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Making Progress

Dave Kerman thinks prog rock is good business.

Although most mainstream rock fans don't know anything about Dave Kerman, the drummer is a household name in at least a few places. For the passionate international cult that champions Rock in Opposition, a musical movement dedicated to promoting truly progressive sounds, he's a key figure, thanks to his work with acts such as Thinking Plague and 5uu's, his own combo. Yet when it comes to running ReR USA, the recently launched Denver-based distribution arm of London's ReR/Recommended Records, his experience as a percussionist was not as valuable as another item on his resumé.

"I worked a day job managing a Mail Boxes Etc. at Broadway and Alameda to fund my musical efforts," Kerman says. "That gave me a background in business that I really hadn't had, which turned out to be good when it came time to start this company."

He's made a lot of headway in the few months since he returned to Denver, where he lived intermittently during the '90s. (In recent years, he's also resided in France, Slovenia, Italy and Belgium.) Already, ReR USA has an office on South Broadway, and its website, www.rerusa.com, is fully functional. In addition, Kerman is gearing up to introduce a new Recommended Records label, also called ReR USA, with the re-release later this year of a handful of discs the London branch put out in the '80s. Among the first four is an effort by Venus Handcuffs, co-starring former Thinking Plaguers Suzanne Lewis and Bob Drake. "I think it's important to put out some of these missing links," Kerman notes. "I don't believe anyone else will reissue them."

He plays guitar, too: ReR's Dave Kerman.
James Glader
He plays guitar, too: ReR's Dave Kerman.

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Featuring Chris Cutler, Thomas Dimuzio, Hamster Theatre and Janet Feder, 8 p.m. Friday, April 16, Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, 2637 Welton Street, $20, 303-297-1772

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Steering clear of the albums would make perfect sense from a strictly commercial standpoint. Even the best-known acts in ReR's rarefied catalogue -- the Art Bears, guitarist Fred Frith -- have failed to excite more than a tiny percentage of the mass public, if only because they'd rather rattle brainpans than conform to expectations. Any pop DJ who gave them airplay would surely be escorted from his station at gunpoint before the final note played, which helps explain why even Thinking Plague leader Mike Johnson has doubts about the wisdom of Kerman's mission.

"He's certain there's no money to be made in this music," Kerman concedes. "He thinks the school is too small and the fan base is too far spread out. But I don't agree. I believe that if marketed correctly, things could change."

To give himself the best chance of achieving his entrepreneurial goals, Kerman has temporarily sacrificed his drumming. Fortunately, his past couple of years have been prolific from a studio standpoint; he contributed to three discs on Cuneiform Records, a like-minded Massachusetts imprint. Abandonship, from 2002, is credited to Dave Kerman/5uu's and features ten compositions filled with challenging time signatures, quirky instrumentation and Deborah Perry's expressionistic singing. Perry and Kerman also turn up on the latest Thinking Plague platter, 2003's intriguing A History of Madness. And earlier this year, Kerman anchored the self-titled offering by Ahvak, an adventurous sextet from Israel -- yet another nation where he once dwelled. He stuck around for several years prior to his Denver return and holds dual American and Israeli citizenship.

Kerman's time in Israel gave him more of an insight into that country -- and the Middle Eastern conflict as a whole -- than he could have gleaned from a thousand media reports. He came to think of Israel as "a magnifying glass, or an amplifier. If something's good there, it's absolutely great. If it's bad, it's hideously terrible. But in the midst of everything, the Israelis and the Palestinians I knew managed to keep their spirits up. There's a certain joie de vivre there that exceeds the misgivings they may have for each other, and there's always hope for peace."

Such optimism is remarkable, given events like the suicide bombing of a restaurant owned by Israeli Arabs that was located across the street from Kerman's house. He wasn't hurt, but a fourteen-year old girl died in the blast, and approximately twenty others were wounded. Contrary to impressions created by the nightly news, however, such horrific incidents weren't a part of everyday life when he was there. "I'm one of the few Israelis who's personally witnessed the violence," he says. "Most just see it on TV." Indeed, he spent the majority of his time in Israel happily working with the Batsheva Dance Company, a state-sponsored troupe, and recording Abandonship and Ahvak. In his opinion, the discs wouldn't be as strong had they been recorded elsewhere: "The heightened sense of emotion was great for writing and performing music."

Few of Kerman's boyhood friends and acquaintances in Torrance, California, where he grew up, would have guessed that a music career was in his future. For his first public performance -- a talent contest he entered in 1969, at age ten -- he and a combo that included future 5uu's co-conspirator Chuck Turner deconstructed Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." When they inserted what he calls "a free-improv freakout section" into the tune, "half the people there were nonplussed, and the other half were completely scared," he says. The competition's first prize went to "a bunch of girls a year older than us who lip-synched and danced to the Jackson 5's 'ABC.'"

Despite the defeat, Kerman continued to eschew musical simplicity. By his teen years, he was heavily into art rock and prog, a pair of related formats that hit their respective peaks of popularity in the '70s, via groups like King Crimson. At age seventeen, Kerman and some of his pals paid homage to the genres by assembling a group with one of the worst monikers in rock history: Farmer Fred Genuflects to A-440. "We thought we sounded like Gentle Giant, but subsequent listenings show that we sounded like really bad Blodwyn Pig," Kerman says, referencing combos that only kindred spirits are likely to recall. "I was making homemade instruments, like zithers made out of old drums and old guitar strings, and I had a telescoping trombone wind machine that was made out of the cases of old metal fire extinguishers."

From these bizarre beginnings came the 5uu's, and by the mid-'80s, the outfit's music was strong enough to attract the attention of Chris Cutler, a veteran of Gong and Henry Cow, as well as the founder of Recommended Records. With Cutler as his role model, Kerman embarked on a labyrinthine journey through neo-prog, forming associations with a gaggle of groups that quickly got into crossbreeding.

During the '80s, for instance, Kerman was asked to join Present (pronounced pre-zahnt), a sprawling Belgian ensemble led by Roger Trigaux that's made eight albums since 1981. Employing a flurry of terminology, Kerman describes Present as a "dark, gothic, trance-inducing heavy-metal band with melodic overtones." He also hooked up with Blast, a group from Holland that makes "half free-improv, half avant-garde jazz, which is some of the more demanding music I've ever had to play," he says. "At one point, we didn't have much time to rehearse, so the band was actually reading charts on stage. Since I don't read or write music, I was forced to listen to demo tapes constantly on airplanes and tour buses to learn this stuff by rote.

"That was one of the rare cases where not being able to read music was detrimental," he allows. "In most cases, I was able to introduce my own style and improvised thinking by not following the charts."

The rewards for Kerman's experimentalism have been modest. During prog's golden era, the biggest groups could fill arenas or even stadiums, but crowds have dwindled over the past decade, making it difficult to travel to the far-flung cities, many of them in Europe, where the music retains a foothold. As for album sales, they seldom rise to a level that would impress Billboard statisticians. "Someone like Fred Frith can sell thousands of units," Kerman says, "whereas something newer, like Science Group [a collaboration between Cutler, Drake, Johnson and Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer] might sell one or two thousand. That's not enough to generate the revenues you need to tour the world in a stylish fashion, but if you're willing to endure some hard knocks for a while, there are possibilities."

With that in mind, Kerman is pulling together the Boy Howdy Rio Show, an April 16 concert to showcase the type of music that ReR USA plans to make more widely available; Cutler is flying to Denver in order to headline the event. Kerman's just as eager to prove that the prog audience can grow if given the proper encouragement. He's confident more Americans will come knocking once they know what's waiting behind the ReR website's door. "I think someone with business perspicacity who can work with real purchase orders, real ads and real salespeople might be able to make this a little more visible to the general public," he says.

Not that Kerman's willing to soften the music to make it happen. "Over the years, there have been some interesting groups who've been told, 'You need a more commercial sound. Do this to keep your contract and your swimming pool and the braces on your children's teeth.' But we want to do things differently. We're trying to find a middle ground between real business principles and the art we're trying to promote.

"For guys like myself and Chris Cutler, the art behind the music has always been the bottom line," he adds. "He's in his fifties and I'm in my forties, and we haven't sold out yet -- so I can't see that happening."

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