By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
On that night eleven years ago, Uphollow was in way over its head. But you had to cut the guys some slack. It was only their fourth show, and they were still high school freshmen; they looked about as big as action figures on the vast stage of the Bluebird Theater. Guitarist Ian O'Dougherty, bassist Whit Sibley and drummer Josh Kennedy -- three cute kids from Castle Rock who worshiped Nirvana and Green Day -- were limping through a set of remedial pop punk before a restless crowd eager to see Denver rock luminaries Boss 302 and El Espectro. In fact, if Josh didn't happen to be the little brother of El Espectro's Chris Kennedy, it's doubtful the young trio would have been on the bill at all.
"The whole time we were up there, I was just thinking about all the big bands that had been on that stage," Sibley remembers.
"Oasis had played there the night before," O'Dougherty notes with a laugh, "but it was more of a big deal for us to play with these local bands that we idolized."
What started out as hero worship and a horrid version of the Angry Samoans' "Lights Out" has swelled exponentially ever since. The outfit's new disc, Jackets for the Trip, possesses a sound as epic and edifying as opera. For most small-time acts, "ambition" is a word that connotes booking agents, A&R guys, publicity, radio play and contracts. But Uphollow always pumped every ounce of its ambition into a worthier arena: the group's music itself.
"We started the band when we were twelve, in 1993," O'Dougherty explains. "We did a lot of covers of Seattle bands: Mudhoney and Nirvana and the Supersuckers. We played our first couple shows at a biker bar in Franktown called the Stagecoach, which was funny. I was just this little kid, like five feet tall.
"Then we played a battle of the bands at our high school," he continues. "We were shitty, but everyone went nuts. Up to then, our only goal was to play that show. After that, we were like, 'Damn, this is really something we want to do.'"
Uphollow's aspirations quickly skyrocketed. Within months, Mission to the Moon, the threesome's debut, was released. A crudely rendered slab of snotty, catchy rock, its title flew higher than its contents ever did. But after a couple tours and the addition of drummer Justin Ferreira in 1997 -- which saw Kennedy move to bass and Sibley take up second guitar -- the band created a followup, Soundtrack to an Imaginary Life. While the disc was forced and flimsy in spots, the leap it embodied was nearly quantum. Akin to the knotty, emo-laden pop of Braid and Kill Creek, Soundtrackwas an interlocked set of songs with recurrent characters, themes and motifs. In other words, a concept album.
"I looked up to my big brother a lot, and he was involved with theater," Sibley explains. "He did musicals all the time. I always thought they were really intense, these long songs with stories that just kept going and going. I remember him asking me once, 'What would be your ideal album?' I said, 'A punk-rock sort of long story-song thing.'"
"All of our parents are big music listeners," O'Dougherty adds. "I grew up on Jethro Tull and Simon and Garfunkel. Whit was into ABBA, the Beatles, lots of complex stuff like that. We went on this five-week tour in '96, and we saw all these shitty bands all over the country that all sounded the same. Everybody wanted to be Green Day. And we weren't all that different, really, so we finally we just said, 'This sucks. Let's create something that's more thought-out and entertaining."
In concert, Soundtrackwas as bewildering as it was inspired. Performed as a single, continuous piece of music crammed with dizzying tempo shifts and jagged segues, it barely left room to breathe, let alone applaud. The band even passed out booklets printed with lyrics and a statement of intent, in hopes that the audience would read along and attempt to decipher the dense, heady work.
"At the end of the night, you'd see booklets tossed under bar tables," Sibley recalls.
"If you do something out of the ordinary, people are either going to think that it's amazing and innovative, or that it's just pretentious and overly ambitious," O'Dougherty asserts. "But it at least it forced the audience to make a decision."
As for Uphollow's course over the next two years, a random act of theft forced a decision on them. In March of 1998, after a triumphant set opening for Jimmy Eat World at the Bluebird, O'Dougherty and crew parked their van full of equipment behind Ferreira's Capitol Hill apartment building. The next morning, every scrap of their equipment was gone
"It was devastating, way more than we thought at first," Sibley says. The group was set to leave that day on a six-week tour; through borrowed instruments and amps, it was actually completed with just one missed show. But after returning to Denver, exhausted and heartbroken, Uphollow drifted apart: Kennedy quit the band, O'Dougherty moved to Los Angeles, Ferreira spent time in Nantucket, and Sibley went on an extended trip to Europe.