Some bands just can't catch a break. Lawrence's the Billions will likely go down in history as one of those bands, but that won't temper the memories of their joyous shows and catchy-as-heck albums.
Sam Billen, Dan Billen, Ken Komiya, and Jared Bowes will perform their final show as the Billions this Saturday, April 18, at the Bottleneck (minus guitarist Simon Bates, who has been too busy running the new burger bar at Dempsey's Pub). The group hasn't performed since 2006, but it never really had a chance to mount a proper farewell show with members moving away, getting married, having kids, yadda yadda...
"It's a pretty big deal for us, after all these years, to call it quits," Sam says. "We know we're going to have a lot of friends and family there that knew us during our semi-glory days. Between songs we're going to tell stories of crazy stuff that happened to us. We're really trying to encapsulate the past into one last fling."
As the group performs, a projector will play a slide show of images spanning the group's 12-year run.
"There's a lot of stuff that we don't even remember, so I thought it would be fun to go back through it all," Sam says.
The Billion's three proper albums - Quiet As It's Kept (2001), Never Felt This Way Before (2002), and Trash or Treasure (2005) - contain some of the best songs to come of of Lawrence during their time. I distinctly remember having "Never Felt This Way Before" in heavy rotation during the summer of 2003, with songs like "Hey Girl" and "Into the Light" being stuck in my head for weeks. The group's breezy sound occasionally recalled bands like the Postal Service, Pinback, and Starflyer 59, but it was probably just coincidence. Mostly, the Billions sounded like the Billions.
The band struggled to identify with a particular scene, having one foot in the Christian market thanks to its five-album deal with Northern Records and another foot in the secular indie-rock universe.
"From a business standpoint, it probably made sense for (Northern Records) to push us in the Christian market," Sam says. "But none of us wanted to be going anywhere in that market. We wanted to pursue the college-radio market, because that's the kind of music that we like."
Each ensuing tour - and there were a lot of them - pushed the group further in debt to their label. They sold enough CDs to buy gas and food, but not enough to repay their label's investment in them.
"We were like students at a university taking out loans," Sam says. "We knew it would catch up with us eventually, but we were just living in the moment. We always figured, 'When we get our big hit, we'll be able to pay it off.'"
That big hit never came, and in hindsight it seems ludicrous to think that a band as quirky and original as the Billions could have ever had one. That certainly doesn't diminish the appeal of fan-favorite songs like "In Japan" and "The Boulevard," which are at least hits in some tiny alternate universe of twenty-going-on-thirtysomethings in a small college town in the middle of the country.
Proceeds from Saturday's show will help the group pay off their remaining debt to their label and move on with their lives. All plan to continue pursuing music in one form or another, and Sam and Dan are both at work on solo albums (Sam's 2004 solo album Miracles could be considered the fourth Billions record).
Sam says his new material is a bit like the Postal Service: pop music with electronic programming. He's also working on some instrumental pieces.
"I even pondered the idea of doing an R&B album, because every time I'm in Kansas City I listen to 107.3 and I love it," he says. "It's so inventive; it's like the craziest stuff I've ever heard."
If that ever comes to fruition, pigs will fly and R. Kelly will be the new Pope. In the meantime, raise a glass to the Billions and pick up one last vintage t-shirt from the group's fabulous flea-market merch table.
The Billions, with Cowboy Indian Bear and Joshu. Early 9 p.m. show. Saturday, April 18, at the Bottleneck. $3.