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I think it's hard to pull off actually having feeling in aggressive rock," says Chris Sorensen, guitarist of the pigeonhole-dodging Denver group Vaux. He and his bandmates were once known as Eiffel, a clean-cut, emo-scented combo that somehow went horribly wrong. Instead of sticking to meek melodies and humble ambitions, the band got tough. And hungry. And hairy. Now signed to the indie label Volcom -- a subidiary of MCA/Universal -- and fresh off this summer's illustrious Warped Tour, Vaux is ready to show the world just how much feeling and aggression can be packed into one rock album.
A dun-colored tract house in suburban Aurora hardly seems like a wellspring of musical creativity, yet Vaux practices in just such a space. Surrounded by huge paintings, half-unpacked boxes, beer cans and Doritos bags is a massive jumble of equipment -- six bandmembers' worth, to be precise. Joe McChan mans the drum kit like a turret gunner -- frowning, focused. Sorensen, Adam Tymn and Greg Daniels calibrate the settings and positions of their amps with all the precision of radio-telescope engineers. Ryder Robeson, grim and solid, exudes the bearded-bassist mystique of Joy Division's Peter Hook or the Who's late John Entwistle. Meanwhile, Quentin Smith, barefoot and unshaven, sits almost bored in a chair while pulling a sound out of his lungs that could reanimate fossils.
So begins Vaux's daily rehearsal. It's 10 a.m.
"We were already tired of the nine-to-five career world when we quit our jobs," says Smith. "We'd been working for a while after we all graduated college, and finally we were like, 'This is stupid. If there's even a chance we can make a go at it with the band, we should try.'"
"Some of us quit $50,000-a-year jobs to have zero income," says Sorensen with a hint of ruefulness.
"Yeah, it's pretty brutal," Smith concurs, "but having the dedication to be and to stay in a band is so important. Having ambition is even more important than being a good band."
Luckily, the members of Vaux realize that ambition and excellence are not either/or options. Their music is, in a word, majestic. Guitars are braided into thick tangles of tension and melody; time signatures shift with the smooth, instinctive complexity of biochemical reactions. Orchestras of feedback and digitally processed texture are conducted as if they were strings and brass. Vocals pace back and forth, from guttural snarl to breathy falsetto. Shards of pop, art rock, noise and metal poke holes through Vaux's post-hardcore armor, ventilating its dense arrangements and opening up a range of expression that is nothing short of epic.
"I get sick of hearing bland music on the radio," says Robeson. "We've got six guys bringing in a million different influences, so many that it would be hard to listen to one of our songs and be like, 'This is exactly where they're getting that from.'"
"Personally, I would list all kinds of bands from Britain," says Smith of his musical idols. "Vocally, that's the stuff that's interesting to me. The melodies, the dynamics, the range... It doesn't seem like anyone's really applied those things to more energetic music."
Cardigan-clad sensitivity aside, there are many more homegrown and harder-edged influences that Vaux has absorbed into its sound. Besides the dark prog of A Perfect Circle, the band is firmly aligned with some of the heavier, more conceptually adventurous outfits to come out of the hardcore scene in recent years (Cave In, Refused, Drowningman, Boy Sets Fire), many of which are also known for the intensity of their live shows.
"A live show will make it or break it for a band," Robeson says. "That's a big part of what we do -- playing for people and feeding off that energy. If you see us on stage, usually we're just running around like chickens with our heads cut off."
The members of Vaux surely acquired their stage aesthetic from their early days in Denver's emo and hardcore scenes. Veterans of assorted short-lived groups such as Marjorie Reed, Seasons Run and Dim Mak, they began playing together under the Eiffel moniker in 1997. "Quentin, Joe and I went to the same art school, and we just started talking about playing in a band together," recalls Robeson. "A lot of it was just learning to play our instruments that first year and a half. [We] went from being a four-piece to a six-piece when we added Chris and Greg."
"We were playing some pretty burly stuff until we got Chris," says Smith with a grin. "Then we got all emo."
"It's true," Robeson agrees, laughing. "Chris brought the pompadour, and it was all over from there."
Eiffel's debut seven-inch record was released in 1998. The full-length followup, 2000's AudibleNarcotic, was issued on Florida-based Undecided Records. That disc solidified the band's early sound -- ardent, intricate and melodic, with cascades of arpeggios and anguished vocals in the tradition of Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World. In other words, cookie-cutter emo.