When starting any new relationship, you generally look for positive traits in a person as a way of gauging compatibility. For the members of Il Cattivo — whose name roughly translates from Italian to "the horrid" — it was the negative qualities they all possessed that brought them together.
"I think we've all had problems with substances in the past," bassist Matty Clark says. "We're pretty much all a bunch of miscreants."
This appreciation of each other's fallible nature has inspired the members of Il Cattivo — Clark, drummer Jed Kopp, vocalist Brian Hagman and guitarists Matt Bellinger and Holland Rock-Garden — to play some of the best music of their lives together.
It was similar taste in music, as well as a self-professed damaged side, that Hagman says first drew him to Bellinger. Hagman, who also fronts Black Lamb, has had respect for Bellinger ever since the two met, when the former Planes Mistaken for Stars guitarist moved with his band from Peoria, Illinois, to Denver.
"Since Matt and the Planes boys moved to Denver some years ago, he and I have been in kind of a mutual admiration society," Hagman explains. "Not only for the various music we both have been blessed to have had a hand in creating, but in the music in general we love so much."
When Ghost Buffalo, Bellinger and Kopp's last band, called it quits, Bellinger was looking for a new cast of characters to fill his musical vision. After recruiting Kopp and Rock-Garden, whom Bellinger had long considered adding to Ghost Buffalo's roster, Bellinger approached his longtime friend Hagman about starting something new. When he did, the pair realized they had more in common than they originally thought.
"I jumped into Matt's car to find him blaring the same Afghan Whigs record that I was blaring in mine," Hagman recalls. "We then joined in an impromptu sing-along en route to procure various intoxicants, and sat in the car until the final strains faded out. Matt's kind of my doppelgänger in the damage department."
With Hagman on board and the personalities in Il Cattivo starting to take shape, the bandmembers had to figure out the type of music they hoped to create. For his part, Bellinger knew that after the collapse of Ghost Buffalo and his marriage to singer Marie Litton, the next project needed to offer some sort of cathartic release, which he hadn't found since his days in Planes Mistaken for Stars.
"When Ghost Buffalo started," he recalls, "I was excited to write music from a different angle, as well as taking a more mellow approach. I was heavy into Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and classic country at the time.
"After eight years of playing in Planes, I needed that," he admits. Likewise, when Ghost Buffalo broke up, he was in need of a stylistic shift back in the other direction. "I was anxious to be able to be in a band where I could once again feel like I wasn't the only one on stage who felt the need to head-bang through an entire set."
Kopp felt a similar pull. "I kinda always felt like a hired gun for Ghost Buffalo," he reveals. "I kept very reserved and just played what I thought was appropriate for the style. I loved playing those songs, but with Il Cattivo, I feel a lot more liberated. The songs are so much heavier and louder, so therefore, I'm bringing much more intensity. It feels great!"
With the lineup and approach solidified, the guys got together and, after suffering what Rock-Garden describes as a few "false starts," began playing shows out under the name Sirens with original bassist Jared Anderson, who was eventually replaced by current Git Some bassist Neil Keener. When Keener departed, the group found a suitable replacement in Denver's most eligible bassist, Clark, who was more than up for it.
Clark's plate was already very full between splitting his time in Trees, Zebroids and TaunTaun, but after seeing Sirens open for an air-guitar championship that he was judging at the Bluebird, he knew it was something he definitely wanted to be a part of.
"Initially," he remembers, "they just asked me to help out and fill in for recording and one show, but when TaunTaun went on indefinite hiatus, I had a little extra time and was up-streamed into permanent member."
The music that Il Cattivo was playing at the time was enough to convince the already busy Clark to sign on, but equally important was Bellinger's musical pedigree. "When I moved to Colorado, almost ten years ago," Clark notes, "I was already way into Planes. Since then, Matt and I got to be friends, and being able to play with him was something I couldn't pass up."
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Shortly after Clark joined the fold, Il Cattivo entered Black in Bluhm, Chris Fogal's studio, and recorded To Bring Low an Empire. The album manages to showcase the talents of all the members without any one particular member dominating the sound. Bellinger does away with the twangy influences he discovered in Ghost Buffalo and pays homage to his days in Planes, implementing aggressive power chords, false harmonics and a persistent drive that begged to be discovered again.
For all of Bellinger's guitar heroics, though, Rock-Garden is largely responsible for giving the record a new direction. Although he insists that "using effects pedals has allowed him to convince more talented musicians to let him be in their bands," his contribution cannot be understated. Rock-Garden does rely heavily on effects pedals — thanks to being in instrumental bands like Red Orange Yellow — but it serves as a beautiful complement to Bellinger's destructive style.
"Matt and I work famously well together," he allows. "There isn't a lead/rhythm position that either one of us is assigned to fill. We just write our parts within the context of the song, playing off of what the other is doing. I think it enables us to switch from frenetic to controlled on a hairpin — which I think comes in handy in our songwriting."
While the players control the band's musical direction, Hagman's mind and words are what bring the true spirit of Il Cattivo to light. An undeniably talented vocalist, Hagman finds new voices on To Bring Low an Empire — both the one he emits and the ones that circle inside his head. "The protagonists on the record," he explains, "choose their paths with no guarantee of happiness and know the odds are placed squarely to the contrary. I can't think of any relationship or pursuit, whether with a person or thing, that has any guarantees or is 100 percent good for us."