Tuesday night at the Lion's Lair might as well be a night in Antarctica. The place is desolate. A couple dozen patrons loll across the bar, which is already a half-inch deep with spilled Pabst. Even with the sparse attendance, it takes ten minutes to get a beer. You'd do better just to splash some of the runoff into your plastic cup: You'd save two bucks, and your liver would never know the difference.
Around 10:30, just as the ennui is about to reach a fever pitch, three guys climb up on stage and start tweaking some instruments. Drummer Lawrence Snell sits down behind his kit with his limbs splayed out like walking sticks, while guitarist Eric Bailly and bassist Joel Michor -- nondescript, jeans-clad dudes with burly goatees -- strap on their axes with as much elation as they would show putting on bow ties. Maybe they're just nervous. These three men in their early thirties clearly aren't the usual retro-decked indie hipsters or emaciated emo kids in skintight tees you see in local bands. Bailly twiddles something on his effects processor and then, without provocation, begins poking the smoky air with a riff as keen and luminous as a neon strobe. Then he sings, and his voice is a fog of ghostly breath on a winter morning. Snell is all knees and elbows as he comes in with a swelling crash, the boom of a submarine exploding underwater. A quivering bass line sinks into the noise, carving melodies like ice sculptures.
The crowd reacts by staring blankly at a subtitled TV show above Michor's head. The late-night news is on, a story about the war. A succession of heads -- both talking and decapitated -- blur by nauseatingly, as the steady, channeled chaos on stage builds to a peak and then dissipates. With wisps of echo-soaked distortion still standing in the air like vapor off a frozen lake, Bailly announces gently into the mike, "Hi. We're Colder Than Fargo."
A few days later, the world is brighter and the air a bit more breathable as the members of Colder Than Fargo hang out on the front porch of Bailly's small brick duplex. Spring is in full effect, and somewhere wind chimes are going off like an alarm. "I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota," says the guitarist. "Nine months out of the year it's bitter cold, like an ice age. It's harsh having to be indoors that long, just trying to occupy your mind. It's a really isolated feeling. A lot of bands that come from that part of the country have certain things in common: They're either super mellow and depressive or they're an all-out wall of noise, just this pent-up anger. Look at people like Leo Kottke or bands like Low and godheadsilo. Some of it's a reflection of people stopping up their emotions and not feeling free to express themselves. It's just interwoven into the culture out there. It's a piece of them.
"There's a melancholy that exists on the northern plains," he continues. "I think that's why I gravitated toward music. It was a nice, healthy way to get some of those emotions out."
Inspired by the heartland gut-letting of Bob Mould and Uncle Tupelo, Bailly played in a string of bands in Fargo throughout the late '80s and early '90s. "At that point," he notes, "being in a band was just a creative outlet, and a way to be able to look cool, I guess. I was pretty shy back then, so it was a good way to get out of my shell a little bit. I was moody and depressed pretty much all of the time, which is real different than I am now."
After earning his degree in psychology at 22, Bailly migrated with his wife to Denver in 1993 to attend grad school. The rock, though, never got unpacked. Dedicating himself to school and family, his creative ambitions faded into the background.
"When we moved to Denver, I tried playing solo for a little bit, but I just didn't have it in me," the guitarist recalls. "So I just dropped it. I stopped playing. The amp found its way into the storage space. The guitar was shut up and put in the closet. But I knew at some point I was going to get that fire back."
What he didn't know was that it would take eight years before he'd become involved with music again. During that time, he effectively settled down, had a daughter, bought a house, began a career. Most musicians never regain their momentum after growing up, but Bailly's compulsion to write and perform gradually bubbled back up to the surface. In 2001 he hooked up with a guitarist named Paul Humphrey and began playing coffeehouse gigs under the name Melt Away.
"That was the spark," says Bailly. "Paul and I started playing this real acoustic, melancholy stuff. That's when I began writing new types of songs. It became more minimalist; I started experimenting with two-string solos, letting the guitar kind of ring out. Then Paul just stopped coming to gigs about a year ago, and I started focusing more on my solo stuff."
Bailly's newfound role as a singer/songwriter culminated on his 2003 debut disc, titled Colder Than Fargo. Recorded live in a single afternoon and adorned with photos of his home town, the record resembled vintage REM or Galaxie 500 as broadcast from inside a block of ice. Stripped to just six strings and a larynx, the eight songs were hushed meditations on stillness and solitude, folk tunes strummed with frostbitten fingers. "My wife made the comment that once I started gigging out again, I became less brooding," says Bailly. "I wasn't the same person I had been eight years before. I felt way more intimate and passionate about everything."
Soon, the itch to plug in and crank up led Bailly to assemble a full group to flesh out his skeletal compositions. First to be drafted was the bassist, Michor, who was originally from suburban Chicago and had most recently lent his talents to Denver groove ensemble Manatee, a Quixote's True Blue staple with a sizable following around town. After five years, though, Michor was aching for a change, and Bailly's stark, whittled-down songs seemed the perfect prescription. After hooking up last November, the two hit the town as a guitar-and-bass duo. "It was really tough to play that way at first," Michor remembers. "When you play music that's so minimal, it challenges you. You're really vulnerable, not just from a technical standpoint, but from an emotional one."
As if to slice that vulnerability even wider, the bassist soon began bringing his own songs to the band; his earthy, plainspoken voice complemented Bailly's more ethereal delivery. "Most of my songs have to do with relationships," Michor confesses, fielding a volley of ridicule from his bandmates. "Seriously, that's a big issue for me. When you go through a relationship, you run the whole gamut of emotions and situations. One of our songs I wrote when I was lying in bed at one in the morning thinking about my old girlfriend. All this shit was coming up, so I just got up and just wrote it all down. It turned out to be a really cathartic experience."
Bailly's songs, on the other hand, dwell on subjects both more prosaic and profound than lost love. From people-watching on the 16th Street Mall to coping with the sociopolitical ramifications of 9/11, his lyrics bridge a wide dynamic -- one that began manifesting itself sonically when Snell, a native of Hinkley, a small town in Leicestershire, England, joined Colder Than Fargo a couple of months ago. Armed with percussive force, effects processors and a new lust for fuzz and volume, the band's music rushes from a whisper to an avalanche within the span of a single beat. Accordingly, Bailly's narrative perspective zooms in from the cosmological to the microscopic in the blink of an eye, all the while hewing to a scrupulous austerity.
"My lyrics have changed since I was younger," he explains. "They're just simple, reflective observations that I make. That's it. Part of that is just chemistry. My hormones aren't raging as much as much as they were when I was twenty. I'm getting into this thing now of having more of a mantra in the lyrics, just four or five sentences that I repeat. I want to keep it real simple and yet real profound, like a haiku or something.
"One song I just wrote," he goes on, "is about this huge discussion my wife and I got in the other day about whether or not we need to see videos on TV of that guy getting beheaded in Iraq. I was so profoundly impacted by all that, and I just wanted to shut it all out. I wanted to turn the damn TV off and pretend none of that exists. I just wanted to retreat into my little house and pretend the outside world doesn't exist."
A natural reaction, perhaps, for someone born and bred on the North Dakota tundra, but back on the front lines of the Lion's Lair on a lonely Tuesday night, there can be no retreat. As the group's set winds down, Snell -- apparently a bit unsettled by the audience's rigor mortis -- begins heckling his own comrades to play some Skynyrd. Typical of the Lair, the guitars seem like they're being run through a mud puddle instead of a sound system. The first words out of Bailly's mouth as he begins packing up his equipment are, "Sorry, I was woefully out of tune." But later at the bar, talk turns excitedly to the recording of the trio's new disc, In the Basement of the Chapel, captured live in the old Sunday-school classroom where they practice, as well as upcoming plans for shows and tours and new songs. Though born out of boredom, seclusion and the glacier-locked wastelands of the Midwest, tonight Colder Than Fargo is glowing like a slushy spring thaw.
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