Mitsubishi Montero loaded with Numerals and towing a U-haul trailer into the parking lot behind The Opolis, where the band was scheduled to play at 8. The sun was coming down hot and hard, but storm clouds signaling a rainy cold front were rolling in from the west. Shawn Sherrill (keyboards), Steve Tulipana (bass, keyboards, vocals) and Billy Smith (guitar, vocals) poured themselves out of the small SUV.
The Opolis is an all-ages venue operated by husband-and-wife duo Andy and Marian Nunez of the Starlight Mints, a band that runs second string to Oklahoma City's pride, the Flaming Lips. Many big names in indie rock come through the club, including Richard Buckner, the French Kicks and Joseph Arthur.
The Numerals are hoping The Opolis will treat them well. They're opening for a Norman band called Traindodge a band deeply influenced by '90s KC post-hardcore acts Shiner, Season to Risk and Dirt Nap.
Bands the Roman Numerals used to be in.
If you've heard the Numerals, which is one of Kansas City's tightest, most seasoned, most respected acts, you might have thought you were hearing Interpol, the Faint, Joy Division the "dark wave" guitar-and-synth-driven dance-rock that happens to be in vogue right now. If so, you're hearing only a fraction of the sound.
Take a Season to Risk record and put it in your stereo. You'll hear Tulipana (on vocals) leading the group across a fast, frantic, distorted landscape a jagged terrain of blasted noise-punk, hardcore, grunge and Amphetamine Reptile-style metal ringing with creeping bass and guitar feedback. Boil that sound down to the beats. If you've ever seen Season live, you know its music is just as dance-inducing as it is moshworthy.
Now take the towering melodies of Shiner (in which Numerals keyboardist Shawn Sherrill played bass) and the dark drive of Dirt Nap (LaPorte on drums plus Numerals guitarist and singer Billy Smith, who also joined Season toward the end), peel away the noise and add it to the stripped-down sound. What you get is not the Killers. (We hope you're not too disappointed.)
When older rockers (the Roman Numerals are all in their midthirties) form a band with a new sound, they always say it came about organically. Most of the time, it's bullshit they just want to sell records to young people again. With the Numerals, though, the metamorphosis is convincing.
"In Season to Risk, we set out to make people dance," Tulipana says. "I always set out to make people dance to entertain people and make them dance."
"The only band it [our sound] reminds me of is Season to Risk," Sherrill adds.
With the Roman Numerals, Tulipana, Sherrill, Smith and LaPorte have come up with a formula that gets the crowd moving in spite of current trends. Almost every Numerals road show is an exercise in winning over the skeptics.
For example, when the Numerals open with "My Life After Death, Parts I and II," the Interpol keys drop in some people's heads. But later in the set, by the time the band kicks out "Msr. Control" or "Rule of V," these same people are bobbing and shaking, and even the nondancing skeptics are happily noticing the line straight back to Joy Division.
In fact, Joy Division was the catalyst. Unknown Pleasures, the straightforward Joy Division tribute band in which all of the Numerals played, came together about two weeks before a Halloween show at the Madrid Theatre, circa 2002. Tulipana had seen a similar band several years before while on tour with Season to Risk in Rhode Island. He thought it sounded like a good idea to introduce to the folks back home. UP was a hit locally, and rehearsal jam sessions spawned the bare, melodic, synthy original songs for what would become the Roman Numerals.
So, here we are, a rainy night in Oklahoma. Because of the festival several blocks away, only about a dozen or so scenesters have wandered over to The Opolis for Traindodge and this KC band they've never heard of. In Kansas City the week before, the Numerals sold out the Record Bar for their CD release party (their long-awaited debut, Roman Numerals, officially came out September 8 on Anodyne Records), and even at casual gigs in their hometown, they draw an adoring crowd.
The good news about the Opolis gig is that there's an attentive gathering near the stage. By the time the band packs up, it will have sold five CDs and two shirts. A high merch-sale-to-crowd-size ratio indicates that the band's strategy is paying off it's building a Midwestern audience through one-off weekend gigs. If the Numerals can sell the same percentage of goods at a bigger show, they'll do quite well. (It helps, too, that the CDs and shirts look cool.)
"Every show so far that we've played, the venue owners have said the next time will be better," Tulipana says. He adds that most club owners wouldn't say something like that insincerely if the show sucked, they'd express no intention of inviting your band to play again.
He would know. He and Sherrill own the Record Bar, KC's hottest venue, for which Smith is the booking agent. The one-off weekend shows work well considering it's a management exodus anytime the Numerals hit the road. Sherrill and Smith hope to have a super-reliable staff come November, when they embark on a West Coast tour supporting ultrahip girl band Boyskout.
If they can't go on long tours, the Larry Anns of the world will be sorely disappointed. The Roman Numerals' self-titled debut is now available on Anodyne Records.