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It's 7 p.m. Friday, and Love.45 is hosting a listening party at Brendan's Pub. Although it's one of Denver's most prominent bands, if it weren't for the promotional posters hanging around the bar, the four members would be indistinguishable from their fans.
Right now, this is a faceless band with a catchy-as-hell song on the radio. But in four days, when Love.45 is introduced to the rest of the country via its self-titled major-label debut, that could all change. While it's not the first outfit from Denver to get a record deal, Love.45 may have the best shot at breaking through to the mainstream. Unlike more left-of-center acts that never quite made it, Love.45 has an accessible pop sound with mass appeal, and the potential to cross over into multiple radio formats. In fact, the first single from Love.45, "Way Down," is not only getting substantial airplay on KTCL, but it's already been picked up by ten other markets.
"Love.45's goal has always been to put on a Kiss show at a Wal-Mart price," says guitarist Paul Trinidad. He and bandmate Danny Elster have been obsessed with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley since they were kids, and it shows.
"What's missing in rock and roll right now is having four equal and opposite members of every band," says bassist/vocalist Elster. "Now you only know bands by the ugly singer and that song you like a lot -- and you can't remember anything else about them. We're trying to bring it back to where people are like, ŒHe's my favorite member of this band.' You know, where people, for whatever reason, identify each guy as a separate entity but also as part the group itself."
And since each member brings something entirely different to Love.45, establishing their distinctive identities with the fans should be a cinch.
Elster, for example, is the perfectionist. He frequently deflects compliments and is rarely satisfied with his output. But even as he scrutinizes his own performances, his thoughts rolling across his face like a CNN crawl, there's a childlike capriciousness beneath that self-effacing demeanor that makes him instantly likable. Originally from Leavenworth, Kansas, and a diehard Chiefs fan, his eyes sparkle like those of a five-year-old on Christmas morning as he tells how he climbed to the top of Arrowhead stadium and spit over the edge.
Singer/guitarist Mick Shivers is considerably more difficult to read and takes longer to warm up. At Brendan's, while his bandmates eagerly volunteer information, he offers an opinion only when directly asked for one. Shivers says he's "a forever pessimist." But really, he's just cautiously optimistic and grappling with the bittersweet implications of what lies ahead. The band will probably be living on the road for the next couple of years, which means being away from his confidante and wife of four years, Stephanie.
Trinidad, too, is cautious about the future. "We haven't done anything yet," he insists. "We haven't sold a single record." Although there's no doubt he's the band's strategist -- "Who else do you know who carries around a cheat sheet?" he asks, revealing a folded piece of paper containing Love.45's complete itinerary -- there's a reason he got the nickname "Paulitician." But the diplomacy and networking ability that others recognize are really just small-town values (he grew up in Loveland) coming through.
Drummer Jim Messina is the heart of the act, the idealist. When he recently heard a pre-mastered copy of Love.45, he confesses, he was so moved that he cried. "It was my life's work," he says. "I couldn't believe it." A Chicago native who took up the drums in sixth grade after his family relocated to Florida, Messina also made a phone call to his junior-high band director to thank him for the inspiration. Shivers thinks of Messina as a "father figure," a gentle soul who always offers a kind word or joke when things get tough.
And there's been no shortage of tough times for Love.45. From endless jaunts across the country in Trinidad's truck -- sans heating and air-conditioning -- to having their gear stolen to heartache and divorces, over the years the four have forged an unbreakable fraternal bond.
Love.45 got its start in the back of a Thornton strip club in the summer of 1998, when Shivers and Trinidad, former schoolmates at Thompson Valley High School, fired the drummer of their band Undertow. Pat Elster auditioned for the slot, and while it wasn't a good fit for him, he did suggest that the pair give his younger brother a go on bass. Although the band already had a bassist, Danny Elster soon replaced him. Then Messina, who had been working on another project with Shivers, came on board a month later.
Undertow was at that time a third-tier act playing fringe clubs in the suburbs. But after changing its name to Love.45 -- with an okay from Pat Elster, whose band had used the moniker a few years earlier, as well as the ultimate blessing of C.W. Talkington, the director of Love and a .45 -- the group commenced dreaming and scheming. Rather than focus on a record deal, as many young bands do right out of the gate, Love.45 set its sights significantly lower.
"We just wanted to get into Herman's," Danny Elster recalls. "We wanted to play on those Friday nights when it was packed."
To get to that next level, the members studied the bigger, more successful acts in town, taking extensive notes. After taking out a loan to pay for their first record, 1998's Day Glo, they realized they needed a way to "keep the machine running," Elster recalls. "Nobody could contribute their own money. They had their own rent, their own bills to pay. Then we finally figured it out."
What they came up with changed Love.45's entire trajectory: They decided to play cover gigs, a move that many in the scene shunned as counterintuitive, especially for an original act. But performing other people's music had undeniable benefits. Not only did it allow the group to build its stamina as musicians and provide an outlet to test new material on a captive audience, it was also lucrative as hell. So while Love.45 got stigmatized as a cover band, those gigs financed two of the outfit's three records and provided the means to purchase new gear and tour on a regular basis. Perhaps more important, covering songs that were already proven hits bolstered the members' intrinsic ability to write readily accessible pop songs of their own. For a long time, Love.45 couldn't get arrested here in Denver, but in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the band was getting top billing -- and playing its own music.
"We always thought that we had good music," says Elster. "And I think that our little clique of fans always thought that we had good music. But we could never could get anybody who could do anything about it to get into our music."
In the summer of 2003, a prominent person finally took notice. In what's become a chapter in local folklore, after a chance encounter with Chris Henderson, the guitarist from 3 Doors Down, who mentioned that he was scouting for new talent, Rogue frontman Bill Terrell helped Love.45 get its material to him, as well as to lauded producer Geoff Ott. Henderson and Ott liked what they heard and invited the band to Seattle to record. So after raising $5,000 -- playing covers, what else? -- Love.45 headed to the Emerald City. The group returned with a four-song demo, which it later pressed and released as The Seattle Sessions EP. The response was overwhelming, to say the least. KTCL added "Don't Ask Me" to regular rotation this past January. And by March, Love.45 had a record deal.
Elster, still stunned that Henderson set all this in motion by taking the group under his wing, says he "asked him why he was doing all of this for us. And he said, 'I don't want to be the only one with all this success. I want to share it.' And that's the exact answer that my mom would expect me to give."
Henderson and Love.45 were clearly kindred spirits. Henderson himself is from a tiny town in Mississippi called Escatawpa, which is roughly thirty miles east of Biloxi. Despite the massive success he's had with 3 Doors Down, his blue-collar roots have kept him grounded, which made it easier for Elster and company to bend to his whim as he produced their record. For example, after Love.45 returned to Seattle to record its full-length debut, Henderson and Ott told Elster that he'd be taking over vocal duties from longtime frontman Shivers. "I don't think that it's anything crazy," Elster explains. "Basically, what happened is on the Seattle Sessions, it turned out the best songs that we had written, I just sang more of them. So that's the sound they knew."
The producers offered to break the news to Shivers, since it was their decision. But Elster opted to do it himself, thinking that Shivers deserved to hear it from a bandmate who also happened to be one of his closest friends. Needless to say, Elster, the consummate worry wart, stewed over what he would say as he drove from the studio to the hotel. Ultimately, he determined that there was no easy way to tell Shivers, so he just laid it all out. The switch could have created an insurmountable chasm in the group, but it didn't.
"In a small sense, in the back of my mind, I wasn't surprised," Shivers reveals. "But it was the reality of the situation that I wasn't prepared for. My heart was pounding; it felt like my soul was being squeezed out of me. But at the same time, we had to be back in the studio the next day, so I knew I had to process everything fast, man. We only had a certain amount of time to get things done. So I said, ŒOkay, it's time to be a man. Grow some testicles. Suck it up and get back in the game for the good of the team.'"
But Shivers did more than just set his pride aside. When it came time to step into the recording booth, Shivers, who'd written and sung the majority of the songs, put his words down on paper and taught Elster how to sing them with the proper phrasing and inflections.
Although Henderson was unwavering when it came to Elster's role, he did make a few concessions. He told Love.45's members that he'd watched Brad Arnold, 3 Doors Down's frontman, and producer Rick Parashar almost come to blows over a change in one of 3 Doors' songs; he said he never wanted to see anything like that again. He told them to pick their battles, and if they felt strongly about something, he urged them to speak up.
The bandmates' unselfish devotion to each other as well as their chemistry with Henderson and Ott has paid off with Love.45, the foursome's most focused and melodic album to date. Listening to the earlier releases, you can track the evolution of the band. Back in 1998, Day Glo was a disjointed musical mad lib that lacked continuity. Over the course of the next two records -- a self-titled effort in 1999 and 2002's Larger Than Life -- the group developed an aggro-pop sheen that was spit-shined to perfection by the SessionsEP. Like Butch Walker extracting the DNA of Robin Zander, Chad Kroeger, Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades and injecting it into the amniotic fluid of a reformed Marvelous 3, Love.45 has bio-engineered a new incarnation of power pop on Love.45.
In six years, the act has risen from obscurity to become a headliner. Its members might tell you they've just been lucky. But the truth is, Love.45 made its own luck through an ironclad work ethic. Even now, when the musicians stand on the brink of what could be a major breakthrough, they see it as just another step up. They're not taking anything for granted. Despite how often they play, they still rehearse three times a week and get butterflies before every show.
And that's not about to change. Asked if they'll start touring in a posh bus, they respond with a resounding no. "Why start off in debt?" wonders Elster. Besides, they all agree that compared with Trinidad's truck, even a twelve-passenger van will be paradise.
More than anything, they're looking forward to sharing the love, hoping they can cast a light on Denver's music scene.
"There's a shit-ton of great bands and songwriters here, and I'm a fan of a lot of them," says Elster. "Even if we only have moderate success, hopefully it will be enough to turn some heads and get people to realize the unbelievable amount of talent that we have in this town."
And in this town, even those who'd have a hard time picking the guys out of a lineup will be pulling for Love.45.