Experimental pop band Holophrase has always existed on the fringes of Denver, whether with its difficult-to-qualify musical style or in its living arrangements. The band currently resides in Henderson, a community in Adams County. At the end of a dirt driveway, three-fourths of the band shares the basement of a house and a garage. Outside, you can see undeveloped fields, an increasingly rare sight in most of the metro area.
The shared garage comprises the band’s practice space and the development-and-manufacturing room for Mantic Conceptual, a company that makes effects pedals for instruments. The company evolved from an interest that keyboard players Caleb Henning and Luis Etscheid shared for modifying electronic devices, a process commonly known as circuit bending. Etscheid entered a modified keyboard in the Moog corporation’s annual Circuit Bending Challenge in 2012 and won. He was awarded a Moog Voyager and was intrigued by its musical possibilities. The Voyager ultimately produced one of the central sounds on Holophrase’s latest album, Stay Being.
Henning and Etscheid grew up in Denver’s northern suburbs, and after high school, both ended up in less-than-ideal living situations and working various jobs for years, none of which were geared toward the work that they do now. Eventually, Etscheid tried college, with a list of attempted majors ranging from business to molecular biology. For his part, Henning took advantage of online tutorials (“YouTube University,” he calls it), where he learned how to circuit-bend devices.
That informal training resulted in the aforementioned Moog award and gave the pair a leg up on making pedals full-time. Holophrase formed in 2010 as a particularly unusual rock band that sounded like the odder end of late-’70s post-punk. The group quickly became involved in Denver’s experimental-music world and often played offbeat venues, as well as Gorinto, the experimental music-and-food event that Cory Elbin was putting on at the Mercury Cafe then. In 2011, through connections at DIY space Unit E, Holophrase befriended the late Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, former keyboardist for the Mars Volta and Jack White, who was working with Colorado bands Rubedo and True Aristocrats. Owens engineered and produced Holophrase’s 2012 album, Horizons of Expectation. Etscheid and Henning later made a special “Isaiah” analog delay, built to Owens’s requests.
Meeting Owens — in Boulder, where Owens’s band Free Moral Agents was playing — also led to Holophrase meeting future drummer and associate producer (and then-True Aristocrats drummer) Tyler Lindgren. Lindgren and the band shared musical interests and immediate personal chemistry. The musicians kept in touch, even when Lindgren moved to Arizona and then Hollywood, where he lives today; he returns to Colorado to produce up-and-coming bands and to perform at the rare Holophrase show.
“I essentially left to move [to L.A.] because all the old labels and the way the big industry works is definitely out of this city,” says Lindgren. “Just doing weird gigs out here, there’s always some crazy thing to learn about, and those opportunities are rare in Colorado. The first gig I got out here was working on the television show The Voice. From the perspective of my creative artist side, I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole. It’s cool, but it’s not my thing. But you do it, and you learn YouTube content, and that’s how that works and how this pays, how the executives work and the TV crew. People have jobs doing that, and I wanted to learn as much of that information as possible.”
The fourth member of the band, singer Malgorzata Stacha, is also familiar with doing random jobs that allow her to work on music. Stacha grew up in Poland, and she was working on a degree in literature there when she decided to change direction. She moved to the U.S. in 2006, landing in downtown Denver, where her first job was in the laundry department at the Adam’s Mark Hotel. Since then, she’s worked in various restaurants, and though she’s more involved with catering and marketing than waitressing these days, working in the food-service industry is still stressful at times.
“I work the jobs I have because I didn’t care about what I was doing,” says Stacha. “I just wanted to do music, and the work stuff was something that would allow me to do that. I didn’t worry about what it was; it just happened to be restaurants. I would like to shift elsewhere, but I’m not quite sure what.”
Figuring out how to live in Denver while making music has shaped the band’s trajectory — including how the musicians ended up in their current living space. In 2011, Etscheid was unable to find regular work. The band found an affordable house in Henderson that provided a reliable practice space, a headquarters for the pedal-effects company, and a place to work on ideas and music videos for the band...“when we’re not playing Illuminati,” says Etscheid.
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The house gave Holophrase a place to hole up and to incubate and enrich its creative and business endeavors. Early on, Henning and Etscheid hand-wired all the components for their pedals, an effort that took much of the time out of their product-development cycle. During the last two years, however, Mantic has worked with WMD, a well-known Denver-based instrument-pedal manufacturer, to do automated assembly of the circuit boards. “It’s like outsourcing to someplace in Denver,” says Etscheid. Holophrase met WMD owner William Mathewson backstage at a Nine Inch Nails concert when the band was swapping out models of a Masterflex pedal being used by NIN drummer Ilan Rubin.
While Holophrase hasn’t been directly affected by Denver’s housing crisis, its members wouldn’t be able to afford an apartment and a practice space in the city at their current income levels. Although Mantic is growing, the company’s profits still pay Etscheid and Henning below minimum wage. At one point, the two did a short stint in a dispensary cutting cannabis to make extra money — the most Denver of stories these days.
“There were no [freebies] except what stuck to your glove,” recalls Henning. “You could scrape it off. It’s called ‘glove hash.’ People would take their gloves off and clap them together and scrape it off and try to get as much from the gloves as possible. [Top ten ways] to get the most glove hash at your current job, Colorado: You let it dry and then stretch the gloves out, and it comes off in one piece. And it always tasted like plastic. It was free, okay? Sometimes free is the best you can get.”
With Church Fire, Wheelchair Sports Camp, DJ Dirty Nachos, 9 p.m. Friday, November 18, $7, Syntax Physic Opera, 554 South Broadway, 720-456-7041.