By Noah Hubbell
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Rutherford Belleview says the Widow's Bane, his theatrical, dark, Americana-flavored, self-styled "zombie death polka" band, began sometime around 1700 A.D.
"The name 'The Widow's Bane' is from where we originally met, which was a ship," the accordion player explains. "We were a house band on the Devil's ship. We weren't called the Widow's Bane then. We were just the house band. It wasn't until afterward that we had to come up with something. We thought the Widow's Bane had a certain ring to it, so we kept that."
According to Belleview, he and the other members of the group — Gov. Mortimer Leech, Rictus Corpum, Franklin McKane, Bat Catacombs, Jimson Crockett, Abraham Lynch, Iron Mike and Madame Reaper — committed an unspeakable act in the years prior to the eighteenth century, which warranted eternal damnation and servitude to the Horned One. The welcomed intervention of Saint Gabriel, who sank the S.S. Widow's Bane once and for all off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Strait, evidently freed the undead members of the Widow's Bane to wander the earth, and they've wandered from port to port ever since, absorbing the music of the world and adding it to their repertoire.
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Without a ship of its own, the Widow's Bane eventually wound up in the landlocked state of Colorado and, specifically, Boulder around the turn of this century. That's where the band played its first local show, says Belleview. "Boulder is a good place to panhandle and make some extra money for drinking and drugs and all of that," he notes. "We first played out of a window of a recently closed-down store called the Happenstance. It was on Pearl Street, so there was a lot of foot traffic. We had a little tip jar out there. We did that three or four times or so. That was our introduction to Boulder."
Rooted in folk music of all varieties, and not just the sea chanteys you'd expect from some old seafaring types, the Widow's Bane has a certain fondness for the universal appeal of that music. "That's always, to me, been the lower-class music," Belleview says. "It's the music of the common man, the working man. It gives it a little more heart. Not to say that classical music and operas and such don't pull at the heartstrings. It just seems to be more of the song of the everyday man, something everyone can relate to."
When the band first started playing out with its undead appearance, the members probably didn't have to explain the band's vaudevillian element. But with all of the negative zombie stereotypes perpetrated by Hollywood over the years, the Widow's Bane eventually inspired a different sort of reaction. "We call what we do 'zombie death polka,'" Belleview explains. "I'm a bit ambivalent about it. I'm a bit conflicted. On one hand, we're undead, but we're not the typical zombie. We don't go around eating people's brains.
"I haven't eaten a brain since the 1950s," he goes on. "There was a fellow by the name of Joe McCarthy who had me eat a couple of brains for the good of the country. I feel we're all quite cordial and nice, and we're definitely not out to eat anyone unless they really annoy us. I feel that the Hollywood movies got it completely wrong as to what it is to be undead."
Beyond their gray skin, their black lips and the dark circles around their eyes, the bandmembers are also known for their fine period costumes and uniforms. They switch things up to avoid a kitschy vibe, which would clearly ruin their image.
"The suits and costumes we change every so often, when they become a bit too dirty or dated," Belleview reveals. "Back in the '80s, we were still wearing a lot of disco gear and such, and it was a bit dated and people thought it was a bit silly. So every member updates their uniform to make it look more presentable. I feel like if we were going to go with something more contemporary, we might have been a little behind the times, wearing flannel and jeans with ripped-out knees.
"Recently," he adds, "the later 2000s — I don't know if you noticed, but all the rage is older-looking stuff. I think that had a lot to do with that. We had a lot of it, because we do keep our older uniforms. Someday you may see us break out the old disco suits if it comes back into style."
Although these zombies have purportedly been playing together for centuries, to the shock and outrage of longtime fans, they still haven't gone the route of Bob Dylan circa 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, even though they've made some practical concessions for the sake of functioning in the modern era as a live band. "We basically have all-acoustic instruments," notes Belleview. "When we play live shows, we've used inputs and such. I play accordion, and I do need inputs for that accordion. We now include a piano player, but he uses a keyboard and plays organ, as well."
This setup obviously suited the band's self-titled debut album, with its more folk-centric orientation. But it also works with the aesthetic demands of the material on its latest album, Don't Be Afraid, It's Only Death, which was mixed and mastered by Orbit Service's Randall Frazier.
"I feel like our style and sense of what we're doing has always been 'zombie death polka,' which I think is a great description," says Belleview of the stylistic consistency between the band's two releases. "I would say between the two albums we've done so far, the first one is more folk and rooted in Americana. I would say our new album has more like a '20s and '30s New Orleans feel to it, like Dixieland. They're both very immersed in the flavor of America's being a melting pot of so many different styles. I kind of like that idea for our band, as well, but I feel like we take it and make it our own."
From having played an eight-year-old's birthday party for a group of the Twelve Tribes religious sect near Boulder to soundtracking the Zombie Crawl, the Widow's Bane has established itself as a powerful and unforgettable live band with a unique performance style — though perhaps one element of frontman Mortimer Leech's signature dance moves has remained largely misunderstood.
"In the '80s, we were big fans of Chuck E. Cheese," Rutherford recalls. "We went there almost every weekend. They had those animatronic characters playing songs in a weird fashion. I think that really influenced Mortimer in his animatronic movements. I've seen videos, and I think there's a direct correlation."