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Ialways wanted to do a punk-rock dancehall thing," says Daniel Wanush, taking a drag on his cognac-dipped cigarillo. Wanush's image and the bizarre musical mash-up might be thoroughly ridiculous were it not for the source. Wanush, after all, is better known as King Scratchie, the frontman for one of Denver's most legendary acts, the Warlock Pinchers. With a pedigree like that, he's earned an eccentricity or two.
It's also not so ridiculous when you hear the startlingly enjoyable debut EP from Wanush's latest project, Murder Ranks. Punk attitude and dancehall aesthetics collide with surprising success, injecting the often languorous and repetitive reggae variant with plenty of urgency and adrenaline. Guitarist Mike Buckley (Nightshark), bassist Ben Williams (of the late Ghost Buffalo) and drummer Nate Weaver (from short-lived experimental rockers goP@Riot) lay down a head-bobbing, distorted and delay-drenched bed while King Scratchie shouts and croons his inventive — and often hilarious — lyrics in a style that will be very familiar to Pinchers fans.
The band began about a year and a half ago, when Weaver, Williams and Buckley were playing experimental, improvisational rock together under the name Russian Bones. As teenagers in Littleton, the three played together in Vivid Imagination and looked up to the Pinchers. And after a heartfelt letter from Buckley, they got a chance to open for their idols at Rock Island. Thus began a musical relationship that weaves through twenty years of Denver's rock history.
"I used to stalk Dan when he worked at Logan Liquors," Williams recalls. "I was underage, and I'd use my buddy's ID to go in and beg Dan to be in a band with me."
The begging finally paid off when Williams and Wanush began playing together in the Wild Canadians. Later, Buckley, Williams and Wanush all played together, along with drummer Jed Kopp (who would later join Williams in Ghost Buffalo), in the Gerds. The history ran so deep that, as soon as Wanush began describing his punk-rock dancehall vision, it began to materialize.
"We started practicing twice a week from the get-go," marvels Weaver, who admits that learning to play the inverted rhythms of reggae was a challenge at first.
Williams agrees. "The rhythms are the opposite of rock," he observes. "The snare is where the bass would be. It's 180 degrees different."
For Wanush, however, Murder Ranks is a return to his roots. "Reggae was the first music I got into," he says. "And from reggae, I discovered punk — thanks to the Clash — and dancehall. From dancehall, I got into rap."
It would be easy for a larger-than-life stage personality like Wanush to overshadow lesser musicians. However, Murder Ranks is definitely an ensemble. Williams's confident bottom end, Weaver's nimble skins work and Buckley's innovative guitar technique are all critical to the success of the punk-dancehall vibe.
"I'm not a musician at all," says a surprisingly self-deprecating Wanush, "so they pretty much have free rein."
Buckley — who often keeps quiet until he knows just what to say — looks across the table and smiles at Wanush. "More than anything, though," he almost whispers, "it's about Dan's vision."