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Death metal armada: The words conjure images of a legion of disgruntled longhairs unintelligibly growling about the horrors of the world, wallowing in the tar behind an impenetrable wall of distortion. The Denver-based trio that is the Bobby Collins Death Metal Armada (DMA for short), however, has more in common with Bing Crosby than Cannibal Corpse. There are no paeans to the futility of life in the players' repertoire, no maggots in their mindset, nothing toxic at all. Their philosophy, as put forth in the chorus of their unabashedly catchy "Happy Train," is that "Life's just a big old happy train; you'd better get on board."
Bobby Collins, the band's frontman, literally dreamed up that chorus. He awoke one morning, the remnants of a deep-sleep vision still fresh in his head, complete with its own soundtrack: DMA bass player Stefan Englund, decked out in gospel robes, singing about a happy train. Collins relayed the lyrics to the real-world Englund, who fleshed it out into a jubilant pop song, albeit an extraordinarily oddball one.
Singing about bowling-alley bimbos, their collective self-image as badasses and courting "a girl named Simplicity," the Death Metal crew doesn't dwell on the imperfect state of humanity. Though the band occasionally veers into cynical territory (as in their swipe at the Kato Kaelins of the world, "Talent-less Celebrity"), it is more likely to open a set with a sincere cover of Kermit's "It Ain't Easy Being Green."
"We want to just entertain the hell out of people," says Collins. "That's our motivating factor. We're not in it to get laid. We're not in it to make money."
Whatever the inspiration, DMA's music is at once hand-me-down and fresh, traversing the well-worn trails of pop with a smile. Englund's rollicking bass lines, Collins's spacey keyboards and guitar, and drummer Jed Kopp's tight, taut rhythms swirl into a shimmering, bizarre brew of anthemic pop and psychedelia, the vibe teetering between Martian doo-wop and '80s synth filtered through a postmodern kaleidoscope. And there's no song this trio won't at least attempt to make its own, from Rush's "Tom Sawyer" to the '70s trucker anthem "Convoy" to a thoroughly Caucasian version of the Geto Boys' "Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta." Regardless of the original songwriters' intentions, DMA tends to cast these covers into its own upbeat mold.
"A good song is a good song," says Englund, endeavoring to explain the schizophrenic choice of material. "It's, 'We could do this live and it would be killer.' It's really anything that will make people happy." This begins to explain how tunes by Kraftwerk, Herbie Hancock, Night Ranger and James Brown have all made it onto the Armada set list at one time or another.
Though this all-over-the-map pop culture referencing helps establish a lively tone, the band's originals hold the sets together. As with its choice of covers, there's a giddily offbeat perspective in the material; still, DMA demonstrates a cohesive sound, one that is underpinned by a strong understanding of how to subvert pop convention.
"I guess it's really obnoxious and very spacey, but very happy and, hopefully, entertaining," Collins says of the DMA approach. "I'm big into Phil Spector 'wall of sound' stuff, and Stefan's more into drier, more natural sound. But we both are really on the same page. It makes for some interesting songwriting."
Englund and Collins split songwriting duties, sometimes collaborating on tunes like "Happy Train," although surreal dreams are not usually the catalyst. Englund has been riding a creative hot streak lately, penning the bulk of DMA's newest material. "The one rule is just not to get too serious," Collins says.
The Armada is predated by a couple of different collaborations between its members, all three of whom grew up in Littleton. Collins and Englund played together in "a suburban white-boy funk band" called Blender for a spell in the early '90s. DMA formed in 1998, and after a stint with another drummer, Collins recruited Kopp; both had been part of the Wild Canadians, a now-defunct Denver pop-rock outfit fronted by onetime Warlock Pincher Dan Wanush, aka King Scratchie. (Kopp also drums for the Jirds, Wanush's soon-to-be-unveiled punk undertaking.)
When the current band began to take shape, the artistic principles guiding it were even further afield than they are today. "I wanted to do Slim Gaillard tunes," Collins says. The late, great bizarro-pop innovator is one of Collins's "big inspirations. He's one of the funniest musical guys that's ever been around."
Originally conceived as a "loungey novelty act" by Collins (immediately enthralling Englund), the Armada's first musical forays were intentionally quirky; as part of its regular act, for example, the band would parody oldies by facetiously reimagining the words.
"We'd take a song that was already written and rewrite the lyrics to it," says Collins. "We were doing 'Enter Mr. Sandman,' singing the lyrics to 'Enter Sandman' over 'Mr. Sandman'...just really weird, crazy crap. Thank God we dumped that."
Besides the conceptual shift from bubblegum/metal fusion, DMA is now more streamlined, having shed a pair of Death Metalette backup singers. "When we started out, we bit off a lot more than we could chew," Collins notes. "We've actually jelled as of the last six months or so."