The late-afternoon sun is still streaming through the windows of Chicago's Beat Kitchen when So Many Dynamos launches into the jittery "We Vibrate, We Do." It is mid-April and the quartet is ten days away from finishing a cross-country tour with its pals HORSE the Band.
Vocalist Aaron Stovall stands center stage behind a two-keyboard setup, shaking his head like a mad scientist presiding over a delicate experiment. Guitarists Ryan Wasoba and Griffin Kay flank him on either side two flailing bookends throwing their bodies around in time to drummer Norm Kunstel's propulsive beats.
They're dressed like bona fide indie-rock nerds, and all but Kunstel sport mops of shaggy hair and glasses. Wasoba resembles a mischievous Rivers Cuomo of Weezer (who's one of his idols) and draws cheers when he admits his shoes came from Target. Kay, meanwhile, bravely favors a Mark McGwire T-shirt.
Maybe because the Edwardsville band is nearly back on its home turf (or because it's played Chicago eight times in the past year), there's a decent crowd and an encouraging vibe. "You're friendly," Wasoba tells the audience after "Search Party," a song with a dissonant trombone solo, earns a warm reception. "That's really nice. A lot of people are like, 'What? They're not metal? They're not hardcore? What the fuck?'"
The Dynamos' music is difficult to pigeonhole. Surrealistic, smart lyrics anchor vibrant tunes, which combine speedy punk tempos, post-punk's abrasive riffs and prog-rock's intricate arrangements. Many describe the band as "math-rock" a spazzy style of music marked by abrupt tempo shifts, discordant tones and unorthodox rhythms.
Such variety guarantees that So Many Dynamos rarely lands tours with kindred-genre bands. In fact, its current tourmates include the Pantera-like metal band Light This City and bruising growlers The Number Twelve Looks Like You. Even HORSE the Band is an odd fit; it's a California group that screams like banshees over tinny video-game synths. But that doesn't mean the Dynamos are intimidated, observes HORSE's keyboardist, Erik Engstrom. "They blow some of the heavy bands we play with out of the water," he says, "in terms of how crushing they can sound live."
That the band members create such intricate music is impressive considering their young ages: All are 23, save for drummer Kunstel, who's 22. The caliber of musicians supporting the Dynamos' endeavors is even more impressive. In fact, its biggest champion right now might be Chris Walla, guitarist/keyboardist for one of indie rock's biggest bands, Death Cab for Cutie.
But Walla is also a well-respected studio guru who's worked with other popular indie rockers such as the Decemberists. In July, he and the Dynamos decamped to San Francisco's Tiny Telephone studio and Walla's Portland, Oregon, studio/house to make a record.
The sun's still bright as the Dynamos tear through their half-hour set's final song, "Progress." Twitching electronica knob-twiddling gives way to two metal breakdowns, replete with all three members on the front line head-banging in slow-motion. (Stovall's dark-rimmed glasses fall off at one point from the exertion.) The song morphs between a shimmery, Talking Heads-meets-!!! disco-dance interlude, and tangles of crazy rhythmic spider-webs.
After the set, Wasoba jumps behind the Dynamos' small section of the merchandise table, which is dwarfed by the colorful array of T-shirts offered by other bands. Several kids one sporting a patchy, blond-and-brown mohawk, another wearing a T-shirt by the screamo band Atreyu buy CDs. A slight, androgynous boy buys a T-shirt featuring an anteater snorting a line of ants that spells out "So Many Dynamos."
Wasoba talks animatedly to everyone who stops by, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. At the end of the night, he entices people to buy a copy of the Dynamos' 2006 album, Flashlights, by holding up a copy of the CD as if he were a QVC salesman. There's something charmingly earnest about his sales pitches. Unlike other touring bands trying to scare up some cash for their next meal, Wasoba's appeals reveal no ulterior motive.
Robbie Skrocki, owner of Seattle-based Skrocki Records (which released both Flashlights and the Dynamos' 2004 debut full-length, When I Explode) recognized this lack of guile from the first time he met the band. "They know how to work the business better than anybody I know, without even knowing what they're doing," he says with a laugh. "At least, at that point in time. They know better now.
"[But back then] they didn't know that they were saying and doing all the right things, to not only get fans, but also get people to want to bend over backwards to help them like myself." And also like Walla, who has so much confidence in the band's potential that he's devoting his time and money to produce, engineer and mix the Dynamos' third album even though the group is currently unsigned.
"There's so much of what they're doing right now that is so intensely familiar to me," Walla says. "They remind me in so many ways of Death Cab for Cutie when we were 23. They're much further along than we were musically, I think. But in terms of how they're living, and what they're trying to accomplish, and how they're trying to accomplish it it's really, really similar."
Walla continues: "They're not a particularly cool band. They're not going to be a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. They're not going to be the next MySpace phenom. But they are going to make a killer record, and people are going to make copies of it for one another and go, 'Oh my God, have you heard this? This is really cool.'"
The Revolutionary Hydra is a quirky, lo-fi indie-rock band from Seattle and had Griffin Kay not become one of its biggest fans, So Many Dynamos' career trajectory might have been drastically different.
"The few fans the Revolutionary Hydra has, they're rabid fans," says Robbie Skrocki, who's also the Revolutionary Hydra's drummer. "And when somebody becomes a fan, we know about it." With a laugh, he adds, "We can feel that the force shifted somehow across the country, and a force shifted in St. Louis. That's how I met Griffin." Kay wanted to hand out Revolutionary Hydra mix CDs at a March 2002 Death Cab for Cutie/Dismemberment Plan concert, figuring attendees would also like the band. He e-mailed Skrocki for permission. "I said, 'Sure, on one condition: Your mission at that show is to find Chris Walla, hand him a copy of it, and say, 'We miss you at home,' something like that," Skrocki remembers.
Kay did just that. "He showed up and he had made homemade Hydra sampler CDs, with photocopied covers," Walla recalls. "And he'd made like 30 of them. He was just handing them out to people in the parking lot. It was amazing."
Wasoba was also at that show. Back then, he and Norm Kunstel were in the band Saving Boy Wonder. Both knew Aaron Stovall and Ryan Ballew, who were in another group, Children's Audio. When the two bands dissolved later that summer, the four of them formed So Many Dynamos.
The band began playing local shows at now-defunct venues such as Rocket Bar, the Hi-Pointe and Sally T's. Especially memorable was its tenth gig a near-disastrous opening slot for the Postal Service, the electro-pop outfit of Death Cab's Ben Gibbard. Both of Stovall's keyboards broke which meant he had to learn bass lines to replace his synth parts on the fly.
When So Many Dynamos embarked on its first tour in June 2003 a week after Kunstel graduated from high school Kay tagged along as its merch guy. His relationship with Skrocki helped the band land two gigs, including one at a bowling alley in Bellingham, Washington. "I remember halfway through the first song, my jaw dropped," Skrocki says of that night. "I remember what music was like in the late '80s for me when I was the same age as these kids. They completely transported me back in time a good fifteen years earlier, to me experiencing all this new music for the first time, and being in shock and awe of it all. I fell in love with them instantly."
But Skrocki wasn't the only one instantly entranced. At that time, the Dynamos had just released an EP called Are We Not Drawn Onward to New Era? This recording caught the attention of Chris Walla, who liked Onward enough to express interest in producing When I Explode. Scheduling conflicts prevented that, but they all kept in touch. Meanwhile, the band released Explode in June 2004. Jason Caddell, guitarist of Washington D.C. soul-prog-punks the Dismemberment Plan, mixed the album.
Caddell's presence was both a blessing and a curse for the Dynamos. The association with the Dismemberment Plan gave Explode credibility, with Spin describing the record as "woozy, angular noise punk." But due to similarities in sound between the two bands, the Dynamos were often dismissed as D-Plan clones a reputation that lingers to this day. "The very first time I heard [the comparison], I was flattered," Kunstel says. "It's not something we really collectively have ever strived for or anything. It definitely got old." (For the record, Dismemberment Plan vocalist Travis Morrison says, "We were never as metal and punk as So Many Dynamos can be, and I don't think they have the secret hippie-Southern-rock and R&B leanings the Plan did.")
Ryan Ballew left the Dynamos two months after Explode came out; Kay replaced him. By 2005 everyone but Stovall was attending Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Tired of trying to balance both school and the band, the Dynamos collectively dropped out of college to focus full-time on their music.
When they started touring heavily, the Dynamos discovered that the conventional wisdom about how to grow a fan base (play a strong gig in a city, return there multiple times, and each time more people will show up) wasn't exactly true. "We played a show in Denver, a farewell show for this band we were friends with," Wasoba says. "There were 500 people there. We come back by ourselves a month and a half later, and we play to eight people. That's when I realized, 'Dude, this is not easy for anybody.'"
But So Many Dynamos found a way to distinguish itself from the touring masses: its compulsively listenable 2006 album Flashlights. Reviews were favorable. In fact, Punknews.org called it "one of last year's overlooked gems," while the influential music Web site Pitchfork awarded it an impressive 7.3 (out of 10) rating. Wasoba is pragmatic about such exposure. "Bands get seven-point-blank [ratings] every day," he says. "If people really were affected by the Pitchfork reviews as much as people think they are, then every day, every person would be checking out five bands. And that doesn't happen."
Neither Skrocki nor the band know exact figures, but Flashlights has sold a respectable amount; Wasoba estimates the total at 4,500 copies. According to the Dynamos' radio promotion company, Team Clermont, Flashlights also appeared on the CMJ college-radio charts for five weeks, peaking at No. 106.
In any case, So Many Dynamos isn't concerned about numbers. "When you get the weekly report in your e-mail, it's like, 'Oh, that's kind of cool,'" Stovall says. "But that's about as far as it goes." Still, the writer of the Pitchfork review probably best explains what makes So Many Dynamos' music resonate: "What initially strikes me as impressive about Flashlights is how in control of the chaos the band seems. In addition, there are curveballs galore, where the band turns a song on its ear, breaking into something completely different for seconds at a time."
Says Walla: "The hippie-aura energy around the record it wants you to like it. The band members love pop records. They love Weezer. And for all the time changes and tricks that they turn, they want to write pop songs. They want to write pop songs that melt your heart." His enthusiastic reaction to the album marked a turning point in his relationship with So Many Dynamos. While Walla was always a supporter, Wasoba says that after Flashlights, he started going out of his way to help them.
"I felt like the band's caretaker for a number of years," says Robbie Skrocki. "Chris is their caretaker now, and he's going to help take them to the next level whatever that level happens to be."
It's nearing eight on a Tuesday night in mid-April at the Highdive in Champaign, Illinois. The venue is a dark-hued, cavernous club, sandwiched between a public parking lot and a bustling biker bar off the college town's main drag.
Wasoba, Kay and Stovall are at the bar watching a replay of that afternoon's Cardinals game. The mood is subdued, perhaps due to tour weariness or sickness. (Wasoba's morning cocktail includes Emergen-C, DayQuil and mentholated cough drops.) The band is relieved to be in its home state ("Chillinois," as they affectionately call it), because it hasn't been home since late February.
Complicating things further, the Dynamos' pay from this night's gig depends solely on ticket sales at the door and, as stage call nears, one can almost count the number of paying customers on two hands. Still, when the group takes the stage, Wasoba ever the optimist cheerfully says, "We're called So Many Dynamos. We're from St. Louis, Missouri."
The small audience allows them the freedom to let loose as when Wasoba impishly asks the club to crank up the fog machines during "How High the Moon." Guitarist Kay all but disappears in the haze. Only Stovall remains visible. While similarly shrouded in the fog, he's backlit by purple lights, giving the stage an eerie, David Bowie-as-Ziggy Stardust vibe. This version of "Moon" is, accordingly, slower and much more prog-influenced.
This surreal environment extends to "When We Were Machines." The band normally goes dead still for 30 (or so) seconds during the song, their heads bowed, acting like robots rudely unplugged by their creators. But on this night, Wasoba looks up and grins. "We're just going to all drink beer. Chug it." The rest of the band murmurs its assent. And guzzle they do but still finish the song perfectly.
"We were scared, we thought it was going to be uncomfortable one of those shows where we play to nine people," Wasoba says at one point, visibly relieved. "It's not. So thanks." Even the bartenders are impressed. "I like these guys," one says to the other.
The band's familial bond and genuine affection for one another keeps it grounded and positive, especially on nights like this. It doesn't hurt that the group members share a similar sense of humor, one that's gently sarcastic, but quick-witted and whip-smart. (Stovall recently acquired a pet crab. Its name is Rangoon.)
"They're a band of brothers," Walla says. "They have this charisma that....when you're around them, you enjoy being around them. When you leave, or when they leave or whatever, you feel a little bit diminished. Like, 'Oh, I wish I was still hanging out with them.'" Sean Nelson, vocalist for the melodic literate-pop band Harvey Danger, had the same reaction when the two groups played together on Harvey Danger's fall 2006 reunion tour. "They made me want to be in a band again which is funny, because I was in a band again," he says. "Seeing these guys, who were just so psyched to be there, was great for all of us. I know we all got inspired by that."
That's part of the secret to how the Dynamos are able to tour so much: It has made and stayed friends with the bands it meets on the road, leading to opportunities to trade and share out-of-town shows. For a band trying to advance its career beyond its hometown, having such a strong network is essential.
But it's not as though this constant touring is lucrative. After finishing the HORSE tour and before heading out to San Francisco to record, the band members picked up day jobs to pay the bills: from Blimpie employee (Kay) and barista (Stovall), to occasional guitar-lesson teacher (Wasoba) and wedding DJ (Kunstel, who goes by DJ Clayton). Wasoba and Kunstel also participate in medical-research studies for cash.
Plus, spending so much time on the road can be frustrating. They had gear stolen during a show in Seattle last fall and two days later, their van died. To avoid canceling its whole fall tour, the band spent three weeks touring in Wasoba's dad's minivan. "When all that happened, it really brought out....how much supporters of us cared," Wasoba says. "I almost think that's a positive thing in a way it really brought to the surface, 'Wow, these people really care about us.'"
These relationships proved especially valuable in late July, as the band was driving home from Portland, Oregon. Stovall was driving when one of the van's back tires exploded near Lincoln, Nebraska. "We were going 80 in a 75, totally with the flow of traffic, and at that speed Aaron had a hard time controlling the vehicle after the blow-out," Wasoba wrote on the band's recording blog (dynamosrecording.blogspot.com), which, until then, had been a lighthearted studio chronicle.
"We drove across the median towards oncoming traffic, and as soon as we hit the westbound part of the highway the van flipped over. We did a complete flip and luckily landed right back on our wheels and drove into the grass on the other side of the highway.... Our van is completely totaled." The band's gear and personal belongings survived intact. So did the band members themselves, save for some back pain Stovall and Kunstel experienced.
But a few days after arriving back in St. Louis, Wasoba grows uncharacteristically quiet when asked how he's feeling. "It's weird," he says. "There's so many different ways to think about it, that I'm just trying to not think about it. It hasn't totally sunk in, and I don't know if it will. It's just cheesy, 'We're lucky to be alive!' I feel so lame thinking it or saying it, but it's true, and I'm trying to kind of put it past, I guess."
It's the first Thursday in May, and the Dynamos have just driven fifteen hours straight from Austin, Texas, to play with the Humanoids, Target Market and the Bureau.
This Cicero's gig seems fueled by adrenaline from fatigue, with relief and joy at finally reaching home thrown in for good measure. Tempos are faster (think of a roller coaster out of control), stage banter is more sarcastic and the exuberant set feels like a train going off the rails. Accordingly, the crowd is dancing, rowdier, and much more into the set. "Their songs are very busy," Sean Nelson observes. "And you're never allowed to say the word 'funk' in indie rock, but there is a little bit of that. Their music is so rhythmic. It's more rhythmic than it is melodic. It's not like they're not verbal, 'cause their songs are super verbal. But they're more about the beat, which I think is really cool."
A completed demo of a new song from the July sessions with Walla supports his hypothesis. Much more danceable than past tunes, the song starts with stereo-surround keyboards that shoot like laser beams. Gradually, spacey synths begin to orbit around galloping drums and corrugated guitar barbs, until everything coalesces and whirls around itself like a flashing arcade game.
Lyrics for another new song Wasoba published on the studio blog are heartbreakingly moving: "Glaciers will melt but we'll be all right/We still have novels and songs to write/We'll go on living just like we do/We'll keep evolving if we have to."
"As we're working on stuff," Walla says, "every now and again somebody will sing a melody, or a couple of lines from one of the songs, and it's like, 'Oh my God, this is the shit you're just tossing off, that you're writing on the backs of napkins?'"
Ideally, says Walla, Barsuk the label that nurtured Death Cab for Cutie for so many years before it signed with a major label would want to sign So Many Dynamos. But he's not sure, and neither is the band, which seems almost bashful about having to sell itself at the risk of coming across as insincere or disingenuous. "We've always tried to find the balance between wanting to succeed and wanting to 'make it,'" Wasoba says. "There's a difference. I'm personally afraid of coming off as we're trying to 'make it.' I'd never thought I'd say, 'Yeah, we're shopping a record around,'" he goes on, his voice slipping into a parody of an arrogant rock star. Kay chimes in: "It seems like a douche-y thing to do. It's schmooze-y."
"We have feet in doors," Wasoba says. "It's really weird. We've always been blissfully separated from [the industry side of things]. We've always been proud of how far away from that we are.
"But a label might want us. They might see it being worthwhile for them to put out our record. That's what's weird. We'd be dumb not to try it at this point."
This doesn't mean that the Dynamos are afraid of progress. "They're ambitious in the right way," says Nelson. "They're ambitious to improve and find out what their life in music might be like rather than ambitious to get rich, or get even indie-famous. They just want to play."
Indeed, the Dynamos' definition of success revolves around the concept of maintaining its integrity and establishing artistic freedom. Above all, they know they have to delegate some responsibility so they can focus on their music but not lose so much control that it compromises their creativity. In fact, Wasoba cites Walla's band, Death Cab for Cutie, as one of his industry role models. "Even if you take their music out of it, they're an amazing model of an independent band," he says. "Having followed them for what they've done, they've always been true [to themselves]. We're really inspired by the way they run their band.
"My personal definition of success within the context of this band, is....not trying to not be successful, but not trying to shoot ourself in the foot by being too D.I.Y.," Wasoba continues. "Having your ethic and sticking to your ethic....it doesn't have to be that strict. But being as concerned with what you're putting out not just music, but the vibe you're putting out, what you're putting out to people."
At the May Cicero's gig, however, such concerns about the future are far away. Like the Chicago show, its set ends with a positively electric version of "Progress." Wasoba stops and addresses the crowd after the unhinged song grinds to a halt.
"Thanks, we're So Many Dynamos," he announces. "Go home."