Back in Orbit
Chuck Snow is a little frustrated -- and you can hardly blame him.
After nearly two decades of toiling in the music scene in Colorado Springs, he still struggles to land good gigs and sizable audiences, which hardly seems fair considering his history. From 1984 to 1997, he led one of Colorado's best bands, the AUTONO, which was based in Colorado Springs but wowed regional crowds with its ragged, guitar-based rock and roll. To some, the AUTONO seemed destined for success on a national level, a fate fueled by three impressive recordings released during the last seven years of its run. Along the way, the group earned the sort of street credibility that its peers Big Head Todd & the Monsters never enjoyed -- even if it didn't gain the national attention and record sales that eventually showered down on that combo. The AUTONO was pawed by a major label during its run; in 1997, the bandmembers performed abroad during a by-invitation trip to Russia before eventually deciding to go their separate ways.
Today Snow is back where he started, slugging it out in the clubs of Colorado Springs, a land equated more with conservatism and the religious right than righteous rock music. And while Snow sometimes sounds a bit bothered by this fate, don't expect him to whine about it.
"I'd rather be on the cool side of the underground; to me that has more value and meaning," he says. "That way, you always have the opportunity to go up instead of being there and going down. That's how I look at it."
Following that reasoning, things are looking up for Snow. This weekend he brings his current project, the Lazy Spacemen, to the Soiled Dove for the group's first Denver appearance. Formed two years ago, the band (which also includes lead guitarist Mike Amend, bassist Alan Stiles and drummer Steve Schaarschmidt, all of whom played in the AUTONO at one point) is rolling into town with some momentum: Its debut release, Singing to Ghosts, is a wonderful collection of guitar-driven rock that calls to mind Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick, the Neighborhoods and Pleased to Meet Me-era Replacements. The disc has received considerable airplay on the Colorado Springs rock station KRCC, reaching number one on its playlist early this year.
The disc is worthy of such notice. It includes swirling, mid-tempo rockers such as "Shine," "Which Way the Wind Blows" and "California," songs marked by Snow's Robin Zanderish growl, gooey hooks and thoughtful, layered production touches. Schaarschmidt and Stiles provide expert push on these numbers, while Amend peppers each one with crackling guitar parts that match the songs' intelligence. The band peaks on a pair of roaring anthems that lift Singing to exceptional heights. "Let Go" is head-banging rawk à la Cheap Trick, shined by a beautiful skin-peeling solo from Amend that rumbles up from below and culminates in a Neil Young-style squall of distortion. "Fishdriver" is more rolling thunder, with great guitars and a glorious rabble-rousing feel. "Where are the rebels who once did rage?" Snow asks in the song, sounding every bit like the Springsteen of the Springs. It's crunchy stuff, stacked with more majestic rock than the Garden of the Gods.
It's also the kind of smart, guitar-focused rock that can be hard to come by nowadays.
"There was an interview with Moby in Rolling Stone," Snow says. "He said that four white guys with guitars is anachronistic. Well, we're the band Moby described -- and proud of it."
For Snow, the idea that real people playing real instruments has given way to dweebs with turntables is a sad notion. It's also one that means a band like his faces hurdles to gaining wide acceptance. "The premise now is you have to make shitty music with meaningless lyrics; then people will like you," he says, citing Radiohead's current flush of press as evidence. "I think that's a bunch of pretentious crap. I can't even listen to their last two discs." In the face of even the best standard-issue rock, he adds, "the press goes, 'It's the same old thing.' But nobody goes to B.B. King and says, 'Dude, quit playing the same three chords.'"
In Colorado Springs, it's unlikely that anyone would suggest as much to Mr. King or anyone else. There, live music patrons are actually hungry for the same old thing. Maybe too hungry. "A lot of people that move here want to hear music they've heard a million times," notes Snow. "So it's a tough market for original music, because people like comfortable, familiar music."
That fact has made if difficult for him and his mates to play in their hometown as much as they'd like. It's also one reason the band is heading to Denver this weekend.
"We just played three nights at the Ritz down here, and it was tough," Snow says. "We're all looking forward to getting to Denver and playing before people that appreciate original music instead of hollering, 'Play some Violent Femmes!' I played that stuff years ago, when it first came out." Sometimes Snow and the others feel like the "last artistic thing going on down here. We feel like we have our fingers in the dike. But I'm hoping that some of the clubs here will start booking more original music."
When the AUTONO broke up in 1997, Snow briefly considered giving in to more popular tastes. "I had a couple offers to join some cover bands, and I seriously considered them for a little while," he says. "But I decided after rehearsing with a band one night that I'd rather play my own music in obscurity the rest of my life than do that." The Lazy Spacemen are proudly filling their niche as an obscure pleasure in town. "A lot of people like to listen to vinyl, but it's not the most popular format anymore. That's sort of how we see ourselves down here."
Musically speaking, one of Snow's out-of-favor addictions is the Replacements, a group he cites as a major inspiration for the band in terms of music and attitude. "What I try to take from them is spontaneity and a "fuck it all" attitude, which is what they had. Around here, the bands are predictable and sanitary; I like the visceral output and interaction."
Snow's output over the years in Colorado Springs and his lengthy run in the music community there has earned him the status of music veteran today. When someone needs a tidbit or quote about the history of rock and roll in Colorado Springs, they call him. He's added to that reputation through his role as a partner in Big Ball Records, a Springs-based label he's run for a number of years with partner Mark Junglen. The label has released all three AUTONO recordings, as well as platters from two former Junglen projects, A Tribe and Former Fetus. The label also released Dark Horse Dreams, a compilation of Colorado Springs bands.
The Lazy Spacemen are looking to add another disc to the Big Ball catalogue when they release an EP of new material this fall. They are also planning some "strike" tours to Chicago and a few other markets, hoping to push the band's reach a bit further. Snow, however, is not looking to land some major-label deal with his band of seasoned, realistic-minded peers. In his estimation, record companies perform one major service: "They fuck with who you are. That's what record companies do."
Such comments may make Snow seem a bit frosty about the realities of playing music. But he makes it clear he's not shedding any tears about his current station in the musical world. "I've had a career of sorts over time, and I've always looked at it from an artist's point of view. I'm growing, I'm moving forward. There are so many horror stories about the music business. It's so much easier to make money yourself these days without being signed. Maybe our next record will sell 20,000 copies, and we'll get to keep all the money."
In the meantime, Snow and his mates will continue to write and perform the music they want to play, the music they believe in. And if a large audience isn't out there thirsting for their brand of straightahead rock, so be it.
"It's a corporate culture today -- a culture devoid of any ambition or passion. People are homogenized, and it's hard to stir people out of their shells. They're jaded, and some people are alive and some are walking dead. And some people aren't passionate about their lives in general, either. So you can't expect them to be passionate about music."
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