Back in the day, just about every live band playing bars sounded like Northern Kind, the Fort Wayne hard-rock trio: loud, crunching guitar; Southern rock-style vocals; glass-rattling bass; and cymbal-heavy drumming.
In today's post-ironic world, where bands compete with each other for uniqueness of style, the good old classic rock paradigm - rock the hell out of the audience and they'll love you - is often drowned out by other, more trendy sounds.
But people have never stopped wanting to rock, and they never get tired of a new take on classic styles, which explains the success of Northern Kind. The band combines Skynyrd-style swagger with Sabbath-like stylings, Mellencamp-like songwriting, the interplay of fabled power trios such as Cream and Rush and the earnestness of great Hoosier bands like Blind Melon.
In original songs such as 'Cyanide,' Northern Kind is a noise machine, changing tempo and pace while never dropping a beat.
Singer/guitarist Vince Stringfield paws at his white Epiphone guitar and belts out the lyrics, his face contorted, while bassist Bill Mramer hunches over his bass and drummer Jesse Marshall keeps a stern, almost martial pace.
They take the Beatles' 'Helter Skelter,' one of the most covered songs in rock, and add their own Southern-fried spices to it, as if the Allman Brothers were backing up Paul McCartney.
Indianapolis audiences have been getting a taste of Northern Kind's music on a regular basis lately, and they'll have another chance this Saturday at 9:30 p.m., when the group plays at Birdy's as part of the sixth IndianapolisMusic.net showcase.
One of the group's strengths is its individuality. Although they're extremely tight in performance, the arrangements allow each player to improvise and expand on each song's framework.
'In our band, everybody does what they want to do. In a traditional band, the drums and bass play the same,' Stringfield says. 'Not this band.'
'To be a three-piece, you have to have that individuality in order to pull it off, to make up for a lack of other musicians,' Mramer adds. 'It's liberating.'
'There's a lot more intimacy, too, as a three-piece,' Marshall says. 'I only have to pay attention to one guitar player and one bass player, and that's it. We've got to make up for the lack of another guitarist and keyboard player, and these guys blow my mind.'
'In other bands, it's all about getting paid. It was about playing music for the wrong reasons. These guys play music like I want to play music. It's all about getting off onstage. If I'm getting off onstage, and these guys are, then people in the audience will, too. Whatever we may lack in sound, we make up for in enthusiasm.'
'What has always gotten me in music,' Stringfield says, 'is that one part of the song. There's one part in every great song that really grabs you, whether it's Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, whoever. Hooks and riffs that grab you. That's what we go for.'
A self-taught guitarist, Stringfield's playing has elements of everything he heard growing up: a touch of Zeppelin here, some Skynyrd there, some Tom Petty - even, of all people, Neil Diamond, whose 'Love on the Rocks' is a staple of NK's live shows. (It's his mom's favorite song, he says.)
Fort Wayne invasion
Northern Kind, along with bands such as Sfumato and the Beautys, has been leading the way for Fort Wayne bands to play in Indianapolis, something which didn't often happen in the past.
Once a haven for only cover bands, clubs have opened up to original music in Fort Wayne, and the result has been a flood of groups with something to say.
'In the last four or five years, certain bars have started to let bands play original songs,' Mramer notes. 'It's not like there's a very big fan base, but there's just enough to keep original music on top. And it's good that we have really entertaining bands and good music.'
'It's such a small scene that bands are really competitive and try and outdo each other,' Stringfield says. 'Bands are aggressive and end up making each other better.' Radio stations in Fort Wayne, unlike in Indy, give plenty of radio support to local bands, something which has helped out Northern Kind.
'Every time you go out in Fort Wayne, you see the local radio programmers and the DJs,' Stringfield says. 'You see them at shows all the time. Down here, we haven't really run into radio people all that much. I guess it's a small-town thing in Fort Wayne.'
In Indianapolis, Northern Kind has had to rely mostly on word-of-mouth to get people out to gigs. Once they're there, though, the band is confident it can make them fans.
'We're winning a lot of people over every gig,' Marshall observes. 'We get tighter every time we play, the energy is through the roof and people are picking up on that. Whether or not they enjoy the music, that's fine, but they get into our stage presence, the energy that comes off onstage. That's something a lot of bands don't have.'
They've been focusing on the Indianapolis market lately but are vigilant about keeping their hometown fans. (Adopted hometown, actually; Stringfield is originally from Indy and Mramer is from South Bend.) They're looking forward to a gig this Thursday at the Columbia Street club, their first gig in the Fort in a while.
'People know that we're playing in Indianapolis a lot and they haven't forgotten about us,' Stringfield says. 'And we haven't forgotten about them.'
One of the band's biggest gigs in Indy, a slot at the Patio's Battle of the Bands in April, turned out a little disappointing. They had the misfortune of drawing the same night that The Slurs put on a blazing set, which has already become the stuff of local legend. The fans that night were primarily there to see The Slurs and their friends, Dirty Little Secrets, and that's who they voted for.
Northern Kind finished third, something which they saw as a moral victory, knowing that The Slurs/DLS bandwagon was unstoppable that night. Ironically, the IMN showcase Saturday will feature another band which competed that night, the female-fronted pop-rock group Suburban Smackdown.
'It was cool to get third place,' Stringfield says. 'The people who were there cheered for us. And the other bands were nice to us; they didn't put us down for what we played. It was a good night for the band.'
The band now known as Northern Kind was founded in 1996 at St. Francis College under the name Soma. Although they won several campus talent shows, they never played off-campus. After dropping two members, Mramer and Stringfield played their first show as NK in South Bend in 1998.
'We took a couple years off and talked about what we wanted to do. We played a lot in Fort Wayne, and some of the hick towns in between,' Mramer recalls. 'Things didn't work out with our drummer, so in June of this year, actually on my birthday, the band broke up.' Things looked bleak for the band for two weeks, until they found Marshall, a U.S. Army veteran who had been stationed in Kosovo.
'I'd just started playing in a cover band, and Vince called and left a message on my machine,' Marshall says. 'I wasn't going to return the call, but I thought, what the hell and called him. I came by his house and we just hit it off. We ended up jamming that day and it was locked in from there.' Marshall brings a controlled craziness to the band, allowing Stringfield to scat, to play an extended guitar solo, to just jump around onstage. He's the group's safety net, someone the other two rely upon.
Having released a self-titled album, Northern Kind is looking to record and release its newer material with Marshall, as well as keeping up its assault upon the clubs of Indianapolis. In addition to the Saturday showcase, NK will return to Birdy's the following week to play an ALS benefit show.
'We do the best with what we've got,' Marshall says. 'And that's what we're going to keep doing. Even if you don't like our music, the energy coming off the stage will kick your ass. Some bands go through the motions; we just go out there and show emotion.'