A Room of Their Own
Gladhand has spawned an offspring. Anyone familiar with Denver's compelling avant-garde musical misfits -- whose live act involved everything from vomiting dancers to flaming baby-doll heads -- may find this thought slightly unnerving; visions of a mutant cross-pollination of Cirque du Soleil and a resurrected G.G. Allin spring to mind. But in the case of Room 40, a four-piece symphonic ensemble in which former Gladhand bassist Mike Brown and violinist Carrie Beeder now reside, the apple has fallen a fair distance from the tree. While a carnival-like atmosphere eventually became Gladhand's calling card -- fans will recall the players serving piping hot bowls of chili to hungry audience members -- the antics in Room 40 are emanating from the band's instruments, not the people playing them.
"I like the idea of a visual aspect, but right now I really just want to focus on the music," says Brown. "The band is still so young. With Room 40, we'd like people to listen more than to come for the freak show. I think that Gladhand sort of turned into that, where I don't know if people really even liked the music, but they would come to see the freaky people dancing around. That's the downfall of that kind of thing; it can turn into a novelty."
There is still a perceptible circus flavor in Room 40's symphonic sound, but it's mainly because of the warm, haunting moan of Doug Anderson's accordion. When contrasted with Al School's bright, sparse guitar stylings, Anderson's squeeze box evokes the whimsical yet melancholy atmosphere of some old-time carny sideshow -- the kind of ironic spectacle where some of life's saddest characters attempt to make us happy for a moment or two. "The Green Room," a reworking of a former Gladhand tune, typifies the band's ability to simultaneously evoke feelings of gloom and bliss. It's this dichotomy of sound and emotion that gives Room 40 a disjointed beauty.
At this point in its evolution, Room 40 practices restraint while firmly holding on to much more than the kitchen sink. Moderation was never a word associated with Gladhand, but Room 40 demonstrates a belief that less can be more. From the staccato pluck of Beeder's violin to the foreboding plod of Brown's polyrhythmic bass line, the players create slightly dissonant sounds that are more apt to politely bow to one another than they are to collide. The songs, unaided by lyrics, still manage to maintain a unique storytelling quality.
"Vocals are good; I'm not opposed to them," Brown says. "It's just that if you're going to have a singer, you should have a really good singer or a really strange singer. With the kind of music we're doing, I don't know if vocals would really fit over it. Even with Gladhand, Dave [Spurvey] was sort of like the anti-singer. I think he had words for two songs. Other than that, he would just make sounds that sounded like words."
The hearts of a small army of local Handheads were broken with Gladhand's relocation to San Francisco about a year and a half ago; Room 40 may eventually provide strength for those still in mourning. Initially, the move seemed like a match made in heaven; the marriage of Denver's finest performance art rockers to the town where Tony Bennett left his most vital organ seemed like the perfect fit. But, alas, the honeymoon was a bust. The Bay Area's high cost of living and the band's low number of gigs led Brown and fellow bandmember Mark White to retreat back to Denver in early fall of last year. It was around that time that Brown met up again with Beeder, the one former Gladhand member who had decided against making the trek out west. In the interim, she had been playing with Scholl and Anderson. Collaborating musically via e-mail has kept Brown in touch with former guitarist John Getter -- who remains in San Francisco along with Spurvey -- though Brown says the chances of any cyber-inspired material being released are slim. Even slimmer is the possibility of a Gladhand reunion. No matter, Brown says. While mellow and minimalist aspects are more prevalent in Room 40 than they were in its predecessor, the band continues to carry on in the progressive vein.
"With Room 40, I wanted to be more free musically. I wanted to just play and be less concerned with the form of the songs," says Brown. "We did a little bit of that in Gladhand, but there is a lot more room for that kind of improvisation now. At this point, I'm listening to a lot of free-jazz players -- the downtown-New-York-type thing. Al's listening to a lot of the Chicago players. Doug kind of listens to everything, and Carrie would probably have the most knowledge of classical music of all of us. So if someone wants to go off musically for fifteen minutes, they can."
Though this sort of freedom makes Room 40 a truly collaborative effort -- Scholl and Anderson write the tunes along with Brown -- Brown is, in many ways, the cornerstone of the band. Considering his musical education began with the funk bravado of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the sledgehammer sound favored by AC/DC, his current tendency to cite Philip Glass and filmmaker David Lynch as integral influences may seem slightly askew. Somehow, the term "eclectic" just doesn't seem to cover it. The connection to the former genital-sock-wearing Chili Peppers isn't so surprising, considering Gladhand at times teetered on the edge of GWAR-like buffoonery. But the parallels between other music of his youth and his current work are harder to detect. Room 40 creates sounds that Brown's old headbanger buddies might well describe as wallpaper music.
"Growing up, I listened to a lot of Black Sabbath and things like that," Brown says. "'Victory at Sea,' which was an old TV show, had a classical-type score to it that I had a record of and would listen to a lot. Then later on, the guy I worked with turned me on to the Chili Peppers, McCoy Tyner and Anthony Braxton. I kind of got all of that at once. Also, I listened to a lot of punk-type stuff like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. I don't know anymore. I just think of music as good and bad. I just like it or I don't."
Brown's attitude belies the band's ambitions. He possesses no calculated plan to fill the vacuum left by his former group and appease the Gladhand faithful. Room 40 does hope to begin committing to plastic a current batch of tunes sometime in late September and to have something in stores by the beginning of next year. The band maintains a Web site, at gladhand.net/room40, and is currently looking into the possibility of penning a soundtrack for a local independent film. With about five months of gigs under its collective belt, the group now calls the Mercury Cafe home on Thursday nights, all the while keeping aspirations strictly fundamental.
"I can't say whether people like our music or they just happened into the wrong bar at the wrong time," Brown says. "All you can hope for is that it communicates to some people. I sort of go in expecting the worst. If at least two people -- or even one person -- pays attention and likes it, then that's good enough for me. We're just figuring out where we fit in."
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