What: Nightfall concert featuring Kansas Bible Company
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 24; Drew Sterchi and Blues Tribe opens at 7 p.m.
Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Boulevard, Market and Cherry streets
Venue website: www.nightfallchattanooga.com
The Nim Nims are a local indie rock band formed in 2003 and consisting of Blake DeFoor, Clay Bowen, Zach Bridges, Robert Waller and Dusty Jordan. For more information, visit www.thenimnims.com
A five-piece horn section. Three guitars. Two percussionists.
And a bassist in the back seat.
It's not quite "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but the lineup of the funky surf-rock ensemble Kansas Bible Company could give the holiday carol's menagerie a run for its money.
Fielding a contingent of musicians twice as large as most bands can be a logistical nightmare, but the payoff onstage is worth playing a game of clown-car Tetris when they go on the road, says guitarist Michael Ruth.
"It just makes it a more powerful thing," Ruth says, during a phone interview from the group's home in East Nashville. "When you have 11 [sometimes 12] people and coordinate it as carefully as you can ... it just makes it an altogether more powerful experience."
Kansas Bible Company started in 2008 when lead vocalist Jake Miller assembled a group of musicians from among his friends at Goshen College, a Mennonite university in Goshen, Ind. At the time, they performed at low-profile community events and house parties with a comparatively svelte lineup of "just" seven musicians.
For his senior year, however, Miller returned from summer vacation and announced that he was taking Kansas Bible Company to a new level. The group began practicing regularly and writing new material while Miller handpicked new members to buttress the group.
Although personality conflicts often can lead to divisions in a band, Ruth says the members of Kansas Bible Company are friends as much as band mates.
"We all live together and stuff, so it's this traveling, weird commune of ... dudes," he says, laughing. "But with the music, it just provides something that's a lot bigger and more eclectic than it's even possible to produce with four or five people."
Friday, May 24, Kansas Bible Company will squeeze onto the stage at Miller Plaza as this week's Nightfall headliner. The event marks the group's first gig since New Year's because several of its members have been out of the country, but Ruth says the hiatus has only made them more excited about pumping out grandiosely eclectic surf-funk again.
"We'll be ready," he says. "I want people to feel as good as I feel playing the music. I want the crowd to absorb this energy that we have just with the 11 of us."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Michael Ruth, guitarist with Nashville's Kansas Bible Company, about what it's like living and playing with 10 other musicians and how they manage to fit into one van.
Q: So why the Kansas Bible Company? Why not some other state?
A: We actually took the name from the movie "Paper Moon." They go around selling bibles to widowed women, and there are one or two scenes in the movie when they call themselves the Kansas Bible Company. That's the origin of the name, but only one of the guys is from Kansas.
Q: Walk me through how you guys all got together. I know it was in Goshen, Ind., about five years ago, but what were the circumstances? How did you know each other?
A: We're from all over. I'm from Ohio, but we've got guys from Washington state, Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina. [Laughs.] Colorado. We're kind of a hodgepodge.
Most of us were pretty into music back in college. None of us actually studied music. We just got together. Most of us were pretty good friends before we started playing music together, so we had a version of Kansas Bible Company with only seven people. It was really just for fun. We didn't take it that seriously.
After a year or two, our band leader got back from summer vacation and said, "I'm putting together an 11-piece band.
We're going to practice every day and take it seriously," and we were all like, "OK. Cool." [Laughs.] The ball just started rolling. We got really into it. The next thing you know, we decided, without much pretext, to move to Nashville because it was a better place to play music and be based in than Goshen, Ind.
So four of the guys took a year off from college to move down here. We committed one year to living in Nashville and trying to do music. They're all back at school this year. Two of them just graduated. For that year, we all lived in the same house in Nashville.
Q: Your bio suggests that you were mostly a regional northern Indiana band for the first two years. How did you break out?
A: Yeah, we would just kind of play house parties and the occasional community thing going on where they needed a band or something. It was more for fun. We definitely weren't touring or even recording an album. None of that stuff was even on our radar, at that point.
Our lead vocalist, Jake Miller, has always been a very active musician, and he's really good at getting people around. All through college, he was the guy who would get ensembles of 15 people to play one song together at a talent show and things like that.
College was nearing to a close, and it was time to figure out what we were going to do. He was hand picking people in addition to the seven of us who were already in it. He was like, "We're going to do the Kansas Bible Company thing again, but this time, there are going to be 11 of us." We used some of the same songs we had and started writing new songs.
We practiced every night in college. That was my senior year, and it just sort of took charge of that last part of my college experience. By the end of the year, we made the decision to move down here.
Q: Was it a tough decision for you to move to Nashville?
A: Nah, it was a no-brainer for me. Even since high school, I've been hoping I'd got to college, meet people, move somewhere and play music. I didn't even think about it; I was just like, "Of course that's what we're going to do." Most of the band was on that same wavelength. The main thing that was difficult was the four guys who left college for the year. One of the guys was a freshman, so he'd just finished his first year and then moved to Nashville. It was a much bigger deal for the four guys who were going to be taking time off of school to do this especially from their families' perspectives.
Q: Once you made the decision, did treating the band more seriously affect how much you enjoyed it?
A: The taking-it-more-seriously thing kind of just happened. I think, initially, from Jake's perspective, it was an intentional decision, but for me, I was coming back to school and it was like, "Oh, Jake has another band, and he seems more serious about it this time."
We just started practicing all the time and writing these songs and arranging these songs. We were all really good friends, so it just made sense, and the music just kept happening. More so than any music I'd ever performed, it had an effect on people. They really got into it. Playing live with that many people was something new for me. It was very organized. We actually put concentrated effort into working up every part. It wasn't just guys getting together to play these loose songs. It was more composed than anything else I'd ever done.
As the school year went on, it was like, "Wow. We shouldn't give this up yet. If we give it up after this year, what have we done all this work for?"
Q: How many shows did you play that year?
A: Maybe 20 or 30, and almost all of them were house shows in Northern Indiana. We never toured. We went out of town once or twice to play a show in Michigan, but the touring really wasn't in the picture.
When we got to Nashville, it was like we started with a blank slate, only we had enough experience playing music. We still played every day and hustled as hard as we could, but it was like, "OK, everyone has dedicated this full year to doing music."
It just started happening. Once the ball starts rolling, you develop relationships with other bands and venues in other cities.
Q: Are you still based in Nashville?
A: Yeah. This last five months or so, we've been sort of quiet. We played a big New Years show here. Four of the guys were finishing up college this year, and three of them were studying abroad. In the fall, we just kind of picked and chose shows that would be worthwhile to do.
Two of the guys were in Cambodia and one of them was in Mexico. The rest of us spent time traveling. I went to South America for a month and another guy went to Southeast Asia for a couple of months. We took a few months off.
Actually, this is our first show since New Years. We're so stoked about it. This will be a really good one. We're coming back and are ready to play after not playing together that much.
Q: How have you been preparing to end that dry spell?
A: There are six of us in the band down in Nashville right now, so we've been practicing a couple times a week. With what we've done in the last year and a half, we've practiced and played so much that it's not a big stretch to go a while without practicing. We've been rehearsing as a six-man band, which seems like a lot of people, but when you're used to being with 11 guys, it's like, "Whoa." Everyone who's not here has been on their own working things out. They'll come down early next week to practice as much as they can. It's a little nerve-wracking. [Laughs.]
Q: So you're nervous?
A: I am, kind of. This will be the biggest crowd we've ever played for. We've played a similar type of concert series in Cincinnati that was for a couple thousand people, and that, to this date, is the biggest date we've played. But this will be up there. We'll be ready.
Q: Are you working up anything new or just polishing your back catalog?
A: We're pretty much in the process of getting all the gears moving again. In the next month or two, we'll start writing again in the next few months. Our last album came out in November, so a lot of that stuff is still fresh.
Q: If you were finding your sound during those early days, do you feel like you found it or are you still working on that?
A: You know, I'm glad you asked that, because honestly, my favorite part of being in this band is that I have no idea what our next album is going to sound like or what the next song will sound like. Jake writes most of the songs, but everyone writes their own stuff or will write their own stuff. We write everything with all 11 of us in the same room, pretty much.
For our most recent album, we really tried to develop what we were trying to do for the album, but as to the future, I really have no idea what direction it will go in. We're talking about the next album having one track by each person. I have no idea where that could go. I think with 11 distinct personalities and everyone having a hand in writing, there's no telling what direction it can go because we've already gone in so many directions.
Q: Philosophically speaking, what are you looking to get out of the performing experience?
A: I guess, ultimately, I want people to feel as good as I feel playing the music. I want the crowd to absorb this energy that we have just with the 11 of us. With that many of us and the fact that we're all such good friends, we just have a blast performing, whether it's for 5 people or 500 people.
I just want to spread this feeling of something bigger than yourself. I go to concerts and feel that on occasion, and it's a very cool feeling to have this transcendent joy of just being alive. If I can, as a person, help other people feel that, that's what it's all about for me.
Q: In the bio, those early years are described, maybe sarcastically, as being a time when the band had "only seven" members. That's larger than the vast majority of bands. Why field so many people at once? What does that add to the experience?
A: I think it just makes it a more powerful thing. Having a five-piece horn section just gives so much organic energy to live music. And you hardly ever see a band with three guitars. Ultimately, it's just having this huge sound. When you have 11 people and coordinate it as carefully as you can so we're not playing on top of each other and everyone knows when to play and when not to play, it just makes it an altogether more powerful experience. Granted, it's also a lot harder to coordinate.
Q: Do you feel like having 11 members kind of pushes you across the threshold into being more of an orchestra?
A: [Laughs.] That's good. I mean, our experience being in this band and we're all dedicated members of the band is probably quite a bit different than other people's bands. If you're in a band with three people, you're stuck with those three people. But if you get annoyed with someone with us, you can go hang out with the other eight people.
We all live together and stuff, so it's this traveling, weird commune of and dudes. [Laughs.] But with the music, yeah, it just provides something that's a lot bigger and more eclectic than it's even possible to produce with four or five people.
Q: And yet you've been steadily adding more people. You're now up to a lineup of 11. Are you done growing or are there still musical niches you'd like to see filled eventually?
A: For the most part, I don't think we'll be increasing the lineup. When we originally made the move, our bass player did not come with us, so we had another good friend from college move down here to fill in for bass. Now, when it works out, we have our former bass player, Raphael, playing Rhodes with us. Occasionally, we are a 12-person band. When he can make it, he can make it.
I think for the Nightfall show, I think there will actually be 10 of us. We'll be down one or two, but you can always work with missing one or two. It's when you miss three or four.
Q: Logistically, it seems organizing a band that big would be a bit nightmarish. Do you ever wish you were smaller?
A: [Laughs.] Honestly, no, I don't. I love it because we're all best friends, and we all tolerate each other very well. Most of us were brought up Mennonite. Goshen College is actually a Mennonite college. Culturally, Mennonite is a peaceful religion. We're not all adamant, practicing Mennonites, but we all grew up with this culture. It's not really in our nature to be very confrontational and fight.
Having that upbringing has really made it possible to actually function with this many people without their being serious egos or problems in the band. When something is bothering us, we tend to keep quiet about it. [Laughs.]
The frustration does come out in other ways, but ultimately, it's much more beneficial than not. The way we do things is pretty atypical compared to most bands. There are leadership roles and different divisions in the band, whether booking shows or writing most of the music, but it's all been naturally delegated and seems to be working just fine.
Q: What about touring? Do you guys all pile into the same clown car or do you have a fleet of vehicles you take with you on the road?
A: [Laughs.] Yeah, it's pretty much a clown-car situation. We bought a late-'90s passenger van from a Boys and Girls Club in Indiana. We got a good deal on it. We took out the back seats, and for a while, when we hit the road, we would pile all 11 of us in the van with all our gear piled in the back. It was like a game of Tetris getting everything in and out of that thing.
There were designated people who could pack the van perfectly because if you don't do it with a lot of strategy, you can't fit everything in there.
We'd be on these trips in July going through the Midwest with three people to a seat. It was full capacity, and we were probably riding way over the weight capacity. When we went on our longest tour, which was 2 1/2 weeks, we took along another van, and that made everything doable. We're actually looking to get another vehicle this summer. We'll probably use all our money from Nightfall for that. [Laughs.]
Q: Tell me about Hotel Chicamauga. It's your home but also a practice space, music venue and bar? Sounds a bit like your own little musical Castle Grayskull.
A: Yeah, kind of. That's a bit glamorous sounding. [Laughs.] When we were planning to move to Nashville, we all thought it would be cool to all live together, but in my head, I was like, "There's no way we can find a place we all can live in."
But we found this house, and the listing on Craig's List said there were "8-10 bedrooms," and we were like, "Well, how many are there?" It was really vague. A couple of us came down here to scope it out, and it has an interesting history. It started out as a small retirement home. It was two houses that were joined together, from front to back. It was an old lady home, not like an official retirement home, but there are weird railings and outlets in bizarre places.
Then, it became a halfway house, which fell under poor management and then kind of became a drug house or boarding house, which was the state it was when we got it. When we all moved down, they had to evict the people who lived here, and for a couple of weeks, people were coming up to the house looking for certain people or things, and we had to be like, "No, those people don't live here anymore."
It was a lot of work to redecorate the place and try to get those bad vibes out of there and make it liveable. At one point, there were 15 of us living there. It's kind of ridiculous, but rent is cheap, and we party and have a lot of fun. [Laughs.]
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.