Monster Mash

Meet the Velveteen Monster, a band that occupies an interesting stretch of Jux County.

No need to pull the four Denverites in the Velveteen Monster from the stage with a crooked cane: They're happy to saunter to the side and haunt from the wings. In fact, after several years in the seminal tumbleweed act Jux County, veteran players Andy Monley, Ron Smith and Chris Pearson, assisted by new recruit Denise LaNay, have learned that the view from the shadows might even be preferable to the one on the other side of the curtains.

Case in point: Last summer the band was invited to perform at an event in Santa Fe commemorating the end of the school year at an area university. "We played at five o'clock in the afternoon, and it was hot," remembers bassist Pearson, who also plays alongside Monley in the Czars. "They had a big chili-dinner cookoff, and we were in the middle of this outdoor Greek-theater-like place. There was this huge line of people, single file, looking at us. I was like, 'Oh, my God! This is great!' Then I realized they were all in line just to get chili." On the heels of this deflating date, however, the quartet set up shop at Pirate art gallery in northwest Denver and charmed the mulling patrons at artist Greg Esser's opening with a wordless set. "I got more people from that gig who came up and signed up on our mailing list and said, 'Wow, you guys are really good,'" Pearson maintains. "And we were just supposed to be background music."

"The pressure's off, and that's what's fun about it," adds Monley, who, as guitarist and vocalist for Jux County since the late Eighties, is no stranger to the spotlight. "You're not like, 'Look at me! Look at me!' You don't have to talk to anybody." He jokes, "I'm always feeling pressured to jump up and do the splits. I just get sick of it."

In truth, audience expectations had no part in motivating the Monsters' strange experiments in composition. Their intention (similar to Brian Eno's in 1978) was to script tunes for unmade films--a goal to which the title of their recently completed CD, The Original Soundtrack Recording of the Velveteen Monster, pays homage. According to LaNay, who lends keyboards and vocals to what began as an all-instrumental group, "We'd be driving in a car and listening to the tape, and it feels like you're in a movie."

One of the best examples of this approach, in Pearson's view, is the secret track that concludes the disc, which "starts out very slow, minor key, eerie--and everything goes quiet." After approximating the unexpected upswing the number takes with a series of spry da-da-das, he says, "It makes you think about a place you've been. For me, it's like Tortoise or Yo La Tengo, who don't necessarily write pop songs. They're more thematic."

The move toward serving other art forms began long before the Velveteen Monster solidified into a viable act. As Jux County, Monley, Pearson and drummer Smith provided the soundtrack for The Plague Song, a play that ran at the Changing Scene Theater several years ago. "The music itself wasn't Jux County," Pearson points out, "so we never took that to our live performances." Later, they created 45 pieces that Insight Films, a local TV/film company, wove into a syndicated cable-television program. Pearson says this assignment gave them a chance "to actually write music based on certain themes and compose music for more than just the sake of doing music."

Yet these were isolated incidents: It was not until Jux County embarked upon the recording of its third album--a grueling task that still isn't complete after more than three years--that the cinema-score side project was launched. To prevent the burnout that would result from practicing and performing the same songs Jux was honing in the studio, the players founded the Velveteen Monster as a playful diversion. "We said, 'Hey, let's make another band and write songs for this band in particular,'" Monley recalls.

Chances were good that the same three musicians strapped to the same three instruments would be hard-pressed to produce an altogether novel noise. So Monley approached LaNay, an old friend he hoped would broaden the act's musical possibilities. "We were out one night, and Andy just asked, 'How's your voice?'" LaNay says. Monley also slipped her a Velveteen Monster demo tape, which she immediately recognized as a thinly disguised variation on her favorite local act. LaNay signed up shortly thereafter, and although this performing novice's hands shook so badly at an early Bluebird Theater engagement that they nearly slipped off her keyboard, she has grown into her role as the band's distinguishing element. "I came in, and I think then it began to change," she allows. "I hear less and less Jux County now."

Monley agrees. "I've known Denise for eleven or twelve years, and I've always known she could sing and play the piano," he says. "I always knew Denise could sing incredibly high, too, which was appealing to me. If you hear some Fellini soundtracks, there are some vocals that are so piercingly high, they're not actually singing. It's almost like dogs when you hear it." Indeed, LaNay's nymph-light pipes flit about the edges of the band's sound, airbrushing tunes dealing with death and emptiness to a Courtship of Eddie's Father softness. At the same time, her keyboard riffs infuse the Monster with oscillations, contributing silvery Venusian effects and swelling finales.

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