When bassist Kelly Dermody first joined Denver's Fatwater, the group members claimed to be a rowdy fraternity of extreme kayak enthusiasts given to shouting "Fatwater!" as they approached frothing rapids. That Dermody was fooled is understandable. One is inclined to believe anything vocalist Judson Harper says. Even when Harper is slouching in a chair, his voice vibrates the contents of one's stomach. Taking into account the intensity of the band's live show, it's not a leap to imagine the players plunging down rocky cataracts. But in truth, the only falls they maneuver are ones just beyond the monitors. "The stage is like six feet high," says drummer Graham Haworth, recounting a gig the band played at the Bluebird Theater, "and Jud fell straight off it onto his shoulder. He just flopped. There was body paint all over the wall."
Such incidents of physical and emotional abandon are regularly exhibited by Harper, Haworth, Dermody, drummer Pete Owen and guitarist Erik Dyba; musical mayhem is Fatwater's rule, not its exception. Much of the credit for the quintet's drive is owed to the twin-drum lineup, which came about almost by accident. (After Haworth decided to join a Japanese commune, he trained Owen, a former elementary-school gym teacher, as his replacement. But Haworth didn't take to the commune lifestyle, and after he returned to the States a week later, the other musicians concluded that two timekeepers were better than one.) Harper, though, is the act's focal point. His presence in performance is a blend of Henry Rollins and Robert Mitchum's vagrant preacher in Night of the Hunter. Clearly, he and his comrades are driven by something fiercer than unspecified adolescent angst. "We're into people being aware," Harper emphasizes. "That's one of the reasons our stage show is dramatic--we really believe what we're saying. If you're an artist, you're supposed to express the times, unless you're just belligerent or ignorant. That's why we come across with a little negative edge, a little darker. Because it's a darker world."
Harper knows whereof he speaks. Before souring on Christian dogma as practiced in this country, he was on the road to becoming a pastor. "I'm very well-educated in the Bible--not that I necessarily agree with it all, but I do still have some belief in certain ideas contained in it," he concedes. "But I don't believe in American Christianity and the raping of cultures that is still going on in the name of Christ. I don't think the original intent of Christianity was to come over here, rape and pillage the Indians, destroy an entire culture and say we're spreading the gospel. If that's the gospel, it's not something I ever want to be part of."
Lyrically, Harper remains as radical and fervent as any missionary even as he decries the tradition he's left behind. When he bellows "I killed your Christ" in one of the group's songs, he isn't simply rejecting modern church practices; he's also reiterating everyone's participation in the Crucifixion. The mixture of such double-edged imagery with the hedonistic rapture of Fatwater live has led some to brand the players Satanists, but Harper laughs off this notion. "I would hope that since the music is complex, they would assume the lyrics are as well," he says. "But people just don't think anymore. They have such short attention spans, they'll hear one key phrase and sum up the whole band like that rather than question the motivations."
"Tide" is the perfect illustration of Harper's observation. It begins with him chanting "Something wicked this way comes" over a menacing jungle cadence pounded out by drummers Haworth and Owen. But the subtext of the composition reveals far more than a Ray Bradbury obsession. According to Harper, the number is based on a recurring dream in which he floats slowly past Easter Island, puzzling over the giant heads and barren landscape. After he subsequently heard a theory that the Island's inhabitants turned to cannabalism after using up all available resources, his reverie struck him as a snapshot of what humans are doing on a larger scale.
Topicality is important to the bandmembers; they're as likely to sound off on Georgia Pacific's lobbying efforts to prevent the legalization of hemp as they are to engage in small talk. "People just get into causes when they're popular," Harper complains. "Like AIDS--you don't hear too much about it because the issue is no longer 'popular.' But it's still out there, stronger than it's ever been. Same with the environment."
Adds Haworth, whose father, the one-man-band sensation Bo Mooney, played with the Kingston Trio: "The peace movement wasn't meant to be a fad, although that's how it's looked upon now--as a Sixties hippie fad."
Still, it's not Fatwater's vehement social commentary that initially attracts audiences--it's the musicians' costumes. One gig found Dyba sporting a full-length Turkish kaftan as bassist Dermody capered in blond braids, a white apron dress and makeup that left his face looking like that of an apocalyptic Joan Collins. "A lot of stuff I wear is a satire of American culture," expounds Dermody, whose resume includes past membership in Negative Approach, a Detroit hardcore band. "I had this Heidi getup, and the makeup was about the corruption of it." By contrast, Haworth and Owen favor skirts for reasons of ventilation. And Harper admits, "I always go out with this big costume on and come back wearing only a piece of duct tape. We spend a lot of money on makeup."
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"We're getting a Revlon sponsor here pretty soon," Dermody interjects.
The band's theatricality should not be interpreted as a lack of seriousness, however. "People will come back just for the visual aspect and then later understand what's going on with the band," Harper notes. "It's a bit of a Venus flytrap."
No music companies have been ensnared yet, but the Fatwater five are entertaining label interest inspired by word of mouth and the quality of their new demos, which reveal more of the intricacies of which they're capable. "Whereas in the live show you're getting the raw energy and lots of improvisation, the recorded material is really in-depth," Dyba remarks. "If I play a little fairy-tale line underneath a song, you can hear that in the studio."
"We put a lot of effort into creating textures," Dermody elaborates.
Nevertheless, the stage is where Fatwater really thrives: "Playing live is such a drug," Dermody whispers. The players are certain that a contract would be sealed if label reps would deign to attend a show. And they might be right.