The Numbers Band, a revered Ohio band whose adherents include Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, Anton Fier, Greil Marcus and Chrissie Hynde, has been at it for 48 years. Filmmaker JP Olsen interviews lead singer Robert Kidney prior to the release of his short documentary on the band, BIG PARADISE.
I was maybe 16 when I first saw The Numbers Band (aka 15-60-75) at JB’s in Kent, Ohio (thank you, fake ID). This would have been 1980 or 1981. At the time, The Numbers Band and its lead singer and main songwriter, Robert Kidney, had already been playing longer than I’d been alive. Locally revered as a live act, the shorthand description of their style was blues. But seeing them then, as seeing them now, their interpretations of “blues” bubbles over with a wild brew of influences – horn parts straight out of Albert Ayler, slide guitar on par with Elmore James, distorted harmonica solos that range from languid to menacing, courtesy of Robert’s multi-instrumentalist brother, Jack. And atop of it all, Robert Kidney, a superior musical artist and the most compelling frontman I’ve ever seen.
Robert Kidney is also the subject of JP’s short documentary, BIG PARADISE, (Co-Directed with Kristen Nutile) which will be shown on May 4-5th at the Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, NJ.
Forty-eight years. That’s how long The Numbers Band have played gigs around Northeastern Ohio bars, punctuated by occasional shows in New York City. And they’re still going, so much so that when I decided last summer to document Robert and the band in a short film, BIG PARADISE, I found myself, again, knocked out by the passion of their performances. Keith Hanlon, the talented engineer whom we’d hired to come up from Columbus to record sound, turned to me that night in astonishment, asking, “Why don’t I know about these guys already?”
The Numbers Band are cultish, to be sure. But its list of converts is instructive. David Thomas of Pere Ubu is one. Greil Marcus, another. Anton Fier. Tony Maimone and even Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. I saw David at their last New York show and demanded on the spot that he put The Numbers Band on the cover of Rolling Stone (sorry David, I was fucking with you and I’m apologizing for that now). Add to this Chrissie Hynde, whose brother has been playing in The Numbers Band from the start, and you get the picture.
The Numbers Band are heavy. And Robert Kidney is the heaviest of them all.
PKM: How would you describe your approach to playing?
ROBERT KIDNEY: I’m an artist. I am not a musician. A musician is someone who makes their living playing music. I am not that. But I’ve been an artist for 50-some years. And I’ve had a band and played music for 47 years. But I don’t consider myself a musician. The men who work with me are musicians. A musician is different. I don’t think I play the guitar. I pretty much destroy it. I do some things on it that are lovely, you know, but it’s just a tool to me and it’s what I do because I have to do these things. I’m not stable as a person. I have to do this. I absolutely have to do this – and now more than ever. I’ve always had to do this. I don’t just play music. I mean my place is full of my art and I write and work constantly. Now that I’m older, I work harder because I’m running out of time and I’m trying to figure out what matters more – your health, time, or love. It’s hard because if you have time but you don’t have health, time doesn’t matter. It becomes more important than your health if you don’t have your health. And if you don’t have love it changes the aspect of everything. You can have time and you can have health, but if you don’t have love, what do you have?
PKM: How did you get involved with Anton Fier?
ROBERT KIDNEY: I got a phone call in 1986, maybe, and he said, this is Anton Fier, you may remember me from Pere Ubu. And I said, “Yes, I remember the name, you were the drummer.” Blah blah blah. Anton had gone on to form the Golden Palominos in the early 1980s. He said, “Well I would like to put ‘Animal Speaks’ on our next record.” I was flabbergasted. He had a lot of guest artists on the album and it turns out he had John Lydon sing it. Later, they went on tour and when they played in Cleveland, I went by the dressing room. There was Jack Bruce with a water glass full of probably Remy and he downs the whole glass and hits the stage. They do a few songs and then he sings “Animal Speaks.” That was the first time I ever heard anyone do a song that I wrote. It was an astounding experience.
“But I don’t consider myself a musician. The men who work with me are musicians. A musician is different. I don’t think I play the guitar. I pretty much destroy it.”
But, you know, Anton has done so much for me, recorded my music, brought me to New York. He did a beautiful version of “Wild River.” He did a beautiful version of “A Letter Back” which I wrote for my daughter. So many other things. He tolerated me and I tolerated him for as long as we could. And I owe him, I owe him a debt that cannot be paid, as I owe David Thomas, as I owe Tony Maimone a debt that cannot be paid. I owe so many people debts that will never be paid. I don’t know whether I’ve done anything for them, but all I can do is show up and try.
PKM: How do you keep a band together for so many years?
ROBERT KIDNEY: I’m not sure. I mean, what does it take to keep the band together? I always come back to the same answers, which is the audience. I think that the band offers people an experience they can’t get anywhere else.
PKM: What was your family background like and how do you think it influenced your music?
ROBERT KIDNEY: My mother’s family came from Noble County, Ohio, which is called “The Gateway to Appalachia.” It’s a coal mining area. My grandfather – on my mother’s side – worked the railroad as a coalminer and had a small farm to feed himself. So there’s this aspect to my history that I bring to the music I play. And there’s the urban aspect of the music, you know, which is the life I have lived, my own life, my modern life, where the things that I’ve experienced in Akron and Cleveland and Chicago and New York and all these places that I observe, you know. So I’ve been asked for 47 years, “What kind of music do you play, Robert?” And, the answer I like is “Country Eastern” and the reason is because Akron, Cleveland, is surrounded by rural area. You drive 20 minutes out of Cleveland and you’re in the country. You’re near farms. You’re in the park system. And if you leave Akron, it’s the same exact thing. So I’ve had this exposure to both, you know, and allowed myself to express both things. I mean, if you get into the musicological aspect of what we’re doing, my brother and I are folk singers. We are part of the American folk idiom. My brother, Jack, and I are part of something that won’t be recognized for probably at least 50 years, maybe more. But if you look at the foundation of who we are, we are working class people who learned to play music and stayed in one area and wrote songs about our lives. That’s what we do.
PKM: What was your childhood like?
ROBERT KIDNEY: My life as a child was sorrowful and full of pain. I had a sense that everything was lost. And to me, the blues … I knew a gentleman when I was a young man, he was a World War II veteran, African-American guy who came to see the band and thought we were magnificent and treated me wonderfully and we became very, very close friends. Of course, he liked to smoke pot and other things and we shared so many things. But he was quite a bit older than me, probably as old as my father. But, he would come and see me. One evening, we were sitting on the front porch of a little house I lived in. We were probably loaded, as we’d been drinking and smoking and enjoying ourselves. He looked at me and he goes, “The blues is the music of loss. And the beat is to pacify that loss.” I had figured out the loss part, but he defined the way the music is made and what it symbolizes and he brought me in to something very private.
PKM: How do you approach your performances?
ROBERT KIDNEY: I don’t do anything except just be who I am and I am who I am, 100%. When I take the stage, what I do just happens. I put as little thought into it as I can. I don’t want to think about it. I want something to happen. So I search for it every time I play. It doesn’t matter what the environment is – unless it’s hostile, which it has been – it can be. And of course if there’s no one there it’s like you threw a birthday party and nobody came. You never get over that. At least I never have.
Now, as you get older, you think less. I mean, I think less…I don’t mean you. I don’t know what the fuck you think, but, I think less about things that used to distract me like, “I’m not playing this well” or, you know, “I’m not communicating” and I’m not doing the things, because that is a learning process. That’s just the mechanical process. I mean my take on all of this is comes from the way I was raised and that this is work. It’s work. I poured concrete when I was 17 years old on 251 North and, you know, there’s an expression, when you’re young and you begin to work, you’re in pain because the trade is entering your body. It’s very similar on stage when you’re playing. You feel threatened. That threat makes you fearful and it’s painful and you deal with that in different ways. But there’s a point at which I came to the position where all I think about is communicating this thing in a way that I feel it’s right. And if you don’t get that, I understand. I’m not easy to understand. I’m not that kind of a person. But I am giving you everything I own when I perform and I always will and I always have. I’m not holding anything back and that’s the way it should be because, you know, these people that come see the music, they spend money and they deserve something. The audience that comes to see me is looking for that. They look for what my brother does. They look for the way we play. That’s what they want. So that’s an honor.
PKM: What was your first memory about wanting to play music?
ROBERT KIDNEY: I was singing in the choir in grade school doing Christmas songs and I remember singing the words to these religious songs and I felt this overwhelming emotional upheaval that brought me to tears and I thought, “this is special. I need to feel this way.” Music does this for me. Blues music did that for me. I heard it and it came inside of me and it generated the same impact. So does jazz music and so does swing, you know. I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s in everything.
PKM: What was your path to blues music as a source of your inspiration?
ROBERT KIDNEY: Well, the Vietnam War was raging and I was getting deferments – of course I was against the war – and all of a sudden, on the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal, is news of this big drug bust. My friend Gary and another fellow Greg were arrested for dealing. Later on, Greg became the bass player in the original Numbers Band. Anyway, he got busted and I had to go down to talk to the Chief of Police. Next thing I know, my deferment was revoked and I had to go into the service.
I ended up at the Great Lakes Naval Center, outside Chicago, and on the weekends I’d walk around Chicago. And I’m like 20 years old, 21 years old, and I walk into a record store — I think it was West Grand Avenue — but it says, Jazz Record Mart. I walked in this cool old store and there’s a guy there, Bob Kester, founder of Delmark Records. Bob is a very famous guy in the blues and it turned out he’d take people to clubs on the weekends to hear the blues. So I’d show up and he’d say, “Who do you want to see?” And I’d say, “I want to see Magic Sam.” And he’d go, “He’s not in town.” So I’d say, “I want to see Otis Rush.” So we’d go to see him. I can’t remember the name of the club, but he took me to see Otis Rush, and later that night, I sat in a booth talking to him. We also went to see J.B. Hutto. He’s one of very favorite slide players. Bob also took me to The Jet Star Show Lounge and when we walked in, the jukebox was playing and guys were playing pool. It was an old bar with linoleum checkerboard floors, all beat up and filthy from the footsteps. But no band, no instruments, no nothing. So I’m asking him, “Bob, are you sure J.B. Hutto is here?” And then all of a sudden they put all the pool table shit away and put plywood on the table and up comes a set of drums and out comes the band. And when they’re done setting up, out comes Johnny Young. Now, nobody knows Johnny Young today, but Johnny Young played mandolin and sang the blues and he used to work with Handy Nixon. I saw Johnny Young play as close to me as you are now. You have to understand, I was far into the blues by this point, so it was like I was working on a doctorate thesis in terms of my research of the blues and now I was there. It was like if I went to Appalachia and found musicians. It was that type of an experience. Anyway, when he was done, out comes J. B. Hutto. Man, did he play.
The next week Bob took me to the L&A Lounge and there’s five people there and Magic Sam is playing with his band and it’s, you know, remarkable. And when he’s done I go over and talk to him too and Magic Sam says to me, “Why don’t you come see me at the Aragon Ballroom?” Now the Aragon Ballroom is this huge place, right out of a Humphrey Bogart 1940’s film noir. A big, giant football-field-size dance floor made of oak. I’d been there already to see Jefferson Airplane so I knew the place. And I was also very high at the time. Very fucking high, okay? So I’m in the Aragon Ballroom alone and it’s like the Grand Canyon in there. No one is there except way down by the stage where there’s a small crowd standing around. So I’m standing by the stage with this group of hippies and the band’s playing and there’s a drum solo going and they’re playing “Caravan” and I’m looking at these guys on stage and I’m thinking, “Wow, these guys are like, white,” and they’re getting up in years, and I’m thinking, man, “I hate this. They look as old as my father!” The bass player has a white shirt and a jacket on and he’s playing the standup bass and I’m thinking, “What the fuck is this?” Then a guy walks up to the mic and I see he’s got a big blonde guitar and this curl on the front of his head and I’m thinking, “This guy looks familiar to me – who is this guy?” And then, bam, it came to me. It was Bill Fucking Haley! So I’m watching him and his bass player spinning the bass around and riding it like a horse across the stage. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe my eyes, okay? “One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four!” and I went what the fuck? I mean, the whole place turned into another … I visited another plane.
“…if you look at the foundation of who we are, we are working class people who learned to play music and stayed in one area and wrote songs about our lives.”
PKM: Was there a point where you felt like the band was starting to get a break?
ROBERT KIDNEY: Yes. One night we were playing and there’s like 9 or 10 people there and these two guys come up to me. One big guy, six foot-two and the other little guy, a skinny guy, and he says, “We’re having a Battle of the Bands because Marble Cake, the house band at The Kove [in Kent], is leaving to go on to the road.” This is after the shootings. After the killings at Kent State. What was really going on was Marble Cake was getting the fuck out of town before the shit hit the fan again. So they had this Battle of the Bands. But this was not a Battle of the Bands for a guitar with the name of your company on it, this is an actual Battle of the Bands for a job. This is something I understand. If I can do this I will not be going back to construction, okay? This is what separates me from many other people in terms of the way I look at this because I have nowhere to go. I have no education. All I have is labor and that’s where I’ll go. This is a personal thing to me.
So here’s a Battle of the Bands, an actual Battle of the Bands. A Battle of the Bands where if the audience likes your band, you are a house band and you have work so you don’t have to go back to, you know, pouring hot mix all summer long and breathing in kerosene like all those poor fuckers that were out there, that are still out there doing it. I won’t be going back to that. So, anyway, we had been brought this into the situation and then it was our turn. There were at least 600 people there and it was solid bodies because it was free. So we went from playing to nobody to playing to 600 people like somebody turned on a light switch. But before I got there, and this is what this story is really about, I went to see Janis Joplin with this woman from West Akron I was seeing. She said, “See that guy over there? He’s a really good sax player. You should get him in your band.” So I walked across to him, he was sitting on a blanket, and I introduced myself. I talked to him. I asked him, “what are you doing, are you playing?” He says, “Not much.” And so that’s how Terry Hynde, Chrissie Hynde’s brother, joined the band. So anyway, we’re on stage at The Kove. About 600 people in the club. This was our chance to a steady job. I had my back to the audience and I picked up my harmonica microphone and my harmonica and I said, “We are going to take this place tonight” And I turned around and launched into the first song. And that’s exactly what happened. We won a real Battle of the Bands. A real battle. And that’s when we started a four-year run, four days a week, at The Kove.
PKM: So what motivates you to keep playing?
ROBERT KIDNEY: The only reason we’re playing is people come to see us. That’s a simple fact. It’s also what I want to do. I love the work. I like working with the men I work with because it’s a constant source of searching. This is what I do and I do it relentlessly. I run people in the ground searching for things. But in the end we have what we have, you know. I haven’t lost that.
Robert Kidney performing “Rosalee” in 2012, after receiving the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement award: