Local supergroup play The Who by Numbers after the Who tonight [INTERVIEW]

Hear this underappreciated masterpiece tonight at the Entry after Roger and Pete play Target Center.
Hear this underappreciated masterpiece tonight at the Entry after Roger and Pete play Target Center.

After the Who released the rock opera Quadrophenia in 1973, The Who By Numbers came in 1975. And, after the Who performs the rock opera on the eve of its 40th anniversary at Target Center, life imitates art down the street at the Entry. Legendary local musicians are performing the Who's seventh -- and lesser known -- album The Who By Numbers all the way through.

This sparse, darker record showcases Pete Townshend's raw, personal songwriting about alcoholism, lust and self-loathing, aging and the fear of irrelevance. Whether or not you plan to see the Who, this is a great chance to enjoy a lesser known side in a theatrically musical homage by venerable musicians inspired by that legendary band over several years. Gimme Noise spoke with Tom Siler and his wife, Joan Vorderbruggen -- frontwoman performing the singing role of Roger Daltrey -- over several German beers, pickled herring and lentils at the Black Forest Inn, a classic artist hangout for several decades.

The Who By Numbers' stellar local line-up includes Joan Vorderbruggen (Feather Underground) on vocals and cowbell; Jacques Wait (Pink Mink, Iguano) on electric guitar and backup vocals; Randy Weiss (the Hypstrz, the Mighty Mofos) on bass guitar; Tom Siler (the Odd, Tulip Sweet, the King of France) on piano, acoustic guitar, and backup vocals; Keely Lane (Ol' Yeller, Trailer Trash, Stockcar Named Desire) on drums; Carol Cunnington (Ear Candy) on backup vocals; and Dave Kapell (founder of Magnetic Poetry Kit) on ukulele.

Joan and Tom
Joan and Tom

What are the origins of you performing The Who by Numbers?

Tom Siler: Keely Lane had put a notice on Facebook that he got new drum recording software, and so anyone who needed drums, give him a shout out because he was eager to try out the software. At the moment I was listening to The Who By Numbers. I messaged him, "Do you think you could record all the drums on The Who by Numbers?" He said, "It'd be a challenge, but it would be real fun. Let's just do it!" So we went back and forth via email with three tracks, where I did the other instruments and he did the drums.

Then later, Michael Azzerad, who wrote Our Band Could be Your Life emailed me that he'd heard Pete Townshend might do one last tour for the Who, since he just got a new publishing deal -- which in effect frees him from the legacy of the Who because now they're going to start promoting more Who songs on TV and stuff. So he won't need to tour with them anymore. That's kind of why Quadrophenia is the last tour, the 40th anniversary of the release. He wanted to wrap that opera up one more time, or something like that. So we said, "Well, if it happens, let's do a show."

Joan Vorderbruggen: It's an album we started listening to a lot in January last year. There were a couple songs on there that I really related too. [Laughs]

I figured such might be the case.

JV: One of the songs I started singing in the living room was "How Many Friends."

I bet more people than we know identify with that song.

JV: There's these late nights, staying up with cocktails, being on the computer, busting out and singing along with the record. I did that enough times that it planted the seed that I might be able to sing that. Tom said you could do that sometime, but you would need singing lessons (laughs). Still not believing it would ever happen. We talked with Jacques Wait, one of our bandmembers on this project.

TS: I did various recording projects with Jacques, so we bounce ideas back and forth with each other.

JV: So, I asked Jacques if he knows anyone with vocal training. He said her name is Diana Grasselli. She had done backups with Dionne Warwick, Cher, Alice Cooper, Paul Stanley and more. Her band was Desmond Child and Rouge. She performed in Gilda Radner's Live From New York Broadway show! If you look on YouTube, "Our Love is Insane," is their hit.

She's amazing and has this vocal method. She's based in Northeast Minneapolis, still giving voice lessons. I went there a few times and learned some of her techniques. I just found out Carol Cunnington went there all summer too!

What were some of the things she taught you?

I didn't go there long enough to prevent the damage I'm about to do to my voice, but we worked on breathing, the importance of warm ups, and she has an amazing "Vertical Voice" method I hope to learn before attempting this again. She gave me a rescue session recently to "keep me from spitting blood!"

How do you feel about Pete Townshend singing two songs, and Roger Daltrey singing the rest?

JV: Tom is singing the first Pete track and Dave is singing the second one. I'm singing the Roger Daltrey songs.

Listening to how dark the songs are, and the issues they cover, would you like to talk about identifying with the songs?

JV: "However Much I Booze" has been referred to as Pete Townshend's suicide note . . . Tom's singing that one!

TS: The ones where he's singing about the music industry are the ones I like the best. Because he's an aging rock star and he knows he's going to be irrelevant soon. He's coming to terms with it then and he was still in his mid-30s! Back then that was as old as it got. And that's still as old as it gets. Except for Chuck Berry.

JV: I feel the core themes of the record are: loneliness, spiraling into obscurity, alcohol, lust... these are things artists can relate to.

TS: Also it's about failing at your original ambitions. "Slip Kid" is like a warning to anybody who gets involved with the music industry. That its not going to measure up to what you think it might be. (Laughs) It's going to cost your soul or whatever and everyone around you is going to be pretty unhappy.

There's so much bitterness in some of those songs. "Success Story" by John Entwistle.

TS: It's a nice dark answer to Pete's songs . . . its got more humor for sure.

JV: But it's also a rocker!

TS: Entwistle drew the artwork for the cover. In his later years he did artwork for other artists, like Ronnie Wood. I changed it; I connected the dots and then took away the dots. I wanted to see what the drawing looked like.  

How do you personally feel about this record compared to the other Who albums?

TS: I feel it's their best recording, ever. Their performance is at its peak, the band in its prime. Quadrophenia is more like a solo Townshend album because he plays everything on it. But Entwistle is pretty awesome on it. Keith Moon is on the verge of failing but he's not there yet. He's still got it.

I saw today a documentary on Keith Moon, Keith's Last 24 Hours. The album after this is Who Are You. At that point he was trying to stop drinking. When he stopped drinking he couldn't play in the Keith Moon style. So he had to keep drinking to play Who are You. That's what fuels his style.

Do you have any least favorite songs or songs that are difficult?

JV: What's funny is that the ballads are everyone's least favorite. So those are the ones we've had to do the most work on. Because we didn't grow up on these, or we listened to them a hundred thousand times. We've spent a lot of time perfecting these ballads, which has been really challenging.

Talk about your past musical backgrounds.

TS: I played with the Odd, King of France, and Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears. I did most of the arranging in all of those bands. That's why I like this project. It's theatrical and its rock at the same time. There's lots of stuff going on in the arrangements. That's why I like the Who. A lot of stuff we did with Tulip Sweet, we based on the Who. If you listen to the records, you'll hear tight harmonies, sensitive male vocals in the background, and lots of drum fills that are lifted directly from Keith Moon. It's peppered all the way through.

King of France as well. Michael Azerrad, the drummer in King of France was a big Who fan, so he and I tried to make that sound like the Who also. They've always been a major influence on me. I haven't played in about six years in rock.

Joan, what about your past performance experience? Feather Underground?

TS: that was the same time frame. And Jacques was part of that recording, the Feather Underground.

JV: I don't have a large portfolio, that's legitimate. I'm a huge attention seeker. There's no question. Living in New York, I think I did a trillion million things that were very daring and attention seeking.

TS: Kind of like Keith Moon, some of them! If people weren't paying attention to him in a restaurant, he'd take off all his clothes and sit on a table. Yeah.

Tom, do you relate to this record in any way?

TS: I've related to this record since high school. I think I went through my mid-life crisis in high school. Since then this album has always informed me in what I'm doing, with music and stuff. And, boy, it's had way more effect on me than Quadrophenia which has always been sort of like a fairy tale/history lesson. A little on the boring side for me except for the music.

I was kind of surprised how bitter and dark this record was.

JV: It's definitely a window into total emotional trauma. And doing that with the musicianship that the Who can do is super-powerful. When we did our first practice as a full band, it was incredibly exhilarating. Because you don't hear those songs anymore. It's the Who, any rocking Who song is stadium-sounding, really amazing.

TS: Hearing the whole album performed live is a way different experience than listening the recorded album. It's beautifully recorded and mixed. But it's amazing how much power it has when you play it live. And coming after Quadrophenia, you can see -- there is no synthesizers, no overdubs, it's just a band playing really well live. When another band performs it the same way, the same thing happens. It's just as powerful.

I wondered how the other band members felt about it. How many practices have you had?

TS: One! [We laugh] I don't like to practice. And I think bands that practice, overdo it. The idea is to surround yourself with really good players who are better than you are, and then everybody rises to the occasion. When we first had the idea and wondered "who could play these parts?" - these are the exact original four that we really envisioned doing it. So it kind of shocked us when they each said, "Yes!" [Laughs]

What can the audience expect, in terms of theatrics, unusual approach?

TS: We're going to smash up everything at the end, our guitars and there won't be anything left.

Like The Who song, "Success Story" from the record. How do you feel about performing this after Quadrophenia?

TS: I saw it when Entwistle was alive and it was really good. I know, after a concert like the Who, I want to do something else! That was part of my thinking with this. This is the After-Who-Party. You know? Somewhere where you can go and keep the party going. Because Target Center is kind of a dull affair. All concerts are kind of a dull affair these days. When the music is over, all you can do is leave. Its not like you imagined it in the early days of rock, where after the concert the party would just keep on going. But I figured this would be the perfect follow-up.

JV: I was a huge Pete Townshend fan for a long time, had sort of a mental open letter to him for a long time. I know people do that and he probably has a lot of more "crazies" who do that because of the subject and the nature of his music.

TS: Some of those people are contacting me now, on Facebook, sending me their requests and why. They tell me the story behind what the song means, and why it's about them!

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

TS: I hope a lot of younger people come to this. People who are in alternative rock, whatever you call it now. They don't have anything like this now in their lives. Songs this well-written about emotions, as well-crafted... I just don't think they get it anymore, so they need to see this. That was a big reason we are doing this. I hope a bunch of them come and get inspired to do something like it, not imitate the Who, but incorporate it into their own styles. I'm hoping Pete Townshend shows up, and sees how good it is live, and decides to go out one more time, and do The Who by Numbers. [We laugh]

The Who By Numbers with RuDeGiRL, 7th St. Entry, Tuesday, Nov. 27th - Doors 9pm/show at 10 p.m. $5 cover, or $3 with a Target Center/Who Concert ticket stub.

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