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According to the calendar, New Year's Eve is still six months away. But you'd never know it from the faces at Herman's Hideaway on this steamy Friday night. The place is packed, with a line pouring out onto the sidewalk. Inhibitions are stacked at the door like so many unneeded winter coats. Everyone is drinking heavily and mingling like it's the last major blowout of the year. There are disco balls, confetti and a bubble machine. The sexual tension is palpable; half-naked chicks are doing their best Girls Gone Wild impressions in the men's bathroom. If you didn't know any better, you'd swear the ball was about to drop.
Instead, Rubber Planet has just dropped its third disc, Out There. And as the band's singer/bassist, Curtis Smith, aka Silver, croons the melody to "Tell Me About Tomorrow," a bouncy, hook-laden anthem from the new release, the hardwood floor feels like it's about to cave in from the weight of the dancers. Silver is doing nothing to help matters. Clad in a spray-painted, Day-Glo, green-and-white striped polyester suit with the sleeves ripped off and matching creepers, he looks like a cross between Beetlejuice and a Buddhist monk; a few feathery wisps of hair sprout out of the back of his otherwise bald head. He urges the crowd to continue bouncing as the bandmembers behind him play the opening lines of "Blowing Bubbles Backwards." Just then, the bubble machine starts kicking out bubbles that hang in the air like a fine ocean mist.
Seriously, the only thing missing is Dick Clark and those obnoxious noisemakers. And as fans of Rubber Planet will tell you, most of its shows are like this. But when the band formed in 1997, it couldn't even fill Cricket on the Hill.
That's where Silver and the rest of his crew -- drummer Leo Zayas, aka Leo 7; guitarists Gregg Gibb, aka Vitamin G; and Brice Hancock -- gather a week after the Herman's show to tell their story of the past seven years. "We had one girlfriend there," Silver recalls. "The drummer's girlfriend and whoever was working at the bar."
Although they were both born in the same hospital and grew up in Littleton, Silver and Vitamin G didn't start playing together until high school. They were classmates at Columbine High School years before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold permanently etched the institution into the public consciousness; a less infamous alum, Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, was just starting to make his mark on the scene. By the time the duo hooked up, Silver had already found his calling as a singer: He'd been one of four kids plucked out of a choir class in elementary school to sing a jingle for a local ice cream company called Mom's Ice Cream. After failed attempts at playing the guitar and keyboards, he started playing bass in eighth grade to augment his vocals. At about the same time, Vita, who'd learned how to play guitar by listening to old polka records that his parents had around the house, had acquired a reputation as one of the best guitarists in his neighborhood. Soon Silver and Vitamin G were entertaining junior-high kids with a series of long-forgotten bands with names like Lame Tunes, Whiplash and CBC.
"That was such a blast," says Silver, "because they were way into it. We made this one girl cry one time, and I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. We were just crooning away, playing our stupid little songs. And she just got so excited she started bawling. It was so nutty. It was great. It was like we were little rock stars already."
The two briefly parted ways when Silver moved to California to attend the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, but they reunited a short time later, after Silver's gig fronting Steve Lynch's new band, which was to be picked up by Capitol Records, fell through. Autograph's former guitarist wanted to go in a more "Nine Inch Nails-y" direction, and Silver didn't fit the bill. But Lynch was interested in helping the singer develop his own project, and when Silver called his old friend back in Denver, Vitamin G packed up and headed for the West Coast.
They lived together in a 400-square-foot apartment. It was a miserable experience. "We lived on popcorn and pudding," Silver remembers. "We were actually very thin at the time. We've got pictures to prove it. What I would do -- and I realize this now -- is I would let him work on the music and then go walk for four or five hours up in the hills. And then I'd come back and lay down some vocals. Then we'd go to the Valley and let Steve listen to it. He'd go, 'Okay, change this, change that.' So it wasn't a very fun job for Vita. He was missing his girlfriend, and I certainly wasn't being the best buddy I could have been to him. We ended up fighting a lot."
Meanwhile, in a tiny town just outside of Baltimore on the opposite coast, another future rocker was honing his chops. Since Hancock wasn't allowed to watch much television as a kid, the guitar was a useful way to expel pent-up energy -- and, later, to wake the dead.
"After college, I owned a recording studio for a couple of years," says Hancock. "And I lived in a cemetery. I was the caretaker. I got free rent. It was a four-bedroom house. The old mortuary was in the basement, and they didn't use it. So I bought some equipment and recorded bands. I recorded probably twenty, thirty bands out of there before I moved here."
He came to Denver to "start over," he says, and placed an ad at a local music store. Silver answered it, and the first incarnation of Rubber Planet started playing the coffeehouse circuit as a twosome. Two years later, the combo added Matt Morse on drums and soon released Just Visiting, an eleven-song affair that contains one of the act's most popular live songs, "Space Girl."
The 1999 debut, produced in conjunction with Bill Wilkinson, is a decent local release -- but it soundslocal. Though tuneful, it's more lighthearted and cheeky than the band's later efforts. Everything from the production and packaging -- which pictures a group of pubescent kids cloaked in makeshift, metallic robes like an extraterrestrial Polyphonic Spree, surrounded by aliens and astronauts -- fit the goofy name. (Contrary to popular myth, that name has nothing to do with prophylactics; Silver says it came to him in a dream.)
In the summer of 2000, Rubber's lineup was bolstered by the addition of Vita, who'd been playing in local outfits like Somebody's Sister and Pet the Monster, on second guitar. But the current version of the band didn't solidify until 2002. Morse left the act to devote more time to his family, and the group went through a slew of drummers before finding his replacement through Music Mates, a matchmaking service for musicians. At his audition, Leo 7, a native of Gomez, Mexico, who'd cut his teeth in cover bands across his homeland, already knew some of the band's material. By the second rehearsal, a week later, he knew all of it.
And he didn't just know the songs; he helped them come alive. By the time the act recorded Fun With Rubber, its sound -- a guitar-driven, retro-tinged, new-wave power pop -- had started to coalesce, with Leo's powerhouse timekeeping augmenting Silver's developing songwriting prowess. The dual guitar attack of Hancock and Vitamin G still shines on cuts like "Surprise" and "Super Glue."
Even though the band's members were happy with that record, they realized they'd have to step it up with the next. "We knew going into it that it had to be a good record," says Hancock. "You know, Love.45 was doing great things. Rexway was doing great things. Our last record kind of got ripped on a lot. So we hired Bill Thomas and we told him what our concerns were, and he kind of kept us in the mindset that we were making a whole record. And I think it helped out a lot. It was completely calculated. It's not just by chance that it's a better record. We worked really hard on it."
"We sat down," Vita chips in, "and we said, ŒIf we don't make a lot better record than we just made, you know, it would be the end.'"
"Yeah," Hancock confirms, "it would have been the death of our band."
Instead, Rubber Planet just released what may be the album of its career. The production is flawless, the melodies instantly memorable, the packaging top-notch. But most important, the music is far beyond anything the band's released to date. Songs like "Girl From Tomorrow," "Vortex" and "Mason Jars," with their cascading melodies and giant harmonies, are custom-made for screaming down the highway with the windows down.
Not only that, but the lyrics are smarter. "I have to owe a lot of my lyrics to Mr. Vita here," Silver confesses. "When we were doing Fun With Rubber, when he joined us, he was like, 'The best songs are about telling stories. If you can tell a story that people relate to, that's the coolest. That's going to stand up.' Because before, all I really cared about was melody. I had never thought I was really good at the lyrics."
"I saw him working harder on the lyrics," says Hancock. "He'd sit there and actually try to come up with different stuff."
"I think we all kind of busted his balls a little," adds Vita. "We all busted each other's balls, like, 'What are we going to do to make this better?' You know, like, ŒLet's make the best record we can.'"
Mission accomplished. Now on to more nights of drunken debauchery.
Well, maybe just debauchery. Silver is a confirmed teetotaler, which makes him feel "like a babysitter sometimes at three in the morning," he says. "I got drunk once and passed out on the street. I had a bad experience -- it wasn't fun for me at all. So I don't have the taste for alcohol; it kind of freaks me out to this day. I just never really picked it up.
"And I'm addicted to so many other things, like food and sex," he adds with a laugh, "that if I started drinking, it would just be really bad. I'd lose all sense of control."
At least he'd be in good company.