Achille Lauro is opening for John Common at Casselman's. Everyone is seated, drinking complimentary spiked fruit juice. Achille Lauro frontman Matt Close is introducing every song in this manner: "This song is about [fill in the blank] and drag racing."
Some people laugh at this, some people think he's serious, and drummer Ben Mossman is trying to keep from laughing so hard that he loses his shit entirely. Close says he mostly pulls this sort of stunt for the amusement of Ben. But it follows that if you are enjoying what you do, other people will enjoy it, too.
Having a good time, however, wasn't always the guiding principle of Achille Lauro. On the last album, Close and his bandmates were painfully meticulous in song construction, so much so that the live show was practically surgery for the members of the band, trying to fit all the pieces together in exactly the way they'd been constructed in months of practice.
Achille Lauro CD release, with Houses and Vitamins, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 10, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $8, 720-570-4500.
"We were trying," says guitarist Luke Mossman, who also plays keys and sings, "to reinvent how songs were written."
"Being on stage was a very stressful thing," adds Ben.
The tension was at a breaking point long before the band's 2008 self-titled debut album was even released. "It was a bad time," recalls Close, "when I realized, if I had seen our shows, I wouldn't like those songs."
The revelation almost made him quit. Luke convinced him to stick it out through the recording process, and in June 2008, the album came out. The band had a tour lined up, but three days before the release party, Close officially quit. He agreed to do the release show, and the band canceled the tour. Achille Lauro was officially on hiatus.
The next six months was the band's proverbial wandering in the wilderness. Luke recorded a solo album. Brian Joseph, the band's fifth member and third songwriter with Close and Luke, left the band permanently to work sound for big names like the Fray and Bon Iver. Bassist Jon Evans played with his other band, Action Packed Thrill Ride. Ben worked his desk job. Close worked his courier job, biking around Denver.
When the four remaining members started talking about the band again, it was over drinks at Gabor's. The Gabor's Sessions, as they call them. "One of the big points," Close remembers, "that brought us together was when we realized that the music we all agree on is not as complex as the music we were writing."
The band decided to stop worrying so much about whether they were breaking new ground musically. "Maybe it's been this way for so long," says Luke, "because it works."
Ostensibly in deference to Joseph, who left on good terms, the band shelved the old tunes entirely. You can still buy that self-titled debut, but there's no mention of it on the band's MySpace page, and the group doesn't sell it at shows.
The actual songwriting mechanism didn't change much. Luke or Close will still bring an idea to practice — a melody or riff or whatever — and the band will expand on it, trying out different parts until they find the ones that fit. It's just that now, they recognize a hot lick when they see one. And the only question they bother asking is, "How much fun can we have with this?"
Which is how the band came to be at Casselman's, introducing a song called "Unicorns and Consent" as "This song is about unicorns and drag racing." Actually, that song is about apathy (Consent) and delusion (Unicorns) in mass politics. Close used to write more or less arbitrary lyrics, the words merely vessels for melody. Acknowledging the fact that some people need words to cling to in their rock music, he's focusing more on the meaning of his lyrics now.
Meanwhile, this does not sound like a band taking composition lightly. "Unicorns and Consent" builds on a Bends-era Radiohead drum loop and a quietly ominous keyboard line you'll probably miss on the first listen. From there, it adds a guitar line best described as funky, splashes of live drums and a second keyboard figure, then another guitar line harmonizing with the first. It all builds to the 45-second mark, when everything falls away except the guitars, and then those go, too, and Close drops a George Clinton-lite wail. Close, it is worth noting, has a ridiculously great voice.
Achille Lauro had a couple thousand dollars saved up to use on Indiscretions, but it wasn't enough. Between recording and mixing at Notably Fine Audio, mastering and printing 300 copies on vinyl, the album cost about $5,200. And that's with what Luke describes as "a pretty brotherly discount" for mastering from Jim Roberto at Blue Tower Studios. The band will sell the vinyl and a one-time digital download code for a very reasonable $10.
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Of the seven songs on the twelve-inch, "Unicorns and Consent" is not the most elaborate or catchy, even if it has both attributes in spades. The catchiest is probably either "Friend's War" or "No Breaks," and the most elaborate is the remarkable "Unrivaled in Class," which fans will know from shows as "the galaxy song." It has no fewer than four movements, call-and-response vocals, some solid-gold keyboard stuff, maracas and a killer bass line. Funny thing is, it almost didn't make the cut.
After struggling to pull the pieces together in practice, the band decided to scrap "Unrivaled in Class" from the recording sessions. However, once the guys were in the studio, Close called for the song in a moment of spontaneity he probably wouldn't have succumbed to the last time around. The band responded by nailing it.
The last time these guys released an album, the show had a nautical theme. Evans spent hours decorating the Larimer Lounge — and this was back when they were taking themselves seriously. This time, the theme is "country club," and the members are encouraging people to dress accordingly. No guarantees, of course, but the smart money says ridiculous and/or ridiculously awesome things will happen.
These days, the only thing that matters to Achille Lauro is that everyone has a good time.