By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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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."