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Front and Center

He wants you: Paul Fonfara (third from left) makes a point with Painted Saints.
John Johnston

I like the fact that I'm not a frontman but I'm doing it anyway," says Paul Fonfara of his current musical project, Painted Saints. "I got sick of being in all these bands and being the forgotten guy on the side and not getting any credit. I think that's one of the reasons I'm writing my own songs now."

No stranger to the local chamber-roots scene, Fonfara has had his share of supporting roles opposite leading men over the years, including those in Munly De Dar He, the Denver Gentlemen, DeVotchKa, and Boston transplants Reverend Glasseye and His Wooden Legs. A highly skilled multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, clarinet, saxophone, cello and bandeleon, among others, Fonfara is also the newest member of exotic road-surf outfit Maraca 5-O. But these days, the restless, sleepy-eyed 28-year-old who hails from the white-trash boonies of Wellington, Colorado, would much rather front than follow.

"The music I'm doing is similar to all of the other bands I've played in," Fonfara concedes. "I don't think it's the best band I've been in, but I think it's the most personal one. I don't think I sing well, but I think that's sort of a strength because I can be totally honest, write lyrics about what I do, and just get up there and feel like I'm naked on stage. When you don't give a shit about what people think, it's very liberating.

"My lyrics are all pretty self-absorbed," he continues. "I hate to say that, but I think they are. But in most good bands, one person has to be the final voice."

Singing his own compositions in a natural baritone (and sometimes even whistling), Fonfara covers topics of loss and black-sheep anguish with a set of pipes admittedly less stellar than functional. But as far as vivid storytelling in a Painted tune, it's not unusual for the Virgin Mary or St. John of the Cross to make cathartic, scene-stealing cameos. Or for a disillusioned protagonist to take a poignant header off the Hoover Dam. And given the current situation in the former Garden of Eden, a tune like "Doused Apples" borders on the prophetic: "He stretched the desert flat and read tea leaves to understand/He monitored the pulse of oracles on television screens/And ate apples doused with gasoline to prove them all wrong/And shot open a mouth filled with button eyes and razor-blade teeth."

"I spend more time thinking about cool string lines than I do about lyrics or my own voice," Fonfara says. "But I do write from scratch. It's probably not as good as if I did steal something, honestly."

Fonfara's dark and dense arrangements definitely borrow old-world riffs, running the gamut from Hungarian folk music and rollicking Dixieland to klezmer and spaghetti Westerns. In their current inception, the Saints (rechristened after a brief fling as the Grand Ouija Jihad Orchestra) feature several of the Front Range area's top-flight musicians: violinist Kelly O'Dea (Tarantella) and upright-bass player Mike Brown (Room 40, Gladhand), plus cellists Ian Cooke (Uphollow) and Tom MacKenzie ("a total L.A.1980s butt-rocker," Fonfara notes). Also on loan for several upcoming shows is the highly versatile Maraca rhythm section: drummer Mike Behrenhausen and marimba/saw player, Theron Melchior.

"I've got a different band for every gig," Fonfara says. "We don't have to practice, really. All of these people could hear a song once and play it live; they're all great musicians. But getting five people in the same room is a fucking monumental task.

"We've got a few offers to go play in Europe," he continues. "But not everybody wants to go on the road, not even to play the Lion's Lair of St. Louis. Honestly, I'm just gonna do it myself, and whoever plays, plays, and that's the end of it. You do it for its own sake. And if no one shows up, then it's just me -- and that's cool. I'll get up there and play my clarinet and sing out of tune. I don't really have anything else to do."

Considering Fonfara's busy schedule earning a teacher's certificate and giving clarinet lessons at Lakewood's Rockley Music Center, nothing could be further from the truth. To complicate matters, Fonfara suffers from insomnia -- a side effect that comes with being bipolar and mildly schizophrenic.

"I take so much damn lithium, my piss probably glows in the dark," he says. "It's radioactive. I have to take up to 750 milligrams of lithium a day. It doesn't really help, though. Sometimes my emotions have no reality with what's going on, and that's what's tough about it. There were times when I was living in my car and I was the happiest I've ever been.

"I always feel good when I do music," he continues. "That's the only thing that really keeps me going. I can't not do it. It's more helpful than any drug. I'll go a week where I'm just so pumped up, and I'll crank out three paintings. When I started this band, I wrote ten songs in a month, 'cause that's all I did all day. But then I'll crash and get so depressed that I won't even get out of bed."

 

While Fonfara's creative outlets can bring him hours of peaceful distraction, they also provide some fine music and artwork for the rest of us. A few of his paintings have recently sold through Stella's Coffee House (where they're on display until the end of April), and he admits spending more time lately at the easel than at the home recording station.

"If you look at my drawings, I do that stippling shit, you know?" he says. "It's not because I like it aesthetically, but it's very focusing to sit there for hours and work on one thing. If I don't, I'm in a million places at once."

Besides rendering intricate, dot-based designs, Fonfara also favors highly complex Celtic borders and interlocking branches with hidden words. But such repetitive detailing -- along with playing musical scales -- has wreaked havoc on Fonfara's ulnar nerve, a bundle of sensitivity located in the funnybone. For a serious craftsman and musician, that's no laughing matter.

"I actually lost control of two fingers on my right hand," he says. "I still play clarinet, but I can't practice anymore. I don't even touch it between shows."

While touring with DeVotchKa two summers ago, Fonfara often had to ice his hand extensively before he could perform. When he decided to take time off, the band moved on without him.

"Nobody really wanted to sit down and talk about it," Fonfara recalls. "It absolutely destroyed me at the time. I wasn't gonna play music anymore."

An invitation to tour as a cellist with Wovenhand, the side project of 16 Horsepower's God-fearing David Eugene Edwards, changed Fonfara's mind in a hurry.

"I was actually sitting in Denny's, writing letters, eating my hamburger, and I got this phone call," Fonfara recalls. "And it was David, and I didn't even know the guy very well. He said, 'Do you want to play with me? Do you have a passport? We leave in a month.' And that's kind of what got me back into playing music. I was ready to hang it up.

"David's the most dead-center guy I've ever met," Fonfara continues. "His shit is so together. I'd give my left nut to be that guy. I knew people liked him in Europe, but I had no clue. We had people hanging out in front of the bus, wanting to give him books of poetry and stuff. Somebody painted a mural for him. Their following over there is pretty amazing."

Besides rekindling Fonfara's love for music, the Wovenhand tour brought Painted Saints local exposure.

"I thought we'd play coffee shops," Fonfara says, "but our first show was at the Ogden opening for 16 Horsepower. Playing to a full house. And since I started this band, I'm all over the 16 Horsepower Web site. I get e-mail from people in Belgium and Holland asking about it."

Even Southern hick-hop sensation Jim White likes what he's heard, so much so that he's invited Fonfara to play on his next record and possibly tour later in the year. For the time being, Fonfara is putting the finishing touches on Painted Saints' debut, Company Town, and shopping around for a suitable label. He's also just completed his entry for the Turner Movie Classics film-scoring contest; for his offering, he synced up original music to a clip of Rudolph Valentino cheek to cheek with Nita Naldi in the 1922 vintage romance Blood and Sand. With the intention of one day using black-and-white projections as backdrops for P-Saints performances, Fonfara is branching out into other mediums as well, including a live radio drama of The Golem by experimental Boulder-based playwright Ben Popken.

"When I heard Radio 1190 was doing this live-drama thing, I actually called them and said I'd like to compose music for it sometime," Fonfara says. "It's about thirty minutes long, with an overture, scene-change music and lots of room for improvisation."

A twist on the old kabalistic story of a creature made of clay that protects banished Jews from persecution by a local despot, The Golem comes as a welcome change of pace for a guy who's spent much of his career in the shadows of others.

"Honestly, after playing in all of these bands over the years, I hate the whole idea of a band," Fonfara says. "It's bullshit. It's all a popularity contest. Most of the people who play in bands don't play music at all. If someone asked me what I do, I wouldn't say I play in a band. I'd say I write music."


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