By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Not so long ago, the ghosts of Denver's past were threatening to become this city's only future. On any given night, an earnest drone could be heard emanating from various downtown clubs; hymnlike songs summoned spirits of a boomtown from days gone by. With themes ranging from black lung to a love of the Lord, from ditch-diggin' to impending damnation, 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club and the Denver Gentlemen, among others, were hard at work mining the rich vein of traditional American country, bluegrass and gospel music.
Jeffrey-Paul Norlander was a cornerstone of that melancholic, minor-chord roots scene. His guitar, fiddle, cello, organ and vocalizing skills were essential ingredients on releases by 16 Horsepower and the Denver Gentlemen, the latter of which he started. After a time, however, it became clear to some -- including Norlander -- that this former one-horse town was in danger of becoming a one-trick pony. Like a stubborn mule, it needed a good kick in the ass and, like any good cowboy, Norlander was at the ready. What Denver didn't know at the time was that beneath Norlander's vintage button-down shirt and pressed pinstriped slacks, there was a restless hip-slayer in a vinyl corset itching to get out.
"What I discovered as I was playing with all of these white guys was that whenever I was concerned about the more physical aspects of the music, nobody else ever was," says Norlander. "You look at old-time guys like Hasil Adkins, who is an Appalachian-type of Southern one-man-band performer who influenced bands like the Rolling Stones and was influenced himself by Hank Williams. He would talk about why he was a one-man band, and he said that he could not get the other players of the band to dig the fact that during the last minute of the song, the chicks were dancing and he wanted to keep [the groove] going right then and there. And I thought, 'Wow, even old white guys from the South were paying attention to that physical stuff.' I mean, look at Elvis.
"Many years ago Frank Hauser, then with the Denver Gentlemen, said that he thought that music was probably never interesting if it wasn't dangerous on some level. And I think that there was a time, I suppose, when some of that old roots American music was kind of dangerous. But it's not really if you just keep doing it. And without being mean at all, I had kind of gotten bored with the rhythm-free four-minor-chord thing."
Increasingly, Norlander found himself facing a dilemma, in a roots-rock rut of sorts. More and more, he felt unable to deny his inner harlot. The solution was soon made clear. In a campaign that would surely strike horror into the heart of the alt-country echelon, he broke out the bullwhips, riding crops and handcuffs, stole a wardrobe from his wife's panty drawer, joined forces with a diaper-clad female cello player formerly with the Rocky Mountain Symphony, and began playing -- what else? -- hardcore industrial techno.
Today, Hoitoitoi is the result. The two-piece -- which includes Rebecca Vera on cello, violin and vocals -- first started playing about a year and a half ago. Norlander, who hails from Colorado originally, handles the bulk of the writing, vocal and programming duties. And though Norlander is best known for his six-year stint with the Denver Gentlemen -- a group that became known as the genesis of the Denver roots revival after its breakup and included a forever-revolving list of players, most of whom are still actively making music -- the music he's writing today has little in common with the scene he helped inspire. Rather, influences from two of his earliest bands, Pavilion Steps and Bloodflower, are more evident, as is the eclectic aesthetic brought by Vera who, along with her initial training with our own hometown symphony, has also played with the Cherry Bomb Club and Munly de Har He.
Vera and Norlander are linked by, among other things, a shared love of roaming around in scanty undergarments (and looking mighty good in them). It's something they are known to do during rehearsals and performances, for themselves and the ever-present lens of a black-and-white Pixelvision camera that records the sessions for posterity -- and the voyeuristic Internet audiences that can later watch the archived feeds from the privacy of their own computer terminals. Brave visitors to the band's Web site (hoitoitoi.com) are invited to submit artwork of their own -- musical, written or otherwise; those that Vera and Norlander deem worthy just might be invited to join them in a rehearsal. Currently, they are putting out a call for a contortionist.
Prior to that discovery of those mutual interests, Vera and Norlander shared a tie to 16 Horsepower, arguably the presiding king of the Denver roots realm. Yet while Vera can be heard among the strings on the band's new release, Secret South, Norlander's last involvement with David Eugene Edwards and company on the band's second release, Low Estate, was motivated by something other than music.
"I really joined up with them more to see if I could reconcile some friendships. I was eventually laid off when the record company was going down, there was no cash and they were only able to keep a three-piece going," Norlander says in reference to the cutbacks at the band's label A&M. "Things happened after playing with them that weren't related to anything that had to do with the band. Those things have kept the possibility of playing together from happening again. My relationship with each of them is different now."