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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."
DMA really began connecting with (and confusing) audiences upon opening for Matthew Sweet at the Gothic Theatre in early 2000. "That was our first real show," Collins says. "I thought they were going to throw beer bottles at us."
"I didn't know who [Sweet] was, then I saw him on Ben Stein," says Englund, referring to the Comedy Central game show. "I was like, 'I played with that guy.'" ("He kind of sucked on Ben Stein," he adds.) Likewise, a lot of the potential concertgoers who called the Gothic for show information that night didn't know what a death-metal armada was and probably didn't care to find out.
But something clicked with the audience. "We were shocked," says Collins. "People got it; they laughed at it. It ended up being a great time." Things have rolled right along, as the Armada has played an interesting array of shows -- everything from headlining at the Denver Puppet Theatre on New Year's 2000 to opening for Super Diamond last week -- and honed its approach.
Although Collins's name graces the marquee, he insists the band is "very democratic." Neither Englund nor Kopp has given up hope of eventually getting top billing, however.
"That's an idea of mine: A little bit later down the road, we'll have different weekends where we'll be the Stefan Englund Death Metal Armada, then the Jed Kopp Death Metal Armada," says Kopp.
"They think that," Collins says, grinning.
While the power-trio formula feels good for now, the induction of a full-time keyboardist -- specifically, one who is open to direction -- is at the top of Collins's wish list. (Of course, the addition of a fourth Armada member might further stoke the furor over whose name is in lights.) As it is, DMA isn't short on chemistry, although each member's musical taste is markedly different. Collins says he's "a slut for '50s and '60s easy-listening stuff," while Kopp is drawn to fast and furious punk, and Englund's affinity sits on music's outlandish fringe. The trio's musical leanings intersect at James Brown, though that doesn't mean much stylistically.
"I think you can hear a whole lot of [the James Brown influence] in the music," says Kopp, with as much dry sarcasm as he can muster. Maybe not, but the players share at least one trait with the Godfather of Soul: They work hard to put together a good live set. On stage, the DMA has yet to pull off any pyrotechnic dance moves, but there's a considerable amount of flair on display. "Sometimes, people don't realize how fun a night out seeing a band can be," says Collins. "A lot of times it's just some band playing music, but we try to make it ridiculous and fun."
The band sees its peculiar melodies as merely the starting point for a broader rock spectacle. "Eventually, we want to do a lot more than just music," Collins says. "We want to get a lot of multimedia crap going on at our shows: magicians and puppets and stuff like that.
"Actually, our biggest plan is to write a metal opera," he continues. "We're going to get actors, the whole nine yards...[produce it] off-off-Broadway, maybe Denver Broadway." That work is already in the infant stages: Titled Father, the proposed production relays the story of a teenage metalhead who retreats into a fantasy world after his Air Force colonel dad restricts his Dio and Maiden intake. "At the end, his father realizes that, yes, metal is good," says Collins. "We have to fill in the gaps a little bit."
The Armada men have already got their pinkies in the performance-art waters with their rotating thematic stage garb, which has, at past shows, included milkman attire, stark white jumpsuits and gaudy Christmas sweaters. "We're big into uniforms," says Englund, who has spearheaded the band's chameleon approach. He recently tried to convert a roll of bubble wrap into three matching suits, but it didn't quite work out.
The fringe-theater angle extends beyond alternating avant-garde and blue-collar fashions. At the band's Christmas 2000 show, for example, a mall-style Santa Claus passed out DMA currency (complete with the bandmembers' mug shots). The band also has a performance-art/rock-and-roll extravaganza coming up later in the fall, titled Circus of the Stars, with an exceedingly unusual "Atari rock" act, Mr. Pacman. "It's going to be absolutely amazing," touts Englund.
Translating the creative energy of an off-kilter stage act to an album is a delicate operation, but it's one the band hopes to carry out by next spring. "It's real hard to capture the essence of the DMA on tape," says Kopp.
"If you want musk, you have to pull a scent gland out of a skunk," Collins adds. To do their debut justice, the DMA will carefully extract gems from live recordings and polish them before they're released for mass consumption.
Not that these guys aren't constantly twisting knobs in the studio. Collins creates advertising jingles for a living (including the revamped FirstBank theme), and Kopp labels Englund "the MacGyver of the band" because of his engineering prowess. Both Englund and Collins have independently recorded solo platters: Most Stefanitely is a slab of warped pop ditties that finds inventive uses for everything from heavy-metal licks to sugarcoated choruses. This Is Bobby Collins is more straight up, although not quite serious -- a sharp but groovy collection of unconventional electronica. Once Kopp comes through with his vision of the Jed Kopp Koppulation, all three DMAers will have recorded solo efforts -- à la KISS in the late '70s.
Of course, Gene Simmons and company were already sliding down the steep slope to unmasking by the time that band's solo projects began in earnest. Conversely, the DMA has yet to fully unleash its happily skewed view of rock on the world. Once they inject puppets, bubble wrap and a full-length metal opera into the mix, the band might reach its artistic pinnacle. For the time being, however, the happy train just keeps chugging along.