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Fly Me to the Moon," by Frank Sinatra. "Crying," by Roy Orbison. "Roxanne," by the Police. The hits keep rolling out of the jukebox and bouncing off the faux-walnut paneling and mirrored walls of the P S Lounge on East Colfax Avenue. The four members of Voices Underwater sit clustered around a tiny table, heads bent over, silent, scribbling furiously. Occasionally one of them pauses, pressing pen to lips, and thinks hard. The group, you see, is taking a pop quiz.
"Done," says singer/guitarist Ben DeVoss, who seems to have been sweating the questions a bit. Soon the rest of them -- guitarist MacKenzie Howard, drummer Bill Menchaca and bassist/keyboardist Chris White -- toss their completed quizzes in the pile and order another round of Newcastles. As a warmup to their interview, the four of them have been asked to fill out a brief questionnaire. Their answers aren't as Freudianly revealing as was hoped, but there's some good stuff in there anyway: Their first concerts as kids range from Poison and Van Halen all the way to Megadeth. Albums they know every word to include Low's The Curtain Hits the Cast, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Samiam's Soar and Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell(two of them listed that one). The punkest things they ever did in their lives run the gamut from graduating college to lighting farts on fire on a church bus.
"You know, I met Chris almost exactly where we're sitting now," says DeVoss, gesturing to the next table over. It is, as they say, a lazy Sunday afternoon, and dust hovers in the beams of sunlight filtering in through the gaps in the blinds. "Can I tell the truth? I was really nervous. Chris was wearing overalls," he remembers. The rickety table starts rocking with laughter, almost dumping the pile of test papers on the floor. "I was scrutinizing people. I was a little scared -- I had been burned so many times by these people around Denver who just weren't on the same page."
Voices Underwater might as well be called "Fishes Out of Water." With an amphibious sound that breathes as easily in the atmosphere of indie-pop as it does in the depths of electronic and experimental rock, the group has had to fight an upstream battle to win the recognition it now enjoys. "We've always felt like we didn't fit in here," says DeVoss, who daylights as an autism therapist. "When I moved out here from Lawrence, Kansas, I started hanging up fliers looking for people to play with. After a year, I'd been through the wringer playing with a few other people. I had kind of given up hope on Denver until Chris phoned me."
"I saw his flier, and I just thought it was written cool," says White. "I remember it started out with the sentence 'Can you hear this?' And then it went on to describe Mr. DeVoss. I held onto it for a year, until the band I was in broke up."
After first contact was made, DeVoss and White went about trying to find a drummer -- a process that, according to DeVoss, was an exercise in "complete desperation."
"We were so bored, and looking for this outlet," he explains. "There are some Web sites we checked out, but it was risky business. After maybe ten different drummers we eventually talked to this guy, Bill Menchaca. At the time we had a practice space that was probably about four by ten feet long, about the size of a closet. When someone helped us move into it, they thought we were just storing our equipment there."
"We had to have extension cords running down the hall and around the corner," adds White.
"It was a death trap," Menchaca confirms with a laugh. A student of clinical psychology, he moved to Colorado from Austin, Texas, in 2000 to attend graduate school at the University of Denver. "I remember getting a call from Ben and thinking, this guy's a talkative fella. Chris didn't say a whole lot; I think he was sizing me up. We talked about what kinds of bands I'm into, like Mogwai. I didn't think stuff like that was obscure, but everyone else who answered my ad were Deftones fans, Tool fans. So the three of us practiced a few times, and it just clicked."
The trio called itself -- perhaps a bit unfortunately -- Vuja Dé, and began playing around town in the winter of 2001. After a few months of intense gigging and songwriting, the group began recording what it figured would be just a demo CD.
"We had a lot of songs, pretty solid songs, so we decided to document them; we didn't think anything of them," White says.
"All of us had been playing in these crappy little outfits that never did anything, so I think we were like, all right, fuck it; let's book some time in the studio," says DeVoss. "We just wanted to get it out of our system."
What got out of their system was Electric Birds, a six-song disc that sounds unlike anything Denver has ever produced. With fleeting references to Brian Eno, the Sea and Cake, and Stereolab, tracks like "Zero-Sum" and "Light Radiates at Different Frequencies" combine lush-yet-brittle guitars with whale-sized slabs of bass and splotches of electronic ambience. The arrangements are dense and inventive, with vertigo-inducing leaps of dynamics locked into smooth, hypnotic loops. The song "Left to Fit Right In" is a blip-riddled duet between DeVoss and his robotic doppelganger, a computer-modulated voice echoing the lone lyric "I'm so afraid/Of what you might say." Electric Bird's denouement -- the epic "Summer Novice" -- starts with DeVoss whispering an onomatopoeic drumbeat into the microphone. This ghostly rhythm then dissolves into an ocean of seething texture and symphonic movements more reminiscent of Yes than Tortoise. Embedded in the whole thing is a membrane of pulsing harmony and tender, fleshy pop.
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