Numbers knows this all too well. The San Francisco trio began seven years ago with a who-cares trashy approach to amphetamine synthesizer punk -- total neo-no wave. But the group's latest disc, the contemplative Now You Are This, released on the Kill Rock Stars label, sees the band slower and colder than ever before.
"It's kind of a mellower music," says synth-dude Eric Landmark, phoning from California. "We were just interested in doing that kind of stuff. Even on our first record, that song 'Prison Life' was pretty much in that style already. We just emphasized that more than the other stuff."
"Prison Life" aside, Numbers' 2002 debut, Numbers Life, clocked in at a puny 19 minutes and spazzed out with fidgety songs, Casio finger slams, and fanatical yelps. The vocals and drums of the gorgeous Indra Dunis served as the band's focal point, while Landmark whammied on cheap keyboards and Dave Broekema raved it up with herky-jerk guitar.
Fans took Numbers' start-stop rhythms and buzzing textures as an excuse to jump about and totally freak out. For a couple of years, the band (along with Deerhoof, Erase Errata, the Coachwhips, and Total Shutdown) made up a West Coast scene full of kids wearing primary colors and shouting "hella" every three words.
Critics of the band -- record nerds with massive collections -- complained repeatedly that Numbers wasn't unique; name checks included Devo, Gang of Four, the Pop Group, and Suicide. At Pitchfork, indie rock's premier webzine, tiny wars were waged between the band's supporters and detractors. But those Pitchfork nerds never realized that the band's young and shaggy fan base never cared about cred.
Whether you liked the band or not, it was always clear that Numbers invented nothing. They did, however, inject some much-needed destructive glee into a hand-wringing indie-rock world that was about as fun as the cobwebby insides of a mummified corpse. That world was (and still is) inundated by comatose folkies, math-rock noodlers, bowling-shirt retro-hacks, Germanic mixmasters, spiritually uplifting rappers, and so on. If Numbers had a genius, it's that they managed to ignore such drivel.
After several EPs, including a split release with critical darlings Erase Errata, Numbers dropped Death, a compilation of techno remixes of tracks from Numbers Life. Fans who hung their hats on Numbers' pogo beats -- fans of primal no wave bands like the Contortions and Screamers -- couldn't follow the band this far.
Numbers' sophomore full-length, In My Mind All the Time, finally came out in 2004. But by then the kids were starting to smoke weed and listen to Devendra instead. Although the band's skittering energy remained high, the album's release didn't cause a similar critical controversy.
Then, with the 2005 release of We're Animals, Numbers' sound began to chill. The basic elements remained: extremely simple songs punctuated by tight blanks of silence, vintage electronic organ, etc. But in defiance of the title, the band muzzled its primitive bite, focusing instead on shimmering guitars and light, sing-along vocals.
There exist a number of possible reasons for the band's softened edges. Hell, maybe their fans moved out to the 'burbs and got hitched?
"The reaction is mellower," Landmark says of the band's fan base. But he also points to key changes in instrumentation. "I got a second keyboard, so I was getting more synth-heavy and wanted to do more of that," he adds. "It's just a mono synth. But it is famous for having low-end sounds. So I got one of those and used that do to basslines with. And then with the Moog I did chords. I think going to that style made the keyboard part of the band more heavy and droney."
More answers can be found on Now You Are This, wherein the band investigates its trademark on-off stutter and one-chord hypnotism from a pensive perspective.
But without the cocaine pajama-party vibe, Numbers currently has a lot more in common with America's 80,000 other indie guitar bands. And so the cynical questions begin to be asked: Did the critics get to them? Are they trying to hop from neo-no wave to some neo-shoegaze bandwagon?
"We tend to be really democratic in the band. We all write the songs together, and everybody writes their own parts and stuff," answers Landmark graciously. "As far as what we're writing, everybody has to be excited about it. And it's kind of hard to say what's in the future. We just want to be excited about what we're doing. We wrote all these songs quite a while ago now at this point, but we've been trying not to play too many shows so that when we go out on tour, they're still kind of fresh. I think we're all just focusing in on having a good tour."
If Numbers is going to figure out how to win our hearts with stylish songwriting instead of primeval pounce, they do have one thing going for them. As they continue to move from the kids' to the adults' table, Numbers knows that grown-ups need their modern music too.