In the mid-2000s, during the height of Denver’s indie-rock era, the members of Somerset Catalog were in some of the city’s more prominent bands. Bryce Merrill, John Kuker and Trevor Trumble were part of Everything Absent or Distorted, whose raucous live shows displayed the influence of Guided by Voices and Neutral Milk Hotel. Bassist Georgina Guidotti played in the experimental pop band Rabbit Is a Sphere as well as local Americana act the Denver Gentlemen. Brigid McAuliffe could be seen playing in various projects, but most prominently in Pee Pee and Bela Karoli. Drummer Kim Baxter is truly a veteran of underground Denver rock. While Merrill admits to having mixed feelings about the band being dubbed a supergroup, neither he nor anyone else in the band has any misgivings about being identified as part of the Denver community.
“We hate the supergroup thing because it’s a new band in its own right,” Merrill says. “But I think it’s important for us to say we’ve been around this music scene for a long time and in various ways. I think having a deep connection to Denver is important to our music.
Sometimes we seem like an ahistorical music scene, and we’re not at all. I think we all believe in reminding folks that Denver has had a lot going on for a long time, and we feel fortunate to play a small part in that.”
“It shows that it hasn’t just been a fleeting ‘Let’s be in a band because it’s cool’ for a few years,” adds McAuliffe. “We’re in our thirties and forties now, with busy professional lives outside of music, but it’s that important for us to get together and play and perform music for the sake of it.”
Somerset Catalog began in the summer of 2011, when Merrill and McAuliffe, who are married, moved back to Denver from Indiana, where each had attended graduate school. Initially writing music for acoustic instruments, Somerset Catalog quickly developed into a full-fledged band with the addition of Kuker, Trumble, Guidotti and original drummer Matt Grizzell. That lineup recorded the group’s debut EP in 2012. Within a year, however, Grizzell moved on, leaving the Somerset Catalog without a drummer for several months before Baxter took up her role as the project’s percussionist. During that gap between drummers, the band wrote music using drum machines — a practice that has become part of its sound and provides unique textures and atmospheres that support its imaginative and thoughtful songwriting.
The group’s new record, Lonely Fang, reflects evolving musical ideas, one of which is downplaying the role of guitar in the band. Although sometimes compared to that of Arcade Fire and the National, Somerset Catalog’s sound is more akin to indie pop.
“What I love about indie pop is [that it] takes that foundation of straightforward beats and hooks, but you tweak those in places to make them unusual,” Merrill says. “Either you change the instrumentation or you have big bridges instead of big choruses or not choruses at all — really taking the tried-and-true formulas of pop music and turning them on their heads in a way that doesn’t totally move them out of pop, but doesn’t make you sound like Britney Spears. Not that we are in any danger of sounding like Britney Spears; she’s way more talented than we are.”
The album art consists of photographs borrowed from the work of Southeast Asian refugees with whom McAuliffe collaborated through Picture Me Here, a nonprofit that aids refugees in telling their stories through various media. The striking imagery goes against the usual music-promotion format, because it suggests nothing about the music within and conveys meanings that transcend mere pop content.
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In his capacity as cultural-policy director for the Biennial of the Americas, Merrill has also been very involved in creating a public cultural infrastructure to benefit music beyond the traditional civic support of classical music and jazz. Part of those efforts resulted in the purchase of respected indie label Misra, which brings to Denver an established imprint with some clout and history, a key component for helping local popular music reach outside the Mile High City.
In spite of these heady outside endeavors, Somerset Catalog by no means takes itself too seriously.
“We did a radio campaign one time for one of our records, and we got feedback from DJs sometimes, and one of those was ‘lyrics: absurd,’” says Merrill. “I think we kind of live by that.
With Panther Martin and AMBIT, 9 p.m. Saturday, December 12, hi-dive, $10, 303-733-0230, 21+.