Accidents Will Happen
For Michael Trenhaile, the lead guitarist, co-vocalist and co-songwriter for Denver's Worm Trouble, a musical mishap is creative gasoline. When he sits down to pen a tune, he favors chaos over control. It's an artistic strategy that's more Jackson Pollock than Michelangelo, one that prizes abstract originality over rigidly defined musical architecture.
"I try to let the music define it for me, rather than trying to define it before the music has a chance to breathe," he says of his songwriting process. "I like to consciously let an accident happen and then call it whatever it is. I try not to think it out too much." Armed with a four-track, a guitar and an open mind, Trenhaile has the tendency to retreat to his basement and experiment until he hits upon something that a more genre-driven composer might dismiss as unusable. Rather than move on, he uses these happy calamities as skeletons for songs, layering on effects, beats and vocals before he brings them to Worm Trouble's other members for a final polish.
Kat Ellinger splits Worm Trouble's songwriting and singing duties with Trenhaile, who also happens to be her spouse. (Ellinger is also the fingers behind the band's bass and keyboards.) She, too, feels that rigid creative intentions are more apt to detract from a song than contribute to it; she tries to draw inspiration from her heart first and her mind second. "I usually write what I'm feeling," she explains. "If you listen to the whole catalogue of our songs...you hear every mood, everything in the spectrum."
Worm Trouble's songwriting lands all over the map, from heavy-riffed psychedelic explorations to delicate, eclectic melodies. The guitars veer from dark alley to outer orbit and back again, tethered by fluid bass lines, slinky keyboards and deftly elaborate rhythms. Add to the mix vocals and lyrics that are several shades more literary and candid than the norm, and the result is at once intellectual and emotionally visceral, punctuated by transitions from gentle to acidic. Somehow, it all flows very nicely.
Not surprisingly, Ellinger was drawn to Trenhaile through music -- first as a fan, then as a collaborator. In 1993 Trenhaile penned a song for his high-energy band of the time, the Body of Souls, that he wanted to adorn with female vocals. "I had Mike on this huge pedestal, because he was in this fabulous band," Ellinger recalls. "I was just thrilled that he wanted to sing with me."
After their creative pairing led to a personal relationship culminating in the exchange of wedding vows in 1995, the couple viewed music as a mutual creative outlet. It took some time for the band concept to come into its own, however. "We didn't really have a plan, per se," says Trenhaile. "We played with musicians that were in other bands at the time, and it felt more thrown together."
"We kind of borrowed people who were playing in other projects," Ellinger remembers. The couple's copious songwriting output, however, proved the mechanism that solidified Worm Trouble into a project that stood on its own two feet. "We just started writing songs, and our voices blended really nicely together," she adds. "Material just kept coming and coming. We followed the muse and followed the songs."
In 1998, Worm Trouble's core duo found a drummer with a compatible style and personality in Greg Johnson, formerly of Twice Wilted. After that band broke up in 1995, Johnson took a three-year hiatus from the skins. Then mutual friend Kurt Ottoway (another former Twice Wilted member, currently of the Tarmints) put him in touch with Worm Trouble. "Kurt gave me Greg's number, and I knew Greg was really good to begin with," says Trenhaile. "When [he] said he would try it, I was really excited, very stoked."
"At the time that they called me, I was looking for something to do," Johnson explains. "I had the kit set up in the garage and had been playing, lamenting the fact that I wasn't in a band anymore. I missed it a lot more than I thought I was going to."
"The thing that sold me on joining was the strength of the songwriting," he continues, "and that it wasn't all hard, it wasn't all soft, and it wasn't any one particular style." The fact that Johnson (and his wife) got along very well with Michael and Kat didn't hurt, either.
After Johnson came into the fold, Worm Trouble took another step forward as a band.
"I guess the way I see Worm Trouble in the beginning is kind of a psychedelic Simon & Garfunkel that really didn't know what the hell it was," says Trenhaile. "When Greg came into the band and into our lives, that's when Worm Trouble really got started. That's when I started thinking 'band.'"
The difference between the band's pre-Johnson debut album, Worm Trouble (1997, Slug Records) and last year's The Poison Kitchen (Slug Records/Denver Coffee Achievers) is immediately noticeable: The later release is more assured, adrenalized, and unafraid to subvert rock cliches, demonstrating a range that stretches from ethereal to menacing. One highlight is "Thunder Rises," an electrified start-and-stop waltz that owes itself to Trenhaile's diverse leanings and Ellinger's upbringing "Army-brat style" in Germany. There's also the snarling guitar and building frustration of "Riots"; the undulating undercurrent of "Amsterdam," glazed with silvery strands of guitar; and even a danceable groove, tempered with a dollop of cynicism, in "Vinyl."
While Worm Trouble's roots might be tied to a variation on the singer-songwriter ethos, many of the band's newer songs have moved into darker territory, ominously simmering and evoking the sensation of a foreboding presence on the horizon. When the band recruited a second guitarist, Doug Seaman, last fall, it only intensified this tendency. Seaman (also of local-rock stalwart Sympathy F) has freed Trenhaile from the shackles of manning the lone guitar on stage, adding another layer to the more traditional two-guitar rockers and the experimental soundscapes.
"I try not to influence [Ellinger and Trenhaile's] songwriting or their direction too much," Seaman says. Regardless, his inclination is in line with the newer, murkier material. "I'm really enjoying the heavier songs. I think it's a natural progression for the band."
"I've never gotten into happy music," Johnson says. "From my standpoint -- and I think from everybody's standpoint -- we're a rock band. We want to play heavy music. It doesn't have to be loud to be heavy; it just has to be heavy."
"I'm a sucker for tragedy," offers Trenhaile. "And, quite frankly, I look around me at the way America deals with things...and I just get so pissed off at the whole day-job routine and everything else." Frustration aside, he doesn't see Worm Trouble's heavier course of action as permanent. "It's true for now," he says. With future songs, "you could end up getting a different flavor."
Thanks to this musical open-mindedness, Worm Trouble tends to layer several sonic textures into each song. "I'm working on becoming a painter with the whole thing, mostly with the guitar," says Trenhaile. "It's more about colors than actual playing." These oil-and-canvas metaphors are not out of place: Worm Trouble's music is very visual, with Trenhaile, Ellinger and Seaman's tones oozing together like watercolor pools.
Likewise, Johnson is no mere timekeeper. "I'm trying to play the drums musically," he says, pointing to the Who's Keith Moon as a major influence. "Listen to Who's Next and it's just a constant fill. It's just constant drumming, not necessarily a steady beat and all over the drum kit." Worm Trouble's open-ended songwriting approach allows Johnson to "flavor it with a reggae style or a hard-rock style or a country style," something that interlocks nicely with the band's collectively diverse tastes.
"I just try to keep myself as open as possible to what I like," Trenhaile explains. "It doesn't really matter [what it is] stylistically. The thing for me is, 'Do I like it?' Period."
Trenhaile's education plays a perceptible role in Worm Trouble's penchant for the eclectic. A Nebraska native, he studied opera during a three-year stint at Nebraska Wesleyan University before moving to Colorado with his cohorts in Body of Souls. These classical studies shine through in a handful of Worm Trouble's songs, along with Trenhaile's love for classic literature ("Vinyl," for example, includes a Nathaniel Hawthorne reference) and electric-guitar tones ("I really like a pure guitar sound, '60s guitar sound -- Bongwater, Radiohead, Stereolab").
Not that Trenhaile has an aversion to the seamier side of rock and roll. With the raucous Body of Souls, he says, "it wasn't a show unless I was bleeding and bruised and my clothes were all ripped, just a fucking mess. It took me a while to get over that when we started Worm Trouble."
On one hand, the act of smoothly melding emotional extremes, psychedelia and Hawthorne under one musical umbrella is a considerable creative accomplishment. On the other, it's something of a marketing curse: It's pretty hard to promote a product that you can't pigeonhole. Explains Ellinger: "It's been challenging for audiences -- as well as for us -- that our material is diverse. For a long time, we had sets that had all these different moods. It might have been too much."
While Worm Trouble isn't looking to short circuit creativity in exchange for an easy tag, the band has sharpened its promotional efforts since The Poison Kitchen release. "As much as we are a creative songwriting band, we also do want to be heard by as many people as humanly possible," Trenhaile says. "That ambition is definitely there."
To this end, the band is proactively marketing The Poison Kitchen and plans to record a three- to five-song demo of its new material and a third album later in the year. This shouldn't take long, as Worm Trouble's recording sessions are usually rapid-fire affairs (The Poison Kitchen was recorded over the course of just two weekends).
The band also intends to amplify its touring efforts (the players did a five-city Eastern swing in 1998), eyeing potential jaunts to both coasts and Europe for 2001 and beyond. However, touring forces the bandmembers to juggle a myriad of family obligations and work schedules -- a balancing act that led Johnson to take a break from the band last year when his second child was born.
Between touring and recording, Worm Trouble will continue to (what else?) write new material. The songwriting vision is "far more focused" than it was in 1995, says Trenhaile, "still relying on the accident, but knowing which part of the accident to take from. But the accident is still the most important thing to me."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Trenhaile and Ellinger have the capacity to cause these accidents at superhighway speed. "They write like ten songs a week," says Johnson.
"I'm impressed with how prolific they are," echoes Seaman. "Every time we get together, there's something new."
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