Gone Again

Pop-punk prototype Pinhead Circus calls it quits after ten years in the ring.

It's hard to put into words or numbers the impact that a local band can have on its hometown. Besides just providing the soundtrack to endless drunken Saturday nights, the local bands with tenacity and gumption sometimes wind up as an emblem -- the figurehead, even -- around which a music scene grows and revolves. Pinhead Circus is such a band. Or rather, was such a band. After ten years of making frantic, infectious and heartfelt punk rock, the Circus members have decided to pack up their tents and call it a decade.

"People come up to me and say, 'I can't believe that after all the time you spent building this thing, you want to throw it away.' But it's because we do care about the band so much that we're breaking up," says singer/guitarist James Wellensiek, better known as Scooter. Since its inaugural release, 1994's Gone Again EP, Pinhead Circus has pumped out four full-length albums and dozens of singles and compilation tracks. Along the way, Scooter and bassist Trevor Williamson have had to break in numerous drummers and second-guitar players -- a high-maintenance procedure that has finally begun to strip the gears of the Pinhead engine. "We're not just going to keep on throwing new members at the band," Scooter explains. "We figured now would be the perfect time to break things off, just kind of end it on a good note."

Pinhead's evolution can be traced back to late-'80s Golden, where Scooter, Williamson and original drummer Forrest Bartosh first began making noise together after school to kill the boredom between bouts of skateboarding. Why punk rock? "It's all we could play, believe me," Scooter says, laughing. "When I first picked up the guitar, I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. I realized pretty quickly that that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. I'm not one of those people who are just naturally born to do things. Music's always been sort of hard for me; I kind of struggled with it. Then once I started listening to the Ramones, I figured out that you can write a good song without crazy solos and fire and explosions and stuff. You can strip it down to the bare essentials and write a good song that way."

Lions and tigers and punks, oh, my: Denver quartet Pinhead Circus.
Lions and tigers and punks, oh, my: Denver quartet Pinhead Circus.

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After going through some typically goofy teenage incarnations, including the Flintstones Kids and Earwax, the band settled on the much more dignified moniker Pinhead Circus. "We didn't think about anything back then," Scooter recalls. "We just got up and did what we had to do. We just wanted to get on stage and play. If people liked it, cool. If they didn't, whatever."

Indeed, people did begin to like it. Pinhead Circus channeled the scattershot velocity and hoarse melodic songcraft of NOFX, Screeching Weasel and the bands of the nascent Bay Area pop-punk scene: Crimpshrine, Jawbreaker and Green Day. In the early '90s, the Front Range already claimed plenty of hardcore and emo bands, such as Wrong Approach, Savalas and Small Dog Frenzy, but it wasn't until the arrival of Pinhead Circus that Colorado could send its own delegate to the nation's burgeoning pop-punk coalition.

Backed by local label Black Plastic Records, the Pinheads opened for many larger touring acts and hit the road themselves. The Gone Again EP was followed up by a full-length album, Nothing Groundbreaking. Soon a slew of new local bands such as Four, Qualm, Random Victim, Eleventh Hour, Son of Sam, Armchair Martian, Useless, Crestfallen, the Facet and the Fairlanes materialized and coalesced around Pinhead Circus; the bands played shows together at the Raven in Denver, Club 156 in Boulder and innumerable basements and warehouses in between. Besides Black Plastic, labels like Suburban Home, Paco Garden, Not Good, Soda Jerk and Seven Lucky sprang up to document and disseminate the music. Even Wyoming bands such as the Homeless Wonders and One Good Eye plugged themselves into the network. A scene, as they say, was born.

"I think it's great that we may have inspired someone to play music," Scooter says. "I love it. It's a great feeling. If it wasn't for Black Flag and the Descendents and bands like that, we never would have done it. That's what did it for me when I was a kid." Absorbing inspiration from old records, though, is one thing. Having a living, breathing, booze-swilling, string-breaking personification of it in your own back yard is another. Pinhead Circus provided such an inspiration for Denver's punk scene while nurturing a populist solidarity among the kids and bands in town. "That's what we were trying to do with the whole 'No Coast Death Squad' thing," Scooter says, elaborating on the semi-farcical punk posse that has grown up around his group. "It's not so much that people were going to take it seriously. We just wanted something for all of us to kind of identify with."

Such a sense of provincial identity is a vital component of the punk zeitgeist. As Scooter explains, "It seems like people really try hard to relate to bands they like. I think geography is one of the things they look to. Maybe that's what has really been missing here. The Midwest has a scene, but Denver's not really the Midwest, and we're not really the West Coast, either. We're just kind of stuck out here, this little no-man's-land. Being from Denver is pretty much a joke to the mainstream music community. We got tons of reviews of our first couple records that were seriously like, 'Ooh, they're from Denver. That might be a strike against them.' It's ridiculous."

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