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.

"It kind of depends on where we play," he says. "When we played in Wyoming, this chick came up to me after the show and said, 'It's great to see a heavy-metal band in here.'"

Outside of Casper, however, this isn't likely to be viewed as heavy metal. The band now reheats only a few leftovers from the days of hair and spandex. The sound is peppier, as the guys aren't ashamed of flaunting harmonious hooks. Okay, so it probably falls under the same umbrella as the power pop frequently seen on MTV, but Sketch makes sure that the fun outshines the formula.

(Quick note: While some of these tunes do have the sound of Buzz Bin fodder, Sketch has actually already made its television debut: "I Wish You Were Asian" and five other songs from Fight theDJ and 1997's Superhero were used on Shasta McNasty, UPN's short-lived Jake Busey/Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer vehicle.)

Sketch doesn't rely on sonic luster alone to engage an audience. "People don't only hear with their ears," says Parks. "People hear with their eyes." To that end, Sketch's members have not worn street clothes to a gig in quite some time. Allen began wearing pajamas to the shows before the move to Denver. Ames soon followed suit, and Parks corralled himself some nocturnal duds immediately after joining the band.

"It's interesting and it's different," Ames says. "We all started wearing them, and we thought, 'What can we do to make it more exciting?' So we put a chair up there with lamps and just created a kind of bedroom scene."

"We do a lot of nice bedtime stories," jokes Allen.

"We've had so many people heckle us and then apologize," says Parks. "'Sorry, man, but I just assumed you'd suck because of the pajamas.' People always change their minds."

One totem of the live Sketch show has gone by the wayside: the armchair in which the band invited audience members to park themselves and relax. "We've broken like three or four of them," says Allen. "I get up and jump on them. We retired the last chair because somebody was sitting on it and it was poking their ass."

Armchairs aside, Sketch has continued to broaden the scope of its on-stage act, investing $2,000 in a lighting setup last year. The band also has a box full of fireworks that were intended for a 2000 gig. Unfortunately, they never saw ignition, aside from the few that singed Ames's hand in a test that went awry. "I'm ready to blow shit up," says Allen of the dormant pyrotechnics.

When Sketch first got started in Colorado, the band targeted the under-21 crowd, aligning itself with high school bands and renting out venues for all-ages events. That chapter of Sketch's history is now closed. "All these kids on our mailing list moved away and went to college," says Ames. Additionally, local promoters didn't take kindly to the band's strategy, as it failed to contribute a dime to booze sales.

"I put too much pressure on every show," recalls Ames. "It just got to be a big headache, and that's pretty much when we started touring out of state." That was four years ago, when Sketch first started regularly booking gigs outside of Colorado. Today, thanks to hard work and flexible bosses at their day jobs, the band is able to leave town almost at the drop of a hat. (Allen and Ames work in sales at Nordstrom -- which is how the bassist was able to afford his new Suburban -- and Parks works with developmentally disabled people in Longmont.) "Whatever job you're holding at the time, you just have to bust your ass extra hard to earn that right to go out," says Parks. "I put in a lot of hours while I'm here."

Sketch's persistent touring has produced both positive and negative memories. A recent gig in Cripple Creek stands out as a poignant example of the latter: The venue provided the band with a complimentary hotel room and, from the sound of it, the management was expecting the Who.

"The room had no phone, no TV, no alarm clock," says Allen.

"The closets were all locked with padlocks," adds Ames. "We knew we were in trouble when we went to the bar to see if they had the keys and [the bartender] said, 'Oh, it should be unlocked.'"

Ames points to the band's festival gig with his stadium-rock heroes, Cheap Trick, as a highlight. "That was the best show," he says. "I was right on the side of the stage when they were playing." Parks also gives high marks to the Cheap Trick show, as well as to opening for Motor City Madman Ted Nugent in Denver.

With a plan to start recording a followup to Fight the DJin May, Sketch intends to keep peppering its schedule with one- to two-week road swings and the occasional local show. Sketch signed on with a local booking agent in March, heightening the band's ability to tour.

"I really think the road has made Sketch what it is," says Parks. "With the scene here, the attitude toward our music, we probably would have given up a long time ago."

Perhaps with his Asian fetish in mind, Allen has set his sights on taking Sketch's act to Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun is experiencing a cultural trend that the players have taken as a sign: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the inhabitants of many Asian metropolises have taken to wearing pajamas all day long.

"We wouldn't be special anymore," says Allen, "but it's cool if it's the next big thing."

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