I have a rare disorder called offstage fright," Scot Livingston confesses. "It's much easier talking about stuff in front of strangers than it is one-on-one. If I were to admit to a capital crime or murder, it would probably be on stage, in front of a bunch of people I don't know."
More high-strung than homicidal, Livingston certainly has a knack for being unpredictable -- something he fully explores as frontman of Denver's quirky five-piece the Inactivists. No stranger to the local music scene, the self-described "recovering Mormon," who abstains from alcohol but overindulges on caffeinated soda, cut his teeth as a blues-punker with Red Eye Revival, then played lead guitar for the Phlegmtones, a disco-polka outfit that also featured Mr. Pacman's Avery Rains. In addition to studio collaborations with Pacman and the late Wesley Willis, Livingston helms Nerdtallica, a MIDI-based Metallica tribute band that graced 2002's Imposters: A Warlock Pinchers Tribute with a cover of "Meet Goatee Woatee." The thirty-year-old tunesmith's checkered resumé, if he ever bothered to draft one, would further include writing a rejected TV pilot for Fox, plus holding down several uniformed gigs as a security guard -- bulldogging everything from porn shops and parking lots to the hallowed offices of Westword. And though he got plenty of reading done as a night watchman, Livingston has stumbled across his share of morbid surprises, too. One time, a week before Christmas, the admittedly squeamish turnkey discovered a dead body in an apartment complex above the 16th Street Mall.
A far bigger shock to his system came in 1990 when Livingston was a Wildcat at Arvada West High School. The dark, personal family tragedy inspired "Sammy Sammy," a seemingly innocuous little scorcher that Livingston decided to introduce to a small crowd at the Lion's Lair as follows: "This next song is about my mother, who killed herself when I was fifteen." It was disturbing news to everyone present -- especially Livingston's bandmates.
The Inactivists CD-release show
With the Voodoo Organist, and the Little Fyodor and Babushka Band, Saturday, April 16, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, $6, 303-320-9200
"That was really heavy, finding out in that way," recalls bassist Matt Sumner, a former member of Rainville. "It was all I could do to continue playing. That was the only time I've ever been in the Lair where you could hear a pin drop. And I think everyone was waiting for a punchline. But there was no way he could make that funny.
"You just don't know when you go on stage with this band," Sumner continues. "It could be a total goofball night, or it could be a really dark experience, too."
A deliberate study in contrasts, the Inactivists began as nothing more than a solo act, an excuse for Livingston to thrash on electric ukulele and sing oddball tunes with a drum machine. "I'd been doing the open-mike thing, and it was depressing," he says. "Not only would no one show up, but there was no one to complain to about it."
Rather than continue alone, Livingston posted a three-page ad on bandmates.com that outlined his entire rock-and-roll philosophy, warts and all. "I wanted to span the Steely Dan/Sex Pistols schism," Livingston recalls of his long-winded screed. "What I didn't want was the usual bass-drum-guitar thing."
"He had the longest fucking ad, just this huge rambling thing," Sumner recalls. "I agreed with everything he was saying, but I thought he'd be a real pain in the ass to be in a band with. Then, after not finding anything else to do, I sent him an e-mail."
It ended up that the pair had actually shared a bill at the Bluebird Theater several years earlier, when Sumner played in a riff-rock-based outfit called Five 52 Fern. Livingston liked the fact that Sumner played trumpet as well as the "Frankenbass," a distortion-heavy monstrosity with custom-drilled holes in the body and bridge that allow for never-ending pickup and effects alterations. "It's like Swiss cheese now," Sumner points out. "Eighty percent wood, 20 percent Bondo."
Drummer Chris Budin from the Reals then came on board with saxophonist Jason Walton, and the unlikely quartet of relative strangers played their first show after just a single rehearsal. "I thought, if they were crazy enough to do it, then they were the guys I wanted to do it with," Livingston says. Two days later, he booked another show and recruited theremin player Victoria Lundy, a sound sculptor with a performance-art background in the Carbon Dioxide Orchestra. Able to coax more than mere sci-fi effects from her ungainly twin antennae ("it's basically just playing radio interference," Lundy allows), the new musical acquisition raised the band's overall melodicism to greater heights. Better yet, Lundy's eerie tone split the difference between a keyboard and a pedal-steel.
"I couldn't believe they wanted it on every song," Lundy says, recalling her debut at the Blue Mule. "After the first three songs, I thought, 'My God, these guys are a ska band.'" She soon discovered otherwise.
Difficult to pigeonhole, the Inactivists seem to channel the experimental nature of Lothar and the Hand People, the playfulness of They Might Be Giants and the DIY spirit of the Minutemen. "If you could even create a subgenre called 'angry-lounge-nerd rock,' I wouldn't feel particularly committed to it," Sumner says.
"It's as accurate as we're gonna get," Livingston adds. "But all of our songs don't have the same thing. There's a lot of funk. There's weird reggae styles. Other ones sound jazzy. It's probably closest related to pop."
During a marathon recording session at Ian Hlatky's Woodshed Studios on Palm Sunday last year ("04-04-04 is the neighbor of the beast," Livingston jokes), the Inactivists exorcised their many influences by slamming together a debut album in ten hours. Despite the feedback, vocal mishaps, dropped drumsticks and broken strings, the seventeen songs on Punching Each Other span melodic styles as disparate as the Captain Beefheart-inflected title cut, a doo-wop-inspired torch song and a masturbatory country weeper. Unfortunately the record's successful completion also signified the departure of the band's original reedsman.
After trying out a vibraphonist for a spell, the Inactivists recruited a keeper in saxophone and clarinet player Todd Burba, who moonlights with the jazz-leaning Sentimental Hitmen. Newly energized, the Inactivists resumed weekly rehearsals at Lundy's home in Arvada, which doubles as Cuttlefish Arts, a graphic-design studio, and took whatever gigs came their way -- including an in-bookstore appearance at Black and Read and a recent live-radio slot on KGNU hosted by Little Fyodor. And whether they're collaborating on a Yuletide-themed split disc with Fyo's paramour, Babushka (It's An "The Inactivists" Xmas!!!), or test-driving an Esperanto-samba version of "La Bamba," Livingston and company keep their mind open to anything, good, bad or anal-retentive.
"I used to say there was no idea that was too stupid for the band," Sumner says. "We could come up with any idea, and everybody would feel it out and give it a try."
Such an approach has led to eulogizing Dale Earnhardt wannabes and recording a handful of tunes that don't exceed three seconds. In what could hardly be considered a sophomore slump, the Inactivists' whimsical new release, Disappointing Follow-up, finds the band bursting with ideas, hooks and plenty of dadaist wordplay. The chicken-scratching opener, "Won'cha Hit Me in the Face," sets the tone for another eclectic romp along the tightrope between sense and nonsense, juggling sunny dance numbers for the "poor and huddled masses" ("Here They Go Again") with coffee-achieving frag-rock ("Fresh 'n' Lemony"). Standout cut "Pieces of Jesus" removes any doubt that the Inactivists can write a solid pop song; it comes complete with a deep snake-charmer groove and five-part vocal harmonies. Singing on his own, however, Livingston takes some getting used to. Although he can pull off a convincingly psychotic David Byrne impression ("Talk to Me"), more often than not he recalls the nasal cavities of John Flansburgh or Mark Mothersbaugh. Call it the white man's burden.
"Bob Dylan couldn't sing worth a crap, but he did it anyway," Livingston insists. "The whole thing is, you don't have to sing well. You just have to believe you can sing well."
So far, the listening public seems receptive. "We provoke a lot of different reactions," Sumner reveals. "Anger. Confusion. Laughter. The more drunk they are, the more they like us. We actually get relief from sound guys who have to sit through a lot of angry metal bands. The lady at Pink E's called us 'delightful.'"
Not resting on their oars, the Inactivists hope to spread their brand of delightfulness beyond the Front Range, considering weekend outbacks to Phoenix or Omaha. They've even planned Follow-up's followup: Dreaded Concept Album.
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"We haven't sent anything off to any record companies, so we've definitely inactivated on that front," Sumner admits. "I'd be happy if we could just play a few shows a month and have some money to pay for our recordings."
"I don't really care about becoming famous or getting a record contract," Livingston concludes. "I just wish people would listen to us, 'cause I think one out of every hundred would be entertained.
"We do everything we can to get people to come to shows," he adds. "But we're a fairly anti-social group, so it's not like we've got tons of friends. Why do you think we met on the Internet?"