At the Aurora mall with Cop Circles' Luke Leavitt
Luke Leavitt is sitting in the food court at the Town Center mall in Aurora for the second time in a week. At other tables are families with strollers, couples and groups of friends enjoying the cuisine at hand. It's mostly fast-food fare, but there is also what appears to be an independent establishment offering "Asian" cuisine. The mall itself offers an interesting cross-section of the population of Aurora, a place with more ethnic diversity than Los Angeles.
During the week, Leavitt, a musician who performs under the name Cop Circles, does energy retrofits; his work takes him all over the metro area. He enjoys his job because it gives him the chance to interact with people he might not otherwise meet in his life as a musician.
Leavitt has a precise and thoughtful manner of speaking to match his patient demeanor, but when he performs as Cop Circles, a different persona emerges. He creates a funky but quirky party vibe with his keytar and playfully askew singing. He then escalates the energy, his gestures becoming more animated, until he can seem like a rampaging maniac. He will charge into the crowd on all fours, sometimes discarding his keytar, sometimes not. He looks like a man possessed, the veins in his neck bulging out, and there is no doubting his intensity and sincerity. It is an impossibly seamless combination of premeditated act and all-consuming conviction.
Leavitt offers no hint of that capacity as he walks around the mall. The smell of fresh popcorn hangs in the air as he makes his way to a couple of shops that caught his fancy the last time he was here. There is no obvious source for the smell -- the mall's movie theater is long gone -- and Leavitt notes that it makes him hungry. He wonders aloud if it's pumped into the ventilation system to whet the appetites of visitors.
"Oriental Gifts has this kitsch vibe I remember from a mall in Cairo," he says before walking into it. With a mixture of curiosity and amusement, Leavitt surveys the store's display of knives and swords, the mask section, fantasy paintings that you would expect to see at a Spencer's Gifts, odd sculptures of jazz musicians. He also peruses the unique selection of candy and soft drinks. At my suggestion, he buys a box of the citrus-flavored Botan Rice candy and another one of ginger chews. On his way to the next store, he asks if the inner wrapping needs to be removed. I tell him it doesn't; it's rice, not plastic. I grew up on these treats.
At the clothing store FT Casuals, Leavitt walks through the dense displays of dresses that cost hundreds of dollars. He parts them, making a natural clearing, and walks through as though he's found some sort of alternate entrance to Narnia. Once inside, he poses for a photo. He doesn't appear to have a particular affinity for the dresses, but he also doesn't seem out of place in their midst.
Leavitt was born in Park Hill almost 24 years ago. His mother's work with the U.S. government took him, at age six, to Egypt for four years, then to Bulgaria for a time. He wound up attending high school in Atlanta. The malls were always there.
After high school, he attended Vassar College, where he studied geography and immersed himself in the art and culture of New York City. He formed an Afrobeat band called Yes Noyes; the group performed at the Apollo Theater as well as in the subways as part of the Music Under New York program.
"You know, I could have studied music there, maybe," he says, "but what's inspiring is the world, and not necessarily some intellectual investigation of specific classical-music historiography. Geography has this political tradition recently; it's one of the academic disciplines that is most engaged with social change. That's something valuable to me. I've recently been trying to meld music with that more consciously.
"Meeting here, even, is a geographic exploration, however small or modest," he notes, looking around the food court. "If you look deep enough, you'll find a crazy history no matter where you go, and terrible silences that place covers up.
"The food court here has more people interacting in one place than in any of the public places, like Del Mar Park," he continues. "It's easy to disdain a mall like this, but you have to take the good and the bad, I think. It's called Town Center, and it may function like that, for better or worse.
"So what if it's a palace of consumption or whatever? There is a certain vibrancy here that is lacking in those spaces designed for civic engagement. You don't see people there. Do people feel safe here precisely because the transient go to the parks and people don't want to deal with it? It just begs questions rather than answers things. It's also different from Cherry Creek Mall. You won't find Mexico Con Love or Oriental Gifts at Cherry Creek -- so it has its own personality."
When Leavitt moved back to Colorado in 2012, unemployed and living with his family, he found himself disconnected from the artistic community he had known in New York. That's when he wrote the song "Cowtowwn," the subject of his latest music video. "Returning here, I felt a little alienated, so it was sort of a way to grapple with that with some humor and electro," says Leavitt. "How do I find a community here as an individual?"
That question notwithstanding, he quickly found like-minded artists in Stefan Herrera and Colin Ward at Rhinoceropolis and video artist Anna Winter, who produced the "Cowtowwn" video. He also found kindred ideological spirits in the Mile High City and was inspired by the way in which music and the political sphere come together here. In 2013, he got involved in the effort to lift the urban-camping ban in Denver, joining one of the protests at the Palm restaurant. He played "The Girl From Ipanema" as a gesture to diners, and was generous enough in his performance that one patron engaged him in an open-minded conversation. It's hard to say whether that had a direct effect on the situation, but the Palm did subsequently reverse its position on the ban.
"It just goes to show that trying to interject yourself creatively, musically or politically can have some interesting impacts," says Leavitt. "There are so many combinations that you could explore that it's kind of overwhelming; it's not black and white. Protest itself is an art form that requires negotiating and balance. Music is sort of an ingredient in that. It doesn't always have to be this rallying cry that turns some people off."
Though you can expect an engaging confrontation at a Cop Circles show, it is Leavitt's sensitivity to his environment and his audience that ensure that each performance is unique. In 2013, he did a project called Keytar in the Wilderness, playing his signature keytar at different sites around Denver. The responses he got ranged from mild curiosity to complete apathy. But Leavitt found the experience valuable. He finds most experiences valuable in some way. He sees plenty worth thinking about in the food court at Town Center at Aurora. He sees a gathering place with an uncertain future.
"There is a proliferation of deserted malls that have the potential to become really interesting spaces in the radical sense, occupying them under the radar," he says. "That could be a physical source for a rejuvenated DIY culture."
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