Irons in the Fire

They're punk. They're ska. They're Christian. They're Denver's Five Iron Frenzy.

The centerpiece of the living room shared by the members of Five Iron Frenzy is a battered, garage-sale-reject of a coffee table that's littered with precisely the kind of flotsam you'd expect to find in a punk-rock crash pad: gig fliers, dishes, dog-eared back issues of Maximum Rock 'N' Roll. Only one intriguing object--a brown, leather-bound Bible--seems out of place. But for the Frenzys, Denver's reigning ska-core champions, the last item may be the most important thing in the house.

"People have this big misconception about Christianity," explains Reese Roper, the act's lead vocalist, frontman and owner of the aforementioned tome. "When they think of Christianity, they think of some guy in a suit and tie, like Jimmy Swaggart, out there pointing fingers at everyone. That's not at all what we're about."

Roper certainly doesn't fit this description, especially when he's clad in the cape, crash helmet and metallic leisure suit that's among his many onstage ensembles. Likewise, the fast-and-loose, horn-drenched mixture of punk, ska, pop and metal produced by Roper and his bandmates (bassist Keith Hoerig, guitarists Micah Ortega and Scott Kerr, saxophonist Jeff "The Girl" Ortega, trombonist Dennis Culp, trumpeter Nathanael Dunham and drummer Andrew "Chaka" Verdecchio) has little in common with the music the average pagan-on-the-street associates with Christian bands. Five Iron Frenzy calls to mind Skankin' Pickle, NOFX and the Vandals, not Amy Grant. In fact, the octet's comic skank-and-thrash makeover of the Grant song "Everywhere I Go" would fit in a lot better on a sampler disc for Epitaph than on the Family Channel.

Although the band is less than a year old, its core members--Roper, Hoerig and Ortega--have been creating divine racket together since 1992. Their first project, an industrial-strength thrash outfit called Exhumator, was a staple in the area's Christian-rock scene for close to four years. "It was a growing experience," Hoerig says about this early effort. "We learned how to be in a band. I guess we wouldn't be Five Iron Frenzy without it."

"But it was really angry and depressing," Roper elaborates. "Which we had a hard time doing, because we weren't any different than we are right now. We were all trying to be angry, but we're all just really kind of goofy."

Kerr, who joined Exhumator in 1994, has a zany streak of his own, as well as a fondness for third-generation ska groups like Mephiskapheles and Mustard Plug. Soon after the arrival of Verdecchio, Dunham and "The Girl"--who, despite being named Jeff, actually is a girl--the group began weaving the punky ska rhythms he loves into Exhumator's hardcore fray. Roper welcomed this change with open arms. "One of the things that's cool about ska is that it's not so angry. I like that."

Kerr agrees, noting, "It's more lighthearted. It's still aggressive, but it has that fun aspect as well. It's not too dark or too serious--which was the problem with Exhumator."

The final piece in the Five Iron Frenzy puzzle was trombonist Culp, who joined the renamed act last August. "Dennis came to us by the grace of God," Roper evangelizes. "He just showed up at one of our shows. Now he's writing a lot of our material, and he's just awesome to have in the band. I think we owe a lot of what we are to him. He's a good dancer, too. And," he jokes, "he's pretty."

Together, these musicians make rock and roll every bit as entertaining as that peddled by the best of its secular counterparts--but not everyone is open-minded enough to enjoy it. The performers still struggle to overcome stigmas associated with being cross-carrying rockers. Hoerig is particularly frustrated by the Pat Buchanan-fed assumption that all Christians are part of some right-wing, fascist conspiracy. "We just want to follow the teachings of Christ," he asserts. "That's about how deep it goes with us. Christianity isn't a political thing with us. It's a spiritual thing."

Smiling, Kerr interjects, "But I do want to go on record as saying that we are not, and never have been, members of the Christian Coalition."

Neither are the musicians annoyingly in-your-face about their creed. A handful of the group's songs--like "Cool Enough for You," which takes on ska purists who don't want anyone outside of their circle to play two-tone beats--are inspired by nonreligious topics. But even when the artists explore Christian subject matter, they refuse to harangue listeners. Instead, they explore such themes with a subtle, metaphorical complexity that heathens would do well to emulate.

"We don't want to offend people," Roper insists. "That's not our thing. I mean, I can't write about doing drugs or whatever, because I don't."

"The way I look at it is, everybody preaches what they believe, whether it's this, that or the other," Kerr notes. "This is what we believe, so this is what we're going to say."

"But we don't want to push it from the stage," Hoerig says, "because when people go to a show, they want to go to a show, not a church service."

This lesson was learned the hard way. "I remember the first time we played a non-Christian show," Hoerig recalls, laughing. "We were playing, and everybody was really getting into it. Then, at the end of our set, we said, 'We're a Christian band, and if you want to come up and talk to us about that, feel free.' All of a sudden, everybody seemed not to like us anymore."

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