Achille Lauro speaks frankly about what it's really like to be a struggling musician in Denver
Over the past seven years, Achille Lauro has become a band that's essentially synonymous with the Denver scene. A founding act in the Hot Congress collective, the quartet has been witness to an exciting evolution in the scene, watching fellow acts rise and fall while its own sound has evolved in eclectic directions. But now the outfit has decided to permanently dock its musical vessel. Before the final voyage this weekend, we caught up with Matt Close, Ben Mossman, Luke Mossman and Jonathan Evans to discuss their time in the scene, why it's become harder to make it as a band in the last decade and what they'll miss the most about playing together.
Westword: Typically, interviewing bands is such an uplifting affair, celebrating an album or a big show. I must admit, it's a bit sad sitting here asking you questions about your breakup.
Matt Close: I prefer saying that we're "discontinuing" as opposed to "breaking up," because there's no hard feelings between any of us. I mean, I plan to implement every one of these guys on future projects in the studio.
Luke Mossman: It does require effort to rehearse something that's not going to be performed again.
You nearly broke up in 2008, but decided you still had music to make together. What's different now?
LM: To be honest, it's been a real struggle to write songs together for the last six months. We've had to scrap so many songs.
Ben Mossman: In the past, our greatest strength has been that we come from different points of view, and that created very unique sounds. But now it's gotten to the point that we're in such different places, everyone is pulling in different directions.
Is this the end of making music for any of you? Any plans to move on to graphic design or accounting?
Matt Close: Absolutely not. How could anyone be done with music? Once this decision was reached, I started writing harder than ever. I feel like it opened up some energy in me. There was no more of that, "Here's an idea, can we use this?"
What's more difficult: Breaking up with a lover or breaking up with a band?
Jonathan Evans: The band, because we're all really good friends. We've been through a lot of shit together. Way more than any significant other. I've opened up about things with the band that I would never open up about with a significant other.
MC: Over the last seven years, these three guys have become the closest people to me. They know all my dirty laundry, and it's not a problem to them.
Is there something about making music together that bonds people in a deeper way that friendship or even sex can't compare to?
BM: It's the pursuit of a common goal. There's personal interaction that's going to happen, and there's financial cohabitation, but those are side issues to the reality that we're all pursuing the same thing. And that's a unique dynamic.
LM: I've had some of the best moments of my life when I'm on stage with you guys. We learned to thrive in an environment where circumstances will be stacked against us, when our back's together, circling the wagons, fighting an audience.
MC: I realize that I'm going to miss screaming at you guys on stage a lot. It doesn't even have to be words; it's just leaning over and pumping up each other's energy.
Looking back at the last seven years, what stands out as some of your favorite Achille Lauro moments?
MC: Oakland. We ended up in a real hard part of town, in this collective warehouse, playing on a poor setup to an uninterested crowd and responded by playing harder than we've ever played. We consumed a liter of Jim Beam on stage between us. No one else in that room was having a good time, but we sure did.
LM: I would say UMS at 404 -- one of my favorite shows ever. It was like three years ago; we played at midnight. Matt's bass broke, and some guy in the audience fixed it. He still comes to our shows.
MC: I was drinking Cabernade that night.
MC: CaberNADE. Half Cabernet, half yellow Gatorade.
MC: I cannot recommend this enough.
Having been in the Denver music scene for seven years, have you guys seen a lot of things change, for better or worse?
MC: It's beautiful, the evolution that I've seen. We've had a unique window into that, rehearsing in our space at the Olympic Auditorium, where there are twenty other studios. We've seen the makeup of that building shift over the years. The bands have gotten more and more diverse.
We just hear them through the wall; you hear it accidentally walking through the building. When we first started, it was all metal -- really bad metal -- and now you hear hip-hop, or folky bands. I've seen that as a microcosm of the Denver scene.
For me, personally, the evolution of Hot Congress has been incredible. Whenever people ask me about Denver music, I usually hand them an HC sampler. What has your experience been working with that label?
LM: I think it's stronger than ever now. I love the bands that are on it. I'm really proud that it's continued on for so long.
MC: The whole reason for that getting started was sort of a jealousy of watching momentum gather in other cities and seeing that turn into a nationally recognized force. And then we saw some collective momentum here and were like, "Well, let's all push the cart."
JE: It's amazing what it's become from what the original idea was. We had our first couple of meetings here [at City, O' City]. There was no talk about a record label; we were just combining resources. Who has a van? Who can help set up shows in other cities? It was pretty disorganized for the first year or two, but Lucas Johannes really molded it into something more than just musicians drinking beer and talking a big game. Before him, it was just people talking about stuff that was never going to happen.
BM: His effort has been amazing. He's kept it alive.
Achille Lauro will perform its final set at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 6, at The Walnut Room
It seems to me that the primary goal of something like that is to get musicians to a place where they can live off their art and don't have to work day jobs.
MC: That would be amazing. That's the definition of "making it" to me. Just replace my $450 paycheck with $450 of playing shows, and I'm sitting on top of the world.
Is that really so impossible? That's not exactly an astronomical number.
MC: Not impossible. But improbable.
The biggest struggle I hear from Denver musicians is that there aren't enough venues or a large enough audience to be able to play shows several times a week. That you spread yourself too thin if you play too many shows, and then no one shows up.
MC: And there isn't the density of cities out here to support that. It's six hours to anywhere. A solo artist could do enough to pay for a studio -- but when you're splitting that between four people, there's no way. You make a $100 a show; how are you going to replace your day job with that?
BM: We've never collected a dime from any of our shows. It all goes to our bank account to pay for the van, touring, recording.
LM: Even after we're done with the band, we're still going to be in debt.
That makes me wonder: Is there a ceiling to success as a musician in Denver? Can you only go so far, and "so far" isn't even enough to pay the rent?
LM: But I know people in the jazz scene who do it. They gig seven nights a week for $50 a night. They make it happen, but it sucks. It's hard for doing it with our kind of music, where you're not playing background music in a restaurant.
MC: The smartest thing we could've done would've been to move to one of the coasts. Not that I regret not doing that; we all have lives and obligations here. But, again, there's a greater density of population and cities on either coasts. I hate to say it, but the best thing that any band could do is to get out of Denver. Granted, living in the Internet age has changed that somewhat. You can get your message out via bits and bites as opposed to actually traveling to places.
But does that mean if you meet a seventeen-year-old kid who wants to start a band in Denver, you tell him, "Forget it, kid"?
MC: Absolutely not. I love seeing things like that.
LM: There are bands who make it out. Look at the Lumineers or DeVotchKa; they've gained a national audience. But the problem is that nobody buys music anymore. So you have to tour, and you have to live in a place where you can easily reach other cities.
BM: That's the dilemma that we could never figure out. To do this right, you have to hit the road. You can blast info to blogs and whatnot, and we've done that. But what I've learned from this whole experiment is that you have to have people on the back end of that doing things for you. And that comes at a pretty steep cost.
So was that a contributing factor for ending Achille Lauro?
LM: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we've been doing it for seven years, and we're still playing the same venues. That's all fun and great, but we wanted something more.
MC: We had to acknowledge that achieving the kind of success that allows us to pay our bills would require us to be on the road for long periods of time. And not everyone in this band has that luxury. There are other obligations. There are things that come up in the course of living your life that contradict what is required to make it as a band.
BM: I envy the hell out of bands that take the dive, go into incredible amounts of debt and then hit the road and live a terrible lifestyle. This is a young man's game. You have to be prepared; you can't half-ass it. Unless you just enjoy putzing around town...though I don't think anyone in this band had the idea that we'd be satisfied just playing around Denver for the rest of our lives.
LM: I think we're a good example of how not to make it as a band. We bought a van and only toured once a year, for a week. Then we'd talk about another tour and couldn't make it happen. In a perfect world, where our lives were just this band, we might've made it.
MC: Without threatening our rent, all we could afford was to either release a record each year, or tour for two weeks.
BM: And why would you tour if you don't have a record?
JE: And why would you only tour once a year? Everyone's forgotten about you in that time.
BM: And a hard lesson we had to learn is that if you're going to tour, you have to be very tactful. It needs to be about six months in the making before you even think about playing your first show. There has to be a promotional effort, you need radio, print, online. And it's hard: Living in a van, it stinks, no one's sleeping, everyone's crabby, and then you go play in a room where nobody gives a shit. It's like, hell, what are we doing?
MC: And before the curtain fell on Achille Lauro, our solution to that was getting everything in place at the same time. We need a new record, press visibility, and all the tour planned. But that's so much money!
JE: And then writing and recording an album, without playing two to three times a month. And not getting sick of the songs by the time you release them.
So would you say you've exhausted every avenue that the Denver music scene has to offer?
LM: I'd describe it as the Denver music scene did all it could to help us make it.
MC: We could debate the ins and outs of the music scene all day, but when it comes down to it, maybe we just weren't good enough?
Achille Lauro's final show, with Vitamins, Morning Clouds and Land Lines, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 6, Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street.
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