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"For the most part, the music that dominates the public commercial airwaves seems to be more narrow in its musical content than anything that I've heard in forty years," says Mike Johnson, the multi-instrumentalist and composer who leads Thinking Plague. "But human beings with creativity and a rising level of sophistication are out there. This kind of intelligence doesn't go away. It just goes underground."
That's where Thinking Plague has spent most of its existence. The band sprouted around 1982 (even Johnson, 46, is uncertain of the precise date), but its various incarnations have played fewer live shows in the sixteen-plus years since then than some acts perform in six months. Instead, Johnson and his associates have poured their energy into recordings marked by ferocious ingenuity and staggering complexity. Their fourth and latest long-player--In Extremis, issued late last year on Maryland's Cuneiform imprint--is no exception: Although the disc has alternately been described as art rock or prog rock, it's too incredibly dense and mysterious to pigeonhole. Listeners with a fondness for 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys will likely find the work of the group's latest configuration (Johnson, singer Deborah Perry, keyboardist Shane Hotle, reed man Mark Harris, bassist/accordionist Dave Willey and percussionist David Kerman) to be hopelessly weird. But that's fine by Johnson, who has no interest in being all things to all people. As he puts it, "This isn't meant to be background music. If someone's going to put it on at a party, they'll be disappointed. We've striven to make it the musical equivalent of a good book that you'll really love and that you'll want to go back and read again and again."
Johnson, currently a counselor at the Community College of Denver, didn't begin his music career with such a high sense of purpose. During the late Seventies, he and bassist Bob Drake, a key part of the Thinking Plague story, just wanted to pay the rent. "We were playing with rock-and-roll-type, doing-stupid-music-for-money bands," he says. "We'd play Led Zeppelin and things like that because we wanted to make a living playing music, which we never did. We were wearing big shoes and playing other people's songs and paying a fortune to make $200 a week--and we weren't enjoying the music. We'd be listening to Henry Cow [an adventurous avant-garde ensemble] while we were driving to some ridiculous gig in Delta to play Lynyrd Skynyrd."
After finally recognizing the futility of their labors, Johnson and Drake retired from the cover-group grind, but they didn't give up on music. Drake quickly hooked up with the Metrotones, a new-wave combo that featured Lin Esser, Randy Walters and Geoff Landers, and began recording other outfits on a four-track reel-to-reel in Landers's attic. The quartet later evolved into Crank Call Love Affair, one of Denver's most popular early-Eighties attractions, and even though Drake was out of the lineup by then (Mark Fuller took his place), he gladly recorded the band at Packing House, a studio established by Landers. The facility's moniker wasn't chosen at random; according to Drake, corresponding by e-mail, "It was located right smack in the middle of the no-man's-land around the slaughterhouses and rendering plants in the stockyard district of Denver." He adds, "It's perhaps best not to mention things like the pools of congealed blood and mounds of entrails littered about the region."
During the same period, Johnson and Drake began to collaborate on songs in the spirit of the challenging music they prized. The pair subsequently recruited what Johnson calls "some likely people who were willing to try and learn the parts" to become members of an actual band. Unfortunately, most of the performances didn't go well. "We did a show at the old Mercury Cafe that Allen Ginsberg was at," Johnson recalls. "We played to some pretty strong boos and hisses." Rather than give up, however, Johnson and Drake shelved the live concept and began spending their time recording at Packing House. The result was 1984's ...a thinking plague, a cassette-only release whose covers were individually spray-painted by Drake. Only 500 tapes were made, but thanks to distribution by London's Recommended Records, run by Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler, they reached open ears in Europe, South America and Japan. Today the album is a sought-after collector's item among Thinking Plague aficionados.
By 1987's Moonsongs, its second full-length, Thinking Plague had a whole new look: Johnson and Drake were joined by, among others, singer Suzanne Lewis, Mark Fuller and keyboardist Eric Jacobson (aka Eric Moon). But problems at London's Dead Man Curve Records, which had signed the group, prevented the album from making the impact it otherwise might have. "We're not exactly sure how many copies they put out," Johnson says, "and we never got our master tapes back, because they went belly-up really fast after we got involved with them. They never paid us for anything."
More personnel changes followed, with Fuller and Jacobson (now a producer in Los Angeles) moving on to other projects. But Thinking Plague benefited from some fresh momentum when Johnson gave Cutler, in Denver to play a concert with Pere Ubu, a tape of his material. Cutler was impressed by the recording and offered to release a new album by the band on his label, which he had renamed ReR.