It was the kind of morphine-laden experience where I didn't realize how bad it was until afterward," says Achille Lauro frontman Matt Close, relating the story of his 2007 brush with mortality. "I was being more aggressive than I was prepared to be on a bike. I tried to beat a car crossing my path by going in front of it instead of behind it, and I hit it broadside."
Close doesn't own a car and prefers to do all of his traveling on a two-wheeler. At the time of the accident, he was cruising downhill near the intersection of 13th and Broadway. He had built up so much speed that the impact of the crash broke out all the windows of the van he collided with. But the damage wasn't confined to the vehicle. In addition to breaking his right shoulder blade, Close was left with four broken ribs, and doctors had to insert tubes to drain the excess fluid that pooled in his chest. "My glasses disintegrated into my eyebrows," he observes wryly. "Fortunately, not into my eyes."
It's equally fortunate that all of this occurred months before Achille Lauro entered the studio to record its first full-length album. The Denver music community rallied together, as it often does, and organized benefit shows to help Close pay his medical bills, and before long, he was ready to start writing, recording and performing again. His bandmates, who had stayed by his side throughout the ordeal, were thrilled to have their collaborator and good friend back in good health, and to begin a new chapter of the band's life.
CD-release show, with Mothership and Widowers, 8 p.m. Friday, June 27, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $8, 303-291-1007.
The seeds of Achille Lauro go back to 2002, when Close — a junior in high school at the time — played in a band with bassist Jon Evans and guitarist Brian Joseph. "I lived with Brian and Jon," recalls multi-instrumentalist Luke Mossman, "and their band practiced in our basement. I loved to listen to them play, and that's the first time I heard Matt sing. I was blown away."
Eventually, the drummer for that band left; at the same time, Mossman began trying to put together his own project. "I was trying to focus on writing really pretty music," he says. "It was about writing long, drawn-out songs with a heavy jazz influence, but not jammy." Mossman and his drummer brother, Ben, began exploring that sound — while also jamming on classic Rush tunes — then started to reach out to their musician friends. Joseph was the first to join, followed by Close. Evans, however, was reluctant to get involved.
"They were playing much more complex stuff than I had ever played before," the bassist remembers. "It was really frustrating, so I tried to avoid it." Eventually, though, Evans agreed to give it a try, and by the summer of 2005, Achille Lauro's sound started taking shape.
All five members of the group come from musical backgrounds. The Mossman brothers were forced, from a very young age, to take intensive piano lessons involving two sessions per week with a very serious instructor, hours of practice per day, and even competitive recitals. "It forced us away from the piano," Ben Mossman confesses. "We chose instruments our parents didn't know anything about."
Music also figured prominently in Jon Evans's upbringing. The bassist's father and one of his sisters played guitar, while his two other sisters played flute. "None of my siblings or even my father continues to play music today," he notes. "They all had something going, but I'm the only one who chose to do anything with it."
Though Close's family wasn't initially supportive of his musical endeavors, he still recalls his first meaningful experience with music.
"I heard some old field recording of Delta blues on NPR in my dad's truck," he recalls. "I decided I wanted to play guitar. My dad brushed off my insistence until he came in one night to tell me I was up too late and found me playing a one-string guitar I had made myself. Then he said I could get a real one."
The beginnings of Joseph's musical life are also tied closely to his father. "I remember watching my dad play a Beatles song on a twelve-string guitar that was so out of whack, it was virtually unplayable," he says. "Watching him try to play, I wanted to play, too." After that, Joseph began hauling equipment for bands as a teenager, then went on to study sound engineering, taking his first job doing house sound for the Larimer Lounge. He now tours as a soundman for a number of notable acts, and still considers his father an important inspiration and champion. "He's always been a 100-percent positive influence in my life," says Joseph. In fact, the rest of Achille Lauro considers Mr. Joseph the honorary "band dad."
"He loaned me money to buy my first bass rig," Evans points out.
"And he even paid Matt to quit smoking once," laughs Joseph.
With all of that support and musical history, Achille Lauro was well prepared to create its own brand of melodic post-rock. In 2006, the band recorded its four-song debut, You're Going to Live (and Other Nice Things to Hear), at Marc Benning's Hideaway Studios. Though the EP was recorded quickly and with minimal production, it adequately captured the group's multi-layered instrumentation and unique blend of smoky jazz mixed with emotive indie rock. The quintet's members were happy with the results, but they hoped to do things differently when it came time for a full-length. Luckily, fortune smiled upon them once again.
"We got very lucky," Joseph explains. "One of the bands I work for that has a lot of resources went off to record at the Plant in California, and they invited us to make an album in their studio while they were gone. Otherwise, it would have cost us thousands of dollars. We owe a lot to them." Having a world-class recording studio at their fingertips — and the freedom to ignore the clock on the wall — the members of Achille Lauro set out to record the album they'd always wanted.
"This was a really low-pressure scenario where we could pursue a lot of whims," Close notes, "and I'm happy with all of them."
In spite of the lack of pressure and the band's tendency to obsess over each part and each track, Achille Lauro was recorded and mixed in less than three months, but its complexity is a testament to pre-studio preparation. From the crooning, swinging swagger of "Dreams We've Had" to the Beat-inflected soar of "Put Your Guns Away," the group crafts lushly orchestrated, carefully wrought and effusively executed pop with a deft balance between spiritual ecstasy and melancholy moodiness. Joseph's talented engineering gracefully captures the thunderous rumbling of Evans's bass, the twinkling of Luke Mossman's glockenspiel and everything in between. The record not only proves Achille Lauro's stunning musical proficiency, but also its gift for composing richly textured, sincerely emotional and structurally complex songs.
"The initial idea for a song will generally come from Luke or myself," Close explains. "If it comes from me, it's usually a short snippet. Luke will come with much more involved stuff. But it's always the arrangement that's a pain in the ass."
"We'll have an idea or two, beat our heads against the wall trying to flesh them out, and then shelve it and come back to it months later," adds Ben Mossman. "We've kind of learned to stop forcing songs."
"At this point," says Close with a laugh, "we've got so many aborted ideas that it's increasingly becoming an option to join them together into new songs."
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Achille Lauro's hard work has paid dividends. The band has developed a fervent local following — in fact, many other Denver bands cite the quintet among their favorites — based on the surprisingly dense orchestral sound and dramatic presentation of its ambitious songs, as well as Close's tastefully nimble and eclectic vocal style. The frontman puts so much of himself into his performance that he finds it necessary to seclude himself before every show.
"Sometimes I have to go sit in the car," he says. "Or I'll find an empty section at the bar, put my head down and just go to sleep." The other members of Achille Lauro are equally serious about their shows. You won't find any of them stumbling drunkenly onto the stage.
"We put so much pressure on each other that the thought of being impaired is terrifying," explains Ben Mossman. "If someone falters, everyone feels it. I really love that. When it works, it's so satisfying."
"We have material I don't think we can stop focusing on," Close adds. "That's something I'm really proud of. And it's also the biggest pain in the ass."