"It was awkward at first," says chuck whittington, soft-spoken guitarist and keyboard player for the group. (As with the band's name, whittington prefers to see his only in lowercase.) "Andrew [Sallee, the band's other founder] plays drums with one hand and keyboard with the other. He's been doing it for one or two years, so he's gotten pretty good. We'd been trying to do the two-man band thing, but we felt like we should add some extra sound." Sallee, 24, and whittington, 25, added Jason Lewis, 27, to the lineup before recording subtle times. Lewis was whittington's guitar pupil when both attended Oklahoma Baptist College. (You won't hear many musicians with milder vocabularies than the frequently "gosh"-wielding whittington.) He's credited with making "extra noise" with his keyboards and vocals.
The noise, extra and otherwise, is splendid. Though headman's members admire Flaming Lips and the Elephant Six collective (dense, eccentric albums by Olivia Tremor Control and Apples in Stereo), subtle times sounds more like an unreleased tape from XTC's basement. Its six catchy songs, clocking in at just over a half hour, come with their hooks wrapped in an appealing gauze of primitive engineering. The catchiest, "locked in the station," provides a travelogue through XTC's albums, namechecking what would be a formidable blueprint for headman's sound if it embraced that band's accessibility.
"Andrew and I were just sitting around one day," whittington says, "and he just came up with the riff. He had a melody but no words. But he's a big XTC fan and has a couple of books about them, so he went with that." That Sallee's recitation of XTC album titles as a chorus manages also to bring to mind XTC's facility for hooks is the disc's first evidence that something good is unfolding. "The song is really about this story Andrew read. This guy at a college radio station was so moved by [XTC's song] 'Dear God' that he locked the booth and played the song over and over. So that's what our song ended up being about."
So far, the best story about one of headman's own songs is that the band named an early composition written for a friend's wedding "making each other sick." "The title sounds harsh, but the song is about how when you're living with someone and you get physically ill, you will always make the other person physically ill too." Pretty romantic stuff for a band named after a character in film director Steven Soderbergh's little-seen treatise on divorce and anomie, Schizopolis. This moniker was far from the group's first choice; whittington says he and Sallee, who both grew up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, had rehearsed and recorded together "under about 6,000 band names, most of which were taken, so we had to keep changing it."
In the spirit of one of the books about XTC that Sallee owns, whittington explains some of the remaining songs in detail:
"'suddenly winter' was described by one of our friends as sounding like Wilco's Summerteeth album, which I thought was pretty cool," whittington says. "At the end of that song, I was planning to have two verses, but Jason was like, 'It's too long.' And he comes to us from the outside, so that means he comes in and kind of has the last word. He'll spot the problem with a song, which is what happened here. So we cut out the verses."
The disc's third song, "douglas rossback's indecision," is a live jam (whittington moved between instruments while the tape rolled) that resulted from an addition whittington made to Sallee's recording setup. "I bought this portable reel-to-reel tape deck on eBay, and when I got it, there was a tape still loaded," whittington says. "The tape already had stuff on it. Most of it is pretty lame, but there was a segment where this woman goes around interviewing her family. The Brown family. I suppose Douglas married in, but she says, 'Now we'll speak to Douglas.'" Portions of the Brown family's posterity, then, have been preserved on the 200 copies of subtle times headman pressed up to sell on its Web site (namelessnumberheadman.webjump.com). "That tape is priceless," whittington says. "I bought the deck so I could make tape loops, but it didn't work out. I said, 'Screw this, I can just go buy a sampler.'"
"the more it stays the same" is mostly Sallee, whittington says. "He just came home one day and pounded out an idea on the piano and a drum machine, then overdubbed."
"a modern hymn" is whittington's self-described "labor of love," one of two songs he wrote for the disc. "It took the longest to do," he says. "It and 'punch hung-over,' the last song, took a long time."
After the trio completed recording last summer, they invested $500 to manufacture the discs, then spent some time getting to know the staff of their nearest Kinko's while printing and hand-cutting the album's sleeves. "I don't know why it shouldn't feel homespun," whittington says. "We recorded and dropped it to disc at home and copied the covers ourselves. They probably all have crooked edges."
Whittington admits that hits to the band's Web site -- and sales -- so far have been slow. The only distribution headman has arranged is a quick mail drop to local media and Web sites, and the next two weeks include the first gigs they've played since releasing subtle times. But with or without a contract -- whittington would love to record for Elephant 6 -- the trio will continue to experiment and shop for that tenth keyboard while waiting to make the nameless and numberless in its name an irony.