More likely to set fire to the Punk Inc. bandwagon than jump on it, the Emmas are throwbacks to a different time -- when young misfits on society's fringes created simple, squalid, stripped-down rock and musical proficiency was a damning trait. Favoring prickly attitude over technical talent, the Denver-based band religiously embraces punk's DIY ethos with a fervor that at times defies logic.
"I learned a few chords a few years before [the Emmas], and I never learned any more," says vocalist/guitarist/driving force Lisa Cook from a bar stool at the Kentucky Inn. "Three-chord punk rules. You can make so many great songs out of the same three chords."
"I don't know what a sixteenth beat is, or any of those drum words," adds drummer Eliza Jane Smith. "I have no idea what they're talking about, and I prefer it that way."
The Emmas probably horrify just as many gig-goers as they delight. Think of a hybrid of the Ramones and the Shaggs fueled by a disdain for the mainstream. Theirs is undiluted punk, complete with papery, catchy guitar noise, a basic blitzkrieg rhythm and a range that fluctuates from grungy rumble to barbedwire screech.
"I really, really, really get a kick out of offending people," says Cook, who writes the lyrics and sings them with such abandon that she occasionally appears to lose consciousness. "You think you can't go further, and you can -- you always can. Eventually, no one will be there, but until that point, you're always going to offend somebody."
The Emmas, named for Cook's recently departed kitty, were born in 1998 in a Denver church, where Cook and a since-departed rhythm section were afforded a practice sanctuary. The band -- then a hardcore outfit -- recorded a four-song EP, I Hate People, on a boombox. ("I fucking hate people," a misanthropic Cook now says of the title track, the first song she ever wrote. "I hate their fucking herds. I hate the way they're pigs. I hate the way they're cattle. I hate the People's Fair.")
Thankfully, the band's recordings -- two full-length discs in the past two years -- have progressed markedly since that initial EP. Last year, the band released more than a dozen catchy, raw tracks under the title The Emmas Turn 31 (a parody of the title and cover art of The Donnas Turn 21). That album was primarily shaped during a series of basement sessions recorded by Denver's Play Dead Records; Sherrie Hern, a former Rainbow Sugar member and onetime Emmas guitarist, appears on the disc alongside Cook and Smith. Candy, the band's second, soon-to-be-released effort, is a bit more polished. And though the Emmas have resisted production sheen in the past, the new songs work because the songwriting and lo-fi guitar noise shines. Recorded earlier this year by Dinnermints drummer Todd Ayers (who also manned bass for the Emmas on Candy), the album is only a studio bill away from seeing the light of day. ("Donations?" asks Smith.)
"It's so poppy," says Cook. "It doesn't have that garage-punk sound anymore. It's really easy to move your head to."
That wasn't always the case. The Emmas' first lineup disintegrated soon after one show, during which the drummer turned green with anxiety and vowed never to play live again. Cook was soon evicted from the church, but she possessed enough equipment for an entire band and began a search for new Emmas. Initially, she had trouble finding players who jelled with her jagged artistic vision.
"All these guys would come over," Cook recalls. "I could barely ever find girls. They would start playing, um, what's that stupid band I hate? Sublime. They would start playing Sublime songs, and I would just go upstairs and sit there."
Cook and Smith first met in 1999, after a day spent drinking on opposite ends of the Skylark's well-worn bar. "She had a little tiny tank top on," Cook says. "But she had never played drums before. I told her we had a show in two weeks."
"I told her I'd do it even though I didn't know how," recalls Smith. (Adds Cook: "It didn't matter.")
The new two-piece incarnation of the band thrilled the Cricket on the Hill crowd at its first gig. Cook and Smith's second performance together, however, was a step backward. The duo took the stage at a punk-rock warehouse party but left without playing anything more than a series of distorted E chords and a basic beat. "I spaced every one of my songs," Cook says. "We stopped and got off the stage."
The Emmas then got serious -- sorta. They established a thrice-weekly practice schedule and began to hone and refine their stripped-down sound. Hern lent her guitar to the mix for a spell but left the band last year. Following her departure, a bassist came and went as the result of a personality conflict with Cook. Current Emma bassist E-N (pronounced "Ian") Pumpernickel joined the fray earlier this year.
"I've known Lisa for like fifteen years, and they needed a bass player," says Pumpernickel, who's a former member of two Denver bands, the industrial God's Thinking Womb and the "T-Rex-ish '70s glam" Radio Junkies. For Pumpernickel, playing in the Emmas is all about having a good time. "I just go along with it," he says.
While Smith and Cook are obviously the core members (they've played about fifty shows together), the roster changes are more emblematic of the latter's never-say-die attitude than anything else. Cook's stubborn willpower has kept the Emmas on stage and in front of audiences even when everything looks to be on the verge of collapse. She once went as far as playing a show at the Raven without the accompaniment of any of her bandmates. On this particular night, Cook played solo because Smith was suffering from strep throat; the aforementioned personality conflict with the bassist had something to do with it, as well.
In the end, Cook simply loves making noise and will perform with any permutation of the band. "I just like being on stage," she says. "I want to have fun with it."
"We've been a two-piece band in between all of the other bandmembers," adds Smith. "We feed off each other. She's probably the only person I can play with."
"Eliza isn't embarrassed of anything I do," echoes Cook. "She gives me that extra push."
Smith and Cook's musical symbiosis has evolved to the point where they communicate in a code that's unintelligible to everyone else. "When we're working on a new song, E-N sits there and just looks at us, because I don't think we're speaking English," explains Cook. "We're all, 'Do the dot-dot and the boom shot.' We've been together long enough that we know what we're talking about, but nobody else does."
While Smith has become a more active and trusted songwriting collaborator over time, Cook still writes all of the Emmas' lyrics and guides the band's sound and structure. She says she's written poetry "like most girls: forever," and originally converted her old poems into Emmas songs. Almost betraying her three-chord philosophy, Cook's songwriting has gotten sharper over time, but she still loves to play the ultra-basic songs she wrote during her early attempts. Clocking in at just over a minute, the crude, frenzied "Persecuted" -- Cook's second piece -- is still a live staple. The song's lyrics stem from an incident at a Cherry Creek bar where Cook and some "dirty, dreadlocked" friends were ejected, presumably because of their appearance, as yuppified customers snorted lines of cocaine off an adjacent table. "I almost thought I could sit here and drink my beer," Cook wails on the tune, "but you made me realize prejudice is here."
The nihilistic "Fight" is another set standby: "Fight, fight, fight/That's what we'll do tonight/We're gonna drink a lot of beer and start a fuckin' fight!" A bit more subversive and subtle, "Holding Hands" rotates between a sugary sweet "I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U" chorus and progressively lustier verses.
Anger, alienation and antagonism are pervasive themes in Cook's material, but the message is much more personal than political. "Even though people try all the time to read political shit into what we do, we try so hard [not to be political]," says Cook. "Sometimes we humor them and lie to them."
When it comes to communicating with the outside world, the Emmas use costumes and fliers (two more opportunities for the band to exercise its DIY values) to supplement their codes and music. From mermaid and skeleton costumes to zombie makeup and fake blood, the players have pretty much stretched their on-stage garb potential to the limit. ("I think it started out as a buffer," says Smith. "For the first show, we wore tutus.") Their current obsession doesn't concern costumes; rather, they're hoping to shed their clothes altogether.
"I'm just trying to push it and push it and push it," says Cook about playing in the nude. "The less sexy, the better. I want the real body to show."
Cook recently went starkers at a warehouse show and has plans to perform in nothing but a ski mask and sunglasses at an upcoming underground gig. She still aspires to do the full monty at a bar, where licensing restrictions prohibit the precarious coexistence of full frontal nudity and booze. "I got an okay at Herb's Hideout, but then I got there and I had to wear underwear and tape on my boobs," she says.
Cook has used quite a bit of tape in her day posting the Emmas' distinctive photocopied fliers, which often look like the work of a deranged kindergartner. "People started collecting them," says Smith. "People know us by our fliers, even if they haven't seen the band." And thanks to friendly pricing at an unnamed Denver copy shop, the Emmas are able to maximize a meager promotional budget. ("We hate Kinko's," Cook adds emphatically.)
The band, like much of its punk-rock kin, needs all the help it can get. After being evicted from the church three years ago, the Emmas have bounced from one practice space to the next (though all have been exclusively secular). The group moved to Cook's basement for a couple of years, then rented the slender basement of 7 South for a year. When the club sold to Quixote's True Blue last year, "we were out," says Cook. Smith tried to rent the space from the new ownership, but a later confrontation over scads of Emmas graffiti on a sparkling new bathroom mural quelled that possibility. "I'm not allowed in there anymore," says Cook. Her final word on the subject: "We hate Quixote's."
So what does Lisa Cook actually like? Let's recap: While she hates people, Sublime, Kinko's and Quixote's, she is partial to three-chord punk, being on stage and offending people. And talk to her about Denver's local-music community, and she starts to sound more like an adult-contemporary softie than a grizzled punk with dreadlocks and spiked accessories.
"From being in this band, we have met so many cool people," she gushes. "I know I say I hate people, but everybody in the Denver scene is so supportive and so cool. Everybody's great."
Everybody, that is, but the pigs and the cattle.
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