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(Above: Mouth gets “Gnarly” at the Jackpot Saloon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Fans wanting to pigeonhole Mouth’s music, do so at their own risk.

The three-piece Kansas City band combines elements of funk, jazz, pop, hip hop, electronica and progressive rock in their unique, dance-friendly instrumental songs.

“People have tried to make us either a jam band or a jazz/fusion band,” drummer Stephen “Gunar” Gunn says as guitarist Jeremy Anderson finishes the sentence. “Whatever genre people pigeonhole us as, they always complain.”

Talking with the band, which also includes bass player Zach Rizer, is like trying to catch a ping pong ball in a shower stall. The three are just as in synch in conversation as they are when playing. Words zip around as the three finish each other’s sentences and try to complete their own thoughts.

“I used to be afraid of being pigeonholed by the jam-band crowd,” Anderson says. “Honestly, they’re a lot more open-minded than anybody.”

They also provide a nice business model. Mouth tape all of their shows and try to saturate the market with recordings in hopes that the music will find its way out ahead of the band.

“These shows in Topeka and Wichita are the first time we’ve done two shows out of town in a row,” Gunn says of a recently completed road trip. “Right now we’re just trying to figure out how to play and get out on the road where we’ll at least earn near our gas money.”

Mouth – the name is a play on the fact that there’s no vocalist – perform in Springfield, Mo. on Saturday and will celebrate their first birthday on Jan. 29 at the Jazzhaus in Lawerence, Kan. One year ago the trio was playing a First Friday art exhibit and dipping their toe into the scene at the Jackpot Saloon.

Download the Mouth album "Escape from the North Pole" for free at http://www.abandcalledmouth.com/music/.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a cake in, but I want to make party favors, maybe put songs on a CD and give them out,” Anderson said. Several friends of the band, including guitarist Matt DeViney, who co-founded Gunn’s previous band Groovelight, and local MCs Reach and Phantom will also help celebrate with the band.

Although hip hop is now a staple of the band’s catalog and all three members were longtime fans, embracing the genre was purely a business decision.  After six months of drawing meager crowds, Rizer looked at what was getting covered in the music press and where people were going and decided hip hop was the way to go. As soon as they made the switch, they attracted some attention in The Pitch. They also started growing unexpectedly as musicians.

“When you take anything from samples, you not only have to learn the parts, but you have to learn how to put them together,” Rizer says. “There are a lot of subtle things at work, like tambour and tone. The funny thing about hip hop is that DJs will play samples against each other you wouldn’t think to combine.”

For Anderson it was a chance to add his favorite elements of progressive rock – long, intricate parts – and incorporate them in a hip hop setting.

“Our songs are structured like progressive rock, but feel like hip hop,” he says. “We’re not playing prog hop, though. We’re playing hip hop.”

The members of Mouth grew up in musical families. Anderson’s little brother got a guitar, but never played it, so the 10-year-old started noodling on Steely Dan and King Crimson licks. Gunn grew up immersed in music. His dad was a drummer in the band Heat Index and moved out to California in his ‘20s to pursue a career in music. The white bass drum in Gunn’s kit was originally part of his dad’s rig.

“When I was 13, my dad didn’t want me to play because he thought it was bad for my ears,” Gunn says. “He put the kit away in the attic, but I kept getting it out and playing.”

Rizer’s father was also a musician. His dad and grandpa, both named David Rizer, were jazz musicians. Grandpa Rizer played guitar with Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker. David Jr. plays trumpet, bass and sings and plays regularly with Everette DeVan at the Blue Room.

“My dad never pushed, but I was always surrounded by music,” says Rizer, who counts Bootsy Collins, Jaco Pastorius and Motown bassman James Jamerson among his influences. “I didn’t listen to anything rock-ish until I was older.”

At Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, Anderson introduced Rizer to rock and roll, while Rizer shared his love of funk, soul and jazz. Gunn, meanwhile, forged his own path, eventually performing at Wakarusa Music Festival with Groovelight in 2005.

“That show was kind of a turning point for me,” Gunn says. “At the time, I was into the whole progressive side, with odd time signatures. I was into Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. At Wakarusa I realized people want to dance, not just listen. I used to play for the one guy who would appreciate us and tell us about that one measure 13/8. Now it’s come full circle to just wanting people to dance.”

One number the trio play is “Bad Wolf,” a new song that takes its name from Doctor Who. Anderson is seated, bent over his guitar, his nimble fingers dancing across the frets. When told his playing is reminiscent of Adrian Belew, he humbly replies “It should. I have his guitar and amp.” As Rizer’s groove takes over the melody, Gunn applies a hip hop/reggae rhythm on the drums. There’s very little eye contact; each musician lost in his own world.

“When we’re onstage, we definitely look at each other more,” Anderson said. “We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries of the song and include different elements.”

After a year together, Mouth has no future goals beyond continuing to push each other and trying to find a balance between the written and improvised.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where the music goes,” Gunn said. “We just pour ourselves into different scenes and see what happens.”

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(Note: the following feature appeared in the April, 2008 issue of KC Magazine.)

By Joel Francis

When Keenan Nichols was 19, he couldn’t wait to get out of Kansas City. The Avondale native and North Kansas City High School graduate wanted a bigger city where he had a better chance of making a living as a guitarist. He escaped to a town with a more promising music setting-Dallas.

“The scene in Dallas was great at first, but over the last few years, it started dying off,” Nichols said. “Everyone down there lost interest in live music. Everything became a race to become the next Miami and see who could build the most dance clubs.”

When Nichols came back to Kansas City on visits, he’d catch glimpses in his hometown of what he’d hoped to find in Dallas. Even­tually, he moved back.

“It seemed like the scene had grown up a little bit,” said Nichols, guitarist for the hard rock band The Architects. “With that distance, I gained a big appreciation for everyone here sticking to their guns and trying to make things happen.”

Scott Hobart moved to Kansas City in 1989 to take classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, but he found himself gravitating to the clubs more than the classrooms. Hobart was a member of the hard rock band Giant Chair when he had a change of heart (and name) and started writing country songs. Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys cel­ebrated 10 years of honky tonk last December.

“I’ve never felt stifled geographically by playing in Kansas City,” Hobart said. “Being a country band, people always ask us why we aren’t in Nashville. Nashville’s inundated. Our music doesn’t mean anything there. There’s something more original about playing here. You can’t just be in a band to impress someone. It has to mean something.”

In the neighborhood

The desire for musical integrity, which is shared by many Kansas City bands, translates to a neighborhood of musicians who collaborate more than compete.

“The greatest thing about our scene is that it is so supportive,” said Auggie Wolber, mem­ber of Americana band In the Pines. “We’ve all played together so long, everyone has gotten to know each other.”

The spirit of fraternity is reflected in the number of benefit shows thrown for other musicians. When blues guitarist Danny Cox’s house burned down in January, several bands (including Irish ensemble The Elders) eagerly signed on to perform at a sold-out benefit con­cert. That same spirit showed at a successful 2006 benefit for Blackpool Lights drummer Billy Brimblecom.

Making the decision to help Billy was not difficult for The Architects.

“Our old band and his old band had done some touring together and become pretty close. If he had needed a transplant, I would’ve con­sidered it,” said Architects singer Brandon Phillips. “It turned out he only needed us to play [for] 45 minutes and not get paid.”

Audiences show the same supportive spirit.

“The biggest show of support I’ve seen was when I was playing hard rock and de­cided I wanted to sing songs with a story in front of a country band,” Hobart said. “It may have confused some people at first, but everyone I knew from the rock side came out to hear me, and they’ve supported me the whole time.

“If you can switch genres drastically and have people willing to try it on some level, it proves the open-mindedness and good nature of our community,” Hobart said.

It also means more musical diversity. A punk band might play Davy’s Uptown op­posite a country band at the Record Bar one night, but the next day those same clubs may offer blues or indie rock.

“One of the great things about this town is you can go to the Re­cord Bar and see Rex (Hobart) and have dinner, or you can go to Davy’s Uptown and hear free jazz,” said Wolber of In the Pines.

The success of First Fridays and the revitalization of downtown points to the appetite and appreciation Kansas Citians have for the arts.

“I’m always surprised at how many people turn out for The Pitch Music Showcase,” said Record Bar co-owner and Roman Numerals instrumentalist Steven Tulipana. “Five bucks gets you all over town to hear different kinds of music.”

Ayo Technology

In the past, record stores provided an outlet for local artists with in-store performances and prominent displays. Today, Myspace pages and email lists provide a level of promotion and exposure that reaches far be­yond stapling a flier to the wall.

Just ask Adam McGill of The Republic Tigers, a local band re­cently signed to an imprint of Atlantic Records and discovered via the band’s Myspace site.

“An A and R (artist and relations) rep with Atlantic found us on our site and started talking with us,” McGill said. “She asked for a CD and then passed it on to Alexandra.”

Alexandra is Alexandra Patsavas. The name might not be familiar, but the TV shows for which she selects music are-“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Numb3rs” and “Gossip Girl.” Patvas loved the band and made them the first act signed to her Chop Shop Records label. The Republic Tigers’ debut album was just released earlier this spring.

Similarly, Olympic Size found one of their songs featured prominently on MTV’s “The Real World” thanks to a pitch from Anodyne, a local record label. It’s an impressive feat for anyone, let alone a band without a long-term record contract or even a finished album.

“I think you’re more likely to get discovered out of Kansas City than you are in a big city where you’ll get lost in the mix of a billion other bands,” said Republic Tiger Kenn Jankowski. “With the Internet, it’s easy for anyone to find you.”

Join Together

Knowing about the “next big thing” could be as close as a write-up in The Pitch or The Kansas City Star‘s preview section.

“If a band shows up in there, it’s a pretty good chance they have their stuff together,” said Olympic Size guitarist Kirsten Paludan. “I think some people have a perception that rock isn’t for every­one, but this is a music scene that can appeal to a wide range of people. It’s not just for teenagers, hipsters or artists.”

Kansas City is big enough to support many types of music yet small enough that it’s not difficult to stay in the know about what’s happening across town.

“Our city is very diverse. There’s a band out there for every­body-for the kids, for the rockers; it’s all out there waiting to be discovered,” said Darren Welch of In the Pines. “Just take a chance. Pay the $5 cover and wait to be surprised.”

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