By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
But for the quality of their music, the Czars, a band that's emerged as one of Denver's most hypnotic live acts, would not exist. And therein lies a tale.
Founding Czars John Grant and Chris Pearson met at a local nightclub in the spring of 1994, shortly after Grant had returned from a six-year sojourn in Germany and Pearson had purchased an upright bass. "We sat down and played for a while, and it became evident to me that John's voice was something special," Pearson relates. Before long, the pair were joined by guitarist Claude Frank and drummer Jeff Linsenmaier, whom Grant first encountered outside the Mayan Theater. "We would play in John's apartment without a P.A.," Pearson recalls. "And I played upright bass and Claude would play acoustic guitar, so it was pretty mellow and quiet at that point." It was also, in a certain sense, doomed, which made the name chosen for the quartet--Titanic--all the more appropriate.
The first Titanic show took place in May 1995, and by June the players had begun recording with producer/engineer Bob Ferbrache, who's worked with 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Foreskin 500 and George Clinton's P-Funk All Stars. "We did the tape very quickly," Pearson points out. "We thought we'd just record a few songs with Bob as a demo tape. Then we ended up basically breaking up after that tape was recorded."
In fact, it was Pearson who first decided to depart, for what he refers to vaguely as "various personal reasons." He adds, "I told John I wished him the best of luck and that I hoped he would go on, because his voice was so amazing. But nothing ever happened with them, and they didn't end up getting another bass player."
For his part, Grant was preoccupied with more urgent matters. "My mom was getting ready to die during that time, and she did die at the end of that year. And there was a lot of turmoil going on in everyone's individual lives--different work schedules and not knowing what we wanted to do or where we wanted to go."
Coincidentally, the recording that heralded the band's demise was the very thing that motivated the Czars to rise from Titanic's watery grave. In February Pearson took a six-month leave of absence from his job as an environmental engineer in order to relax, travel and tour with Jux County, the other Denver combo for which he plays bass. "I saw John and said, 'I've got a lot of free time--why don't we at least mix down that tape so we have our own copy for ourselves?'" he recounts. "So the four of us got together, and Bob did a mix with the original tracks. And he made it sound so good and so full that the mix from that tape basically got us back together." Grant echoes Pearson's observation. "I was really surprised that after a year of not hearing it, we realized, 'This has gotten stronger.' It hadn't died."
Indeed, the recording, subsequently titled Moodswing, rivals Congo Norvell in its smoke, yearning and velveteen depths. But neither its unmistakable excellence nor the assumption of the Czars moniker could prevent another shakeup in the band. Rather than making a permanent commitment to the reunited four-piece, Frank beat a hasty exit to pursue a photography habit. David Stringfield, a fan of John Zorn and the Boredoms, proved to be a fine replacement; his guitar work lent a demented edge to the music that challenged and chafed at Grant's vocals. However, this lineup also was to prove short-lived. Following the recording of a first-rate live show at the Bluebird Theater in August, Stringfield quit. "When Jeff and I found out about it," Grant recalls, "we were both freaking out, because we didn't even hear about it until he didn't show up for practice that day." Fortunately, David Scott had just been added to the Czars as a second guitarist. He slid seamlessly into Stringfield's vacated slot, and after two weeks of practice, the act's current incarnation was once more able to lull the chatting cocktail set from a cramped corner at City Spirit.
Grant's remarkable pipes make this story of survival particularly meaningful. It's not that he's pitch-perfect or classically trained: He ain't. Rather, what compels is the sublimely lonely, ancient timbre of his voice, which blends the cry of a muezzin calling from a desert minaret and the sloe-gin melt of a torch singer. He'd hardly offer such an assessment about himself; one of the things that's most refreshing about him is his humility. "When you start out, you don't have much confidence--at least I didn't," he says. "But it's something that has grown by leaps and bounds since then. When you go out and have concerts and have people telling you that they like your music, then you're going to gain more confidence. That's just the way it is.
"I'd sung as a child in the church choir," Grant goes on, "but I really didn't get my voice until I went to Germany and was able to scream. I used to sing with my sister, who has a master's in music theory, and I'd ask her what she thought. She'd say, 'I feel like you're holding back.' Then something happened in Germany, and I was able to belt it out."