15 60 75 The Numbers Band is celebrating its 40th anniversary Saturday night with a concert at the Kent Stage. Our friend Matt Wardlaw at Addicted to Vinyl had a nice long chat with frontman Robert Kidney about the group's history. Enjoy.
When you look back at 40 years of The Numbers Band, what comes to mind?
It’s overwhelming. I think that the main thing that I think about more than anything else is that it this point, I feel I’m receiving what I wished [we would have received] from the very beginning. It just took 40 years. People really get what we’re about. I waited a long time for that.
Why do you think it took so long to get the proper attention/respect that you were looking for?
I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t really know. All of the bands that you know that are young are competing with each other. And all those bands that we were competing with have fallen away so we stand alone. We’re not competing with anyone anymore. We are what we are — there’s no age group thing going on here. I think that the fans that have stuck with us over these years, they understand what we’re about. No one is coming expecting something that isn’t going to happen. We were in the middle of pop music — we’re not a popular music band.
The Numbers Band definitely emerged at an interesting time for music — your band was definitely going against the grain.Well put. I knew you were smart. [laughs]
Talking about the 35th anniversary show over the weekend, you mentioned to me that you didn't think that there would be a 40th anniversary show. Why?
It’s kind of obvious. I’m not a real self-promoter. I just make the art that we make and the music that we make for the people and let things kind of happen. When the band turned 35, a big bell rang and I just thought, “God, 35 years is a huge amount of time and in a bigger sense, I don’t know how much longer the band is going to be able to hold together.” So I took it upon myself to organize this show that we did five years ago and I didn’t see any way that we’d ever get to 40. I didn’t think it was possible. But now looking at it and you’re asking me about it, I can’t put it into words. I don’t know.
35 years is a long time to be doing anything and hell, 20 years is a long time to be doing anything. So as you hit each milestone, you have to go “Wow, we’re still here.”
It just seemed at the time that it wasn’t possible for a lot of reasons. The men that I work with — my brother [Jack Kidney] and Terry [Hynde] and those fellows, they all have lives and you never know — their lives may change. If I lose any of the members that I have now, I might have to rethink what I’m doing. If I lost my drummer for example, I’d have to really stop and think whether I’d want to start trying to find someone else. We’ve been working together a long time. This is a great band.
You mention Terry; I think he’s a good example of one of the many elements that is very important when you listen to the recorded music from the band throughout the different eras.
Yeah, absolutely — he’s been in the band with me longer than my brother. People ask me who’s the biggest influence is on my guitar playing, and I tell them that it’s him. We’ve been playing together forever. I don’t know if my guitar playing has influenced him, but I certainly know that listening to him play and his craziness influenced the way that I play.
“Crazy” is certainly a good word. The overall sound of the band sounds insane for the time period when you’re listening to the Agora show that was captured for the band’s first album. It must have been even crazier to witness it as a spectator.
There’s something that you might be interested in. Terry and I and all of the fellows, the majority of the people that were in that band — especially the drummer, we all listened to Sun Ra. We listened to John Coltrane. We listened a lot to Albert Ayler, the Cleveland tenor player. That type of playing — we were open to that and listened to it, like Ornette Coleman. You listen to that stuff; our interests were deeply embedded in that music — The Art Ensemble of Chicago, those were people we listened to and admired. When it came to putting the horn parts together, I wasn’t listening to the Stax horn section. I was trying to find a way to make free jazz horn playing into sectionals. Essentially what you’re hearing is free jazz played over a rock and roll format, and the rock and roll format has also been abstracted. Because I used a lot of beats that were backwards instead of putting the snare on 2 and 4, I’d put it on 1 and 3. We weren’t afraid to use other time signatures and influences — I was fearless about that, I didn’t think about it. I did what I wanted to do. I didn’t consider anything else — all I considered was, how can I make the most unique and original music. How can we do that? What can we do? It involved everything — lyrics, rhythm, guitar parts, horn parts — everything to make music that was the most unique that we could. And it was a disaster [laughs]. I assumed people would like it, and they had no idea was happening, but what do I know?
It definitely seems like from that first album, the band evolved into something that was more palatable for the average listener.
Hmmm, well it may be. I don’t like repeating myself. It would be like what everybody else does, “oh we have a sound, oh we have to keep after that,” and I just didn’t do it. If you listen to the new CD [The Inward City] and listen to “The Tellsusyourvision,” and then compare that to the Jimmy Bell CD, there’s a direct line between those songs. You can also hear the connection if you listen to “The Push and The Shove,” and some of the other songs that I’ve done over the years. But I’ve also expanded and allowed myself to write in other directions. Some of those, the structures are a little bit more rational? [laughs] I don’t know. Like “Summer Fever” is a song — it’s not an experimental [song]. But why should I keep myself from writing a beautiful song, what reason would there be? So I can stay out on the edge? I know what that’s about. To me, I owe it to my audience that every song that I write, as much as I can, should be separate from all of the others. Each piece should be individual — that’s a tall order over 40 years. As a writer I have probably three or four different styles that I work in.
David Thomas [of Pere Ubu] became involved with your band initially as a fan, right?
Yes. As I remember it, he was working in Rocket From The Tombs with Peter Laughner. Peter started coming to see the band and started bringing some other people. David was one of them and that continued as Pere Ubu became Pere Ubu. Tony Maimone started coming to see the band and Anton Fier, who was the drummer of the band at one [time] came to see the band. They all started coming to see the band and I was unaware of all of it. I had met David once. I got off the stage at a concert in the old Agora one time and this guy that I didn’t know who seemed to know me came up and wanted to introduce me to someone. I went with him and he introduced me to this huge giant person with hair everywhere and introduced me to Crocus Behemoth and that was the last time that I spoke with David until I met him years later. That must have been ’72 or something like that. Finally, David and I got to know each other again in the late ‘70s when he started coming to see the band with Tony. He just started showing up and he started talking to me. He was always very complimentary and a huge supporter and then we did this 45. He took us into the studio and we did a 45 that had “It’s In Imagination” and “Here In The Life.” That’s when the new wave thing was at its height and we were over with. He came in and supported us, got us press and made us feel like we were worthwhile, and that was a lot. Because when the new wave thing was happening and the punk thing was going on in Cleveland, the new wave thing in Devo and all of that stuff, we were over with — that was the end of the band. We were the old guard.
That’s a relatively young point in your career for things to be over with.
That’s what we were fighting against. JB’s in Kent, the club where we played most of the time had all but ostracized us. It was a very rough time. We had lost all of our equipment in a fire and we were trying to come back from that fire. Right about that time when that happened, our first record came out [and] the new wave punk thing hit this area. We had already been there and already had been established. These other bands were coming up, and although a lot of them now don’t see themselves as being aggressive, they were very aggressive and hungry. They were after something.
Was it a conscious decision to record that first album live?
It was an opportunity; it was not a conscious decision.
It took several attempts before you got the finished product in the can.
My remembrance is different than other people in the band, but as whom I am, I think I remember it better than anyone. We recorded a performance where we were the opening act for Mahogany Rush. The audience came to see Mahogany Rush and Mahogany Rush was a [band featuring a] guy who impersonated Jimi Hendrix. He [guitarist Frank Marino] was essentially a Jimi Hendrix impersonator. We walked out on stage to open this show and I had on beige pants, buck shoes, short hair and I looked like Buddy Holly compared to the rest of the people. I think we were booed at one particular point. They [the audience] didn’t want to hear what we had to do, they didn’t want to look at us — we were something new and a shocking difference. I don’t have the power to search the Scene archives, but the reviews are there. I remember the critic — I had had an interview or a discussion with him at a club and he ran me down, man. But that’s beside the point. They recorded it and then we went upstairs to Agency Recording and listened to it. What they had done was they had recorded that performance in stereo, so there was no way to remix it — there was no way to do anything. So I raised a bunch of hell, not realizing that these people were doing me a favor [laughs]. We rescheduled the recording at another time and then they pumped it all up as “The Numbers Band is going to record its record.” We came up again and then the bass player thought he had appendicitis. It turns out that he had colitis and I had to cancel it. And they tried to get me to come up there and work with a fill-in bass player but I just told them that I wasn’t going to do it. That really didn’t make people very happy. I didn’t realize that what I was doing was being unprofessional. I should have made an attempt, but I was very young, you know? Now, I wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t have used it as a recording, but they were trying to imply that it would sound great. It wouldn’t. So I just put my foot down and didn’t go up at all. So then we rescheduled it yet again, which led to comments from a critic, “they’re here to record their record again.” That was when we opened for Bob Marley, because that was the only slot they would allow us to have and that was the record.
The Marley crowd was probably a crowd more receptive to checking out new music.
I’d have to go back and look at this thing chronologically. I think there was a great deal of time between the first recording and the next recording. Because some of those songs that are on that record, we weren’t even doing yet and our fans showed up for that recording. Our fans were in the audience that night for Bob Marley — Marley’s crowd wasn’t responding [to the band]. The place was jammed with people — it was wall to wall people in that club, and it was a big club. We weren’t getting much of a response. In fact, Agency Recording, the Agora and WMMS were all in lockstep, because WMMS was cooking their business for them. All of those acts that were coming through there that WMMS was supporting were playing at the Agora, they weren’t playing anywhere else. So they were locked in and we were told that our record was going to get a lot of airplay. But Denny Sanders wouldn’t play it — he said that the audience response was “tepid.” There was no audience response on the record according to him. And they had moved away from us by then — they had changed their mind. The station manager sat me down in her office and told me that the only people that were calling about the record or had any interest in it were our fans. As if someone else was going to call in. She handed me this 45 with a guy on the front of it that looked like some sort of ‘50s Elvis Presley type and said “this is who we’re going to be pushing next — not you.” It was Johnny Cougar. So that was the end of it, we never got any airplay and that was that.
One critic referred to your band as a “disco band.” Surely it’s not the worst thing that your band has ever been called, but I’m guessing it’s close.
[Laughs] It’s close, it’s up there. I don’t know where the review is for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, but that was blistering. He said “talk about over with,” he thought we were like cold mashed potatoes, this band. He used the phrase “their music has not held up over the years.” But he was a huge Pere Ubu fan. He knew the band members and mentioned people who weren’t even in the band anymore, so he was a fanatic. He didn’t like what we did. That’s the thing that you need to understand is that the fans of these New Wave bands did not like us. They did not like the music. The people in the band liked the music. David Thomas thought we were great — the fans didn’t think we were great. His record producer thought we were too moralistic — that was his take on the band. We had too much moral content to the music. It’s all about popular culture, and we’re not part of the popular culture. We’re off in this other genre that doesn’t exist.
What would you call that genre?
I don’t know. It’s a psychological and intellectual statement for me to make. There’s no simple term. Music is an ancient form, that’s the way I look at it. It’s ancient. It speaks and should say something — it should have meaning. It isn’t something to be disposed of.
Being off of that familiar path is probably what has made your music so appealing through the years.
It’s an art form. The songs are seven, eight minutes long.
Which is not incredibly radio friendly.
Your approach is to consider these things — I don’t. I say what I have to say and I write a story. It has a beginning, middle and an end. I say something, I talk about something and they’re too long.
You had a chance to get back with the Golden Palominos earlier this year.
Yeah, that was real nice. I’m going back again in September to play a couple more shows. Anton [Fier] and Syd [Straw] decided to work together again. They have a real nice band put together — I’m working with Tony Maimone and Anton, these people I’ve known for more than half my career. Anton is the first person who ever put me in the studio, besides the 45 that I did with David. I wrote “Animal Speaks” and quit doing it because the audience that was coming to see my band wasn’t really responding to our original material very much. They were responding to the old [non-original] stuff that we did — “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” and all of that kind of stuff, that’s the kind of stuff they really like. They put up with some of the stuff that we did that was my own. Anton took “Animal Speaks” and had Johnny Rotten do it on a record and all of the sudden people that didn’t come to see my band started coming to see my band, and asking for that song. All of the sudden if Johnny Rotten does this song and Bob Kidney wrote that song, these guys must be good, simple as that. The other thing that went on is that a lot of the new wave thing by the mid to late ‘80s was over. These bands that were formed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were gone. All of those people that went out to hear all of those bands had nowhere to go, so they started coming to see us, looking at us in another way. I also made a decision in the early ‘80s where I literally stopped playing old material. At the end of the night, the club’s going to close and we’re coming down to the last couple of songs. Let’s say that I did “I Hear You Knocking But You Can’t Come In” by Little Richard, we would get an encore — they’d want to hear another song. But if I ended it with “Eye Game,” it would be dead silence or they would barely applaud, and I got really pissed off about it. So I made a decision and told the people in the audience that I wasn’t playing that material anymore. We were not going to play the old [non-original] material — I announced it consistently for over a month and a half. If someone yelled “Can’t Judge A Book,” I’m saying “we don’t play that material anymore, we’re playing original material.” This is an original band, we play our own music. So if you want to hear that music, you’re going to have to listen to old recordings or find a band that does play it. We stopped playing it and lost at least a third of our audience. They quit coming and people were coming up to me and accosting me, telling me that I should be playing blues, why am I playing this music that I wrote — who do you think you are? Like I owed them that shit.
I think that’s very similar to the stand-up comedian that throws out all of their material and comes up with an entirely new act. You have to do that kind of thing to keep moving forward.
What happened over the next year was that a whole new group of people came to see the band and took us at face value. Within a year or so it was right back where it was, only we were playing all original material. And people want to hear that now, you know what I mean?
Chrissie Hynde put a version of your song “Rosalee” on the latest Pretenders album. Are you planning to record that one yourself, perhaps as part of the solo album that you’ve been working on?
It’s on the solo record, but I’m more interesting in having it done with the band. But recording the band is easier said than done, other than live performances. We’re going to be recording the performance [with the help of longtime Numbers Band associate Steve Etherton] on the 21st and “Rosalee” will be performed. Now that’s going to be a 24 track digital recording. If we can get the guy to mix it and put it out, we’ll have a lot of material, because he also recorded the 35th anniversary. What we’re planning on doing is to record the 40th anniversary performance and put out some sort of 35th/40 year anniversary live performance recording. There will be a lot of songs that we’re doing now that are new that have never been recorded. My brother has a New Orleans piece that might have already been recorded, but he has two other new songs that we haven’t got a version of. And there’s a song that I’m doing called “Red Stick,” we’re going to do that. So there’s a lot of new material that we’ve been doing that will be recorded at this show.
What else can people look forward to at this show?
I’ve got a whole lineup of musicians coming in that were original members that also came to the 35th year anniversary but I think I’m going to do it a little different, I don’t think it’s going to be quite so formal. I think probably what I’ll do is that my band will play for at the very least, an hour, maybe more and then we’ll start bringing people up to play. There are still members of the band that were on that Jimmy Bell CD that are going to come and play, and then people from the ‘80s, and then there’s more recent people that are coming. A lot of it has to do with whether they can actually get there to do it. I don’t have some of the contacts — I tried to get a hold of Gerald Casale [of Devo], but I’m not having any luck. I think it’s probably going to be too late. People can’t just drop everything and show up. I don’t know who else will come. Chrissie Hynde knows that it is happening — whether she would come or not, I don’t know. I’m going to contact Michael Stanley — I know he’ll promote it for me, but I don’t know if he’ll come. We’ll be playing for a long time — there will be a lot of music happening that night.
What’s your version of the legend that The Blues Brothers were inspired by The Numbers Band?
That’s just a rumor that we played with for years that was created by a guy. We went to New York in 1977 and played at Tracks. You may not know Tracks, but The Rolling Stones played at Tracks, this is from the late ‘70s and Tracks was the club. Chris Butler was in the band then and we were being looked at by the woman who signed The Cars. The reason that we were being looked at was because Peter Laughner was friends with the guy from Television and she signed them. Chris Butler called her on the phone and said that we were going to be in New York, even though we were not. Our manager at the time hustled up a gig at Tracks, for God’s sake, I can’t believe it. We got into Tracks, which was a very big deal. Tracks was a place where television people hung out — a lot of people from Saturday Night Live. I had no idea about what Saturday Night Live was — I’m a hermit, I don’t know anything about television. I never watched Saturday Night Live, I was working. What the hell would I know about it? Nor did I read, nor did I care. So we ended up playing at Tracks and I did notice that the night that we were there, I talked to several guys who were very interested in the music , who had a charm about them — they weren’t regular people. I did talk to one of the cast members from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I was familiar with. We had a lot of fans living in New York — we had at least 12 people who lived in New York at the time that came to see the band. One of them started this rumor later on that The Blues Brothers had gotten the idea for The Blues Brothers from my brother and me. I’m telling you something that is complete horseshit. If you want to hear it, I’ll tell you.
He said he read a quote in the paper, a criticism that said “who are these blues brothers from Ohio and what is their mission here in New York?” That’s what he said that he read. My brother at the time carried all of his harmonicas in a 45 record case, which is similar to a briefcase. We did not wear hats on stage, however I wore a hat. My brother’s name is Jack and one of the Blues Brothers — not the harmonica player, was named “Jake,” so there are all of these correlations. We did get a really good review in Variety, but it didn’t say anything like that. It said “from Ohio comes an outfit with a mixed bag,” blah blah blah. I kept hearing this from him and a couple other people. Finally, back in 1990 I researched it and there was no information to contradict it. But I did research the fact — when did the Blues Brothers first appear, when were they first the Blues Brothers? And it was after this show — there was no real information about where The Blues Brothers came from, so I allowed it to be put on [The Numbers Band] website. I think it has been taken down now. Because I re-researched it, because it came up again about 8 months ago and Dan Aykroyd has a perfectly logical explanation as to where The Blues Brothers came from and it has absolutely nothing to do with my brother and I. Zero. It has nothing to do with my band and he’s probably never even heard of my band. He was from Canada and he was involved in a band up there, they worked with two brothers and they played blues, so and so forth. It’s all been explained.
15 60 75 The Numbers Band play the Kent Stage at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $20.
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