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The Pajama Game

With its skewed approach to power pop, Sketch colors outside of the lines.

The reaper had finally arrived for the white Chevy van, thirteen years and 350,000 miles after its birth on a Detroit assembly line. Last year, the van's keepers -- the members of the pajama-clad pop-punk trio Sketch -- made the difficult decision to put their old friend down. Dave Allen, Sketch's primary bass player and vocalist (and occasional guitarist), made things a lot easier for the band with his purchase of a brand-new red Suburban and a trailer. Still, it was not an easy choice: Sketch had spent a lot of time in that van.

By regularly racking up mileage touring the West and the Midwest, Sketch is one of Denver's most traveled acts. The band has shared stages with Cheap Trick in Iowa (at the annual Pigstock festival) and Korn in California, not to mention opening for Ted Nugent and the Foo Fighters in its adopted hometown. For all three of the band's members, the road is a continual lure.

"It's always fun," says Steve Ames, Sketch's primary guitarist (and occasional bassist), who also contributes vocals. "There are some shows we've done that weren't worth going, but the next night, there's always something better."

Badly drawn boys: Sketch gets ready to karate-chop listeners with its aggressive pop sound.
Badly drawn boys: Sketch gets ready to karate-chop listeners with its aggressive pop sound.

"I love being on the road," echoes drummer Sam Parks. "I'm looking forward to a full-length tour at some point." Sketch has spent about three months of the past year on tour, shuttling between Colorado and destinations such as South Dakota, Utah and Illinois. The sojourns have honed Sketch's simultaneously slick and energetic, melodic and walloping sound. Last year's Fight the DJ, the band's second full-length release, veers from ironic to genuine with regard to subject matter; the undeniably catchy album is a good indicator of Sketch's road-tested chops. "I Wish You Were Asian," (a groovy ode to Allen's Eastern fetish) has a contagious start-and-stop pattern that tends to lodge itself in one's consciousness. "Oh!" is even poppier, a two-minute paean to rejection that doesn't sound all that depressed about it. The album's most aggressive ditty, "Maybe," is thematically rooted somewhere between romanticism and lust.

The band hasn't always had its feet planted squarely in the power-pop camp. With a genesis as a four-piece punk-funk act in Orange County, California, circa 1993, Sketch relocated to the Denver area in 1995; of the original incarnation, only Ames and Allen remain. If you trace the band's roots back far enough, you'll end up knee-deep in a heap of heavy metal. As was the case with many angry adolescents in the '80s, Allen had "big, frizzy hair down to my butt and did a lot of drugs." While growing up in Southern California, he was in a metal band by the name of Bull's Eye. "We had songs like 'Tattooed Love Slut' and 'Stinking Drunk.' It was the Ratt/Mötley Crüe era."

Ames admits to being in a metal band as a teenager in Muscatine, Iowa, but he's hesitant to elaborate. "I'm not saying the name," he says. After high school, he fled the cornfields for the sunnier landscape of California. Upon his first contact with Allen, Ames professed a love for Kiss, which somehow failed to immediately bring the two together. After they joined forces in Sketch, however, the pair found a shared appreciation for music that fell between Ames's Kiss/Cheap Trick inclinations and Allen's soft spots for the Cars and Devo.

When Sketch arrived in Colorado, heavy metal was still going strong, according to Parks, a Boulder native and veteran of a pair of local metal bands (Crushed Kitty and Vandal). "Growing up around here, it was nothing but metal, metal, metal. Sketch was one of the first local bands I'd seen that was different." In 1996 he saw the band at a Longmont gig and threw them "that Spinal Tap line," offering his services if their drummer happened to spontaneously combust.

As it turned out, Allen and Ames's relationship with their drummer was already on the verge of exploding, and within days of his query, Parks was manning the Sketch drum kit. The trio happened upon a chemistry and camaraderie that Sketch had once lacked, and five years later, Parks is still around. "We all just really love music, and we write well together," he says. "Essentially, every time we practice we come up with a new song, or several new songs."

"We all stay true to what we like, but we just find a way to make it compatible," adds Ames.

There are both punk and pop elements in the music, says Parks, who is careful to note, "People hear pop and they think it's bubblegummy, which I don't think Sketch is."

On the flip side, says Allen, "Every time we play a club, they always say 'punk rock.' But I don't think we're punk. We've got a punk edge, maybe."

Either way, it doesn't really matter: Rock and roll has been all about slapping a punk edge on top of pop structures and hooks since day one. The subgenres of rock mutate rapidly, as do the youth subcultures that underpin them, but the philosophy behind rock and roll has never been one of taxonomic perfectionism. Ames generally leaves Sketch's classification up to the beholder.

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