Josh Wambeke Fell into one of Denver's most compelling bands
I had my big thirtieth-birthday party the other night," says Josh Wambeke, singer/guitarist and leader of Fell. "I just bought a new home in Arvada, and we're surrounded by older people, so we had to make sure they were going to be okay with it."
Respecting your neighbors isn't exactly a driving force of rock and roll. And for Wambeke, an obsessive sonic experimenter who's been recording at home since he was a teenager, worrying about keeping up the Joneses at night seems a strange if not futile concern. But with the release of Fell's soaring, spacious and deliciously bleak sophomore full-length, A Farewell to Echoes — not to mention the release in August of the group's third album, Incoherent Lullabies — Wambeke has found himself suddenly a grownup. And, oddly enough, loving it.
"When I was younger, I'd just go crazy," Wambeke recalls. "My dad always played records by Black Sabbath and AC/DC. He loved to listen to music. But my parents divorced when I was eleven, and my stepfather moved in. He brought an acoustic guitar with him, and I would just bang on it. I didn't know what I was doing. I'd just sit it on my lap and play with the strings."
Wambeke, a native of Bailey, doesn't make a big deal about the influence his childhood stamping grounds had on him — yet the sleepy mountain town still looms over him, he admits. "It's a white-trash, redneck-ish place," he says with a laugh. "It's different up there now, though. There's a mixture of people. But back then, when I was a kid, Bailey was a place you moved when you didn't have a lot of money."
While Bailey may not have been a bastion of culture, Wambeke hooked up in his early teenage years with a kid from the neighborhood who remains one of his closest friends: Patrick Porter, a fellow local singer-songwriter. "Patrick and I would come down to Denver to go to Wax Trax," Wambeke relates. "I would be so frightened. But when I got in there, I just wanted to stay in there all day and discover all these cool records." Thanks to those day trips, Wambeke became a huge fan of three of the most depressingly epic bands of the '90s — Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead — which inspired him to start making his own music in earnest. Maybe too earnest.
"I was thirteen or fourteen when my mom bought me my first electric guitar," Wambeke remembers. "It was this shitty, awful guitar, and I just started making up these weird little songs. They were terrible. It was a really tough time in my life, my parents' divorce — I was really miserable. So from the start, playing music was an emotional outlet for me."
It was then that Wambeke began his love affair with home recording — even if the initial results haven't quite stood the test of time. "I had a little tape player with a microphone on it, and I'd record all the songs I wrote," he recalls. "The last time I listened to it, it was just hilarious, all these little angst-filled songs I wrote about my parents and school and stupid shit. They made no sense."
After a sketchy high-school outfit named Static Low ("I originally wanted to call it just Low," he notes, "but then I found out there was already a band called Low, a band I wound up loving"), Wambeke formed Phineas Gage with Porter. As he eventually discovered, though, best friends don't necessarily make for best bandmates. "Patrick was always into all this punk and avant-garde stuff," Wambeke points out. "He was always so out there as a musician. I was more or less into the mainstream. I always wound up writing shitty alternative-rock songs."
While Porter and Wambeke did share some core tastes — the whispery melancholy of Low, for example, not to mention the epic mindscapes of Pink Floyd — the two found themselves ultimately incompatible as musicians. But before breaking up in 2001, they'd released an album of grainy, gorgeous space rock titled Reconsidered on the small but highly regarded Australian label Camera Obscura Records. So when Wambeke began recording new songs in his home studio under the name Fell in 2001, Camera Obscura head Tony Daley was the first person he sent the songs to.
"I'd be up 'til four in the morning getting drunk and making these weird songs," Wambeke says. "It was a really cool experience. It reinvigorated me totally. When I finished it, I sent it to Tony Dale just to get an opinion. I didn't even ask him to put it out. But he loved it so much and wanted to release it. I'd felt sort of underdeveloped as a songwriter up to that point, so that made me feel vindicated as, like, my own artist."
Fell's self-titled debut was recorded in 2004, but it didn't see the light of day on Camera Obscura until 2006. The delay was more than frustrating — it almost spelled the end of Fell. "We hadn't even played a show in Denver," Wambeke notes. "I remember we played a show at Double Entendre Records, but that was mostly it. I was so afraid. We didn't know anyone or how to get gigs." But a chance meeting with Denver's Cat-A-Tac — whose own space rock meshed well with Fell's — helped Wambeke bring his band up to the next level. "I met Jim McTurnan at that show, and he was really cool to me," Wambeke recalls. "We get along really well." Soon after, Wambeke finalized the current lineup of Fell, which includes him, bassist Bryan Romero, cellist Michael Dewey, guitarist-keyboardist Raven Butler and drummer EJ Ulery.
But even with a full band, Wambeke still did most of his recordings solo, playing almost all the instruments himself. By the time Fell dropped, Wambeke was well into the recording of its followup, Incoherent Lullabies — an album he describes as "more poppy and dreamy." But a far more dramatic delay was about to hold up that release: Dale, the band's patron, was diagnosed with lymphoma. "It was really bad," Wambeke says. "Tony told us, 'I don't know when I can put it out.'" Eerily, the final song on Fell's first CD for Camera Obscura is titled "Cause of Cancer," but Wambeke is quick to point out that the song was made far before Dale came down with his illness. "Sometimes my song titles don't mean anything," Wambeke explains. "'Cause of Cancer' was about a friend's mother who had passed away from ovarian cancer. It was a really, really difficult thing to go through, so that song is actually dedicated to her."
Once again, Fell was faced with a huge delay of its latest CD. While Dale recovered and made new plans to release Lullabies in August of 2009, Wambeke couldn't sit around and wait; he wrote and recorded an entire album's worth of material. Titled A Farewell to Echoes and released on Wambeke's own Vacant Songs imprint, the record is technically the band's sophomore release — despite the fact that it was created after Lullabies. And while Wambeke promises Lullabies to be a relatively lighter affair, Echoes is a murky, edgy disc that dredges up jagged bits of melody and mnemonic flotsam.
"The album is pretty much a farewell to my twenties," declares Wambeke. "Knowing I was about to turn thirty, I decided to look back and write a record about my experiences during the last ten years. From 20 to 29, that's a fucking hard time of life. That's what the lyrics are all about. This is the very first album where I sat down and wrote lyrics that really meant something to me.
"The last song on there, 'A Farewell to Echoes,' is saying goodbye to my youth," he says. "I've had so many experiences — not just traumatic, but good and happy ones, as well. I've had to work hard for everything, and I just wanted to dedicate this album to that time of my life. I'm proud of A Farewell to Echoes, because it feels like a mature album to me; I don't feel so unsure. Now I feel like I have a better grasp on what I'm doing and the direction I want to head in."
Even if that direction means keeping the noise down after 10 p.m.
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