By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Approaching a certain nondescript building in the warehouse district north of downtown Denver can be an unnerving experience--especially if you're visiting at night. The street is poorly lit, the people meandering nearby have the look of the criminally insane, and the rabid, wildly yapping dogs prowling the adjacent properties seem to consider each passerby a seven-course dinner on legs.
Make it alive through the structure's rear entrance, though, and you'll find yourself in a far different environment. The room has the look of a sprawling loft, but aside from a spongy, bedspread-draped couch and a few other pieces of hand-me-down furniture, it's dominated by musical devices: a drum kit, a stand-up bass, a ragged-looking squeeze box, a banjo. Bassist Keven Soll, drummer Jean-yves Tola and multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards--the three performers who form 16 Horsepower, the latest great Denver band to sign to a major label--hover over these items like surgeons ready to make an incision. Music has always been a serious matter to them, and now that Los Angeles-based A&M Records is preparing to introduce them to a national audience, it has become more pressing still.
"It's a rarity for this to happen to a band in Colorado right now," Edwards says, "and like a lot of people around here, I probably have an exaggerated view of what it all means. Especially because things are getting harder every day. It took a lot of hard work to get here, and now it's going to take even more work. But it's the kind of work I want to do."
For anyone fortunate enough to have seen 16 Horsepower live, Edwards's response likely comes as no surprise. The trio's members aren't humorless, but they are intense--and when they're on stage, pushing and pulling every last bit of blood and passion out of their songs and themselves, they seem utterly driven. Compositions such as "Black Soul Wire" (apt to be the first single from 16 Horsepower's A&M debut) have a life of their own because Edwards, Soll and Tola have infused them with a significant portion of theirs.
Such a description makes 16 Horsepower sound inaccessible, which it clearly is not: In around two years of life, the act has become one of the top local draws in the Denver-Boulder area. But convincing record-company scouts that something fresh and original is worthy of attention was not easy.
"We did an ASCAP showcase at the Coconut Teaser in Los Angeles in April of '94," Tola notes, "and this guy from MCA went to see us and really liked us."
"He said he did, anyway," Edwards offers.
"He really did--he's still calling us," Tola continues. "But the problem was, he passed along our tape, and after listening to it over and over again, his boss said he didn't know what to do with us."
Edwards nods. "That was why we liked A&M. They have faith in us--that we know what the music is supposed to sound like and how we want to present ourselves."
"One of the first things our A&R guy said," Soll interjects, "was, `They have ideas.' He thought that was a good thing."
He's right. 16 Horsepower has many strengths, but one of the most important of those is the members' conviction that they know what's best. As Soll puts it, "I don't mean this to sound bigheaded or anything, but I have no doubt in my mind that we're going to make a great record. How everything's going to work with the record company is something else entirely, but as far as the music goes, I have no doubt about it at all."
The roots of the band go back to the late Eighties, when Edwards was living in Los Angeles and playing with the Denver Gentlemen, an act renowned for its exciting and heartfelt exploration of traditional American musical styles. Tola, too, was headquartered in L.A.: He was playing with Passion Fodder, a combo that put out a handful of albums on the Beggar's Banquet imprint. Following Fodder's 1992 collapse, Tola, a native of France, joined the Gentlemen. At first blush, the thought of a Frenchman keeping time for such a band might seem incongruous, but Tola assures that the fit was right.
"I grew up listening to American music," he reveals. "Leonard Cohen, bluegrass, old rock and roll. I never got into French music, thank God. They've got a couple of good bands over there now, but it took them fifty years."
By 1993 Edwards's creative impulses led him to leave the Gentlemen, and Tola returned to Denver with him. The pair soon got together with Soll (a guitar-shop owner who recently changed his last name from Warner to honor his late grandfather) and formed 16 Horsepower. After a few months of woodshedding, the group played its first show for around thirty people at the Mercury Cafe. But in a matter of months, this unheralded act had earned a reputation as one of the city's preeminent musical forces--even if no one could quite figure out how to describe what the threesome was doing.
"We've been called country punk, but we never liked that," Soll notes.
"That's because we play country, hillbilly, rock, tons of things," Tola adds.
"A melting pot," Edwards concludes. "That's all we are. A melting pot."