If any act on the local scene is an institution, it’s the Numbers Band. The group has been together for more than 40 years, and regularly plays venues in both Cleveland and Akron/Kent. Now, Numbers Band singer-guitarist Robert Kidney and his brother, multi-instrumentalist Jack Kidney, have recorded solo albums. Robert Kidney’s album Jackleg
features somber tunes that showcase his gravelly voice; the songs have a Tom Waits-like quality to them. Jack Kidney’s album Sealin’ up the Past
is a more eclectic affair that includes bluesy numbers such as “Foot Prints on the Moon” and horn driven jazz tunes like “First Take.” We caught up with both brothers to ask them about their respective careers.
Talk about growing up in Northeast Ohio. Were you exposed to lots of music while growing up?
I lived in a working class suburban neighborhood in Cuyahoga Falls. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. I graduated from high school in the middle ‘60s. It was a pretty pedestrian kind of 1950s suburban upbringing. My father was a working class union representative. That was the kind of atmosphere I grew up in. Cuyahoga Falls was very conservative. I listened to the radio and my culture exposure was the radio. It was very limited. As I got into my teenage years, things began expanding. I was always involved in music. I sang in choirs at church and school. I enjoyed singing, but when they started making me try to read music, I rebelled and didn’t do it anymore. I think in 1963 when Kennedy was shot, I was reading an article about it and the person who wrote the article pointed out something that I suspected. He said people will talk about its impact on the culture. When he was shot, it changed my culture. It made a striking change in the way I perceived things. This president was a hero to so many people who were my age. At the time, it was very significant. There were things going on around that. There was a second folk music rebirth, which was more commercial and it wasn’t as genuine and powerful as the first one which involved Pete Seeger and Carl Sandburg. The second one was the Kingston Trio and stuff that was palatable. That affected me and I listened to “Louie Louise” a hundred times. I was also listening to jazz.
I guess what got me interested in playing music was the Beatles. My brother Bob is seven years older than me. When the Beatles came out, I was 10 and he was 16 or 17 years old. He was buying the records and bringing them into the house, and I was listening to them — the Stones, the Kinks and the British Invasion bands. Before that, I was listening to Tony Bennett and Sinatra because that’s what my parents were playing. I was a little young for Elvis.
How did you and your brother both end up becoming musicians?
In our household, my mother played the piano and my aunt sang and played organ and piano. Her brother played stride piano. There was this musical thing that was repressed. My aunt was more forward about it because she was one of the featured singers in the Methodist church choir. My mother just played by ear.
I don’t know, man. Music was in the house and around. It was in the genes, so to speak.
At one point you played together in King of Hearts and then the Numbers Band. Talk about what that experience was like?
We started playing together in the original house we lived in in Cuyahoga Falls. I was much older and my mother brought me my first guitar when I was 15. I destroyed it because I put metal strings on it and was playing harmonica in a rack and doing Dylan songs. My brother brought drums. He wanted to be a drummer. He had this big drum. I don’t know where the hell he got it. It was something to get us out of the environment we were living in in the house. I went on and pursued it. He was too young to do anything but go to school and survive. Later on, he got very serious about his music. He was putting King of Hearts together when I wanted to start working with him. He joined me in 1973, I think. I thought it would be excellent to start working together, and I wanted him to come into the band with me.
We played together in the basement before either one of us were in bands. I would play drums and he would play guitar. I had quit a band and put together another band. He was complaining about the guys in the band he was in and I was fronting King of Hearts and feeling trapped by having to front the band. I wanted to learn a bunch of different instruments. That was my goal. I told him to join my band and we’d be the Numbers Band. He went back to his band and told them he wanted to hire me. They didn’t want to hire me so he started fronting my band and I went about my business. I’d sing some songs and he generally started fronting the band.
You befriended David Thomas of Pere Ubu. Talk about that relationship.
I remember the first time I met him. I got off the stage at the original Agora, and this guy comes up to me like he knows me. He had this great big hat on. He was a fast talking guy. I walked over and there was this giant standing there. I’m looking up at this guy. He was immense. He has long curly hair. The guy with the hat on said, “This is Crocus Behemoth.” I thought, “What a massive person.” He started coming to see the band and would show up occasionally. Tony Maimone was more outgoing. David would appear and disappear and Tony was personable. I got to know him before I got to know David. I knew him later.
By the time David started coming around, we were already formed and together and guitarist Peter Laughner turned David Thomas onto us. I remember going back to Cleveland to see Rocket from the Tombs at the Viking Saloon. I’m on a bunch of Pere Ubu recordings. I play harmonica on a bunch of the later stuff. It was probably 20 years ago.
Talk about the process of making your new solo album.
Tony Maimone and I are close friends. He would fill and play bass with us and sit in with the band. I call him my corner man, and I really mean it. He was there for me when other people were not. I was doing something even among my own band members that was not popular. My approach to things was not popular. Tony was always there for me. I went to Brooklyn where he now lives to stay with him for a few days. He talked me into coming into a studio and just wanted me to record as a favor to him. I was banging on the piano and did a few songs. I don’t like being in the studio that much. My wife was there and they got a big kick out of it. I was worried because I was getting older and there were some songs I had written that I had no record of, and if something happened to me they would be lost. Working with Tony was like working alone because I trust him completely and I’ve known him. It was like working alone. I started recording these songs that I thought I would lose, plus some other stuff. That’s what became the CD.
The songs on the record have been written over the years. I bought a Mac laptop I don’t know how many years ago it was and stumbled into Garageband and started fooling around. I recorded it all at my house. I just wanted to do it to see what it sounded like. I had some older new tunes and some older ones. I would play the song and start putting other instruments to it. I just forged ahead. Some of them were written in the moment and some of them I had prewritten.
Talk about the album’s artwork.
That chair was given to me by Norm from the Parkview. It’s one of the original chairs from the Parkview from when the place opened. I was admiring it. I was in the bar and he was there one night. I said, “That chair is amazing.” It’s a bentwood chair. I’ve never seen anything like it. He said I could take one home. I decided to call the CD Jackleg
, and I thought it would be cool to have the chair and my cane and me not in it.
It’s Photoshop. I was fooling around with Photoshop and I figured I’d do a drawing of a guy playing keyboards but the keyboards would be skyscrapers. There’s no real story behind it. It’s just a drawing I did.
What keeps you going after 40 years?
There are two things. One is that the people of Cleveland and Akron continue to enjoy the band. They come out and take the band at its face value. They put themselves out there. It’s a whole spectrum of people. Some people come because of the poetry and some people come because it’s blues and some people come because it’s abstract. All those things attract different people for different reasons. They really enjoy music and want to have a musical experience. They’re not into entertainment. They want a musical experience like the people who go to hear classical music or jazz. They want it to be exciting or humorous and all the things we are. They want to hear the great solos. Another thing is that they expect us to grow. They don’t want to hear the same songs all the time. They want to hear something new. They come up and talk to me. The people are part of the band. It’s become a huge thing. You want to be successful with the band but for different reasons than other people want to be successful. I want to have lots of people there to see the band because that means we’ll have an exciting evening. Everyone will benefit. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about some phony thing about being loved and having people adore you. I reject all that. The other reason I do it is because my life is a process of discovery. I’m a process-oriented person. I was working on a new song this morning. I have a lot to do. I like making new music and the guys I work with are waiting for it.
I’m 62 years old and started playing when I was 10. I think what keeps me going is that we still have a crowd and people still come out and hear it. That’s helpful. That hasn’t always been true. If you keep doing something long enough, you realize you’re getting better at it. If you quit, then you’re done. There have been multiple times that I have not wanted to do it. But I forged ahead and it gave me some great opportunities. Bob and I toured with David [Thomas] over in England. We did two tours through Holland in the ’90s. And I met some nice people through David [Thomas] and his Mirror Man play. We played in Los Angeles and I met Charles Thompson, who’s Frank Black. He had me on some recordings. I played on Conan O’Brien with him. Had I quit, none of that would have been happened. So why should I quit now? I tell you one thing, it’s not been the money.
Double CD Release Party with Robert Kidney and Jack Kidney, 8 p.m. Saturday, May 28, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10 ADV, $12 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.