By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Denver musicians frequently complain about the local scene. But in the minds of the musicians in Venus Diablo, Colorado's capitol is a virtual mecca compared with their home base of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
According to bassist Johnny Cassidy, a onetime member of the M80s, a trashy, Sixties-style garage act signed to Estrus Records, he wound up in Albuquerque as the result of a whim. When he and his wife moved there in the summer of 1994, he says, "We didn't know anybody--just wanted a change." He jokes, "Blindfolded, we threw darts at a map."
Upon his arrival in the dusty, sun-baked municipality, Cassidy hit the open-mike beat. "I went to this thing called World Beat Wednesday, where they encouraged people to bring instruments other than guitars or your typical this and that," he recounts. While there, mandolin in hand, he met saxophonist Jess Graham--and the following week he jammed with Graham, guitarist/vocalist Steve Mickelsen and drummer Chris Hutton, who together were known by the unwieldy moniker Ballads for a Scratch and Sniff Girlfriend. The name was changed to the more economical Venus Diablo after Cassidy joined the fold. "I think they felt it became a real band once they had a bass player," he ventures, adding, "I was brand-new in town and didn't really know anybody, so I didn't know where the shows were. And the next thing I know, I'm getting in free to all these clubs because I'm playing with respected musicians from around town."
At the time, the Albuquerque live-music community was dominated by punk and alternative bands. Prior to joining Venus Diablo, for instance, Mickelsen had been part of the Belly-Achers, a combo that was courted by A&M Records during the early Nineties grunge harvest. "People were looking to pick up bands that sounded like that," Cassidy explains. "And they had that Pearl Jam-esque kind of sound and were one of the bigger draws around Albuquerque. They'd pack them in all over the place, and they were being flown out to L.A. to work on this record and being taken out to dinner and going to all these parties. They were inches away from getting this major deal when they were just dropped all of a sudden."
Given this environment, it's only natural that Venus Diablo, which delivers swingy cabaret pop with a Middle Eastern flourish, was greeted by a wave of popularity both at home and beyond. Santa Monica's Laser Records ultimately signed the group and issued its eponymous debut, which Mickelsen financed by selling the painting that adorns its cover to the owner of a billiard hall. As Cassidy tells it, the album came into existence at an area venue called the Dingo Bar. "It's nothing cool like the Bluebird. It's just your little corner bar. We recorded live there on the stage one weekend during the afternoon, when nobody was in there. We wanted to go for that live ambience that you get in a place like that."
The approach served the players well. A strong collection of tunes driven by Graham's globe-trotting horn scrolls and Mickelsen's barfly growl, Venus Diablo exudes the retro ambience of old jazz recordings; Graham's sax squawks are so immediate that they're capable of blowing back your hair. "Until I met Jessie, I had never really been into jazz," Cassidy admits. "I swear, just playing with the horn and realizing what a different instrument it is really turned me on to the appreciation of jazz."
That wasn't the only way in which the horizons of Mickelsen and Cassidy were broadened. "Jessie's into hand-drumming and Egyptian music, so a lot of his influences are gypsy-style," Cassidy allows. "And Chris is really into hip-hop and soul music. He just throws in all these beats that are more hip-hop-oriented without being super bassy. He's more subtle about it, but those influences are definitely there." Meanwhile, he and Mickelsen contributed "the beat-generation sensibilities, the real beat-poetry-jazz lyrics and the snapping of the fingers, and that cool, loungey, moody thing."
Among those impressed by the results were the players in Denver's 16 Horsepower. "They talked to one of the promoters at the Dingo and said that they really liked us, that we were one of the cooler bands that they had the chance to play with while on tour and that they wanted to do a show with us," Cassidy recounts. "Following through on it, we ended up playing two nights last August with them at the Bluebird. That was a tremendous experience for us, because we had only been out of Albuquerque one other time. We played in Los Angeles the first year we were together, so it was good for us to get out of town again."
The Denver gigs allowed the band a deserved and much-needed breath of out-of-state air. Cassidy reveals that taking to the road was made difficult by the fact that "Jessie had an addiction that was hard for him to kick. He had been using heroin and had resigned himself to that lifestyle, so practices before that and after that were especially trying, and it became no fun anymore." When Graham finally left the band, it was both a disappointment and a relief. "We knew that it was coming for a while," Cassidy says. "We had our CD-release party in November of '96, and two months later we were playing in Taos. After the show he threw his saxophone down and started flipping out and screaming at the audience and walked off stage and left. That was the last time we ever played with him."