There were many reasons why we moved away from Denver," explains Martyn Leaper, singer/guitarist for the Minders, as he catches his breath after a sweaty day of gardening in the back yard of his Portland home. "But this did me in: I was a huge fan of the Forney Museum. God, it was great. It was like the dusty curio shop from some weird movie. That's exactly the kind of museum I like; there are automobiles, but the tires are flat and there are cobwebs on everything. But then it got turned into an REI, that sporting-goods store. To me, that was really a sign of the times."
Leaper and Rebecca Cole -- his wife and the Minders' singer/keyboardist/percussionist -- are casualties of Denver's mid-'90s economic boom. The soaring cost of living and the feverish rate of gentrification forced the couple to flee the Mile High City in 1998 for the chillier, leafier environs of Oregon. But it wasn't just the loss of low rent and the eradication of hallowed landmarks that sent the Minders packing. As much as Leaper, a British émigré with a warm, lingering English accent, loved his adopted home of Colorado, his group struggled to find a foothold in the Rocky Mountain music scene.
"We felt like we had hit a wall," he recalls. "Back then, we could play other parts of the country and fill the room, where in Denver we wouldn't have any impact at all. That was definitely a contributing factor. But moving away was a hard decision to make. We were leaving our best friends behind. We were part of this movement, this community of three or four bands that was very tightly knit."
The movement Leaper speaks of is the globally known Elephant 6 collective, founded in the early '90s by the Apples in Stereo as well as onetime Denver residents Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel and William Cullen Hart of Olivia Tremor Control. Leaper met Robert Schneider of the Apples in 1995, and they collaborated on the first Minders release a few months later. Soon after, Leaper gathered a band -- Cole on drums, Joel Richardson (later replaced by Marc Willhite) on bass and Jeff Almond on guitar -- and joined the ranks of the Denver branch of Elephant 6. Alongside local acts like Von Hemmling and Dressy Bessy, the Minders put its own idiosyncratic spin on vintage pop, scratchy psychedelia and the ethos of lo-fi home recording.
"We've never really been able to replace those best friends," Leaper notes wistfully. "I mean, you can't, and you shouldn't try to, but we just never got as close to anybody out here in Portland."
Indeed, as much as the Minders have adapted to their new habitat, Portland didn't end up being everything that Leaper had hoped for. "There's a pressure here that I don't necessarily relish," he points out. "A pressure to be cool. Denver is much more genuine, whereas Portland's music scene can be superficial. We made lots of friends right when we moved here, but when people are done with you, they're done with you. It made me feel very insecure. There are also a lot of people fed up with the scene in Portland. We have at least fifteen or twenty bands that are nationally known: the Shins, Sleater-Kinney, the Thermals, the Dandy Warhols. Even Frank Black just moved here. And still, people are complaining."
The Minders, though, have been able to establish some enduring -- not to mention illustrious -- friendships in Oregon. Besides finding the group's new drummer, Joel Burrows, the Minders once counted among their roster Hutch Harris of the Thermals and Joanna Bolme of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. (Bolme has returned to play bass on the Minders' current tour.) And yet another kindred spirit in Portland, the late Elliott Smith, took Leaper and company under his wing, choosing them as his opening act on a 2000 trek across the U.S. -- a string of concerts that often ended with the Minders joining Smith on stage for a dizzyingly harmonized rendition of the Zombies' "Care of Cell 44."
"In some ways we have accomplished what we wanted to do when we left Denver," Leaper says. "We've kind of broadened our horizons. And although we've definitely been more accepted in Portland than we were in Denver, we don't always do that great here, either. After all, it is an odd type of music that we play."
In fact, the Minders' already quirky take on classic song-craft got a whole lot odder with its latest release, The Future Is Always Perfect. Its eight fleeting songs ricochet off of reference points like the Kinks, the Soft Boys, XTC and Guided by Voices as they barrel even further along Leaper and Cole's twisted pop trajectory. A curiosity in comparison to the more elegant, sprawling stateliness of 2001's Golden Street, the new disc bristles with keen edges and erratic angles, a boiling over of jubilant melodies, grinding noises and assorted weird bursts of synthesizer that make the whole affair feel downright reckless and unhinged.
"Our maxim is, every one of our records should sound different and new," Leaper expounds. "This time, we bought an old analog keyboard and went a little apeshit with it. But still, there's nothing too crazy or experimental about it. It's still pop. That's just the type of music I get moved by. And it doesn't have to be '60s pop, either; if it's got a hook and a melody and it's saying something, then it's got me. I'd rather hear something by New Order or Echo and the Bunnymen on the radio than ŒBig Girls Don't Cry.'"
Ultimately, it's the band's embodiment of the soul, substance and giddy wonder of pure pop that has seen it endure long after the Elephant 6 collective has effectively dissolved -- not that the Minders' music doesn't sometimes get wrongly dismissed as mere grist for the retro treadmill.
"I remember reading a review of Golden Street that accused of us trying to turn back the clock and retard music," Leaper says with an injured laugh. "It really broke my heart a little. If we were some big band or the emperor of bands or something, that might have made sense. But who are we? We're just a little garage band. Really, the bottom line is, we make music in our home, on an absolute nil budget, in between working shifts at a restaurant making minimum wage. We've always been just this rinky-dink, four-track, basement band."
"In Denver," he continues, "people like the Apples did the same thing. There was a work ethic involved: making great pop music in your basement and having absolute control so that nothing got fucked or toyed with by the music business. After we moved away, we never really found that again. Not to say that we're not happy in Portland, but there's a lot we left behind that we very much miss."
Speaking of which, Leaper sounds eager to jump back to the subject of all the people, places and things that he remembers most fondly from his ten years of kicking around the side streets and barstools of the Queen City. "I have great, very strong memories about Denver," he enthuses. "I used to work for this catering company called Three Tomatoes, and I had to ride my bike across the interstate by the Broncos' stadium to get there every day. I miss the snow on Capitol Hill and listening to Bill Amundson on KTCL; I miss going to Pete's Kitchen and Gabor's and the Lion's Lair to hear Boyd Rice deejay. The grass is always greener, I suppose, but it's funny how much I miss certain aspects of Denver."
And maybe, even after taking them for granted the first time around, there's a chance that Denver misses the Minders a little bit, too.
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