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Despite the fact that Arvada's Aloft in the Sundry had previously recorded at the world-famous Blasting Room in Fort Collins, the members had plenty of reason to be intimidated when laying down tracks recently for their new CD, Fore. After all, the studio was co-founded by drummer Bill Stephenson of the legendary punk bands the Descendents, Black Flag and ALL. And yet, it was a member of Aloft — okay, more of an honorary member — who wound up intimidating Stephenson: the band's pit bull, Fritz.
"We only had a few days in the Blasting Room, so we slept there and brought Fritz with us," says Aloft's singer/pianist, Jason Hernandez. "He's about a year old. He's a male pit. We adopted him. He's like our mascot. But it turns out Bill Stephenson is deathly afraid of dogs. He walked into the studio and was like, "Whose dog food is this?"
"He just froze," adds bassist Aren Rodriguez with a laugh.
"We were like, 'Uh, it's ours,'" says Hernandez. "But still, things worked out perfectly. We booked our CD-release show before we'd even recorded the CD, so we only had five days in the studio to track and three days to mix. We were squeezed in between the Flobots and Alkaline Trio. We really do well under pressure. It's strange."
In the four years since its inception, Aloft in the Sundry — formed by Hernandez and drummer Chris Nelson, and now augmented by Rodriguez and guitarist John O'Kane — has seemed dead-set on doing things the hard way. Never afraid of abrasion, the group cut the local hardcore scene against the grain by bringing piano, poetry and a grand sense of drama to the center stage.
"With the four songs on the new CD," says Hernandez, "we're trying to give people more of a feel for what Aloft in the Sundry is all about. Out of the thirteen songs we could have recorded, those four have four totally different feels. There's kind of an alt-country kind of song, a hard emo song, the slower piano song. I think that comes from playing with different people. We'll play shows with all kinds of bands; we like that variety. But the hardcore punk shows have been the craziest. We'll get booed just for bringing out a piano."
"Most people look at the piano, and they're like, 'Oh, great,'" admits Nelson. "But sometimes it opens people's minds a little bit."
Case in point: The group's ivory-tickling drew a particularly polarizing response last year during a fateful trip to Las Vegas to play at a scene institution called the Double Down Saloon.
"It's this legendary, old-school punk-rock bar," says Nelson. "You walk in, and the Sex Pistols are blasting and everyone's singing along."
"We played with a band called Attack of the Motherfuckers," remembers Hernandez. "People were being assholes to us. But on stage, we were like, 'If you don't like us, fuck you.' By the end of our set, I took a full beer and threw it at some dude. At the end of the night, though, those guys that were spitting on us and throwing shit at us shook our hands and said, 'Personally, I don't like your music, but I can respect it.' Then they helped us move our shit, which was weird. I thought they were going to steal it."
"When we told that story to Bill Stephenson," says Rodriguez, "he was rolling. He told us that the best method to get all that spit out of your clothes is to wear them into the bathtub. Then you let all the spit rise out of your clothes to the surface of the water."
Not all of Aloft's many stories have a funny ending, though. In fact, the group's debut show — played on a stormy night in February 2006 at the New Talent Showcase at Herman's Hideaway — not only was footnoted by a well-publicized tragedy, but it set the tone for the band's poignant mix of angst, anger, sorrow and elation.
"It was all snowy and shitty that night," recalls Hernandez. "We wanted to play our first show in front of nobody, just to work all the kinks out. The bartender at Herman's — we just met her that night, her name was Emily Rice — traded us two shots of whiskey for a copy of Manuscript Novella, the CD we'd just recorded. We went back and forth with her all night. She was just great. It probably wasn't the smartest decision on my part, but I ended up driving home drunk that night, and it turned out she did, too. But she was T-boned going through a light, and she wound up dying from internal bleeding."
While Rice's story — and her family's resulting multimillion-dollar settlement from the City of Denver, which failed to provide health care for Rice after she was arrested immediately following her accident — made the rounds on the local news for months, one tiny detail about her death remained unreported.
"We were the last band Emily ever listened to," says Hernandez. "When her sister Ginny got her car out of impound, she ejected our CD from it. Ginny found us on the Internet, and she wound up getting our band name tattooed on her. She's just amazing. And we wound up recording a song, 'Catch Me, Copernicus,' about Emily."
"Catch Me, Copernicus" is one of the standout tracks on Aloft's sophomore CD, 2007's pen.triloquist. Besides shining a spotlight on Hernandez's increasingly lush compositions and eloquent lyrics — a sound that evokes everyone from Cursive to Queen — the disc was a step toward 2008's even more mature and dynamic Modestine. But Fore is an even more dramatic leap forward for the band, a set of songs that sounds chiseled and spontaneous at the same time, boasting soaring backing vocals from the schooled-in-opera Rodriguez as well as the supple yet sinewy riffs of O'Kane, the group's newest member. And as Hernandez's piano continues to be the pivotal instrument in the mix, Aloft's singular mix of post-hardcore, art rock and pop blossoms into its own sure sound. Even if that sound still has a tendency to confound the locals.
"We played with 20XIII at the Aggie two or three months ago," says Rodriguez, "and there were two kids wearing Slayer and Slipknot shirts in the audience. They'd step up to the front and rock out during our rockers, then they'd back up six feet when we played our slower songs. It was funny."
"Some people think we're a little too pussy," adds Hernandez. "They're afraid to rep it to their friends. We're a scene kid's guilty pleasure. They'll laugh at us in front of other people, but we still get a lot of digital downloads. Somebody's listening in their closet somewhere."
"Beside actually playing it, one thing I'm sure we all enjoy most about our music is that it's original," says Nelson. "Really, we have our own sound. And to me, that's the most important thing. Nothing's ever been easy with this band. In four years, we've never taken the easy way out; we've stuck to our guns. We don't care who we're playing for, where we're playing or who we're playing with. Our music does turn some people off, but if we're having a good time, they're having a good time."
And if you've got a problem with that, there's a pit bull named Fritz who might want a word with you.