By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
There are definitely people who think we're legendary, who think we're the greatest, and that's so cool to me," says James Clower, guitarist for the Fluid, one of Denver's best-ever bands, which is reuniting, at least temporarily, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus. "I still can't get over the fact that people like us so much."
Granted, the affection of fans and their peers wasn't enough to turn Clower and his mates — lead singer John Robinson, drummer Garrett Shavlik, bassist Matt Bischoff and guitarist Rick Kulwicki — into big-time rock icons. The Fluid was the first group based outside the Pacific Northwest to ink with Sub Pop, the indie that served as the launching pad for what became known as the grunge sound; as such, it became a key component of a musical revolution that helped define the late-'80s/early-'90s rock era. But when a record contract with Hollywood Records turned out to be far less than advertised, the band imploded in late 1993.
With each passing year, rapprochement seemed more unlikely. But an unexpected encounter between Robinson and two Sub Pop lifers — Jonathan Poneman, who co-founded the imprint, and receptionist-turned-veep Megan Jasper — broke the ice.
"I ran into them at a Band of Horses showcase in New York, and they told me about the twentieth reunion," Robinson says, referring to a festival planned for July 12 and 13 at Seattle's Marymoor Park to celebrate the company's two decades of existence. Robinson notes that Poneman and Jasper "were very flattering about the Fluid in general and about what the Fluid meant to the Seattle scene and to the label early on, and strongly encouraged me, in a very positive way, to consider reuniting for their show."
Once everyone agreed, the band booked a June 15 warm-up at the Larimer Lounge along with a June 20 blowout at the Bluebird Theater in advance of the Seattle fest. As a bonus, all three shows will be videotaped by TV-news cameraman and rock junkie Jim Hucks, who's profiled elsewhere in these pages (see page 15), with an eye toward a possible documentary that will tell the Fluid story from its beginnings to the group's rebirth.
It's quite an involved tale — one that emerged from the burgeoning Denver-Boulder punk movement of the mid-'80s. Shavlik, Bischoff and Clower came together in White Trash, a band that Shavlik describes as "super-fast, really tight hardcore" that was "over-the-top political, but really stupid eighteen-year-old political." When they weren't barking out numbers such as "The Ballad of Ronnie Raygun," however, they'd indulge in goofy ditties like "I Hate My Toes," whose words Shavlik still remembers: "I hate my toes/They're ugly and pink/I hate my toes/They're dirty and stink..."
Around the same time, Kulwicki was riffing with the Frantix, a band Bischoff ultimately joined, too. The most memorable Frantix cut — one that's arguably the signature tune for this entire period of Denver underground music — was "My Dad's a Fuckin' Alcoholic," which struck an unmistakable chord among fans. "Even though it's kind of a joke song, it's kind of not, because it hit so many people," Kulwicki confirms. "Seemingly everybody in the whole world said, 'Your dad's a fuckin' alcoholic? Wow, so is mine.'"
In the end, neither White Trash nor the Frantix was built to last, so Kulwicki, Bischoff, Shavlik and Clower formed a new unit with Augy Rocks, among Denver's more eccentric (and magnetic) vocalists; his credits include Pil Bug and MK Ultra. But when it became obvious that MadHouse, as the combo was dubbed, suffered from a split personality, the instrumental foursome turned to Robinson, a friend of Shavlik's who had precious little experience singing with a band — not that the drummer had any doubts about his ability. "He was a really gregarious kind of guy," Shavlik says. "He's very flamboyant and really fun and loud, and I thought, this might be a perfect fit. And it worked out famously."
True enough: Robinson became the extravagant, strutting focal point for the newly christened Fluid, which nodded to past masters — the five readily acknowledge their debt to the Rolling Stones and the MC5 — even as it anticipated styles that didn't yet have a name. Before long, the group was among the biggest draws in Denver, and the players' debut album, 1986's Punch n Judy, brought them to the attention of Glitterhouse, a German operation that pressed the platter for European distribution and financed a second, 1988's Clear Black Paper. When the folks at Sub Pop heard the latter, they wanted to put it out in the States, so they exchanged the overseas rights to a recording by Sub Pop signee Green River, featuring future members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, for a domestic dose of the Fluid.
Once the deal was done, the band traveled to Seattle for what Kulwicki deems "a killer show" with a veritable Sup Pop all-star team: Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Later on in the visit, Nirvana opened for the group — a favor that would be returned when Nirvana was allowed to headline over the Fluid at the Garage, the site of its initial Denver appearance.