By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
For Michael Trenhaile, the lead guitarist, co-vocalist and co-songwriter for Denver's Worm Trouble, a musical mishap is creative gasoline. When he sits down to pen a tune, he favors chaos over control. It's an artistic strategy that's more Jackson Pollock than Michelangelo, one that prizes abstract originality over rigidly defined musical architecture.
"I try to let the music define it for me, rather than trying to define it before the music has a chance to breathe," he says of his songwriting process. "I like to consciously let an accident happen and then call it whatever it is. I try not to think it out too much." Armed with a four-track, a guitar and an open mind, Trenhaile has the tendency to retreat to his basement and experiment until he hits upon something that a more genre-driven composer might dismiss as unusable. Rather than move on, he uses these happy calamities as skeletons for songs, layering on effects, beats and vocals before he brings them to Worm Trouble's other members for a final polish.
Kat Ellinger splits Worm Trouble's songwriting and singing duties with Trenhaile, who also happens to be her spouse. (Ellinger is also the fingers behind the band's bass and keyboards.) She, too, feels that rigid creative intentions are more apt to detract from a song than contribute to it; she tries to draw inspiration from her heart first and her mind second. "I usually write what I'm feeling," she explains. "If you listen to the whole catalogue of our songs...you hear every mood, everything in the spectrum."
Worm Trouble's songwriting lands all over the map, from heavy-riffed psychedelic explorations to delicate, eclectic melodies. The guitars veer from dark alley to outer orbit and back again, tethered by fluid bass lines, slinky keyboards and deftly elaborate rhythms. Add to the mix vocals and lyrics that are several shades more literary and candid than the norm, and the result is at once intellectual and emotionally visceral, punctuated by transitions from gentle to acidic. Somehow, it all flows very nicely.
Not surprisingly, Ellinger was drawn to Trenhaile through music -- first as a fan, then as a collaborator. In 1993 Trenhaile penned a song for his high-energy band of the time, the Body of Souls, that he wanted to adorn with female vocals. "I had Mike on this huge pedestal, because he was in this fabulous band," Ellinger recalls. "I was just thrilled that he wanted to sing with me."
After their creative pairing led to a personal relationship culminating in the exchange of wedding vows in 1995, the couple viewed music as a mutual creative outlet. It took some time for the band concept to come into its own, however. "We didn't really have a plan, per se," says Trenhaile. "We played with musicians that were in other bands at the time, and it felt more thrown together."
"We kind of borrowed people who were playing in other projects," Ellinger remembers. The couple's copious songwriting output, however, proved the mechanism that solidified Worm Trouble into a project that stood on its own two feet. "We just started writing songs, and our voices blended really nicely together," she adds. "Material just kept coming and coming. We followed the muse and followed the songs."
In 1998, Worm Trouble's core duo found a drummer with a compatible style and personality in Greg Johnson, formerly of Twice Wilted. After that band broke up in 1995, Johnson took a three-year hiatus from the skins. Then mutual friend Kurt Ottoway (another former Twice Wilted member, currently of the Tarmints) put him in touch with Worm Trouble. "Kurt gave me Greg's number, and I knew Greg was really good to begin with," says Trenhaile. "When [he] said he would try it, I was really excited, very stoked."
"At the time that they called me, I was looking for something to do," Johnson explains. "I had the kit set up in the garage and had been playing, lamenting the fact that I wasn't in a band anymore. I missed it a lot more than I thought I was going to."
"The thing that sold me on joining was the strength of the songwriting," he continues, "and that it wasn't all hard, it wasn't all soft, and it wasn't any one particular style." The fact that Johnson (and his wife) got along very well with Michael and Kat didn't hurt, either.
After Johnson came into the fold, Worm Trouble took another step forward as a band.
"I guess the way I see Worm Trouble in the beginning is kind of a psychedelic Simon & Garfunkel that really didn't know what the hell it was," says Trenhaile. "When Greg came into the band and into our lives, that's when Worm Trouble really got started. That's when I started thinking 'band.'"
The difference between the band's pre-Johnson debut album, Worm Trouble (1997, Slug Records) and last year's The Poison Kitchen(Slug Records/Denver Coffee Achievers) is immediately noticeable: The later release is more assured, adrenalized, and unafraid to subvert rock cliches, demonstrating a range that stretches from ethereal to menacing. One highlight is "Thunder Rises," an electrified start-and-stop waltz that owes itself to Trenhaile's diverse leanings and Ellinger's upbringing "Army-brat style" in Germany. There's also the snarling guitar and building frustration of "Riots"; the undulating undercurrent of "Amsterdam," glazed with silvery strands of guitar; and even a danceable groove, tempered with a dollop of cynicism, in "Vinyl."