On the Money

Just because the word "swing" frequently accompanies descriptions of Money Plays Eight's music doesn't mean the members of the group are happy about it.

"We wouldn't even describe ourselves as swing," insists singer James Leo, one of two imposing frontmen for the nine-piece ensemble, a nominee for this week's Westword Music Awards Showcase. "Actually, I don't think a lot of people would describe us as swing, either. I think swing is one of the biggest misnomers. And we can be kind of tricky for the swingers, because sometimes we change beats and tempos in the middle of a song."

"We're pretty fast-paced," notes guitarist Don "Martini" Jerome, "and some dancers can't do all their lindy hop moves."

If the group's music doesn't necessarily cater to choreographed dance steps, it's unashamedly enamored of many of the retro movement's totems, icons and accoutrements. Several tracks on the band's debut CD, Yeah, Charlie!, exhort listeners to grab a partner in order to jump and jive--and the musicians are heavily into the concept of fashion as a statement. Trombone and harmonica whiz Dave Flomberg doesn't even flinch when defending Money Plays Eight's clothing sense.

"Fashion and music go hand in hand," he points out. "Are the zoot suits, spats and fedoras really that different from ripped jeans and T-shirts?"

Not for these guys. Even on a night off, the Money men (Leo, Jerome, Flomberg, singer Craig "Bushmills" Mills, pianist Chris Alaimo, guitarist Mike Taveira, drummer Nick White, saxophonist Paul Dubbs and trumpeter Jason Dowe) look as dapper as can be, and packs of smokes and clinking tumblers of bourbon and ice are rarely out of reach. Fedoras are optional at home, but as Leo confirms, the look and feel of this late-night crowd come by choice, not chance. "From my perspective, attitude-wise, we're a cross between the Rat Pack, the Stones and the Beastie Boys."

Leo traces part of the group's focus on women, gambling and glamour to his frequent childhood exposure to the neon and action of casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In fact, he confesses with a laugh, Circus Circus is one of his favorite vacation spots. "My family was a bunch of gamblers," he says. "We'd go to Vegas every year for Christmas. The biggest thing that sticks in my mind is the first time I went out there with my folks. I was ten years old, it was in 1976, and that's when Lefty Rosenthal--remember the movie Casino?--was running the Stardust." During subsequent trips, young Leo picked up on the jargon associated with gambling and discovered one phrase in particular that rolled off his tongue with ease. "If you're playing with money instead of chips and you put money on the table, they say, 'Money plays.' If you're playing craps and you put money on number eight, they say, 'Money plays eight.'"

Back in Denver, where he works as a firefighter, Leo had the urge to turn these influences into a musical project, but he didn't know where to start. He found his first clue in the fashion market.

"Me and Craig met at a hair-modeling show," he says. "They were scouting for guys with rockabilly-type pompadours dressed a certain way, and we were. We had the clothes, the hair, all that. We showed up to this thing, and I was like, 'Who the fuck's this guy?' So we went to a bar and started drinking and talking about music. He was thinking about going back to L.A. and trying to start a band, because he knew some guys from the Royal Crown Revue and the New Morty Show. I said, 'Well, let's do it here. You could be a little fish in a big pond, or you can sit here and swim around our pond a little bit and grow to be a big fish.'"

The strategy turned out to be a wise one. Over the course of the past eighteen months, Money Plays Eight has become a red-hot commodity in Denver's burgeoning swing/dance/big-band scene. Its success is due in part to the group's irresistible knack for calling patrons to the dance floor and for the interlocking grooves and jazz flashiness shown off by most of the Players. But their threads deserve a lot of the credit, too.

"When we were out scouting around to fill positions, we kept getting the wrong kind of people responding to the ad in the newspaper," Leo says. "So we just went out to bars, hit the scene and asked people. It took us a while, because we usually ended up just getting loaded."

One of the first recruits was the aptly nicknamed Martini, who has become Money Plays Eight's de facto hospitality administrator.

"I wanted Donnie in the band," Leo remembers. "I met him at a party and asked him to join, and he was standoffish at first--like, 'Who's this drunken asshole?'"

Martini shakes his head and chuckles at the thought. "He was hammered!"
Today, Leo insists that alcohol isn't required to appreciate Money Plays Eight. "I see people pimping out the martinis and the cigars and things like that. But the people who are really into dancing don't even drink."

In contrast, practically everyone in Money Plays Eight does--and the fact that the booze is flowing isn't the only reason the performers get along. The reason, Martini contends, is the group's sprawling size. When it comes time to making a decision, he says, sheer numbers help the process run more smoothly. "I've always played in bands with three or four people, and if you've got someone with a big disagreement and there's only three of you, you've got big problems--33 percent of the band is in disagreement. With nine people, things seem to fall back in balance a lot easier."

"Yeah," Leo chimes in. "If one guy's out of line, there's eight other guys there to say, 'Hey, you're out of line.'" Before one can envision what disciplinary action might follow (fines? watered-down drinks?), he quickly adds, "Actually, it never really comes to that."

According to Flomberg, being big has other advantages as well. "We don't have one guy's style," he says. "It's nine guys' style."

Money Plays Eight may soon find out if its popularity can extend beyond Denver. One of the band's tracks is expected to turn up on an upcoming Rykodisc release, A Night at the Derby, and a couple of national imprints have shown interest in distributing its sophomore LP. Leo has big plans for the group's future. "We want to put out an album every eight months, and I already have an idea for what to do with the third one: It's to write something like Guys and Dolls." That may sound overly ambitious, but, notes Leo, "ambition is what gets you out of your basement."

In the meantime, the members of Money Plays Eight are attracting throngs wherever they perform, and club owners seem to adore them. "They sell lots of liquor when we play," Martini boasts.

Apparently, people get thirstier when the sun goes down. "You know why it sounds better at night?" Leo asks. "Because some of us don't wake up until three o'clock in the afternoon."

Not that Leo expects anyone to believe that he sleeps in gabardine suits and makes weekend runs to Havana to stock up on stogies. In his opinion, it's not all about living the high life and embracing decadent imagery from days past.

"We just want people to have a good time, even if they can't dance and they just want to watch or listen," he says. "After all, what we play really isn't swing. We're basically just doing pop songs with horns."

Money Plays Eight, at the Westword Music Awards Showcase. Sunday, September 20, lower downtown. See Showcase guide for a complete schedule.

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