"We're waging a war against the disappearance of the full-service gas station," says Tarmints drummer A.J. Hathaway. "It's the same thing we're doing with records, man. You pull up to my door, you know what to expect. I'm delivering you quality. You know it, I know it--no problem. You'll come back."
This analogy wasn't chosen at random. Hathaway may be exaggerating a bit when he pledges to deliver a Tarmints album to the door of anyone who can't find transportation to a music store, but there's no question that he and his bandmates (singer/guitarist Kurt Ottoway, guitarist Bobby Jameson and bassist Julie Schliebner) are dedicated to old-fashioned customer satisfaction. Moreover, the group's emblem, which turns up on the Tarmints' self-titled debut disc and so-called "secret code rings" each musician wears, is a red star that recalls the corporate symbol for Texaco. "We figured if it reminded someone of the Texaco logo, that was probably good," Ottoway notes. "Because what's more American than Texaco, man? They've been around forever. I used to buy paper kites from Texaco when I was little."
The four-piece's music is built to last, too. The raw energy of the songs on Tarmints fills your ears like petrol pouring straight into your tank--and the fuel itself is so pure that it could carry you across the Sahara Desert without a ping. According to Ottoway, the product works so well because it's almost entirely free of studio gimmickry or other potentially harmful additives. "It's like the difference between a replicant and a human being," he says. "We're not into any cyborg shit. We're more like grime under your fingernails."
Hathaway agrees. Pointing to a photo of an aging pickup truck's battered interior that appears on the CD's cover, he says, "This picture is related to our music. If we used distortion and reverb and all that fancy stuff, this picture would have big, tall buildings and nice paved streets and a big sign that said, 'Tarmints: It's Healthy for You.' But the theme of the whole thing here is stripped down, getting back to our roots, getting past all the downtown, we're-rock-and-roll shit, and cutting to the fact that we're a bunch of fun-loving motherfuckers."
"It's all flesh-and-bone dynamics," Ottoway interjects. "We control it with our hands and our fingers instead of with volume pedals or effects."
"You get more hook that way," Jameson argues. "There's more definition, more separation in our playing. If you pile a bunch of reverb on it, you lose the hook--you lose the snappiness."
Ottoway knows a thing or two about such issues, having spent nearly a decade in Twice Wilted, a now-defunct Denver band that had a large underground following during the late Eighties and early Nineties. (Hathaway and Jameson played briefly with the group as well.) But although the singer is proud of his Twice Wilted years, he's not wild about rehashing them. "Maybe it's like a Jerry Seinfeld disease, where the whole entire world that you know sees you as one thing--a giant dreadlocked jester--and you're kind of growing past that. So I needed to make a clean cut."
To that end, Ottoway packed up his musical hopes and moved to Davis, California, near San Francisco, two years ago. But he didn't stay there long. "I scoured San Francisco for something that would inspire me and didn't find it," he says. "And people--I don't know how they even get one song written, because they're just noncommittal and inconsistent. So after a year of writing a lot of songs, I came back and met up with Bobby, and we sat down in his basement and went through everything. He brought his own style into it, and there was an automatic writing chemistry. He was a very fluid, very aggressive, roots-oriented player, and I'm more from the school of the Chameleons and the Fall and stuff like that. So when we fused it together, I was really excited, because we had all this weird Americana energy with an almost English vibe to it. It was like nothing I'd ever heard. It made me feel that I was on to something."
Hathaway, once with Cynic's Bane, and Schliebner, a rock newcomer, joined shortly thereafter, and their presence allowed the Tarmints' sound to crystallize. The result is hardly a clone of the Twice Wilted style. Ottoway's voice occasionally hints at his previous incarnation, but it remains one of the combo's most unpredictable elements: When he's not projecting his spirit through silky, haunting lyrics, he's growling and screaming like a pissed-off Lieutenant Worf. This diverse attack is combined with a throaty rhythm section and a spattering of dissonant chords and artsy guitar tunings courtesy of Ottoway and Jameson, who use their love of vintage equipment to the Tarmints' advantage.
"Instead of buying an effects pedal or getting a certain amp or getting a Strat or something, I wanted to take an amp that never really had been used and a guitar that's not used regularly and chords and notes that people don't normally use and write a good song inside of those elements," Ottoway says. "That's where my originality is going to come from--not from going to the shop and getting a reverb pedal and a couple of cool, spacey effects. I just think so many bands pound that into the ground. The minute you plug into a chorus pedal, someone's going to pigeonhole you. For me, it's a lot tougher to play clean, but I think the end result you get is more accurate and a lot more honest."
These days the Tarmints are spending more time touring outside of Denver (they have an upcoming trip to the Midwest scheduled) than they are performing within the city limits. However, they believe that they'll have an impact on the local music community thanks to their new indie label, dubbed Denver Coffee Achievers. "It's just a bunch of guys and gals who believe in burning the midnight oil and in doing something exceptional," Ottoway says about the imprint. "Our motto is 'Stay up late, do something great.' Pretty much everybody works a day gig, and then they get off work and drink a lot of coffee, and either they paint, they draw, they write--they contribute somehow. You know, just staying up late and not going to bed early and turning on your VCR and giving up."
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The Tarmints expect to keep the Achievers busy. Tarmints was completed in late July, but the band has already started making its next recording, which should be available by spring. "We're going to be like Guided by Voices," Ottoway claims. "We're going to have thirty fucking albums that nobody's ever seen, because we're going to put one out every six months. That's what we want to do, man. At this juncture in our lives, we're recording music. That's our top priority."
Nonetheless, the Tarmints insist that they're not trembling, sweat-drenched workaholics. They take frequent breaks from recording in order to build ramps for their BMX bikes, go fly-fishing or sled down an ice patch on nearby hills.
"We're kids at heart," Hathaway says.
Adds Ottoway, "We're serious, but the minute we stop having fun, we're done, and we know that. And it took us--how long?--at least ten years to figure that out.