If the Omaha-based group The 9s sounds like a new band to you, it’s not. The 9s have been playing around the Omaha area since 1998. Originally a six-piece, the current incarnation is comprised of guitarist/vocalist Jason Birnstihl, bassist Craig Balderston, drummer Dan Maca, and keyboardist Mitch Towne, they took an extended hiatus from 2002 to 2008, but have been playing steadily ever since. With four full-length albums and two EPs under their belt, they are on the verge of releasing their third EP, Gentleman Caller [Silver Street Records]. The timing couldn’t be better. There’s been a recent surge in popularity for the group, one that has not gone unnoticed.
“There is definitely a surge of momentum behind us right now,” Towne says. “A lot of things have come together all at once and we are at the best place we ever have been, both musically and career-wise. Last year, we hooked up with the Billboard Top 40 charting production team, BZZZ. One of the members of BZZZ is an old friend of ours from Lincoln, Sean Beste. All of our albums in the past have been self-produced. I was absolutely blown away by BZZZ’s EP, The Conclusion, and got the idea to ask them if they would be interested in producing some of our new material.
“We tend to be control-freaks, as musicians often are, so this was new territory for us,” he continues. “Sean referred to himself as a ‘life-long 9s fan,’ so he really had a grasp of the kind of music we had made in the past and also of what were capable of. We agreed as a band to let BZZZ do whatever they wanted with our music from a production standpoint, trusting them completely, and, in the end, we are absolutely thrilled with the results. Our EP, Gentleman Caller, is easily the best music we have ever recorded, both compositionally and sonically. It is exciting for us, 16 years in, to be making the best music we ever have.”
Everyone in the band is coming from a different background musically, but it all comes together in an amalgamation of styles that is The 9s’ sound.
“It’s been said that we sound like Steely Dan if Prince were the front man,” Towne describes. “Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but I understand how descriptions like that are an easy shorthand for the question: ‘what do they sound like?’ Our sound is a mix of soul, high-energy funk and pop. The things we listened to as kids are still the things we listen to now. What is exciting for us is that our tastes are definitely mirrored in the current pop music climate. There are so many styles represented in pop music in 2014 and a lot of those styles are what we have absorbed naturally throughout our years as musicians.”
If The 9s’ performance at last Thursday’s Jazz on the Green was any indication of the direction they are going in, then The 9s should soon be on their way to national notoriety. The stage is a place where they have always been comfortable, starting at an early age.
“While it isn’t true of all musicians, we are guys who love to be in front of people,” he says. “The more the better. It’s a cliché to say that you feed off the energy of the crowd, but we really do. We just played in front of about 10,000 people at Jazz on the Green and to have so many people up dancing and moving to our music was like plugging into a power plant. When you write and perform music, you want as many people as possible to hear it and to come to see you play it. We like to put on a show.
“There is a certain amount of ego that one needs to get up in front of a room full of people to play music,” he adds. “From an early age, I loved performing. Getting up on stage is a way to channel that energy and share it with a bunch of people. It’s not a “look at me” thing. It’s a “let’s have a good time” thing. And, for us, we are going to have a good time no matter what happens. Like any band, we have played many shows for sparse or disinterested crowds. However, at times like those, we turn the energy towards each other and put on a show for ourselves. But to have a full house of people who are there to see you is like a shot of adrenaline.”
Since their inception, The 9s have shared the stage with The Average White Band, Parliament/Funkadelic, Maceo Parker, Sonja Dada, Ziggy Marley, and Bela Fleck. It also helps to have the right people backing you. The 9s recently signed to the same label that BZZZ is on, Silver Street Records. Silver Street Records is the brainchild of Charles Hull, founder of the marketing firm Arch Rivals who had clients like Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Adidas and Intel. Hull is a life-long musician and wanted to turn his expertise towards music and promoting Midwest-based pop, soul and funk artists. The bottom line is The 9s have been very fortunate to get hooked up with people with supreme skills in production and marketing that was missing before. The group is now able to focus on the things like writing and performing.
“When we started in 1998, the old model of building a music career was still the norm: record music, get in a van, play everywhere, hope for the best,” he says. “Things are quite a bit different now. With a company like Silver Street behind us and their track record of success, we can target our performances away from home and, ideally, get our music heard by people who really like what we do. We won’t be living out of a van anytime soon, but I have hopes that our music will be heard and that we will be able to hit the right places at the right time.”
It’s clear Towne and the rest of the 9s are extremely pleased with Gentleman Caller. The album release party kicks off at The Hive this Friday.
“When we first heard the mixes of the songs on our EP, it was a very emotional experience for me and, I assume, the other members of the band,” he concludes. “We have made other albums in the past, but this collection of songs is so much better in every way than our past work. I am sure that most bands think their most recent work is their best work, but in our case, it really is. For me, it was like finally hearing what I had always wanted the band to sound like. I have listened to these songs over and over and they haven’t lost their luster. Like a lot of musicians, I am my own biggest critic I start picking things apart and finding problems. Not this time. I would, and have, played this EP for anyone. I am extremely proud of this music and of the musicians I play with. We have been together for a long time and are very much family. When we get up on stage together, I know I can count on these guys to deliver every single time. There is a trust that a lot of bands don’t have. I think the audience sees and feels it as well.” ,
The 9s, July 18, at The Hive, 1207 Harney St., 9 p.m. Tickets are $5 or $10 with EP. Visit www.thehiveomaha.com for more information.