Ben Grimes is having a seizure.
Right here beneath the glittering chandeliers of the Oak Bar in the Fairmont Hotel. The lead singer of the Golden Republic is lying on his side. His eyes are closed. His mouth is open. He is speaking fluent Mumble with the men from the Kansas City Fire Department who are hovering over his prone body.
“What’s your name?” one of them asks.
“How old are you, Ben?”
“Mmmmmm … 27.”
“How many drinks have you had tonight?”
“Ummm … two … or three.”
This is an outright lie. And not a particularly convincing one, either.
Over the past two hours, Grimes has downed six vodka-and-cranberry cocktails and smoked three hand-rolled Havana Moon cigarettes while he and his bandmates have discussed what it means to pick up the gauntlet of introducing Kansas City music to people and places of importance.
Clearly, the task comes with complications.
Not that having some smokes and a seizure is a typical Wednesday night. This is a rare occurrence, Grimes later says, brought on by an untimely confluence of too many drinks, too many cigarettes and not enough sleep.
He’s carted out of the Oak Bar in a wheelchair and taken to the hospital, where he is treated and released. A couple of weeks later, bass player Harry Anderson will be stricken with an ulcer, forcing the group to cancel a show for the first time. With a little rest and a little less self-pollution, though, they’ll be rocking toward stardom again in no time.
It’s not quite that simple.
Ultimate Fakebook. The Gadgits. Giant’s Chair. Casket Lottery. Creature Comforts. Shiner. They all came. They all saw. And now they’re all entombed in the vault of local bands that had their cup of coffee in the big leagues, only to discover it was laced with strychnine.
But this time is different.
At least that’s how it always appears in the middle of the ascent. Golden Republic did, after all, release its Astralwerks debut The Golden Republic on February 8. The group’s People EP — released last fall — did crack the CMJ charts. British tastemaker Steve Lamacq has been spinning the Golden Republic on his BBC radio show. The group does have one South by Southwest Music Festival appearance under its belt and another on the way. The band did snag a photo in Spin magazine. And the Golden Republic has toured with indie darlings Sondre Lerche, Nada Surf and Idlewild and will join Blur guitarist Graham Coxon on the road in the weeks ahead.
The palatial Fairmont Hotel looms above the Country Club Plaza as an opulent terminal where people who have made it catch a moment of respite from doing the terribly important things they do. Two hours before Grimes begins writhing on the carpet between the sushi bar and the cabinet of fine cigars, things are relatively sedate in the Oak Bar.
The room is filled mostly with bourgeois businessmen and manicured matrons. The women sit by the crackling fireplace, sipping sherry and gazing with boredom at the Brooks Brothers sitting beside them puffing on Montecristos and discussing grave matters over cell phones while their younger brethren stand at the bar swilling scotch and giving one another hearty, fraternal claps on the back.
And then there is the Golden Republic.
A surface appraisal of the band suggests they have been sent directly from Indie Rock Central Casting. The disheveled hair. The two-day stubble. The torn jeans, battered tennis shoes and thrift-store jackets. They look like any rock band.
But the group’s music is a rainbow coalition of sounds, borrowing from glam, new wave, disco, punk, soul, garage and classic rock.
“I love the idea of digesting such different, wonderful things and trying to make something new out of it,” Grimes says. “That’s what all good music does: Takes some really diverse, really interesting influences and puts it together to make one new thing that is special unto itself.”
When you listen to the Golden Republic, you probably hear bastard strains of Interpol, Nada Surf and the Killers. What they hear is an amalgam of Blur, Talking Heads and T. Rex.
“I think there’s a very blatant T. Rex thing,” Grimes says. “Electric Warrior taught me how I thought songs should be written … [and] thank God for the Blur ‘Song 2’ single, because that was the first time I discovered that new British invasion that pulled me out of grunge.”
Identity hasn’t been simple for the Golden Republic. Grimes and drummer Ryan Shank, who are first cousins, started the band as the People in Springfield, Missouri, in 1999.
“We had an all-black [clothing] thing,” Grimes says. “It was really retarded.”
Eventually, the group’s music and clothing matured enough to round out the current lineup upon their relocation to Kansas City. It wasn’t long before the group and its Basement Recordings EP began generating buzz beyond the region as the band evolved from playing in front of paltry crowds as an opening act at the Brick to headlining packed houses at the Hurricane and the Bottleneck.
New York City-based manager Ben Weber was handling operations for Ultimate Fakebook and Nada Surf when he heard Basement Recordings. He agreed to represent the People without ever meeting them.
“I always told myself I’d never do that,” Weber says. “But Ultimate Fakebook vouched for them, and I was really taken with their music.”
Weber was soon in negotiations with Astralwerks after Errol Kolosine — the label’s head of A&R — heard a demo and flew to Kansas City to check out the band. Kolosine was smitten.
“There isn’t a training manual for finding that thing,” Kolosine tells the Pitch. “It’s a gut check. If my gut tells me that I’m going to kill myself if somebody else signs them, then that’s how you know. And that only happens once in a great while.”
Absurd rumors had the label giving the band a $1 million budget to record its debut. But the fame, fortune and guest spots on Cribs weren’t forthcoming.
“Getting signed doesn’t prove anything,” Grimes says. “There’s been a lot of presumption that because we signed with a label, we have a lot of money. But … it’s not what people expect. We’re small fish.”
In a deceptively small aquarium. Astralwerks is what is called a major indie — home to Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx and the Beta Band — but one whose parent company, the EMI Group, includes some of the biggest barracudas in the industry.
“To be completely honest with you,” bassist Anderson says, “in the eyes of Capitol [Records] — which is where our contract is through — we’re nothing more than a tax write-off.”
And a year ago the company’s investment looked strained. Another group owned the rights to the group name the People, and the band was suddenly out an identity.
“If you have a kid and you name him Charles, and then when he’s 12 you find out you have to change his name, how do you rename a 12-year-old kid?” Grimes asks. “It’s a scary prospect to take the one thing that people immediately associate with your identity more than anything and make it something else, something new.”
But the dilemma proved liberating. It gave the band members a chance to forge a new name and a new identity. And they did. Several times.
The group headed to South by Southwest last March as the Populist for a show alongside “the” bands of the moment — the Thrills, the Walkmen, the Sleepy Jackson. Then the Populist decided to become Rabbit Fighter. But that didn’t sit, either. So they held a rename-the-group contest before settling on the Golden Republic.
The band has graciously agreed to give me an intimate preview of The Golden Republic at its practice space, a small room in an otherwise abandoned building wedged between the Youth Front community center and the Woodside Tennis and Health Club.
But I’m not supposed to enter the room until the band has had at least two hours to brush off the rust after five weeks away from the stage. The four members spent the holidays being domestic — all of them are married — playing poker and working on material for the next album.
Daylight is fading beyond the room’s plaid curtains. It’s miserably cold outside, but the space is plenty warm within the clutter of instruments, amps, speakers and cords snaking across the ragged carpet. The band plugs in. Howling reverb fills the room. Shank slaps his drumsticks together 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4 …
The world explodes with the thumping introduction to “She’s So Cold.”
Drums. Bass. Guitar whine. Pause. Then …
Where did our love go, Grimes sings. I think you put it in the fire …
This is the money song. The anthem provokes strangers to howl along with the chorus ten times out of ten, according to Grimes. But The Golden Republic boasts several tracks — “You Almost Had It,” “NYC,” “Robots” and “Rows of People” in particular — that sound familiar enough to be accessible but resonate clearly enough to be memorable a week later.
Striking that balance — attractive to both discerning critics and pop music consumers — could mean the difference between a solid first album and a breakout.
“The growth curve on this band blows my mind,” Kolosine says. “The album is a remarkable achievement for a band on its first album.”
The quality of The Golden Republic is a credit to the band, but the task of creating a potential break-out record was aided by producer Peter Katis’ steady hand.
You know Interpol — hipster victims of heavy petting by critics and heavy painting by gothic stylists. Well, Katis is the man behind Interpol’s Turn On the Bright Lights and Antics. And when the Get Up Kids came home singing his praises, the Golden Republic and Astralwerks knew they had their man.
In fact, The Golden Republic was all but finished last February, but Astralwerks delayed its release because neither the band nor the label was ready to give it the support it needed.
“We’re not in the business of whoring our artists out for any opportunity,” Kolosine says. “It’s very important for the band to have credibility in the long term, because they are a credible band.”
The band also needed to strengthen its road legs. So Astralwerks released the People EP last fall, and the Golden Republic scored a slot opening for Sondre Lerche and acting as his backing band during a seven-week national tour. Though the band had already clocked plenty of mileage on its own with the likes of Nada Surf and Idlewild, this was a whole new world. Dalliances with the coasts — the proving grounds for Midwest acts — had previously been met with indifference.
“I was scared to death of L.A.,” Grimes admits. “I was so nervous the first night before we walked onstage … but it turned out to be one of the best shows of the entire tour.”
There were others. San Francisco. Minneapolis. Austin, Texas. New York City. Each provided a huge confidence boost for a group accustomed to expecting the worst.
“We tend to be kind of a nervous band,” Grimes says. “We’re sort of like that girlfriend that wants to make sure that you’ll like everything. Before we go on tour, it’s ‘Are people going to like us? Are we going to be OK?’ And when so many people grabbed on to it and responded so positively … we were all kind of shocked.”
College radio stations began clamoring for the band to do in-studio performances. The People made the CMJ charts.
The band’s performance with Lerche at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City blew enough minds to land a photo of Grimes in Spin, along with a glowing review in the magazine’s online edition: “The Golden Republic … proved that places outside the Empire State also have good music.”
“I thought it was magnificent,” says Nada Surf lead singer Matthew Caws. “They were pros — four completely different but completely complementary characters coming together to make something great.”
Arranging interviews in the Fairmont is a subtle way for Astralwerks to project that the Golden Republic has indeed arrived, but the band belongs at the Twin City Tavern.
All four sit in a cramped corner booth at Twin City, taking cigarette drags between pulls off Boulevard bottles and bites of cheeseburgers and chicken fingers. The bar is smoky, gritty and crowded with Everymen gorging on cheap beer and artery-clogging pub grub. Most of the patrons are fixated on the NFL playoff game on the televisions above the bar. Contact sports don’t particularly resonate with most musicians.
“Must have been a base hit,” Shank jokes when the bar erupts after a touchdown.
The real world is high school Darwinism magnified. The politics. The factions. The insiders and the outsiders. It’s not hard to imagine where the band members once fit in that hierarchy.
“The joke of high school is that everybody who was popular then is driving a bulldozer now,” Grimes says. “And everybody who wasn’t popular is writing the great American novel or making an amazing album or painting a great work of art.”
But the perils and insecurities hardly cease after 12th grade. That’s why Grimes second-guesses too much, why Shank worries about pleasing everyone, why keyboardist and guitar player Kenn Jankowski drinks Michelob Ultra.
“What I really liked about them was they were smart, but guileless,” Caws says. “They were sans pretense. It’s really easy for bands to have an attitude — and they do have attitude in their music — but they didn’t front in any way.”
All four have day jobs. Anderson is an electrician. Shank is a waiter at P.F. Chang’s. Grimes builds circuit boards. Jankowski delivers sandwiches for Jimmy John’s, getting to work in a car that runs on duct tape and a prayer, when it runs.
Astralwerks contracts, Interpol producers, CMJ appearances, Spin exposure and BBC airplay don’t mean much when your idea of an extravagant green-room bounty is free Red Bull and cigarettes. “You would be shocked at how well behaved we are,” Anderson says. “We’re kind of pussies. We play video games in the van.”
“But,” Shank interjects, “one night we stayed up until six in the morning playing video games. Now that is rock and roll.”
The band is bemused and disoriented by what little trappings of success they have had outside Kansas City’s humble confines, including fans on the Sondre Lerche tour clamoring for signatures.
“It was a little weird,” Jankowski admits. “We were doing a ton of pictures and autographs, and I was like, ‘Um … I work at Jimmy John’s.'”
But it wasn’t just fawning teens in Boston and Seattle paying homage. A label executive told the band about a visit Nicolas Godin of the acclaimed French duo Air made to the Astralwerks offices in New York. Godin was reportedly walking down a hallway when he overheard “NYC” emanating from an office. He stopped and stuck his head in the doorway.
“What izz diss? Diss izz what music izz supposed to sound like,” Godin supposedly said before continuing on his way.
“We don’t know if we actually believe it,” Jankowski says, laughing. “But it’s a good story.”
They have no expectations that copies of The Golden Republic will fly off record-store shelves. But they do allow themselves a few modest dreams.
“I want to see it in Best Buy,” Anderson says. “I want to take a picture of it sitting in the rack next to … I don’t know … Goldfrapp.”
Then again, humility may be a necessary commodity for Kansas City musicians whose aspirations are tethered to a sprawling bar scene, skeptical audiences and vast scrums of artists jostling for position.
“Kansas City is tough,” Anderson says. “The only band in Kansas City I can think of that has consistently pulled a lot of people to shows is … what are they called … Everything But Joey?”
Anything But Joey. Which played its final show four days before the release of The Golden Republic.
“I think it’s just the way Kansas City — and I’m sure a lot of other cities — works,” says James Hoskins, lead singer for Elevator Division. “Bands aren’t appreciated as much locally until they are appreciated in other cities first … [and then] anytime a band gets noticed, there is an inevitable backlash.”
The Golden Republic has yet to bear such wrath, perhaps because it supports local music so fervently. The band credits groups such as Ultimate Fakebook and the Get Up Kids for opening the door while also championing Elevator Division, the Belles and Ghosty.
“Bands like Elevator Division make me feel guilty that we are signed to Astralwerks,” Grimes says. “They are a better band.”
But it’s the Golden Republic that is poised to represent the region.
“A band like the Golden Republic could really galvanize a place like Kansas City,” Kolosine says. “Look at VHS or Beta from Indianapolis or My Morning Jacket in Louisville. That local environment is what makes music special.”
But the Golden Republic has to hit the road and hit it hard if the band, its music and its hometown have any chance of staying above the radar.
“Bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü made people find out who they were,” manager Weber says. “Same thing with the Get Up Kids. You get in the van and make things happen by playing great shows night after night after night.”
The band celebrates the release of The Golden Republic at home this weekend. Then the van becomes home. Phoenix. Los Angeles. Portland, Oregon. Ames, Iowa. The Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco. A South by Southwest showcase in Austin. Then the Graham Coxon tour.
What lies beyond that is uncertain. Maybe the band makes it. Maybe not. But don’t be fooled by the Golden Republic’s we’re-just-happy-to-be-here poker faces. They do care which of the two it is.