No need to pull the four Denverites in the Velveteen Monster from the stage with a crooked cane: They're happy to saunter to the side and haunt from the wings. In fact, after several years in the seminal tumbleweed act Jux County, veteran players Andy Monley, Ron Smith and Chris Pearson, assisted by new recruit Denise LaNay, have learned that the view from the shadows might even be preferable to the one on the other side of the curtains.
Case in point: Last summer the band was invited to perform at an event in Santa Fe commemorating the end of the school year at an area university. "We played at five o'clock in the afternoon, and it was hot," remembers bassist Pearson, who also plays alongside Monley in the Czars. "They had a big chili-dinner cookoff, and we were in the middle of this outdoor Greek-theater-like place. There was this huge line of people, single file, looking at us. I was like, 'Oh, my God! This is great!' Then I realized they were all in line just to get chili." On the heels of this deflating date, however, the quartet set up shop at Pirate art gallery in northwest Denver and charmed the mulling patrons at artist Greg Esser's opening with a wordless set. "I got more people from that gig who came up and signed up on our mailing list and said, 'Wow, you guys are really good,'" Pearson maintains. "And we were just supposed to be background music."
"The pressure's off, and that's what's fun about it," adds Monley, who, as guitarist and vocalist for Jux County since the late Eighties, is no stranger to the spotlight. "You're not like, 'Look at me! Look at me!' You don't have to talk to anybody." He jokes, "I'm always feeling pressured to jump up and do the splits. I just get sick of it."
In truth, audience expectations had no part in motivating the Monsters' strange experiments in composition. Their intention (similar to Brian Eno's in 1978) was to script tunes for unmade films--a goal to which the title of their recently completed CD, The Original Soundtrack Recording of the Velveteen Monster, pays homage. According to LaNay, who lends keyboards and vocals to what began as an all-instrumental group, "We'd be driving in a car and listening to the tape, and it feels like you're in a movie."
One of the best examples of this approach, in Pearson's view, is the secret track that concludes the disc, which "starts out very slow, minor key, eerie--and everything goes quiet." After approximating the unexpected upswing the number takes with a series of spry da-da-das, he says, "It makes you think about a place you've been. For me, it's like Tortoise or Yo La Tengo, who don't necessarily write pop songs. They're more thematic."
The move toward serving other art forms began long before the Velveteen Monster solidified into a viable act. As Jux County, Monley, Pearson and drummer Smith provided the soundtrack for The Plague Song, a play that ran at the Changing Scene Theater several years ago. "The music itself wasn't Jux County," Pearson points out, "so we never took that to our live performances." Later, they created 45 pieces that Insight Films, a local TV/film company, wove into a syndicated cable-television program. Pearson says this assignment gave them a chance "to actually write music based on certain themes and compose music for more than just the sake of doing music."
Yet these were isolated incidents: It was not until Jux County embarked upon the recording of its third album--a grueling task that still isn't complete after more than three years--that the cinema-score side project was launched. To prevent the burnout that would result from practicing and performing the same songs Jux was honing in the studio, the players founded the Velveteen Monster as a playful diversion. "We said, 'Hey, let's make another band and write songs for this band in particular,'" Monley recalls.
Chances were good that the same three musicians strapped to the same three instruments would be hard-pressed to produce an altogether novel noise. So Monley approached LaNay, an old friend he hoped would broaden the act's musical possibilities. "We were out one night, and Andy just asked, 'How's your voice?'" LaNay says. Monley also slipped her a Velveteen Monster demo tape, which she immediately recognized as a thinly disguised variation on her favorite local act. LaNay signed up shortly thereafter, and although this performing novice's hands shook so badly at an early Bluebird Theater engagement that they nearly slipped off her keyboard, she has grown into her role as the band's distinguishing element. "I came in, and I think then it began to change," she allows. "I hear less and less Jux County now."
Monley agrees. "I've known Denise for eleven or twelve years, and I've always known she could sing and play the piano," he says. "I always knew Denise could sing incredibly high, too, which was appealing to me. If you hear some Fellini soundtracks, there are some vocals that are so piercingly high, they're not actually singing. It's almost like dogs when you hear it." Indeed, LaNay's nymph-light pipes flit about the edges of the band's sound, airbrushing tunes dealing with death and emptiness to a Courtship of Eddie's Father softness. At the same time, her keyboard riffs infuse the Monster with oscillations, contributing silvery Venusian effects and swelling finales.
The boys in the band are grateful to have fresh ingredients in the kitchen. Pearson admits that Jux County's popularity "has waned over the years--and it wears on you and gets frustrating, and that shows up in your music and your energy and enthusiasm. For us, having an outlet that was different and with some new blood and new layers and new opportunities reinvigorated me for wanting to play."
While their zeal for virgin territory is palpable, the musicians have not completely abandoned the tried and true. Sets sans vocals have garnered the group praise, but words, as well as a slowly spreading pop virus, have begun to infiltrate the Velveteen Monster. "I don't want to limit it to instrumentals too much," Monley says apologetically. "If I've got words to a song and think it will sound good with keyboards and female backing vocals, then we'll do it."
On occasion, the four still renounce the human voice or employ it sparingly. But increasingly, the basic frame of their handiwork is taken straight from the pop lexicon. "I write a lot of the songs," Monley notes, "so their skeletal structure starts out with me sitting on the couch watching TV and playing the guitar. Nine times out of ten the lyrics are ready before I even come into the practice space." These lines are often impressionistic and melancholy (they're inspired by the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner), while the melodies he crafts tend to migrate from gloom to sunniness. "For me, they're two sides of the same coin, dark and light," he says. "And I like having them together." This penchant guides not only emotional content, but also dynamics, tempo and style; the numbers easily glide from bossa-nova rhythms to hokey nods to game shows.
Although Pearson believes that "we're one of the most diverse bands out there," he concedes that this isn't always an advantage. "The music scene in Denver is not that diverse," he sighs. "I've been to Seattle many times, to Chicago, New York. They're major metropolitan areas, and they've got much more diverse music scenes. The whole Drag City/Thrill Jockey scene of Chicago is nonexistent here, and I'd throw us loosely into that category. We're not your radio-friendly, triple-A modern rock or categorizable music. In Denver, if you look in the paper, 75 percent of bands out there are either hardcore or punk--or swing or ska, which is starting to fade. For us to go out and find bands to play with is hard."
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Because many bar rats are socially programmed to respond only to familiar entertainment, finding felicitous audiences hasn't been easy, either. "Sometimes we play these clubs where it's get drunk and then get more drunk," Monley says. "And they kind of look at us like, 'I don't know what to do now.'"
To avoid such homogeneous crowds, Pearson has aggressively sought out suitable performance environments, including the never-before-used studio at Boulder's KVCU-AM/1190, which the Monster will inaugurate with a live broadcast on May 13, the day of their album-release party. "So many bands go through playing nothing but the Cricket and the Lion's Lair, and that's got to wear on you," he explains. "So for us to have variety in our music and what we do with our shows is great."
Along the way, the group has discovered the key to defying the Denver curse that causes most local acts to dissolve before reaching the five-year mark: Change your name, change your sound, change your instrumental constitution and forgo the urge to fence yourself in stylistically. "I don't think we really define ourselves and then sit down and write music to fit that definition," Smith says. "We just play--and it happens to be sounding like the Velveteen Monster right now."
The Velveteen Monster, with Some Gumption. 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 13, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $7 (cover price includes a free