But for the quality of their music, the Czars, a band that's emerged as one of Denver's most hypnotic live acts, would not exist. And therein lies a tale.
Founding Czars John Grant and Chris Pearson met at a local nightclub in the spring of 1994, shortly after Grant had returned from a six-year sojourn in Germany and Pearson had purchased an upright bass. "We sat down and played for a while, and it became evident to me that John's voice was something special," Pearson relates. Before long, the pair were joined by guitarist Claude Frank and drummer Jeff Linsenmaier, whom Grant first encountered outside the Mayan Theater. "We would play in John's apartment without a P.A.," Pearson recalls. "And I played upright bass and Claude would play acoustic guitar, so it was pretty mellow and quiet at that point." It was also, in a certain sense, doomed, which made the name chosen for the quartet--Titanic--all the more appropriate.
The first Titanic show took place in May 1995, and by June the players had begun recording with producer/engineer Bob Ferbrache, who's worked with 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Foreskin 500 and George Clinton's P-Funk All Stars. "We did the tape very quickly," Pearson points out. "We thought we'd just record a few songs with Bob as a demo tape. Then we ended up basically breaking up after that tape was recorded."
In fact, it was Pearson who first decided to depart, for what he refers to vaguely as "various personal reasons." He adds, "I told John I wished him the best of luck and that I hoped he would go on, because his voice was so amazing. But nothing ever happened with them, and they didn't end up getting another bass player."
For his part, Grant was preoccupied with more urgent matters. "My mom was getting ready to die during that time, and she did die at the end of that year. And there was a lot of turmoil going on in everyone's individual lives--different work schedules and not knowing what we wanted to do or where we wanted to go."
Coincidentally, the recording that heralded the band's demise was the very thing that motivated the Czars to rise from Titanic's watery grave. In February Pearson took a six-month leave of absence from his job as an environmental engineer in order to relax, travel and tour with Jux County, the other Denver combo for which he plays bass. "I saw John and said, 'I've got a lot of free time--why don't we at least mix down that tape so we have our own copy for ourselves?'" he recounts. "So the four of us got together, and Bob did a mix with the original tracks. And he made it sound so good and so full that the mix from that tape basically got us back together." Grant echoes Pearson's observation. "I was really surprised that after a year of not hearing it, we realized, 'This has gotten stronger.' It hadn't died."
Indeed, the recording, subsequently titled Moodswing, rivals Congo Norvell in its smoke, yearning and velveteen depths. But neither its unmistakable excellence nor the assumption of the Czars moniker could prevent another shakeup in the band. Rather than making a permanent commitment to the reunited four-piece, Frank beat a hasty exit to pursue a photography habit. David Stringfield, a fan of John Zorn and the Boredoms, proved to be a fine replacement; his guitar work lent a demented edge to the music that challenged and chafed at Grant's vocals. However, this lineup also was to prove short-lived. Following the recording of a first-rate live show at the Bluebird Theater in August, Stringfield quit. "When Jeff and I found out about it," Grant recalls, "we were both freaking out, because we didn't even hear about it until he didn't show up for practice that day." Fortunately, David Scott had just been added to the Czars as a second guitarist. He slid seamlessly into Stringfield's vacated slot, and after two weeks of practice, the act's current incarnation was once more able to lull the chatting cocktail set from a cramped corner at City Spirit.
Grant's remarkable pipes make this story of survival particularly meaningful. It's not that he's pitch-perfect or classically trained: He ain't. Rather, what compels is the sublimely lonely, ancient timbre of his voice, which blends the cry of a muezzin calling from a desert minaret and the sloe-gin melt of a torch singer. He'd hardly offer such an assessment about himself; one of the things that's most refreshing about him is his humility. "When you start out, you don't have much confidence--at least I didn't," he says. "But it's something that has grown by leaps and bounds since then. When you go out and have concerts and have people telling you that they like your music, then you're going to gain more confidence. That's just the way it is.
"I'd sung as a child in the church choir," Grant goes on, "but I really didn't get my voice until I went to Germany and was able to scream. I used to sing with my sister, who has a master's in music theory, and I'd ask her what she thought. She'd say, 'I feel like you're holding back.' Then something happened in Germany, and I was able to belt it out."
Still, Grant didn't immediately become a vocal extrovert. When a few friends asked him to play keyboards with their band during a practice session, he picked up a microphone instead--but crooning in a live setting inspired much more anxiety. "I was still very shy about my voice and scared to perform. We performed a few times, and I was scared shitless to get up there in front of people."
Although stage fright now has been replaced by nervous excitement--its kinder, gentler brother--Grant retains a touch of insecurity. As such, he prefers to use reverb as a safety blanket. According to him, "It has to do with the kind of effect I want to create with the voice--a hall effect." (His fondness for this sound predates the Czars. One summer Grant traveled to Russia, only to wind up quarantined in an old sanatorium after falling ill. He passed the time it took doctors to determine that he was only suffering from the flu by singing Patsy Cline tunes in a cavernous tiled bathroom.) But he concedes, "Chris and I fight about this all the time. He always wants less, but I like it to be there. Also, the confidence issue goes in with that. The more confident I get, the more I realize that the reverb is not so necessary on certain songs where it would be better to have a dry mike."
Musically speaking, Pearson, Scott and Linsenmaier carry Grant's voice like servants bearing an elegant sedan. They're not cramped by this subjugation, because they are just as enthralled by his singing as their audiences are. "I've been guilty of comparing John's voice to Brendan Perry's [of Dead Can Dance]," Pearson confesses, "but one key thing that separates John from Brendan is that John has a three-octave range--maybe more than that--and he can sing in falsetto and go to his low register so quickly. It's so dynamic. It has such a powerful effect on whoever's watching. Even when we're playing, we'll just be in awe."
Knowing that the interplay between vocals and instruments will grow more refined and intricate in the future only boosts the players' enthusiasm. "We're still a really young band, and we're just beginning to gel now, creatively," Linsenmaier explains. "And there's going to be a time when the music will come up and will come down, and John's voice will come up and come down naturally as part of the music, and it's going to sound right and good."
"The voice couldn't do what it does if it didn't have the support that it has," Grant remarks. "If I feel I'm having to fight with an instrument, I'll say, 'Let's have it go down to nothing here and let me do my thing.' And then we'll let David go off while I'm not singing."
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All four Czars write music for the band, and while they share a number of influences (Cocteau Twins, Jeff Buckley, Low, Swell, Throwing Muses), they cover an impressive range of styles--from polka to dirge to bossa nova. These assorted flavors prove infinitely compatible, like different types of fruit dipped in the chocolate of Grant's voice. Moreover, they are capable of provoking in listeners a broad spectrum of emotional responses.
"It's the greatest gift in the world--to take something that you feel and make somebody else feel that way, even if they don't necessarily want to," Linsenmaier says. "But music is such a powerful medium that if you're going to make someone feel a certain way, there should definitely be a way to offer something...I hesitate to say positive, but something like that. I like what we're doing now, because it makes me feel somber. It puts my feet back on the ground. I'm so darn sick of the whole pop thing like Filter and Nine Inch Nails. I don't see any point in making somebody feel totally angry and aggressive for no reason, for nothing, or for worse than nothing." Lately, Linsenmaier has been subsisting on a steady diet of Slowdive, Mojave 3 and classical airs--"the kind of music," he notes, "that makes me think about things in my life that are deeper than what I usually think about. I hope to play music like that--stuff people listen to and then think about what really matters."
"Music should enhance what you've got inside you, not tell you what you're supposed to be feeling," Grant elaborates. "I'm not on a mission or anything, but I would hope that our music would bring out the best in people and inspire them."
The Czars, with Shawn Strub. 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 20, Acoma City Center, 1080 Acoma Street, $5, 623-2349.