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By Tom Murphy
Denver's Zoon Politikon has been playing catchy power pop in seedy area clubs and crowded living rooms since 1989, but its members still haven't received their fair share of acclaim. Maybe this has something to do with the players' professed laziness with regard to booking shows. Possibly it's because the band has gone through bassists like Spinal Tap loses drummers. Or perhaps, as co-founder/drummer Kyle Carstens suggests, the key is that "Zoon has never tried to look at what's going on and do that, ever. We're just playing this weird little music. We ain't grunge or anything else."
Adds guitarist and vocalist Pat Donovan, "We've always just had this quiet little attitude. Zoon has never been particularly good at figuring out how to make a million bucks in nine months in the rock-and-roll industry. But honest to God, we put our heart and soul into the music. We just go and play, and that's really all we've ever been about."
Unfortunately, this philosophy hasn't been easy to put into action. Around the turn of the decade, the group seemed on its way to a higher profile; after all, the musicians lived and played at the Classroom, a north Capitol Hill building where some of the city's most popular acts at the time staged informal underground shows. But original bassist Ryan Zimmerman moved to Portland, Oregon, after a single performance, and the next two bass players didn't stick around for much longer. Zimmerman returned to the fold two years later but was kicked out following a Zoon appearance at the I-Beam. Shortly thereafter, Joel Dallenbach became bassist number five--but he lasted only until March of this year. His departure forced Zoon to drop out of a date at CU-Boulder's Glenn Miller Ballroom expected to draw over 1,000 paying customers.
Bad luck? Sure--but Carstens and Donovan aren't complaining. They say they're happy with Maine native Carol Kincaid, who's signed on as Zoon's latest bassist. Indeed, Kincaid's late-Seventies-funk sensibility meshes perfectly with Carstens's retro-minimalist percussion and Donovan's sloppy, hook-filled guitar sound. As for Donovan's vocals, they're dry and witty in the tradition of Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. The performers cite a familiar list of additional influences--Hendrix, the Stones, Bowie and a litany of punk bands--but their three-minute, melody-driven ditties are wholly their own.
Donovan believes the group's hometown has something to do with Zoon's originality. "Denver is so small that it's an opportunity," he says. "Isolation has allowed it to become something different.
"It's a smaller scene here than most other cities have," he concedes. "But you can do whatever in the hell you want. As long as you're doing something of quality, people are not going to say, `Oh, that's not the Minneapolis sound,' or `Primus would kick your ass if we were in San Francisco,' or `You couldn't shine a light to Dinosaur Jr.'"
Still, the artists admit that the music scene here is not immune from jealousy and backbiting. In fact, they've witnessed these problems almost firsthand. The three members of Spell, a Denver band whose great Island Records debut, Mississippi, has earned generous reviews, live next door to Carstens in northwest Denver and have become close friends with the various Zoons. As a result, they have a unique perspective on the minor backlash against Spell spearheaded by a disgruntled percentage of the local community. In Donovan's view, these complaints--seemingly inspired by nothing more than Spell's newfound prominence--are completely unjustified.
"Those guys are totally from the Denver scene," he points out. "One of the DJs on MTV wanted to talk about Chanin [Floyd, Spell's bassist and vocalist] just so she could say '57 Lesbian, you know? Like, `Chanin used to play in '57 Lesbian.' So, there's '57 Lesbian nationwide on MTV, and people are bitching.
"Spell is going to help every band in Denver," he predicts.
It's too soon to tell whether Zoon Politikon will benefit from the connection. Krap Factory, a four-song cassette the outfit recorded last year, is a collection of enjoyable first takes, but it seems more for fans than for the masses. Then again, the tape features impossible-to-dislike lyrics such as "And cigarettes taste like they were made for you/And the beer is wet in your burning hand/Just bring me the fucking bourbon" (from "Anything Can Happen"). And the offering's rough production quality has plenty in common with a newly marketable sound.
"When I first heard about lo-fi, I read Liz Phair talking about it, and I thought, `Shit, we've been doing that for years,'" Donovan notes with pride. "We were fifteen minutes ahead of the curve.