"I have a sense for Japanese filmmaking," divulges Chris Taylor, organist/multi-instrumentalist for Denver innovators of cinematic rock the Hellmen. "Old karate films, even Godzilla. We have a Godzilla war occasionally. I could do it, but you couldn't print it."
Taylor's mention of Godzilla, the giant green reptilian menace of B-film lore, actually has little to do with the band's fondness for sound effects and cinematic touches; rather, it's an apt metaphor for a sonic spontaneity that climbs out of the band's musical depths to crush small cities. Unexpected blasts from bassist/trumpeter David Atkinson's horn, fills from jazz drummer Alec Tisdale, sudden flutters of Taylor's organ, sinister growls from vocalist Andrew States as he struts the stage in a dress or some other costume -- like scripted lines on a page, these elements can transform the simple act of listening to a Hellmen song into an almost visual, damn-near movie-house experience. The Hellmen create soundtracks for films that haven't been made yet, films in their heads that share properties with, say, old James Bond thrillers and the slow, creepy soundtracks of David Lynch dramas.
"It sounded like a Twin Peaks kinda weird thing that we were doing," admits Atkinson as he describes the particularly haunting overtones in the trumpet- and twang-laden ballad "Azul." "It's like an alleyway of despair."
Taylor agrees, hinting that "Azul," penned in 1997, was a turning point in the sound of the band -- which, while only a year and a half into its current incarnation, began in a basement nearly five years ago. The Hellmen have been lurking unrecorded under alternate names in Denver's shadows for close to half a decade. Those who remember Milkman Jones and the Wild Morticians should already be familiar with much of the Hellmen's classic work. Likewise for Lord Woodpecker, the name that glued the boys together in the first place.
"'Azul' was one of the first songs we saw cinematically," Taylor says, "just because you heard the trumpet coming from a far distance. And because it sounded like it was coming from a distance, we only had the trumpet in the beginning, and then we made the music fit to that. It sounded like it was a night in a run-down alley, so we put those little punches and stuff in there just to have it make sense -- like little scary things are popping out -- but it still remains really subdued. That's where we get the idea of the cinema; it's nothing more than just explaining."
What the Hellmen endeavor to explain in their music are stories, narratives they insist are present even when lyrics are absent.
"We come up with a story, and then we can describe it," says Atkinson. "We're really bad at describing parts [to each other], so we're just like, 'Hey, go back to that part where he has a gun.'"
"It's more like watching a TV show or a movie, especially with our older stuff," States says. "They would write a song, or somebody would just give it a name, and then I'd go hide, and I'd think of something and then talk to them about it," he says of his narrative approach, citing the song "Defect Guy" as one example. "The story is about this defector from Russia who comes to America," he explains. "He's kind of homeless, but he's got a cellular phone from Russia. It's kinda weird, and he ends up getting killed by these kids who mug him."
The band's songwriting methodology changes, never so stringent as to lock them into one sound or style. Like the roving soundtracks of old spaghetti Westerns, the Hellmen's music sometimes simply goes where it wants to.
"You do what you want, and if it ends up sounding like something else that's out there, well, fine," stresses States. "But if it ends up sounding like something totally different -- which happens a lot -- then kudos to you."
States, a veteran of high school theater, is perhaps the bandmember most qualified to carry out the storytelling aspect of the Hellmen's music. For him, the theatrical element goes deeper than simple gimmickry -- especially when he's on stage. "I think my strength is as a performer more than a musician," he admits, "just because I was in plays a lot in school and stuff. When we first started doing it, I mean, I was bolt-upright stock still the whole time -- white-knuckled singing, you know...but just after being with these guys for so long, I just got comfortable at it."
It might be logical to assume that Hayden, who works as a manager at the Greenwood Plaza Theater in Littleton when he's not twanging "spy-esque" guitar riffs on his six-string, has been similarly influenced by drama. But he insists that his own bandmates have played a much weightier role in shaping his style than any outside influences -- visual or musical.
"To be honest with you," he says, "in doing the band for so long, all the influences and all what I've come to play have all been developed through it. I can't really name anybody who has influenced me outside of the band. I seriously sucked at guitar when this band started -- I really did, and it's the band that's made me better. It's just given me more ideas. You just get a feeling when we're all playing together, and everybody follows that feeling. You don't really know where it comes from. I think that's true with most of the people in the band. We all influence each other."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Hayden's statement is the product of a surprising five years' experience with the core Hellmen lineup. Though some musicians might feel confined remaining with the same group for such a long stretch, the Hellmen can't resist each other. "Andrew has the tightest ass this side of the Mississippi," Taylor jokes. "Yeah, I've wanted to get out of this bullshit for a long time, but the ass brings me back."
States laughs and then reveals the true secret to the group's longevity: "We're all just really good friends."
It's a friendship that has allowed the Hellmen to thrive in a scene where they remain on the fringes. "We're about doing what you want to do instead of trying to be like everybody else's punk band or everyone else's funk-hippie band or just bar rock," Taylor says. "It's so easy to go along with that, you know, and kids love to go see that because they have a group -- a bunch of friends that are all in that same clique. They see us, and everybody in this band looks different. No one's a goth rocker or a punk or whatever, and it's really hard, because that's the way people look at music. They don't really go to hear music; they look for a package. You know, 'Are they rockabilly, are they, you know, whatever. Is it what I'm dressing like?'"
If the band were to attract a crowd that somehow mirrored its filmic sound, one might expect a Hellmen gig to be populated by Bond girls, monsters, eraserheads, heroes and villains, cowboys and Indians. Not a bad way to spend an evening.