Irons in the Fire
The centerpiece of the living room shared by the members of Five Iron Frenzy is a battered, garage-sale-reject of a coffee table that's littered with precisely the kind of flotsam you'd expect to find in a punk-rock crash pad: gig fliers, dishes, dog-eared back issues of Maximum Rock 'N' Roll. Only one intriguing object--a brown, leather-bound Bible--seems out of place. But for the Frenzys, Denver's reigning ska-core champions, the last item may be the most important thing in the house.
"People have this big misconception about Christianity," explains Reese Roper, the act's lead vocalist, frontman and owner of the aforementioned tome. "When they think of Christianity, they think of some guy in a suit and tie, like Jimmy Swaggart, out there pointing fingers at everyone. That's not at all what we're about."
Roper certainly doesn't fit this description, especially when he's clad in the cape, crash helmet and metallic leisure suit that's among his many onstage ensembles. Likewise, the fast-and-loose, horn-drenched mixture of punk, ska, pop and metal produced by Roper and his bandmates (bassist Keith Hoerig, guitarists Micah Ortega and Scott Kerr, saxophonist Jeff "The Girl" Ortega, trombonist Dennis Culp, trumpeter Nathanael Dunham and drummer Andrew "Chaka" Verdecchio) has little in common with the music the average pagan-on-the-street associates with Christian bands. Five Iron Frenzy calls to mind Skankin' Pickle, NOFX and the Vandals, not Amy Grant. In fact, the octet's comic skank-and-thrash makeover of the Grant song "Everywhere I Go" would fit in a lot better on a sampler disc for Epitaph than on the Family Channel.
Although the band is less than a year old, its core members--Roper, Hoerig and Ortega--have been creating divine racket together since 1992. Their first project, an industrial-strength thrash outfit called Exhumator, was a staple in the area's Christian-rock scene for close to four years. "It was a growing experience," Hoerig says about this early effort. "We learned how to be in a band. I guess we wouldn't be Five Iron Frenzy without it."
"But it was really angry and depressing," Roper elaborates. "Which we had a hard time doing, because we weren't any different than we are right now. We were all trying to be angry, but we're all just really kind of goofy."
Kerr, who joined Exhumator in 1994, has a zany streak of his own, as well as a fondness for third-generation ska groups like Mephiskapheles and Mustard Plug. Soon after the arrival of Verdecchio, Dunham and "The Girl"--who, despite being named Jeff, actually is a girl--the group began weaving the punky ska rhythms he loves into Exhumator's hardcore fray. Roper welcomed this change with open arms. "One of the things that's cool about ska is that it's not so angry. I like that."
Kerr agrees, noting, "It's more lighthearted. It's still aggressive, but it has that fun aspect as well. It's not too dark or too serious--which was the problem with Exhumator."
The final piece in the Five Iron Frenzy puzzle was trombonist Culp, who joined the renamed act last August. "Dennis came to us by the grace of God," Roper evangelizes. "He just showed up at one of our shows. Now he's writing a lot of our material, and he's just awesome to have in the band. I think we owe a lot of what we are to him. He's a good dancer, too. And," he jokes, "he's pretty."
Together, these musicians make rock and roll every bit as entertaining as that peddled by the best of its secular counterparts--but not everyone is open-minded enough to enjoy it. The performers still struggle to overcome stigmas associated with being cross-carrying rockers. Hoerig is particularly frustrated by the Pat Buchanan-fed assumption that all Christians are part of some right-wing, fascist conspiracy. "We just want to follow the teachings of Christ," he asserts. "That's about how deep it goes with us. Christianity isn't a political thing with us. It's a spiritual thing."
Smiling, Kerr interjects, "But I do want to go on record as saying that we are not, and never have been, members of the Christian Coalition."
Neither are the musicians annoyingly in-your-face about their creed. A handful of the group's songs--like "Cool Enough for You," which takes on ska purists who don't want anyone outside of their circle to play two-tone beats--are inspired by nonreligious topics. But even when the artists explore Christian subject matter, they refuse to harangue listeners. Instead, they explore such themes with a subtle, metaphorical complexity that heathens would do well to emulate.
"We don't want to offend people," Roper insists. "That's not our thing. I mean, I can't write about doing drugs or whatever, because I don't."
"But we don't want to push it from the stage," Hoerig says, "because when people go to a show, they want to go to a show, not a church service."
This lesson was learned the hard way. "I remember the first time we played a non-Christian show," Hoerig recalls, laughing. "We were playing, and everybody was really getting into it. Then, at the end of our set, we said, 'We're a Christian band, and if you want to come up and talk to us about that, feel free.' All of a sudden, everybody seemed not to like us anymore."
"People wouldn't even talk to us," Roper confirms. "They just went around telling each other how much we sucked."
"Which is fine," Hoerig emphasizes. "I mean, I think it's totally cool if someone thinks we suck because we suck. But it's different when they like you until they find out you're a Christian band, and then they think you suck. It's like this magical transformation from being good to sucking. What's up with that?"
Hoerig and his comrades are just as baffled by what they see as the prejudices against Christians held by many of today's punks--a bias that can be traced to old-school anarchists like former Boulderite Jello Biafra. With albums such as Frankenchrist and In God We Trust, Inc., Biafra and the rest of his now-defunct band, the Dead Kennedys, practically made a career out of bashing the faithful. But the Frenzys actually hold many of the same radical views espoused by Biafra. "The Old West," for example, is a sarcastic potshot at early Midwestern missionaries that could have been penned by the Rotting Vegetable himself. Biafra would also approve of Five Iron Frenzy live shows, which are usually highlighted by Roper's hilarious kamikaze antics. At a recent Mercury Cafe gig, he climbed atop the drum riser, executed a flamboyant belly flop, and then proceeded to shower the audience with potato chips.
Performances like these have helped call attention to the small but tenacious Christian alternative scene that has sprung up in Denver. Fueled by Frenzy and cutting-edge bands with names like Worm, Rackets and Drapes (formerly Human Soup), and Lather, the Christian underground has become something of a mini-phenomenon. Case in point: A recent Christian show at the Aztlan Theatre featuring Five Iron Frenzy and Washington-based MxPx drew upwards of 600 moshing spectators.
"It's weird," concedes Fred Myer, a former 23 Parrish disc jockey whose Christian-oriented Soul Hook Productions promoted the Aztlan date. "I still think of the scene here as being so minuscule--just this little thing we're doing for the kids. But there are people all over the country that know about what's going on in Denver. It's incredible. I even get calls from people in New York who are curious about what's going on here."
Myer is equally excited by Five Iron Frenzy's rising profile. "I think it's awesome that Five Iron has had the opportunity to cross over to a larger audience," he says. "I know that it can be hard to stand up for what you believe in, so I really respect them for being honest and up-front about it."
Still, the players aren't doctrinaire about the venues they play, or the kinds of bands with whom they'll perform. They got their start opening for touring Christian acts like Sometime Sunday, Blenderhead and Don't Know, but they've also shared bills with rude-boy faves MU330, Insatiable, Less Than Jake and, most surprising of all, the Rudiments, a Dill Records signee that touts itself as "ska-tanic." According to Kerr, the Rudiments are "totally cool guys. That 'ska-tanic' stuff is just kind of their shtick." With a verbal wink, he claims, "I mean, they did sacrifice a few cats backstage, but other than that, they were really nice guys."
"Our attitude has always been, 'We'll play pretty much anywhere--especially if it's near our house,'" Hoerig cuts in. "And if it's not near our house, we'll play for gas money."
If recent events are any indication, Five Iron Frenzy may soon be traveling in style. Nashville-based Flying Tart Records, a budding Christian indie label, has offered the band a contract, as has Front Line Records of Irvine, California. In addition, the band is being eyed by Seattle's Tooth & Nail Records, an imprint known for deals with popular Christian-punk artists such as Joe Christmas, Plankeye and MxPx. The Frenzys hope that one of these companies will finance a trip to the studio before the end of the year. In the meantime, they plan to keep busy on the home front. The group opens for Meal Ticket at the Raven on March 14, joins the Twist-Offs at the Bug Theatre on March 23 and appears alongside Worm and Martha's Wake at Stage South, a Christian venue, on March 30. And every Wednesday night, the bandmates host a regular Bible study.
Are all of the Frenzys' prayers about to be answered? Kerr has faith, but he isn't holding his breath: "It would be nice to make a living at this, but that's not too realistic."
"We'd be happy if we could just get some free food out of this," Roper contends. But then he gets serious. "We just want to do what God has called on us to do," he says, a few feet from his personal copy of the Good Book. "And not fall short of the goals He has set for us.
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