For the December show in Omaha, Nebraska, the Stiletto Formal wants to be in perfect form to debut its sassy style of indie sex-core served with a healthy slathering of cowbell. Unfortunately, Howard lost his voice in Colorado. To nurse his vocal cords back to health, he guzzled honey-laden hot tea and stopped speaking for nearly two days -- a remarkable feat for the chatty 20-year-old. But it didn't work. Now showtime is ticking closer, and the six members of the Stiletto Formal are worrying.
Howard comes up with an idea, though. He doesn't hesitate, and squirts steroid nasal spray directly down his throat. Amazingly, it works enough for him to sing three songs, with his band stepping up to draw the audience attention whenever he falters. The small crowd dances and claps, and two teenage girls toward the front weave their heads from side to side, absorbing a prominent cello serenade with their eyes closed.
Immediately afterward, Howard is outside -- wearing an Anne Klein coat adorned by a pink floral brooch -- and crouched by a wall, dry heaving. With no complaints, he simply shrugs and says he knew the medicine would make him nauseous. His only real concern is if he sounded decent. (He did.)
That is only one example of the Stiletto Formal's commitment. Keyboardist Shelly Barnes, cellist Sunny Davis, drummer Nole Kennedy, guitarist Jimi Lamp, bassist Paul Neely, and Howard are willing to do whatever it takes to live the life of a touring band -- to make it. They are determined. They also happen to be a fucking good band.
The proof is on the audio explosion that is the Stiletto Formal's new album, Masochism in the Place of Romance. It may be the group's first effort, but when the band teamed up with Cory Spotts at Blue Light Audio, they created something notable.
The album is named after a song by Cascara, a band the four Stiletto guys were in for two and a half years, explains Neely, pushing out his chest to model a shirt decorated with his former band's logo. When that band ended about a year ago, Neely, Howard, Kennedy and Lamp had already built a musical repertoire with each other, so they teamed up with Barnes to make the Stiletto Formal. Six weeks later, Davis joined to complete the lineup.
Masochism opens with a six-and-a-half-minute dance symphony, "Murder at the Stiletto Formal," that introduces the band like a debutante being presented to society. "That's when keyboards became a prominent instrument that's really crucial to our sound," Howard notes.
Of course, lots of bands have keyboardists, but it's hard to think of more than three current bands that have a cellist as a permanent fixture. Davis admits a novelty stigma is attached to cellos in rock bands. Acts like Cursive and Murder by Death have drawn the spotlight, so people often tell the 18-year-old Davis that her band must sound like Cursive simply because she's a member.
She takes it in stride. Because her instrument is unusual for a rock band, Davis has no rules -- a major change for a woman from an orchestral background. "You can just do your thing and it's readily accepted, because it is so different," she says.
The Stiletto Formal isn't all cello, though. There are times when throbbing rhythm dominates, and others when Howard's crooning and Barnes' soft backing vocals are outstanding. Lyrically, Masochism in the Place of Romance is a commentary on modern relationships. Howard is crushed by what he sees as the death of romance. People are devaluing themselves by giving in to carnal lust instead of working toward a long-term relationship, he says. The lyrical candor (e.g., "I'll be your default tonight/So take my kindness as a weakness") coupled with the emotional honesty in the vocals on "Hills Like White Elephants" will cause goose bumps in even the warmest of rooms.
To avoid sounding formulaic, the band incorporated additional instruments outside the standard drum-bass-guitar-vocals format, including maracas, saxophone, and lots of cowbell. There was one thought in the Stiletto kids' minds while writing: What will still be interesting to hear a month from now? For inspiration, they jammed to Refused and experimented with mood lighting.
"Navigating the Formaldehyde Strait" is a slow, melodic song, the counterpart of the dancey, scream-filled "Black Tar Concubine." Versatility is one of the great things about the Stiletto Formal, and Barnes agrees. She says, "I love the fact that somebody can listen to 'Navigating' and go, 'Oh, that's cool,' and then hear 'Black Tar' and be all, 'How is this the same band?'"
But it is the same band. Stiletto's sassy merger of Tilly and the Wall and the Blood Brothers is punctuated with claps, cowbell, and high-pitched "oh's." It's a sound that might get the band noticed nationally -- if everything goes according to plan.
For now, the band does its part for local recognition. When a wall of denim, black, and hair gel walks into a club, nine times out of 10, it's the Stiletto Formal. The fashionistas do as much together as possible, including showing up as a group to concerts several times a week. Barnes explains that arriving as a band breeds solidarity. That said, they only purchased an official band vehicle -- a 1994 Ford Clubwagon -- in November, because they knew a van was necessary to tour.
As soon as they bought it, they took it everywhere. "We went to some party the other night and we called up all of our friends," Howard says. "We're like, 'You guys want a ride? We've got 15 seats, and one of them's got your name on it.'"
But the musicians have more in mind for the van than hauling around friends and taking late-night Del Taco runs. They intend to tour -- a lot. "If we could be a band that plays every night in a different city, oh my God, we'd be so happy," Kennedy says loudly, in one breath.
They mean it, too. When Kennedy graduates in May, the other five members are dropping out of college to tour nonstop. Three of them are calling it quits three years in: Howard and Neely at Arizona State University, and Barnes at Paradise Valley Community College. Each is wholeheartedly committed to making the band succeed, but the educational sacrifice for Neely is particularly outstanding. ASU informed him that if he leaves even for one semester, he will lose his full-tuition scholarship for good. He decided that touring with the band is a one-time deal, so he isn't going to let it slip by.
Knowing all of the risks, Neely and his bandmates feel strongly enough to forgo school, financial support, and even shelter, to see where it takes them. "I'm excited to be honestly, completely, legally homeless," Howard says, laughing.
But the sacrifices will all be worthwhile if the sextet has an audience each night. Sure, a record deal would be sweet, but ultimately, they just want to see people reacting emotionally to their music. "We want to move people," Howard says. "The entire fundamental purpose of music is to move people."