The first time I paid attention to Olympic Size was a Thursday in January at the Record Bar. It wasn't the band I had come to see, but as Billy Smith and Kirsten Paludan harmonized on haunting folk-pop songs, I was touched. Sitting alone in the club's front booth, I fought back tears when they sang, The hardest part of letting go is tonight, don't let it show.
Five months later, the heartbreak that "The Hardest Part" reminded me of has mostly healed. But the song — along with the other nine tracks on Olympic Size's long-awaited LP, You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone — retains its soul-stirring capacity.
That power results from a combination of mellow, electronic-tinged folk music and straightforward lyrics about life's inevitabilities and lonely moments.
Technically, the bittersweet masterpiece of You'll Miss Me took the band just under a year to record (hence the glacial imagery on the cover). But some of the songs are rooted back even further, to the days before Olympic Size was Olympic-sized, when it was just Smith and Wade Williamson playing midtown bars on off nights.
Core members Smith, Paludan, Williamson and Chris Tolle joined me for drinks in the backroom of the Bulldog one recent afternoon to discuss the new album and the evolution of their band.
They decided to make the appropriately titled You'll Miss Me when longtime drummer Pete LaPorte announced that he was moving. (Ryan Pope replaced him.)
O-Size followers may notice some differences between the recordings and the more stripped-down songs they were introduced to live. Among the added elements on the album: glockenspiel, violin, cabasa and a horn section. "A song's not done being written until it's recorded," Williamson explains.
"And even then it might not be done," Paludan adds.
Although the roster has swelled to include up to eight members at any given concert, the band's off-night tendency hasn't changed — you'll hardly ever catch Olympic Size playing anywhere on a Friday or Saturday night. There's a reason for that. In spite of some recent national attention, Olympic Size remains a side project whose members' résumés include prominent KC and Lawrence bands of past and present, such as Roman Numerals, the Kirsten Paludan Band, the Get Up Kids, the Stella Link, the Belles and Bellweather.
"This is a side project, I guess, in the way that everyone is the leader of their own band," says Tolle, who also fronts the Belles. "Everyone brings their best leadership and follower qualities."
They bring those qualities to a living-room practice space every week. When someone's on tour, everyone at least gets there mentally. "When I was on the road with Roman Numerals," Smith says, "I'd send everyone e-mails that we had 'telepathic practice on Sunday.'"
Having written abstract songs for years for Dirtnap and Roman Numerals, Smith tries hard — at the urging of his more pop-savvy bandmates — not to try so hard lyrically with Olympic Size. "It kind of makes me really have to speak something simple and something truthful," he says.
Example: the opening line of "47th Street." In the song, he declares, I swear that this happened, before describing a car wreck that he then turns into a relationship metaphor. It's probably not the deepest concept he's ever explored, but it resonates.
"Our songs are universal," Paludan says.
The theme of one song was universal enough for MTV to slip it into an episode of The Real World. Last fall, "Friends" helped amp up the drama of a tearful goodbye scene.
"It's weird when a song you've written years ago, that comes from a specific place, ends up in a teen drama," Tolle says.
Which isn't to say he doesn't want it to happen again.
The band pressed and hand-numbered just 150 copies of You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone, some of which will be available Friday, June 20, when Olympic Size plays at the Brick.
With any luck, one of the CDs will get into the hands of someone who will release the album on a larger scale. Then maybe Olympic Size will stop being a side project, already, and start making people cry in bars everywhere.