Picture a small living room in a small Berkeley apartment, the kind a budget-conscious Cal student fills with CDs, empty beer bottles, and a chair from IKEA. Now picture it completely crammed with people and a band, and you have a typical Friday night for Numbers. On one recent night, the band was playing a friend's birthday party and people were squished chest to back, shoulder to shoulder, all pogoing in unison to quirky-yet-droning keyboard beats, muffled and distorted female vocals, drums, and guitar. Band members were being groped; shirts were voluntarily and involuntarily ripped off of the males in the crowd. And then there were the painted-on mustaches, all smeared from sweat and gulping lukewarm cans of Bud.
Audience members having fun in the Bay Area? It seemed an anomaly. After all, this is a region infamous for its mannequin crowds of unmoving, staring hipsters. But not only does it seem that some fun people are finally going to see bands, but a new crop of local groups are actually -- gulp -- inciting suspiciously dance-like reactions from people.
Numbers consists of Indra Dunis on vocals and drums, Eric Landmark on keyboards, and Dave Broekema on guitar. The trio's sound is varied, but a dancey New Wave undercurrent holds it all together. The band is experimental but highly listenable, artsy but not fartsy. Distorted vocals are buried alongside the instruments instead of laying atop the mix. Guitar strings are most often hit or struck instead of strum or plucked -- "I just whack at it so it sounds bad," jokes Broekema. Landmark's Moog synthesizer bangs out synthpop-ish chords that sound like a guitar tuned to an odd key. He also plays an instrument that he created called the Buzzerk, which is composed of various buzzers he found at electronics store and sounds like a metal buzzsaw cutting into a block of aluminum.
The Bay Area has long been a hotbed for offbeat "arty" musicians, but few have been as successful at combining all the weirdness alongside catchy 2/4 beats as its current crop of so-called "No Wave" bands like Erase Errata, Pink & Brown, Deerhoof, the Coachwhips, and Numbers. Oddly enough, most of these bands developed separately from one another, and it wasn't until they all started playing out that the band members began to see similarities in attitude and influences. "One of the great things about the bands here is that they all seem like they're doing their own thing," Landmark says. "There's no identifiable sound, yet somehow it all goes together. It's a general attitude."
Technically, No Wave isn't a sound but a sensibility. The term originally came from some late-'70s and early-'80s bands from New York's Lower East Side that weren't doing punk or new wave, but couldn't really be described as arena rock. The Contortions, Glenn Branca, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (which featured Lydia Lunch) are usually associated with the term. These days it's come to mean any band that says "no" to whatever else is going on musically, a nod to the Midwest No Wave/Noise Rock scene of the '90s, which was centered in Chicago. Bands such as Scissor Girls, Lake of Dracula, and US Maple couldn't find opening slots with any established Chicago bands, so they created their own circle. It was from this scene that the members of Numbers got their start, moving out here about five years ago from nearby Madison, Wisconsin. "This place kind of reminds me of that scene," Dunis says. "But this scene is friendlier and more enthusiastic. People are less interested in being cool, and more interested in trying to have a good time. ... People really go bananas here."
It wasn't always like that. When the band first arrived, its members' excited notions about San Francisco's music scene were all but squelched. "It's such a beautiful city, and it seemed like a happening place, musicwise," Dunis says. "But when we got here, it really wasn't. It's only in the last few years that it's really come alive." Numbers arrived during the height of the dot-com boom, which is -- fairly or unfairly -- blamed for destroying the Bay's music scene by pushing out poor musicians. Little did its members know that pockets of likeminded musicians were practicing and getting ready to beg for gigs or creating their own performance spaces. Punk performance-art bands such as Pink & Brown (one wears an all-pink bodysuit and mask, the other a brown one) were developing a following. Erase Errata was playing and hosting shows at Club Hot, its Oakland warehouse space. The female four-piece eventually encouraged Numbers to play out as well. "A lot of bands just cropped up at once," Dunis says. "The enthusiasm of the scene here has really helped a lot. People seem to have fun; that makes me have fun, lets me sort of relax and let down my barriers."
Dunis says her "painfully shy" nature has been somewhat overcome by the support of her colleagues. Though she laughs at the comparison, just like Karen Carpenter, she seems to have come out of her shell by parking herself behind a drum kit and singing. Her lyrics concern everyday topics such as driving to work, having a job, buying things, using intercoms. "We are into the concept of writing songs about the ordinary, other than something that's really crazy or extraordinary. Other bands write about things that are more intense, about life or whatever. ... We are very dry, not particularly emotional. But we are still having a good time."
As for the No Wave designation, the band seems to prefer the moniker its fans have conferred upon it: No Wave Disco Punk. Yes kids, it's sweepin' the Bay, and Numbers even has to turn down gigs these days. A 12-inch shared with the band Emergency will be out soon, and Kid606's label Tigerbeat6 will be releasing Numbers' debut full-length at the end of this month.
Astute music aficionados may also notice an increasing number of painted-on mustaches donning the tender upper lips of the Bay Area's youth. "It's becoming a more frequent thing," Broekema laughs.
We should all just be happy that people are finally being freaky at shows, faux facial hair or not.
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