Unlike most rock bands, Kansas City's Big Sky Blue Earth doesn't center its live show on the singer.
In fact, with all the fog and laser-light action on the stage, it can be tough to figure out who is offering the occasional vocal melodies that go with the psychedelic rock. (Answer: drummer Sam Hoskins.)
Who you do end up staring at depends a little on how the stage is set up, but it's likely that — as I did at the Record Bar last Thursday — it will be bass player Paul Malinowski.
There's a good chance he'll be wearing a striped shirt and a rumpled conductor's cap. You'll no doubt recognize him from the soundboards of various local rock clubs. And his gnarly beard will confirm that he's not one of the fresh-faced rock dudes who take up local stages so often. Malinowski has been playing longer than lots of local scenesters have been alive.
He emerged on the scene in 1988 with a punk band called Curious George and quickly became a local fixture. He helped open an underground rock club in a loft at Third Street and Delaware and went on to play with some of this city's most notable projects. Malinowski's heavy bass style will always be synonymous with Season to Risk and Shiner, but it's instantly recognizable no matter who he's playing with.
"He's always had a really great bass tone. It's always been gigantic, the size of Texas," explains Big Sky guitarist Brandon Bray.
At the Record Bar, I mentioned to a young hipster that I was there to see the famous bassist's new band. "Paul Malinowski is a god!" the guy gushed with a mixture of fear and respect. It wasn't the first time I'd heard such ravings.
On the phone the next day, Hoskins laughs and says his longtime friend Malinowski is "a Greek god with that fucking beard."
People who know him well are quick to point out that the rock-god rap doesn't go to Malinowski's head. Still, for reasons other than his mad bass skills, he can be intimidating. Whether he's hunched over the sound booth or watching, arms crossed, from the back of the crowd, stout Malinowski seems so serious that you wonder what would happen if you accidentally bumped him.
"The intensity is usually there, especially out at shows and things," Hoskins says. "During any kind of setup, especially when we're setting up the lights and stuff, you can't even talk to that dude."
But he's not a dick. He's just focused — or, as the man himself says, "At least I appear to be."
Here's a real indication that Malinowski might be superhuman: He is the only musician ever to suggest meeting with me before noon — on the day after a gig, no less.
Granted, when he finally shows at 11, he's an hour late. Malinowski, a father of two, had spent the morning chasing his AWOL dog around his northeast Kansas City neighborhood. He's not accustomed to sleeping in. "By 10 a.m., I've driven 80 miles," he says of a typical day. Usually up by 6 a.m., Malinowski drops his younger son off at Grandma's house in Bonner Springs and then drives to Blue Springs to work in his studio.
On this day, his agenda includes cutting the bass for Your Electric Grandmother, an all-originals project by cover band the Stolen Winnebagos.
Over the years, Malinowski says he just "mutated into a producer." That's probably due to the same reason that he's involved in three bands (Big Sky, Black Page and Open Hand) right now: There's so much damned music in his head.
"With music, he's got, like, a hundred ideas all of the time. And then we don't use all of the ideas, but he's always spitting out more," Bray explains.
In the studio, Malinowski is known for taking the time to get things right.
Among the recent local works with his name among the production credits are OxBlood Records' First Blood compilation, the Pedaljets' re-release and Ghosty's new album.
"Kansas City has always been a scene that supports itself. There's always been talent," Malinowski says. "Some faces change. Some don't. Some bands just turn into new ones."
Except for sprouting the thick, graying-at-the-edges beard of an ancient mariner in recent months, Malinowski's is one of the faces that haven't changed. Thank God for that.