Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

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

The Zuba tale brims with the same kind of anecdotes that have caused other Colorado bands to cash in their chips. Eight months after the band was assembled in Telluride, for example, two key members quit. They were replaced by a pair of Boulderites, but after two years, Liza and band founder Wallace Lester realized that Zuba had gotten away from its original sound. Liza subsequently began playing lead guitar herself in order to cut out any musical middlemen, but other changes kept happening around her. It wasn't until last year, when Liza, Lester and saxophonist/keyboardist Mark Pauperas were joined by Sol Jazz Massive's Mike Cykoski and Ben Centerfit, once the leader of Chitlin, that the sound truly came together. "We finally found what we were looking for," Liza says.

On the way to this discovery, Zuba experienced nearly every kind of road hell imaginable. Liza is still amazed she survived a 1992 journey to Arizona. "We had $30 for four days between five people," she recalls. "We had to walk around all day in 100-degree weather looking for free things to do, because we couldn't afford to pay for anything." But the players eventually squirreled away enough money to buy a school bus, and they drove it again and again to cities from coast to coast. Their persistence paid off: Today they have established themselves in a wide array of markets, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In Chicago, they recently played to a standing-room-only throng at the House of Blues, and in New York City, a gig at the Mercury Lounge got a writeup in a widely read column in the New York Post. The next morning, record-company reps began calling, and Liza's phone hasn't stopped ringing yet. More exposure has come courtesy of the Farrelly brothers, the filmmaking team behind the Jim Carrey vehicle Dumb and Dumber. The Farrellys, who have become friends of the Zubans, used snippets from two Zuba songs in Kingpin, a pro-bowling spoof starring Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and Bill Murray, and have hinted that a couple more will find their way into the final cut of their next opus, There's Something About Mary, a summer release starring Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz.

At present, Zuba is recording an album with Michael White, an engineer whose credits include work with Whitney Houston, and four labels--two major, two independent--have shown considerable interest in picking up the band. But after seven years of struggling, Liza isn't yet ready to declare victory. "We don't know exactly what's going to happen," she says. "But we do know that this is a hard business. Some bands don't have to pay their dues for as long as we have; they get signed right away. But most of us do, and the only way to make it is to find a way to keep going. Because it's a big country."

Meanwhile, back on the Denver club scene, Allan Roth, owner of Herman's Hideaway, is on the lookout for the next generation of great local bands. While his club has a reputation for launching area stars, including the Subdudes and Big Head Todd, he grants that "it's been about six years since I've really made a special effort to find new talent." But he realizes that the time has come. People are still patronizing Herman's, but most of the groups they're grooving to have been around for years. (One of them, the Freddi-Henchi Band, has roots that stretch back to the Seventies.) For his club to remain vital, Roth knows, it needs an infusion of young blood.

That's the idea behind the New Talent Showcase, which Roth put together a few weeks ago with the assistance of several sponsors, including Rupp's Drums and National Speaker. The event, which takes place on most Wednesdays, is an opportunity for groups to play one of the city's best-known rooms, at least for one night. "We're putting them on for 45 minutes apiece, and we provide all the back-line equipment they need," Roth says. "It's really easy for them. And then we give them complimentary tickets to hand out that are color-coded, so at the end of the night, we can see how good each band was at hustling people in and promoting themselves, which is very important to me." Acts that go over well with audiences are then given a chance to open shows for better-established groups. "That's the way Big Head Todd and the Subdudes started," Roth points out.

Already, several fledgling combos are slated to graduate from the Showcase to opening slots at Herman's, including the Cosmic Soul Surfers, Slack and Turtlehead. Roth is also scouring the landscape for groups ready to headline, and he may have found one in Cosmic Pond. The band drew 500 people to Herman's on a Thursday night in mid-April for a release party celebrating its self-titled Alley Records album. Alley's Fox was pleased by the turnout and by the apparent stability of the band everyone came to hear. "We're already talking about making a second album with them," he says. "Can you believe that? The idea of a second album by someone on Alley Records?"

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