Josh Cool of the Uncertain Sea on growing up in Wyoming and his band's amicable split
The Uncertain Sea (four-piece edition)
The Uncertain Sea somehow managed to bring together a touch of math rock or prog with splintery post-punk and '90s emo and made it compelling -- think something like Mission of Burma with a country bent, written by people who grew up hearing stuff like Sunny Day Real Estate with a touch of Codeine's gift for using space. The dark jangle of Television haunted the nakedly emotive songs that appeared on the group's sole EP.
The band, which is playing its final show tonight at the Larimer Lounge, will likely have a posthumous release showcasing unreleased songs and live material capturing its later, more developed phase. Not that the outfit's songwriting ever suffered from being underdeveloped. We recently spoke with the affable and articulate guitarist Josh Cool about his upbringing on punk in Wyoming, the previous Denver bands he played in, Out On Bail and SpokeShaver, and what lead to the dissolution of the Uncertain Sea, which is clearly parting on good terms.
Westword: You grew up in Wyoming?
Josh Cool: I was born in Nebraska and grew up there through middle school and moved there for high school. Wyoming is everything you'd expect it to be, but Casper, where I went to high school, is kind of an interesting little island in the middle of Republican Wyoming. There's a symphony and an art museum, and they had the only punk rock scene in all of Wyoming.
There were a dozen punk bands and hardcore bands. Really cool people doing really cool music. I think Jawbreaker came through at one point. Bouncing Souls played there at one point, too. So for a late '90s, punk rock/emo kid, it was a wonderful place to be. I got exposed to a lot of stuff that in Nebraska I probably never would have been privy too.
It was a neat place and I met a lot of good friends, including Mike Taylor, the old bass player in the Uncertain Sea. Him and I were in ska bands in high school together and went to punk rock shows together. We were really good friends and have been ever since, and we moved down to Denver around the same time and have been in bands for almost half my life at this point, which is a scary thought, I suppose.
And they have an amazing record store up there. It's called Sonic Rainbow. They had any kind of thing you could imagine for a small town like that. They had everything from Asian Man Records; they had all the weird little indie labels popping up at the time. You know, not limited to Jade Tree or Vagrant, which are not indies anymore. I think I bought the first Alkaline Trio the day it came out. No one had ever heard of Alkaline Trio, but I remember buying it and sitting in my car and listening to all the way through three times because I was so enamored with it.
Not that we really sound like that all or anything. But I suppose there's a bit of late '90s emo in what the Uncertain Sea does. John Magee, our singer, is really into that stuff, too. Him and I have nerded out on a bunch of late '90s emo bands. He was a merch manager for years for a lot of bands on tour.
He toured with Saves the Day, Alkaline Trio, Dashboard Confessional, Hot Water Music and Hot Rod Circuit. He has a list of like fifteen bands he's been on tour with for years. He comes with a crazy amount of experience, so it's been a joy being on a band with him because he has all these great stories of being on the road with these big huge bands that kind of put ours to shame.
[Going back to Sonic Rainbow], it's really interesting with digital music recently, it's definitely put a dent in the record store. In Casper, at least, there wouldn't have been a scene without Sonic Rainbow. The people that worked there could order in any record you were looking for, and they were happy to do it. They would recommend stuff to you if you heard something that sounded like something else. Everybody's doing that now on the internet but with much less success than the trained ear of a music store employee, even as jaded as they are.
When you moved to Denver in 1999, did you bring your ska band Overview with you here?
No, we kind of ended right about when my senior year of high school was starting. I recorded people on four-track; I managed stuff and booked shows and did graphics for people and did shirts; but it was small time and just fun for my friends. I wasn't in a band all through college. I couldn't find people to play with, and was focused on school [in any case]. I got out and I probably started Out on Bail a couple of months after college.
Mike and I went to a Drag the River show. He was a big fan of them at this point. I had never heard them, and they were awesome, and I enjoyed it. We went to a Drag the River show that was Drag the River and Lucero playing at the Bluebird. It finished, and I heard that Lucero was playing a secret show at Monkey Mania on Arapahoe, and Red Cloud was opening for them. The same night, I saw Lucero, Drag the River and Red Cloud for the first time, and I was like, "Okay, that's it. I'm in. Let's do it. I'll learn whatever I need to on guitar, and I'll play it."
Red Cloud, as with everyone, was one of my favorite local bands, and they, as much as Drag the River, got me into playing country-influenced stuff. We got to play with them dozens of times, and we did a mini tour with them one time. Great dudes. Being in Denver is so much fun if you're a musician and can enjoy it. If it's all concerns about how many people are coming to the shows, are you going to meet guarantees, and is there a political issue with playing a show -- all that bullshit is awful. If you get to go out with your friends on a weekend, that's really fun. It's all the other minutiae that wears on a person.
Let's talk a bit about Out On Bail.
Mike and I were in that ska band together, and he happened to live about a block from me back then. Jenn Calloway lived about a block the other direction. So we lived that close to each other for two or three years close to downtown. We all hang out together and were in the same scene together, and Mike said, "Let's start a country band." Then Mike knew Chuck Coffey was interested in playing in a country band back then, maybe even pre-Call Sign Cobra. That band wasn't even country, just not straight ahead punk rock, like we had more or less played before. So Chuck, for our first practice, was our drummer.
Brooks Miller, from Man Alive!, was also into country, and Chuck didn't have time for it, so he became our drummer. After about the second practice, we had the same four people for three and a half years. Out On Bail was a fun band. I learned everything I know about being in a band from being in Out On Bail.
You started SpokeShaver sometime after Out On Bail broke up. That band had a pretty unique sound that wasn't like anyone in town. How did that project come together?
I tried to start a band for about a year. I was in a bunch of crap that wasn't fun, and then I met this guy named Chris that played the guitar. He was really into Jawbreaker, and of course, so was I. He had all these songs that were really cool but I was so locked into country chords on guitar and traditional chords, and I had a traditional mindset on guitar.
So I said, "Well, why don't I play bass in this band because I'm not understanding what I should play on guitar." Then I met Rich Hazen, who had an ad on Craigslist. He had a drummer, and they had played a little bit. Their ad said, "Looking to start a band that sounds like the Broadways, Jawbox and Jets to Brazil." So I responded right away.
We jammed immediately with Chris, and we ended up losing the drummer and found Nate Marcy, who is one of the best drummers I've ever played with, through, again, a Craigslist ad. I think he posted something along the lines of wanting to be in a band that was like '60s garage rock, '70s punk, '50s soul or '90s punk. And I was like, "We're doing all of those things, so why don't we do all of those things together." Rich knew Kristin Garramone from Broomfield, so the five of us started playing and had a good time and wrote an EP worth of material. Chris had to quit because he had a baby, but we continued.
SpokeShaver was such fun to play in, and I learned so much about theory and improvisation and playing against each other and songwriting from jamming stuff. Which sounds horrible, but you play for a half hour and recording it all. Maybe there's thirty seconds that were really good in there and you just pull out that thirty seconds and you write it into a song.
That's how every band I've been in since SpokeShaver has written music that way. I'm a huge proponent that way: Playing something and evolving it and letting it happen naturally and picking the very best out of that. By the end, we were doing some interesting stuff, but we didn't get to record it or release it.
We had a concept record we had written that was like five songs of thirty or thirty-five minutes each that was about the death of creativity, big suites of music that were like three songs written together lasting eight minutes apiece -- kind of neat, progressive stuff. We had developed down a progressive rock avenue, while still keeping Jets to Brazil, maybe a little Jefferson Airplane and Neil Young close to our hearts.
Nate had another kid and moved way up to the sticks, and we went on trying to play with him maybe once a month. But when you're writing complex, intricate, odd time signature stuff and getting a drummer only once a month makes it pretty difficult. We had two years of playing one show a year and maybe eight practices with a drummer a year.
The rest of us would practice twice a week. It was kind of a bummer, but we still had a good time. Finally, Nate was like, "I can't do this to you guys anymore. I feel bad about it. I just need to realize I can't do this anymore." We found a new drummer Aaron Doxey. After two months or so, we realized we've only been playing the same seven songs off the same record for two years. It was hard to write new stuff because we had all gotten too comfortable with each other.
So we stopped right around the same time the Uncertain Sea broke up. It was kind of a mid-life crisis moment for me. SpokeShaver decided to end and about a week and a half later I told the Uncertain Sea that I was done. Just decided to give it all up and start something new. So Kristin Garramone and I are starting a new thing and I'm excited about it.
The Uncertain Sea wasn't as visible as I would have wanted us to be. We played a couple of shows when we started, and we got to go to SXSW, which was cool. Mike left to concentrate on Hooper in February, and we've been trying to replace him ever since. We got two dudes that are really good at what they do and fun to be in a band with. One of them replaced Mike as a singer and the other as a bass player.
Essentially what it was is that I wanted to start the band with Kristin and said, "This has got to be my thing." We had written in one direction as a band, and I wanted to do a little different thing. I didn't want to impose that on them. I feel bad when bands are "my" band. It's more like, "The band I play guitar in wrote a new song today, and I'm really excited about it." As shorthand people say, "my band."
That said, I extrapolate that out to its non-logical conclusion. I don't want to force my agenda on the band. I didn't want to shoehorn Kristin into the Uncertain Sea, and I don't think those guys wanted that either. It was best for everybody if I stepped away, and they decided it would be best to put a cap on the band and start fresh and not worry about any of the things that come with replacing a person. Or writing new songs without a person that sounds different than if they were in the band.
It's been really weird without Mike. It's going to sound different, of course, but Mike was definitely a big part of the band. Bringing in the two new guys, we've done stuff that is similar. We're playing new tracks tonight that are similar but definitely not the same. I was going in one direction, and the band was going in another direction, so it was a good time for both of us to start fresh.
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