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Dave Shirley, the rapper, keyboardist, percussionist, full-time humorist and co-frontman for Denver's Red Yak, offers a succinct review of his group's early work. "We sucked forever," he says.
While Shirley and his fellow Yaks (bassist Darren Lawless, guitarist Bob LaBarge, drummer Aarek Moore and singer Kirk Anderson) rightly feel that they don't suck now, they continue to debate about when they stopped doing so. They agree only that the sucking came to an end sometime after they learned how to play their instruments. The formation of this eclectic combo was not a case of musicians joining together to form a band but of best friends who were looking to become musicians.
By now, not only have they learned how to play music--they've learned to do it well. Their sound is a tasty stew of original rap, grunge and metal replete with big bass lines, ultrafunky keyboards, CB/bullhorn vocals, a zesty melange of percussion instruments and the proper amount of distortion. And even though a lot of the group's material is concerned with downbeat subject matter, the performers keep their tongues firmly planted in cheek.
Humor comes naturally to the Yaks; both Shirley and Anderson are members of Comedy Sports, a local improvisational comedy troupe. Moreover, everyone but Lawless has a background in juggling and street performing. Shirley and Anderson continue to exhibit these skills every summer at Heritage Square.
On stage with the Yaks, Shirley--who cites Frank Sinatra and Yanni as influences--looks like the antithesis of a hip-hop or rock star: He enjoys performing in a tall, green Stetson and a dark-blue suit, and sometimes wears what he calls a "happy drum" around his neck, marching-band style. Fortunately, quirks like these make Red Yak more accessible (and more fun to watch) than the average collection of flannel-shirt wearers.
The band's roots stretch back to Shirley and Moore's seventh-grade year; it was then that they formed a group featuring the unlikely combination of a piano, drums and two saxophones. Shirley, who manned one of the saxes, says, "It was a cheesy little rock band we put together. All along, Aarek has been the only one of us who really knew how to play." He adds that he's tried finding a place for his saxophone in Red Yak but feels that the instrument doesn't fit the band's sound.
In 1988, after the majority of the bandmembers graduated from Aurora Central High School, Shirley joined the Navy and spent nearly four years as a sonar technician on a mine sweeper. A few years later Moore and Anderson put together an act with the easy-to-remember designation I Like Eating Onion Rings Because It's Exactly Like Eating Shrimp Only Vegetarian-Style. This grouping didn't last long: After Shirley, in his words, "got done protecting everyone's freedom," the current members of the band united and started trying on new monikers. They settled on Red Yak only after discarding a trio of names (Syndromessiah, EAXKKA and A Dark) notable mainly for their failure to mention onions.
The songs the Yaks have produced thus far have been on the serious side. Moore, who builds scenery for the Denver Center Theatre Company, says, "Most of our songs are about religion and the death side of life."
"None of the songs are about death or dying or what happens after you die, but just about the fact that you die. Mortality rock," interjects Anderson, the Yaks' co-lyricist, as well as a performer prone to scaling climbable objects and hanging from rafters during shows. "We don't like fun songs, and we don't write songs about relationships."
Indeed, there are no sappy love ditties here. "November '85," a groovy rap number, explores both the random nature of death and what the songwriters see as the hypocrisy at the heart of organized religion. In a similar vein, "Bass in the Dinosaur" (built on the question "What would you die for?") is concerned with concepts such as sacrifice and religious guilt. And "Hate State," the band's first rap tune, takes a swipe at Amendment 2. The composition, which refers to Colorado as "the land of confusion," lashes out at the amendment's shortsightedness and viciousness, as well as the embarrassment it's brought to these parts.
The players in Red Yak write their music collaboratively. "It's mosh-teaser music," Lawless explains. The bandmembers list U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as favorites but agree that their main focus is on their performances. "We're more influenced by showmanship than music," Shirley says.
"In a strange way, that even influences how we write songs," Anderson continues. "We think about how it will be performed."
But according to Shirley, the real reason that Red Yak's music is so original is much simpler. "We never had the skills to play covers.