Their presentation may be sophisticated and some of their arrangements may be lavish, but the Latenight Callers will tell you there are three standards a song must meet to pass muster: Is it dark? Is it in a minor key? Is it dance-y?
“We don’t write three-minute pop ditties,” said Nick Combs, who plays keyboards and programs the drums for the Callers.
No, they don’t.
Rather, they compose five-minute (or longer) musical episodes, songs that evoke the mood of film noir and Raymond Chandler and mix the sights and sounds of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Massive Attack.
And when they perform those songs live, they dress the part, looking like well-heeled friends out for an evening of jazz, circa 1940.
“We’re not a T-shirt and jeans band,” said Krysztof Nemeth, who started the band in October 2008. He plays baritone guitar because they’re not exactly a Gibson Flying V band either.
Nevermind what they aren’t.
This is what the Latenight Callers are: a collective of five veteran musicians, four of whom are filling new roles. Nemeth, for example, was a bassist in various rock bands for years before switching to the baritone guitar. Combs was a drummer in several rock bands in Kansas City before joining the Callers and moving over to keyboards. Gavin Mac was primarily a guitar player in various local punk bands when he joined the Callers to play bass, which is what he plays in Atlantic Express, the Motown/soul-cover band his father started 20 years ago.
Ellen O’Hayer is a classical cellist (and member of the Oread Strings in Lawrence) who sings backup vocals and plays acoustic guitar. The lead singer is Julie Berndsen, who has been singing all her life, usually jazz numbers by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Torme, though she was raised by parents whose tastes favored everyone from Neil Diamond to Pink Floyd.
On Saturday night, the Callers are throwing a party to celebrate the release of “Easy Virtues,” their second recording but the first that was conceived and created by the entire band, one that turned Nemeth’s modest vision into something sexy, dark and dance-y.The first call
The Callers were born not long after Nemeth moved to Lawrence from Seattle. He wanted a new music project, one that would combine “organic/acoustic Tom Waits-jazz with electronic arrangements.” So he scoured Craigslist, which is where he read Berndsen’s ad, which said she was looking for a “jazz situation.” Among her music interests she listed were Ella Fitzgerald and the art-rock duo the Kills.
“I’ve been singing since sixth grade,” said Berndsen, a native of Hutchinson. “I sang in barbershop quartets, with jazz bands and big band. I grew up loving old music.”
Nemeth responded to her ad immediately. A few days later they met. Not long after, they began to record some songs. About a year later, they’d recorded a self-titled CD.
“These songs weren’t made with live performances in mind, but once the CD was done we wanted to start playing them live,” Nemeth said. So the search began, starting with Combs, a friend in Lawrence’s scooter culture, whose most recent gig was as drummer for the rock band Waiting for Signal.
Through other friend-of-friend connections, they enlisted O’Hayer, whose resume included a tour as a cellist for Bright Eyes (and an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman”) and Mac, whose father fronted the band Gary Mac the Mac Truck in the 1970s. That’s when the game of musical chairs started with the instrumentation.
“I’d been drumming for 20 years,” Combs said. “I was kind of burned out on it. I’d done some work on keyboards in college, mostly for music theory purposes. And I’d also been into bands that used dense programmed drums, like the Prodigy and Crystal Method.” So Combs became the band’s keyboardist and drum programmer.
After Nemeth put down the bass for the baritone guitar, Mac was enlisted. He’d been playing bass in the Express for several years, learning and honing his Motown chops.
“James Jamerson is the only bass player you need to know,” Mac said. “That style doesn’t always apply to this band, so when I need to, I pull back.”
O’Hayer came to the band to sing backup vocals and to play cello, which she did for about a minute.
“I brought my cello the first time and set up and tried playing along a little,” she said. “I didn’t think it was working, so I said, ‘You know I play guitar, too.”
That inaugural practice was in February 2010. Three months later, the band performed live for the first time, at the Czar Bar. The response was enthusiastic; the gigs haven’t stopped coming since.The beauty of noir
The sights and sounds of the Latenight Callers have impressed some of their colleagues in the local music scene.
“The thing I love about this band is they had a fully formed vision from the get-go,” said Gregg Todt, frontman for Federation of Horsepower, who will perform at the Callers’ CD-release party this weekend.
“They don’t sound like any other band in this town, and I admire them for that. Meld the electronic elements with the noir themes and organic sounds of hollow-bodied and baritone guitars, then throw Julie and Ellen’s dark harmonies on top of that. It’s intoxicating.”
Anthony Ladesich is a fan, too. A local musician, filmmaker and videographer, he directed the Callers’ video for the song “The Tease.”
“They came to the project already art-directed,” he said. “They play this electronic film-noir soundtrack music, and that’s what they look like. It’s a really inventive, unique sound. And they have the presentation to go with it. They wouldn’t be the same band if they dressed in street clothes.”
The Callers have generated some enthusiasm outside of Kansas City, too. A few weeks ago, they performed in San Francisco at the Noir City Film Festival. The invite came after the festival’s founder, a friend of Nemeth’s, saw the “Tease” video.
“We did one show, at the party at the end of the festival,” Nemeth said. “The room was full with about 400 people, all of them dressed like us. They had to turn people away. The dance floor was packed. It was awesome.”
On Saturday night, Kansas City will get another chance to indulge in the band’s celebration of thebelle noire
when the Callers throw a party for their new EP, “Easy Virtues.” Instead of just a regular show, they’ve turned it into an event at the Beaumont Club. Three other local bands will perform, including American Catastrophe, a band that also lives on the shadowy side of the music spectrum. So will Voler: Aerial Expertise.
The Callers plan to give their fans and the uninitiated the usual heavy dose of what their name evokes: minor-key moods and sexy dance grooves.
“When the phone rings after hours, it’s only for a couple of reasons,” Nemeth said. “It could mean something sinister or dangerous. Or something seedy. And fun.”