By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
More high-strung than homicidal, Livingston certainly has a knack for being unpredictable -- something he fully explores as frontman of Denver's quirky five-piece the Inactivists. No stranger to the local music scene, the self-described "recovering Mormon," who abstains from alcohol but overindulges on caffeinated soda, cut his teeth as a blues-punker with Red Eye Revival, then played lead guitar for the Phlegmtones, a disco-polka outfit that also featured Mr. Pacman's Avery Rains. In addition to studio collaborations with Pacman and the late Wesley Willis, Livingston helms Nerdtallica, a MIDI-based Metallica tribute band that graced 2002's Imposters: A Warlock Pinchers Tribute with a cover of "Meet Goatee Woatee." The thirty-year-old tunesmith's checkered resumé, if he ever bothered to draft one, would further include writing a rejected TV pilot for Fox, plus holding down several uniformed gigs as a security guard -- bulldogging everything from porn shops and parking lots to the hallowed offices of Westword. And though he got plenty of reading done as a night watchman, Livingston has stumbled across his share of morbid surprises, too. One time, a week before Christmas, the admittedly squeamish turnkey discovered a dead body in an apartment complex above the 16th Street Mall.
A far bigger shock to his system came in 1990 when Livingston was a Wildcat at Arvada West High School. The dark, personal family tragedy inspired "Sammy Sammy," a seemingly innocuous little scorcher that Livingston decided to introduce to a small crowd at the Lion's Lair as follows: "This next song is about my mother, who killed herself when I was fifteen." It was disturbing news to everyone present -- especially Livingston's bandmates.
"That was really heavy, finding out in that way," recalls bassist Matt Sumner, a former member of Rainville. "It was all I could do to continue playing. That was the only time I've ever been in the Lair where you could hear a pin drop. And I think everyone was waiting for a punchline. But there was no way he could make that funny.
"You just don't know when you go on stage with this band," Sumner continues. "It could be a total goofball night, or it could be a really dark experience, too."
A deliberate study in contrasts, the Inactivists began as nothing more than a solo act, an excuse for Livingston to thrash on electric ukulele and sing oddball tunes with a drum machine. "I'd been doing the open-mike thing, and it was depressing," he says. "Not only would no one show up, but there was no one to complain to about it."
Rather than continue alone, Livingston posted a three-page ad on bandmates.com that outlined his entire rock-and-roll philosophy, warts and all. "I wanted to span the Steely Dan/Sex Pistols schism," Livingston recalls of his long-winded screed. "What I didn't want was the usual bass-drum-guitar thing."
"He had the longest fucking ad, just this huge rambling thing," Sumner recalls. "I agreed with everything he was saying, but I thought he'd be a real pain in the ass to be in a band with. Then, after not finding anything else to do, I sent him an e-mail."
It ended up that the pair had actually shared a bill at the Bluebird Theater several years earlier, when Sumner played in a riff-rock-based outfit called Five 52 Fern. Livingston liked the fact that Sumner played trumpet as well as the "Frankenbass," a distortion-heavy monstrosity with custom-drilled holes in the body and bridge that allow for never-ending pickup and effects alterations. "It's like Swiss cheese now," Sumner points out. "Eighty percent wood, 20 percent Bondo."
Drummer Chris Budin from the Reals then came on board with saxophonist Jason Walton, and the unlikely quartet of relative strangers played their first show after just a single rehearsal. "I thought, if they were crazy enough to do it, then they were the guys I wanted to do it with," Livingston says. Two days later, he booked another show and recruited theremin player Victoria Lundy, a sound sculptor with a performance-art background in the Carbon Dioxide Orchestra. Able to coax more than mere sci-fi effects from her ungainly twin antennae ("it's basically just playing radio interference," Lundy allows), the new musical acquisition raised the band's overall melodicism to greater heights. Better yet, Lundy's eerie tone split the difference between a keyboard and a pedal-steel.
"I couldn't believe they wanted it on every song," Lundy says, recalling her debut at the Blue Mule. "After the first three songs, I thought, 'My God, these guys are a ska band.'" She soon discovered otherwise.
Difficult to pigeonhole, the Inactivists seem to channel the experimental nature of Lothar and the Hand People, the playfulness of They Might Be Giants and the DIY spirit of the Minutemen. "If you could even create a subgenre called 'angry-lounge-nerd rock,' I wouldn't feel particularly committed to it," Sumner says.