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Gone Again

Lions and tigers and punks, oh, my: Denver quartet Pinhead Circus.

It's hard to put into words or numbers the impact that a local band can have on its hometown. Besides just providing the soundtrack to endless drunken Saturday nights, the local bands with tenacity and gumption sometimes wind up as an emblem -- the figurehead, even -- around which a music scene grows and revolves. Pinhead Circus is such a band. Or rather, was such a band. After ten years of making frantic, infectious and heartfelt punk rock, the Circus members have decided to pack up their tents and call it a decade.

"People come up to me and say, 'I can't believe that after all the time you spent building this thing, you want to throw it away.' But it's because we do care about the band so much that we're breaking up," says singer/guitarist James Wellensiek, better known as Scooter. Since its inaugural release, 1994's Gone Again EP, Pinhead Circus has pumped out four full-length albums and dozens of singles and compilation tracks. Along the way, Scooter and bassist Trevor Williamson have had to break in numerous drummers and second-guitar players -- a high-maintenance procedure that has finally begun to strip the gears of the Pinhead engine. "We're not just going to keep on throwing new members at the band," Scooter explains. "We figured now would be the perfect time to break things off, just kind of end it on a good note."

Pinhead's evolution can be traced back to late-'80s Golden, where Scooter, Williamson and original drummer Forrest Bartosh first began making noise together after school to kill the boredom between bouts of skateboarding. Why punk rock? "It's all we could play, believe me," Scooter says, laughing. "When I first picked up the guitar, I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. I realized pretty quickly that that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. I'm not one of those people who are just naturally born to do things. Music's always been sort of hard for me; I kind of struggled with it. Then once I started listening to the Ramones, I figured out that you can write a good song without crazy solos and fire and explosions and stuff. You can strip it down to the bare essentials and write a good song that way."

After going through some typically goofy teenage incarnations, including the Flintstones Kids and Earwax, the band settled on the much more dignified moniker Pinhead Circus. "We didn't think about anything back then," Scooter recalls. "We just got up and did what we had to do. We just wanted to get on stage and play. If people liked it, cool. If they didn't, whatever."

Indeed, people did begin to like it. Pinhead Circus channeled the scattershot velocity and hoarse melodic songcraft of NOFX, Screeching Weasel and the bands of the nascent Bay Area pop-punk scene: Crimpshrine, Jawbreaker and Green Day. In the early '90s, the Front Range already claimed plenty of hardcore and emo bands, such as Wrong Approach, Savalas and Small Dog Frenzy, but it wasn't until the arrival of Pinhead Circus that Colorado could send its own delegate to the nation's burgeoning pop-punk coalition.

Backed by local label Black Plastic Records, the Pinheads opened for many larger touring acts and hit the road themselves. The Gone Again EP was followed up by a full-length album, Nothing Groundbreaking. Soon a slew of new local bands such as Four, Qualm, Random Victim, Eleventh Hour, Son of Sam, Armchair Martian, Useless, Crestfallen, the Facet and the Fairlanes materialized and coalesced around Pinhead Circus; the bands played shows together at the Raven in Denver, Club 156 in Boulder and innumerable basements and warehouses in between. Besides Black Plastic, labels like Suburban Home, Paco Garden, Not Good, Soda Jerk and Seven Lucky sprang up to document and disseminate the music. Even Wyoming bands such as the Homeless Wonders and One Good Eye plugged themselves into the network. A scene, as they say, was born.

"I think it's great that we may have inspired someone to play music," Scooter says. "I love it. It's a great feeling. If it wasn't for Black Flag and the Descendents and bands like that, we never would have done it. That's what did it for me when I was a kid." Absorbing inspiration from old records, though, is one thing. Having a living, breathing, booze-swilling, string-breaking personification of it in your own back yard is another. Pinhead Circus provided such an inspiration for Denver's punk scene while nurturing a populist solidarity among the kids and bands in town. "That's what we were trying to do with the whole 'No Coast Death Squad' thing," Scooter says, elaborating on the semi-farcical punk posse that has grown up around his group. "It's not so much that people were going to take it seriously. We just wanted something for all of us to kind of identify with."  

Such a sense of provincial identity is a vital component of the punk zeitgeist. As Scooter explains, "It seems like people really try hard to relate to bands they like. I think geography is one of the things they look to. Maybe that's what has really been missing here. The Midwest has a scene, but Denver's not really the Midwest, and we're not really the West Coast, either. We're just kind of stuck out here, this little no-man's-land. Being from Denver is pretty much a joke to the mainstream music community. We got tons of reviews of our first couple records that were seriously like, 'Ooh, they're from Denver. That might be a strike against them.' It's ridiculous."

So has the Circus ever thought about leaving town?

"No way," says Scooter. "We've traveled a lot, but I don't think we've ever been to any other town that I'd really want to move to. People get down on Denver, but we actually have a lot going on here. There's lots of good venues. There's good promoters. A lot of people we know who come here to visit freak out about how friendly all the bands are to each other, how friendly the scene is. A lot of people who are unhappy with Denver and talk trash about it are the ones who seem really unwilling to put anything into it. I guess that's probably the same anywhere."

As it turned out, the young men of Pinhead Circus didn't have to go west to seek their fortune; the West Coast came to them. In 1997, the band signed a contract with BYO Records, one of the anchors of the Southern California punk community. Formed in 1982 by Youth Brigade members Shawn and Mark Stern, BYO released scores of legendary recordings over the years by bands like 7 Seconds, SNFU and new-schoolers the Bouncing Souls; the label's first release was the seminal Someone Got Their Head Kicked In, a compilation featuring pimply upstarts like Bad Religion and Social Distortion. While by no means BYO's flagship band, Pinhead Circus enjoyed a healthy tenure there, releasing three albums (1997's Detailed Instructions for the Self-Involved, 1999's Everything Else Is a Far Gone Conclusion, and 2001's Black Power of Romance), perennially canvassing the United States and even playing dates in Japan opening for NOFX.

Tension eventually arose between Pinhead Circus and BYO, though, and the band and the label dissolved their working relationship last year. "I think a lot of that happened because we didn't know what we were doing. We kind of got into a lot of trouble financially with them," Scooter explains, sounding a bit evasive. "Anyway, BYO is trying to go back to the way they used to be. They're headed more toward the old street-punk sort of thing, which is probably a lot better for them. It's what they originally based their whole label on anyway, so that makes sense."

Besides the recent label difficulties, Pinhead Circus has always had problems with its revolving-door lineup. After Nothing Groundbreaking, Bartosh left the group to drum with local garage rockers the LaDonnas (he now plays with the Gamits, a band whose punk-spiked pop owes more than just an aesthetic debt to Pinhead Circus: Gamits leader Chris Fogel served a brief stint as Pinhead's second guitar player). That departure marked the first of numerous personnel changes the band has withstood over the years, though the recruitment of current drummer Dave Barker and guitarist Jordan Hauser seemed to finally stabilize the Pinhead bullpen. Through all the flux and adversity, the group's songwriting gradually seemed to -- dare it be said -- deepen and mature.

"When you first start playing, you don't realize the difference between technical skill and songwriting. Since I was a little kid, I've been into all types of music, but it was always the flashy things that attracted me. And even though I've always liked the Beatles, it took me a long time to appreciate the subtle things they do and realize how amazing it is. I was always more caught up with Slayer, you know, the guys that were blasting stuff out at a million miles an hour," Scooter says. "I've also really gotten into Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. That album brings me to tears. It's amazing. And what is it? It's just him in a room with a four-track and an acoustic guitar. I don't think there are any real criteria for a good song. I think it's just a feeling, whether it's an orchestra or one guy beating on a bucket. You just know when you hear it, whether it's Prince or Bruce Springsteen or Black Flag."

Now that Pinhead Circus is breaking up, Scooter has taken time to reflect on how both his band and the punk scene in general have given up a certain innocence over the years. "Even up until recently, we never really had any sort of plan for Pinhead Circus. We never really used to think about playing music as anything other than just playing music. We just wanted to hang out and have a good time," he says. "I'm not saying that we're more focused now. I still couldn't care less. We're still just doing whatever we're doing. It just seems like there's this protocol with labels and touring and all that now, this way that you have to go about things."  

According to Scooter, such ersatz professionalism is not the only damage that all of the would-be Blink-182s of the world have inflicted on the punk scene. "The scene's definitely not as violent as it was ten years ago," he says. "I always thought it was kind of cool being a little kid and going to these shows, never knowing what was going to happen. Being in the corner scared -- it made it exciting. Now everything's kind of sterile. You can still go have a good time, but there's not that element of excitement. You don't have Nazis beating the crap out of people anymore -- though that's obviously a good thing. When you're up there on stage nowadays, it's just hard to distinguish whether or not the kids are really enjoying themselves or if they're just completely apathetic toward everything you're doing. As retarded as it may be, if the kids beat the crap out of each other in the pit, at least you know you're getting them to do something."

Pinhead Circus's what-the-fuck-ever attitude, while being one of its most endearing and definitive qualities, has also somewhat hindered the band's best efforts. "Pretty much our only regret, if you could really call it that, was that we never really took care of our business very well," Scooter says. "Not that we've ever made ass-loads of money or anything, but every little bit that we did make probably could've been handled a lot better. When you think back, it's been ten years, we've put out four or five records, and we're still scrambling to try to get stuff put together before we go on tour. You'd think we'd have some sort of system down by now, but we never really figured that out. You'd like to think that you're not that much of a fuckup, but eventually it'll smack you in the face, and you'll be like, 'Oh, yeah, maybe I am.'"

Scooter and company's final tour will launch with a local show at Tulagi in Boulder on May 25. Live, the members have always played the part of the consummate jackoffs -- drunk, spastic, seized with an epilepsy of desperation and abandon. Williamson spends about twice as much time in the air as he does on the stage; Scooter scrapes his way against the grain of the melodies with sandpaper tonsils and grit-chewed riffs. The songs, though, remain eminently catchy. At its in-concert best, Pinhead Circus embodies all the tensions, contradictions, joy and despair of subcultural suburbia, connecting with the audience in a way that is nothing short of cathartic. "It's going to be sad playing that last show," says Scooter. "I'm really bummed out about it. It's kind of like breaking up with a girlfriend. You know it's for the best, but it still really hurts."

Pinhead disciples, however, won't have to wait long for the Second Coming. Taking their name from an album by the defunct Electric Summer -- an already legendary local punk band formed by Japanese exchange students -- three members of Pinhead Circus plan to regroup as Love Me Destroyer. Scooter, Williamson and Barker will be joined by singer/guitarist Chip Dziedzic of Arizona pop-punk veterans Jedi 5. "We've known Chip for years. We've been playing with Jedi 5 every time we'd go down to Arizona, so we already kind of know where his writing style lies. He was doing the same thing I was -- he was the main writer/contributor to his band. The stuff he does is a lot more poppy and less hard than the stuff I've been writing lately. Hopefully we'll come together and find some sort of common ground. And I think we're going to go for the Lennon/McCartney 'You write it, you sing it' sort of deal," Scooter elaborates. "It's like a New Year's resolution. We're vowing to change all these things we fucked up in the first place. To us it means more to do something new and not tarnish what we've accomplished."

In preparation for hunting down a new label, Love Me Destroyer has already begun recording demos. "We've talked to a few people, but nothing serious. There are labels interested, but I don't know. We'll see," Scooter says, laughing. "Everybody's interested at one point, you know, and then it's like trying to actually get them to call you back and tell you what they really think. It seems like nobody wants to take a chance with a band. They want to find someone who doesn't really need any help. They usually just want to sign the next big thing. I'm sure there are a million bands out there that have more of a professional relationship than a personal one. But that's not the kind of guys we are. We're all pretty social people, so it just makes more sense to be friends first, to kind of base everything around that."  

So with practically every past member of Pinhead Circus still living in the Denver area, is there any chance of an eventual reunion show? Scooter grins at the irony of pulling off such a rock-star move. "Maybe," he replies. "Actually, we were thinking about being a Pinhead Circus cover band for Halloween."


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