From dreary Russian literature to rollicking vaudeville, the institution of brotherhood has seen the likes of Karamozov and Marx -- everything from man's agonizing search for redemption to a well-timed custard pie right in the ol' kisser. Among certain fraternal orders, you'll find varying degrees of Masonic ritual, torchlit whispers, secret handshakes and unpronounceable passwords. There's even the occasional silly hat.
The four members of Denver's Kalamath Brothers dispense with such formalities (excepting, perhaps, man's agonizing search for redemption) by throwing themselves headlong into a wicked place where roots-based music went to laugh and die, a place where lost spirits trudge down bow-drawn bass lines, where fiddles shriek and time rumbles for the seriously damned. It's an amusing nightmare, all right, one with lost and tortured souls sounding off from the hollows. It's a klezmer-flavored hootenanny with backwoods tango, even Eastern European ballads enhanced by eerie gypsy strains.
Frank Hauser Jr., a talented singer/songwriter (who expeditiously mans guitar, accordion, tambourine and plastic whistle) fronts this often somber morality tale, a sly concoction that's difficult to categorize -- which is precisely what makes it so fascinating to hear. A former bassist for the bleak and acoustic Denver Gentlemen and once the most prolific tunesmith in a previous incarnation of Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Hauser combines an enthusiasm for uncharted songcraft with the grindstone ethic of James Brown. This combination results in one of our cherished cowtown's most compelling live acts. As a songwriter, Hauser tends to keep it as dark as the Guinness he drinks. Like his share of Auto Club songs, notably "Raven" and "Barrel of My Gun," Hauser's work with the Kalamath Brothers customarily drifts toward the sinister side of human nature. Equally inspired by New York's joyless noise troupe the Swans as much as by Bob Dylan, Hauser's odd skiffle often pits biblical imagery against the fleeting glimmer of salvation. "I was the apple ate by you," he sings on "Song o' Sorrow," a jazzy, scatty number that yawps the need for a good woman.
Throughout the Kalamath repertoire, laments of love and heartache are inbred with murder ballads of revenge and death: It's Nashville meets Appalachia by way of Heironymus Bosch. "Let the dead bury the dead /Let the birds pick their eyes/When I fall over my grave/I'll remember your smile," he shouts on "Only Son," a nightmarish blues rant with all the subtlety of a sawed-off muzzle-loader. "Going Back to Arkansas" conjures a loose-limbed, bass-strolling kind of feel, but the tune's highly damaged narrator, a hayseed turned rent boy who "never shoulda let that man do what he done," wants nothing more than to return to Ma and Pa. By the time his choral sentiment "I'll be doing just fine" deteriorates into traumatized bafflegab, it's impossible to know whether or not he actually made it.
In Hauser's apocalyptic playground, there's always some killing to be done. The flowers always die, and the lone winds moan for the silver-dollar whore. Taking lyrical pointers from his honorary forefathers, Tom Waits and gloomy gus Nick Cave, Hauser has a way of grafting together unlikely emotions. He and his musical mates (violinist/accordionist Paul Grundy, drummer Tony Morales and double bassist Keven Soll) then pool from their collective repertoire to fuse equally disparate musical genres that -- at once -- might blend something Middle Eastern-sounding with the swamp urgency of a man being hunted down by bloodhounds.
"What we do in this band is work with our hands," Hauser, the Yonkers-born son of a Hungarian meatcutter, says. "We build something people might appreciate. And we do the best we can."
Such collaborations are not born running. Yet what Hauser has found in his bandmates is an eclecticism -- both musical and personal -- that mirrors the amalgamation found in the Brothers' sound. First there's Grundy, whose fellow Kalamaths rib him good-naturedly about past days spent in a new-age ensemble called the Band of Life -- a Beatles-meets-Sanskrit ensemble that played New Mexico's festival circuit. He's performed in Sufi dance-circle ceremonies with Jacob Kaab's Dances of Universal Peace and cites Celtic virtuoso Martin Hayes as an influence for making his own instrument "sound more like a human voice" -- something Hauser describes as "enough to bring tears to a stone." Having cut his teeth as a violinist at the age of six, the classically trained transplant from Independence, Missouri, is also a certified biofeedback therapist by day who monitors the spectral array of brain-wave activity used to detect human depression, trauma and attention deficit disorder. "I notice when I'm in a certain state and feeling really relaxed and content and free to express," Grundy says, "that my playing is totally different than if I'm in a really high Beta, where my mind is racing and I'm stressing out." A former special-ed teacher with degrees in psychology and philosophy, Grundy also moonlights as a uniformed soldier who helps re-enact grand-scale historical battles, providing musket-handling pointers for the enlightenment of schoolchildren.
Then there's the multi-instrumentalist Morales, like Hauser and Soll, another relative dinosaur on the Denver scene. Morales's musical partnership with wife Elizabeth Rose, longtime vocalist for the couple's outfit Sympathy F, remains as binding as it does fruitful. When Rose isn't acting in local theater productions or singing in the acid-jazz band Bliss, the versatile pair performs as a jazz duo. Additionally, Morales has lent his talents to theater productions, including playing impromptu, French-flavored classical piano (with Hauser squeezing melodica) for a Boulder-produced drama about Vincent van Gogh. "We hacked that music up to death," Morales says, laughing. The fabled Dutch crackpot who, in Hauser's estimation, was "easier to have hanging on your walls than sitting on your couch," seems a fitting muse for the pair.
Finally, there's Soll, an original member of the widely acclaimed country-blues revisionist outfit 16 Horsepower who brings a slithering sound to the Kalamaths' strange jamboree. Like his Iowan grandfather, Leo Warner, who played in a large all-mandolin orchestra in 1923, Soll harbors more than a fondness for the teardrop-bodied family of instruments; he plays a stringed hybrid called the mando-cello on the Kalamath tune "Troubled." (Soll traded his grandfather a Les Paul custom guitar for the curious instrument, which was made in 1917.) A skilled luthier once featured in Acoustic Guitar magazine for his self-styled upright bass, the Denver native builds and repairs all sorts of stringed things when he's not playing them.(His shop, The Guitar Clinic, is conveniently located at 49 Kalamath Street.) Before joining the Kalamath family, Soll and 16 Horsepower bandmates David Eugene Edwards and Jean-yves Tola signed with A&M Records, and the band's 1995 CD Sackcloth 'n' Ashes was recorded in Hollywood. Soon after, the group underwent personnel changes. "They wanted to add people and go more electric," Soll recalls. "They felt we weren't hitting the audience hard enough." Despite being unceremoniously dropped ("like a divorce over the phone" he says), Soll remains magnanimous toward the horsepowered ones. "It was rough for a few months, like it should be," he admits. "We all love each other. We were really close. I can say that I'm proud of what I contributed to that band."
Hauser's own past is a similarly colorful narrative. He has worked as both a joke-writer for Joan Rivers -- no small task -- and as a freelance cartoonist featured in the National Enquirer, the British biweekly Punch, and Cosmopolitan. He's also adept at working crowds. Last summer he joined Morales's wife in a Mercury Cafe production of Goodbye Charlie, a sexy, Forties-era comedy by George Axelrod. Hauser played opposite Rose's Charlie -- a cigar-chompin' man literally trapped in a woman's body -- a performance delivered with cocksure skill. Hauser's own efforts were punctuated with both flabbergasted reactions and understated Jack Bennyisms, an amusing portrayal by all accounts. During his tenure riding shotgun for the Auto Club, Hauser had the enviable experience of opening up for country music's black-garbed honoree, Johnny Cash, at a gig in Las Vegas. As for his departure from that widely popular Club, like Soll, he is not one to dwell among the fallout of projects past. "Bands are like marriages without the sex," he says. "We played five years together and got bored with each other -- that's all it comes down to."
Whether or not eyes glaze over for the Kalamath Brothers may depend on each member's willingness to tweak the devil's nose a little.
"Music should be dangerous," Hauser says. "It is going against formula, against what is accepted, against the pretty, the tame, the traditional. The first time I saw a film about the Cramps, I got the same feeling. I think they've become watered down now, but at the time, Lux Interior with scars all over his back, his latex pants barely held up, swallowing the microphone while grunting away made it seem as if he were performing some illicit act."
When Hauser -- a well-dressed gent who screams and raves in truculent spades and tromps about on stage as big-eyed as Tennessee Ernie Ford on bathtub crank -- performs, it's not always clear exactly why he's throwing so much caution to the dogs, but it's oddly entertaining. "I'm laughing like a madman up there," he admits. "Part of that is a nervous reaction, but after a while, it became stylized. I'm feeling joy up there -- I'm so happy. I can't just stand there staring at my shoes." Nor would his Brothers want him to. "People really seem to come alive when he's screaming in Hungarian," Morales points out. Such outbursts are best exemplified during the frenetic "Mis-step," in which the players come off like ethnic hillbillies, and "Az A Szep (The One Who's Pretty)," which features the frontman polishing what he describes as "an old ridiculous folk tune" in his second tongue.
A self-taught musician who places ideas over chops ("I'm the only one that's just stumbling into it," he says), Hauser brings a refreshingly naive aesthetic to his more theory-oriented partners, a quality they all appreciate. "There's something about having music in front of you that's almost like a straitjacket," Grundy notes. "It binds you. I actually play better going by the feel of it." Soll agrees: "If Sonic Youth had all graduated from music school, I don't think they'd be as good."
Toiling away on their forthcoming EP with local sound engineer Bob Ferbrache (a former lap-steel player for 16 Horsepower), the Kalamath fellows remain busy. Getting their product into the hands of interested parties is still a goal, but none is more pressing than the foursome's growing together as a band. "I see us as craftsmen," Hauser states. "And that's what's important."
Finally, a piece of local flavor for indulgent historians: The Kalamath Brothers are named after a north-to-south-running Denver thoroughfare ten blocks west of Broadway, one of just a smattering with a North American Indian handle, albeit a misspelled one. Named after a region in northern California that was once home to the Karuk, Yurok and Hupa tribes, the correct spelling is "Klamath." Denver's founding fork-tongued street-namers objected to naming anything after "savages," anyway, and after the mistake was discovered, they considered it too bothersome to change. That this band should knowingly appropriate -- even embrace -- the title makes sense. Hauser and company are humorous fatalists in a flawed world, a make-believe family with a mangled surname.
Maybe the legends are true: that the beauty of the rainbow drove the white man crazy. That spirits of the scorched earth will one day claim their vengeance. That Bigfoot lives in caves, miles ahead of any survivalist gearing up for Y2K. Through their unorthodox approach to folk heritage music, the Kalamath Brothers rage against the dying of whatever light is left...and have a little fun while they're doing it, something on which both Harpo and Dostoevsky's Smerdyakov could probably see eye to eye.
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