As local acclaim grew, 16 Horsepower won the right to play at the ASCAP showcase--and while the attentions of MCA never came to much, they spurred contacts by a who's who of U.S. music firms. "We heard from Slash, Virgin, Mute, Rykodisc, Columbia, RCA, Epic, Caroline, Sony," Tola recalls. "Some others, too. I can't remember them all."

The connection that counted was California-based Jamie Fraser, who has since become 16 Horsepower's manager. Fraser was friendly with Bob Ferbrache, a Denver musician and engineer who currently handles mixing chores for MusicLink, a music-video program that airs on KUBD-TV/ Channel 59. During a get-together last year, Ferbrache forwarded a 16 Horsepower demo, and Fraser was so impressed that he got in touch with Jeff Suhi, who works in the artists-and-repertoire department at A&M. Suhi was just as floored by the cassette--so much so that he flew to Denver to catch 16 Horsepower live. "And that was pretty much it," Tola admits. "Jeff wasn't like the other record-company people, who would say, `You guys are really great,' but you could tell that they were really only interested because everybody else was interested. He really meant it."

The impending business relationship was solidified after Ferbrache and the members of 16 Horsepower were flown to Los Angeles for a meeting with A&M brass. Edwards, who concedes that he "never thought a major label would be interested in us," was shocked to discover that A&M's president "knew the names of all our songs. He said he'd been listening to it all the time. He said"--Edwards sounds slightly embarrassed--"that listening to it made him feel happy."

As negotiations got under way in earnest, however, a musical experiment went awry. Edwards and company asked Ferbrache to add keyboards to a number of 16 Horsepower songs, leading many in Denver's music community to assume that the engineer had been made a full member of the group. As a result, the trio's decision that the new sound was not working took on sinister connotations among gossips who suggested that Ferbrache had been used for his connections and then cast aside. All parties involved dispute this theory.

"We've heard that people say we got rid of him because of money or whatever, but that didn't have anything to do with it," Soll says. "What it came down to was the music. It was just that the edge and the unity that we had was missing."

"There were spaces in the songs that we thought we needed to fill," Edwards elaborates. "But we realized that the spaces really made a lot of the songs work."

"And it also softened the sound too much," Tola states. "I think all of us realized it wasn't helping."

As for Ferbrache, he claims to harbor no ill feelings: "It was a sideman thing--I was just helping out, but they wanted to go with a rawer approach." Even though he's no longer involved with the music, he touts the group as "the one band that has the sound and style that's going to take them to the next step. I think they're great."

So does A&M, which initially offered 16 Horsepower a contract with a hefty advance. But after talking with some friends with experience in dealing with music companies--including Spell's Tim Beckman and former Fluid lead singer John Robinson--the bandmates decided to avoid getting in over their heads. The final wording on the documents, which are being finalized this week, calls for a modest advance and an agreement that guarantees that A&M will issue 16 Horsepower's first album. If that disc sells 75,000 copies, a second disc is also guaranteed, and A&M retains an option for five additional recordings after that.

The contract also gives 16 Horsepower a relatively large amount of creative freedom, and thus far the company has lived up to these provisions. Warren Bruleigh, who has worked with the Violent Femmes, the Afghan Whigs, Lou Reed and many other notables, was the band's choice to serve as producer (he was recommended by Robinson), and A&M raised no objections. Preproduction on the thus-far-untitled disc begins in Denver on January 23. A few weeks later, after live dates in Kansas and Missouri, the musicians are scheduled to work with Bruleigh at Memphis's Ardent Studio, where Led Zeppelin and Big Star cut memorable offerings. Edwards says the sessions that follow should take about a month, with tracks likely to be drawn from a library of songs he's written or co-written since 1991. "There may be a couple of things from the past six months," he guesses, "but mostly it'll be songs that people around here will be familiar with--and maybe some that we haven't played for a while. We've got so much stuff now that there really isn't much of a point to writing more yet."

Once the album is in the can, 16 Horsepower will be on a fast track. The players want it in stores by July, after which they'll hit the road with a more established headliner (they recently signed a pact with a well-known California booking agency that represents the Cowboy Junkies, Lyle Lovett and Mazzy Star). There are also videos to consider. "We want to film the first one at the Forney Museum," Soll says. "It's my favorite place in Denver. We took Jeff over there, and it totally freaked him out."

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