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Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

Local experts offer reasons why so many of Denver's biggest bands are vanishing.

David Fox knows a thing or two about the high mortality rate of Denver bands.
Fox, a longtime booster of Denver music, co-founded Alley Records in 1994, and since then, he and his partners, Mike Nile and Chris Cardone, have signed seven Colorado acts: Cosmic Pond, Dave Delacroix, Avatar, Body of Souls, Jesus Monkeyfish, Sweet Water Well and Chaos Theory. Of these acts, Cosmic Pond is still together (the band issued its Alley Records debut two weeks ago), and both Delacroix and Avatar leader Maurice Avatar continue to perform in town, although Avatar no longer fronts the group Fox inked four years ago.

And the rest? Gone.
Body of Souls and Jesus Monkeyfish, a pair of hard-rock combos, called it quits soon after appearing on the 1994 release Alley Records 3 in 1. The members of Sweet Water Well, a celebrated neo-folk quartet with a well-regarded Alley Records disc, 1996's Watermelon, to its credit, announced that they were going their separate ways last September while accepting a prize at the Westword Music Awards Showcase--their third in the event's three years. And Chaos Theory, a rap-metal foursome that's been among Denver's biggest draws since the first half of the Nineties, quietly put its project to sleep a couple of months ago; this article marks the first public acknowledgment of the split.

For Fox, watching these musical divorces has been a sad experience. "We had a great roster, and I really thought we were going somewhere--but then the bands sputtered out on me," he says. "Which is the history of the Denver scene."

In many ways, Fox is right. The Denver area regularly produces bands that attract capacity crowds, but when it comes time to take the next step and triumph nationally, they fall short and eventually raise the white flag. The past couple of years have seen a staggering, arguably unprecedented number of such surrenders. The dead include cult idols (the Denver Gentlemen, Baldo Rex, the Hectics, the AUTO-NO), consistent club-packers (Chitlin, the 'Vengers, Love Lies, Sponge Kingdom), nationally known underground acts (Nebula 9, Deuce Mob, Element 79), roots practitioners (Bleecker Street, Chris and Maggie) and plenty more. At least two groups signed to deals with major companies have succumbed to the separation bug as well: Foreskin 500 was inked to Priority Records and landed a tune on the soundtrack to the Robert De Niro movie The Fan but gave up the ghost anyhow; the Subdudes, who put out albums on Atlantic Records and High Street, a subsidiary of Windham Hill, disbanded after a decade as a Colorado favorite. And several additional notables are in various stages of limbo, including Spell, which hasn't been on stage in these parts for the better part of a year; Monkey Siren, which changed its name to Action Sound Superband before virtually disappearing from the planet; and Furious George and the Monster Groove, which has been reduced by personnel changes to occasional reunion shows.

Still, the breakup that brought the phenomenon home for many live-music fans in Denver was the one that struck Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass. The group was formed in 1992, and it didn't take long for it to become the city's most beloved party act--a status it never surrendered. But persistent label interest never led to a contract, and years of touring eventually left the players exhausted. Finally, according to bassist John Hamala, bandleader and frontman Theo Smith, aka Lord of Word, called a meeting at which he said "he was really tired and that he felt like he'd lost the feeling you need to have." The band played its final gig at the Fox Theatre on April 23.

That the Disciples of Bass didn't become the biggest act in show business does not in itself prove that making it from Colorado is all but impossible. Neither do any of the other fractures listed above; the circumstances specific to each case ensure that. But with so many well-liked bands disappearing and few candidates on the horizon that seem ready to take their places, something of a vacuum has been created. No doubt it will soon be filled, but when it is, a question will remain: Are the next Colorado luminaries doomed to the same fate that has claimed so many of their predecessors?

Theo Smith is a relentlessly upbeat person; he named Lord of Word's most recent CD Positive, and the title certainly reflects his outlook. It was no surprise, then, that he refused to grumble about the end of his band during an interview on the topic late last month. "I guess I just wanted to have a little more control over things and oversee things a little bit closer," he said between enthusing about the solo career he hopes to get off the ground by the end of the year. "But there's no animosity with members of the band or anything like that. It's just something that I've been thinking about and decided to do."

While discussing this topic, Hamala was not nearly as cautious as Smith. In his view, two of the factors that contributed to the group's dissolution were its failure to secure a record contract and the rigors of touring. The Disciples had no difficulty landing shows outside Denver, thanks to its connection with the Tahoe Agency, a powerhouse booking firm. But attempting to build audiences in far-flung locations eventually proved exhausting. "We would do two or three weeks at a time every couple of months," Hamala noted last month, "and that wasn't enough for them. But because the band is so big, touring was expensive. I was the road manager and did all the finances, so I can tell you that we made money at home. But even though we got good crowds on tour, we didn't make anything. And that was hard when you'd be out there playing sixteen shows in sixteen days in sixteen different places, especially if the routing wasn't right. Sometimes we'd get into a place, load, play and get to sleep at two or three in the morning, then have to be up at six in order to make a ten-hour drive to the next place. In some ways, that's typical of what bands have to go through, but for someone like me, who's been doing it for eleven years, it gets to be kind of a drag."

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