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"I had music in my head the whole time," he says. "Travel music -- that road-surf aspect -- is a big part of where my inspiration comes from."
After considering starting an import/export business for exotic instruments ("I love buying them, but I'm not a salesman," he says), Gray opted to keep the many curios that now clutter the Five-Os' practice space in Uptown Denver: a guzheng and a pipa from China, plus a dilruba, a tamboura, a sitar and tablas from India. A former music writer for Westword, Gray often displayed tastes that drifted toward the strange and bewitching; the articles he once penned for the very fish wrap you're now holding include critiques on Huun-Huur Tu (the worldly throat singers of Tuva), and San Diego's trance-inducing Bacchanalians, Crash Worship.
Shedding his disreputable past as a rock critic in the summer of 1999, Gray found his time was better spent creating sonic worlds with his fellow Fivers, as well as with studio wizard Bob Ferbrache. It was a good decision, considering Ferbrache's track record with bands like 16 Horsepower and his proficiency for bringing out the best in sinister-sounding, gut-driven projects. Indeed, Heading South taps into a fair number of dark moods and colors: There's pistol-packing menace ("Gidget's Guns"), hypnotic dread ("Mandelbrot Set"), undistilled industrial surf ("Sour Mash") and lethargic Quaalude-meets-pep-pill fury ("Night of the Shadow Midgets"). More compelling, though, are the tablas-accompanied "Tube City, Pakistan" and "Dance, Elaina," a yearning, old-world, Eastern European-sounding surf lullaby featuring violinist Kelly O'Dea (Tarantella, Whitey on the Moon).
"We've definitely gotten more compliments on that song ['Elaina'] than any other," Gray admits. "I guess it has a magical combination of chords that resonate with a lot of people."
As entrancing as that fiddle-ditty gets, the Five are currently setting their sights on more unorthodox experiments. Horn players from DeVotchKa, in addition to waterphonist Ernie Cruz, are planning to make guest appearances on the band's next full-length album. (Paging Big Bad Bob.)
"That thing [waterphone] can produce everything from a humpback whale sound to a chorus of demons singing at the bottom of the ocean," Gray says. "It's crazy."
And while listeners often demand a charismatic vocalist to go along with their beach party -- come hellions or high water -- Maraca Five-0 still offers boatloads of ripsnortin' fun without the benefits of a singer. The only thing passing for "lyrics" on Headin' South is a sample from Dr. Strangelove's bomb jockey Slim Pickens: "Yeeeeeeeeee-hawwwwwwwwww!"
"Our shtick is no shtick," Melchior says. Insists Behrenhausen, "We're not trying to cover up any of our flaws with trickery."
"Pretty much what you hear on the record we can do live. We're not Radiohead making Kid A here -- some piece of studio crap."
Tossing electronic baubles to the dogs (exempting a very sparely used theremin), the band coaxes more than its share of furious racket from stripped-down minor chords and liberal use of the whammy bar.
"Without Steve's restraints, the rest of us might resort to metal," Melchior admits.
"He [Gray] was too mellow at first, but we kind of channeled our angry energy out of him," Behrenhausen says. "I just tend to hit things really hard."
The sledgehammer approach, though, wasn't always the most advisable method for Gray. Once, after an especially lengthy practice, he discovered that his right arm was completely blue from fingertip to shoulder. A trip to the emergency room revealed the problem -- "surf clot" -- and earned him the nickname "the blue-armed blaze." Fortunately, Dick Dale's homespun medicinal recipe of apple cider vinegar arrived in time by e-mail, courtesy of the surf King himself, helping "the blaze" nurse himself back to health. (For trivia buffs, here's a factoid worth mentioning: Leo Fender got so tired of replacing amplifiers under warranty for a string-slamming Dale that he finally built the legendary Fender Showman, a stack stout enough to withstand the Royal One's pummeling.)
Maraca's scheduled pairing with Pulp Fiction's popular soundtrack luminary, a reunion show of sorts from last year's April Fool's Day lineup, isn't its only brush with greatness, however. The Five-O -- which appears in the opening sequence of Leland Rucker and Don Chapman's Sweet Lunacy, a documentary of Boulder's musical history that features the legendary Astronaughts, among others -- is steadily earning a place in the rock annals of local lore. (They're passing the torch," Behrenhausen jokes, "but we're leaving the tracks.") Additionally, on-air kudos from surf authority Phil Dirt, a popular, '60s-era DJ from San Francisco who still has his own Saturday-night show, have helped elevate the band from obscurity outside of its hometown. As members of the Cowabunga Web ring (something Gray, a technical writer by day, designed; see maraca.f2s.com for details), the band networks with surf fans and players globally. Plans to release a split seven-inch with Slim Cessna's Auto Club and the Tarmints (projected Maraca song: "Romeo in Joliet") might give the Five-O reason to ball the jack with both hands on a West Coast sweep next summer.