When Kurt Ottaway and Jason Cotter decided to pull their heads out of the underground and take over a legitimate music venue, they entered into a pact -- not only with themselves, but with those who for years had begged them to open a damn club already. So on Friday, October 4, when the pair officially launches the Climax Lounge in the old Raven location on Welton Street, they'll ask patrons and players to hold up their end of the bargain.
"When we first announced we were doing this, everyone we talked to was like, 'How can we help? What can we paint? What can we build?'" remembers Ottaway. "But I told them all just to put their energy into their music, because that's how we're really going to need them: to come to this place and put on a quality show, and to show up to see other bands do that."
A longtime promoter of indie- and punk-rock shows in Denver, Cotter has had his hand in a number of local venues, both extant and extinct, including the Raven, the short-lived Cat, the Gothic Theatre and the 15th Street Tavern. Although Ottaway's experience in the concert realm isn't as easily detected, he's been no less active: Any wistful discussion of the good old days of the Denver scene is apt to include mention of places such as the Arapaho Warehouse (now Monkey Mania), the Santa Fe Warehouse, and, most recently, the Pine Box Construction Company on Walnut Street -- all spaces that had come under Ottaway's unofficial and, yes, probably illegal proprietorship over the past fifteen years.
Cotter is small and wiry and blond, Ottaway tall and dreamy -- a motorcycle hobbyist and frontman for the Tarmints. The differences between the two create unexpected comedy, like the moment when the gadget-challenged Ottaway struggles to answer a cell phone, an object he begrudgingly agreed to obtain at Cotter's insistence. "It took me a week to figure out how to dial on it," Ottaway says sheepishly. For his part, Cotter has a mile-long list of projects he's ready to put in place; Ottaway is prone to rolling his eyes when his partner lists them all.
"He's got so many ideas," Ottaway says. "He's always thinking of stuff that we should do. And it's all good stuff, but for now, I'm more likely to just be like, 'C'mon. We can do that stuff later. For now, we have a club to open.'"
Despite their conflicting personality quirks, the two have settled on a shared vision for the Climax, a club that could prove to be a test of local music's ability to draw crowds to an unusual location. Area bands will make up over 50 percent of the venue's calendar, with touring acts filling out the rest of the dates. The owners of Herman's Hideaway and Cricket on the Hill have already shown that ratio can work.
"I've always kept a standard of working with local bands," says Cotter, himself a member of the punk combo Familymen. "It's a little like gambling, I guess. And it is kind of hard. But I guess it's a sick kind of thrill."
"I just want to cultivate the music scene here, finally," Ottaway says. "I want to have an atmosphere where outlandish ideas can flourish, where people can play a show and be respected, and maybe, for once, not have to have their feet sticking to the floor."
Ottaway's comment could be read as a dig at either the 15th Street Tavern or the Lion's Lair, the two notoriously divey venues that the Climax Lounge will most closely resemble in terms of content. But asked how their place will fit into the already cramped and very competitive club landscape, they shrug off concerns.
"I just think it's such a low-self-esteem reaction to say, 'Oh, people might think we're going to fail, so we'll put up our fists and start fighting and being part of all that,'" Ottaway says. "We have no intention of pitting people against each other or trying to take business away from people. I think we're basically opening a thrift store. Like, the Gothic is Neiman Marcus, and the Bluebird is like Foley's, and the Ogden is like Target. We're like the Goodwill, where you can get good stuff for cheap."
Cotter and Ottaway share tastes that lie on the harder, darker and artier side of the Denver divide. So far, though, the Climax calendar reflects an openness to acts that didn't often grace the stages of the Raven, the Tavern or Ottaway's myriad warehouse endeavors. The club is working with some outside promoters and organizations (Kurt Ohlen's Big K Productions, the Colorado Music Association and @ntidote records, for starters), and Boulder's Radio 1190 will host a semi-regular local showcase (beginning with the Dinnermints and Doozer on October 23). Lipgloss, the Brit-pop-centric club night regularly housed at 60 South, will move in occasionally, too.
And Cotter and Ottaway have other ideas for how Climax patrons might pass the time. They plan to host pinball tournaments in a back room, which will be decorated with a revolving batch of original works by local artists. They'll produce and distribute Denvoid, a monthly magazine that features listings and short descriptions of artists performing in town (not just at Climax), along with columns by regular writers. Tom Murphy, who operates the local indie label Spirit of 1848 Records as well as its companion Web site, is among those who've signed up to pen the publication.
And though Cotter insists, straight-faced, that he has "no memory" of the Cat -- which opened and closed in the span of about six months -- patrons may recall that for all its faults (stifling heat, a confusing system of separating youngsters from the over-21 crowd), that club was built upon some good, if poorly executed, ideas. The bar rotated different cans of cheap domestic beer nightly, and the stage not only hosted high-profile gigs by regional touring acts and unconventional local shows, but it was willing to give pretty much anyone a shot. All of those elements are part of the Climax strategy.
In fact, Cotter says, eventually he imagines Climax developing into the kind of place where almost anything can go.
On a recent Friday morning, just one week before a special invite-only launch party, you could be forgiven for wondering if anything could go in Climax. There was plastic sheeting all over the booths and lots of garbage in the front entrance. The place smelled like wood chips. Aided by a couple of workers, Cotter and Ottaway have been involved in every aspect of readying the new club. Ottaway's become well acquainted with the staff of the neighborhood hardware store and has gotten handy with a paintbrush. Cotter's phone rings constantly; he's still scrambling to fill holes and confirm dates on the club's calendar through October and November. But there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic: The newly built stage looked solid and sleek in its fresh paint, and the walls had fresh new hues, too.
But in some ways, it's the same old place. Of course, sometimes there's absolutely nothing wrong with the same old place.
"This is the cleanest club for its age," Ottaway says. "The owner really preserved it, even though there were people along the way who thought he should change this or that to match the times. That's kind of rare, especially when you're dealing with music places."
Intact interiors notwithstanding, change has been as much a part of the Welton Street club as vinyl booths and the big-ass disco ball that hangs in the center of the room. Opened in 1971 as a sort of annex location to the Society for the Arts on 25th and Washington, the space initially served as a nonprofit after-hours bottle club for black music lovers in the Five Points neighborhood. When the club's name was changed to the New Climax Lounge, it was one of the few remaining bright spots on a street once known for music and its jazz legacy; the Roxy and the Rossonian were long past their glory days. And in the three decades since, this address has gone through as many mutations of style and clientele as has Welton itself, operating for a time as both the multi-use Taste of Denver nightclub and the Raven. For a while, the club was even a favorite of neighborhood drag queens.
Around 1994, Cotter and various partners -- including Mike Barsch, with whom Cotter also ran the Cat -- began placing punk rock into the venue on weeknights and learning the ropes. (As the head of Soda Jerk Presents, Barsch is now running the show at Boulder's newly reopened Club 156, as well as regularly getting touring indie and punk acts into Tulagi and, occasionally, the Fox Theatre.)
"The building's owner would have me do everything, from running the door to the bar to running the sound board," Cotter says. "He wanted me to learn how to do everything, maybe, so that one day he could trust me and turn the place over for me to run it."
Looking back nearly a decade later, it seems that was exactly the right move.
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The Climax Lounge is not the only sign of interesting new life breeding in our little corner of the musical world. Here's further evidence:
The Other Side Arts collective/gallery space has begun hosting, intermittently, some performances that mirror the experimental and probing spirit of the art on its walls. Having recently undergone an expansion and redesign, the formerly smallish site now has plenty of rooms to host pleasantly weirdo gathering like..."Analog vs. Digital: An All-Out Electronics War." On Friday, October 4, Los Angeles's Human Abstract, Denver's In Ether, Black Cell, Page 27 and Y.N.I. will pit the futurists against the retrograders in a round of friendly -- we hope -- electro sparring. See which format reigns supreme in the showcase, sponsored by Backwards Records.
The University of Colorado-affiliated, student-run station Radio 1190/KVCU AM continues to expand its empire of cool with a new club series at Soma. D.I.Y., the Tuesday theme night, is co-produced by station volunteer Ben Popken and will pull KVCU jocks out of the CU basement and into a real-time club environment: The hosts of Basementalism, La Decadence, Hanky-Panky and AsideBside are among those who will work it weekly from behind the decks. You owe it to yourself to DIY.