Paying the Price
Get any punk-rocker talking about his roots, and things can get a little ridiculous. Amid the revisionist history that ignores now-embarrassing elementary-school purchases and junior high school identity crises, there are tales of being conceived at an X concert, hearing Minor Threat records played while in utero and other equally ridiculous claims. Everybody, it seems, was just born to be a punk.
Well, maybe not everybody. While the Gamits' fast-paced pop punk may have earned the Denver trio an honored place in the Mile High punk scene, it's not something that its members (singer/guitarist Chris Fogal, bassist Matt Vanleuven and drummer Forrest Bartosh) ever really saw coming. The band's roots are more entwined in the crushing velocity of metal and a shared distrust of three-chord rock. In fact, when he reflects upon it, Fogal's a little surprised his band's been accepted with such open arms by Denver's punk community.
"Late-'80s speed metal is what I grew up on," he says. "Later on I discovered punk rock and more melodic old stuff -- like the Beatles or Beach Boys -- and combined those two, and it turned out the way it was. We sort of just got adopted into the pop-punk category, which is fine. I love pop, and I love punk rock."
It's not too surprising, though, that punks have embraced the Gamits: Although the requisite melodies are present in the band's songs, they also sport a distinctly disheveled edge. They are upbeat and friendly while simultaneously flaunting a high-voltage energy. The Gamits make use of the enterprising pop of bands like Big Drill Car as well as the grimier side of acts such as the Vandals. The act's most recent release and most pop effort to date -- the EP A Small Price to Pay -- has an easily discernible punk element to it. Yet for Fogal, the idea of landing any sort of genre-based sound is one that he's grown out of.
"I know we have a broad perspective, but I don't know that we have a broader perspective than anyone else," he says. "Whenever I sit down to write a song, I'm not thinking about punk rock at all. I'm just thinking about writing a rocking song with a good hook. I could really care less nowadays who likes it. Maybe back in the day when we first started, I admittedly was more concerned. Since we were playing to a punk-rock audience, I was thinking, 'Well, what are people going to think about this or that?' We were more poppy than any other band in Colorado at the time. Now it doesn't even matter."
At the beginning, things didn't flow so freely for the Gamits. Fogal and Vanleuven came together in high school in the early '90s, when they found common ground in their love of Slayer. (They also shared an aversion to the barbershop, the hallmark of any true metalhead.) By the time the two formed the Gamits in 1996, their musical horizons had expanded to include an appreciation of classic pop and punk rock. They laid down their speed-metal aims and began to explore upbeat, melodic material. At times that pursuit was put on hold. Fogal became the second guitarist for Denver's Pinhead Circus and toured frequently with the band, effectively quelling any Gamits-related activity. But the group began rolling again as a trio in 1997, after Fogal parted ways with the Circus. Once reunited, however, the players made a grim discovery: With their lineup as it was -- Matt Martinez played bass while Vanleuven sat behind the kit and Fogal sang and played guitar -- they really weren't any good at all. Fortunately, the problem was fairly easy to remedy.
"We decided that we needed a better drummer and that Matt [Vanleuven] would be a lot better off on bass, since he's a guitar player," Fogal says. "He's played guitar all his life, and here we had him playing the drums. That's no good. He moved to bass, and we picked up Forrest."
Fogal and Bartosh had worked together as punk mates in Pinhead Circus; Bartosh was the band's original drummer and played during Fogal's short-lived stint in the band. Soon after plundering the Pinheads' roster, the Gamits began to get things moving in earnest. After a few seven-inch records and compilation tracks, the trio released its debut EP, This Is My Boomstick, in 1998 on Too the Left Records. Last March the band switched labels and released its first full-length CD, Endorsed by You, on locally owned Suburban Home Records. The band's relationship with the Denver-based imprint has proved a fortuitous one. The offices are just a few minutes' drive from the band's practice space, which allows the Gamits to keep in touch with headquarters. Suburban Home also happens to be operated by longtime Fogal friend Virgil Dickerson.
"It does help, because Virgil takes care of so many things locally," Fogal says. "I can't remember the last time I had to book a show for our band. He really helps promote the local shows. I guess it's good to be on a label that's out of Denver, but not every label's going to do that."
The Gamits' effort and their label's elbow grease haven't been for naught. Since the release of Endorsed by You, the trio has landed gigs opening for nerd-pop idols Weezer. The band also made an appearance on a side stage during last year's Warped Tour. Fogal's still a little giddy about playing with Weezer. That enthusiasm fades quickly, though, when he recalls the Gamits' Warped Tour experience.
"It was definitely a good opportunity. We played on the Best Buy stage, and it was during this cheesy battle-of-the-bands thing," he says. "We played really, really awful. We saw it on video later, and I was like, 'Oh, God, that was awful!' Whatever."
The current woeful state of pop punk could be considered both a blessing and a curse for a band like the Gamits. It's tough to have to share space under the stylistic umbrella that also shelters bubblegum acts such as Good Charlotte and Sum 41, especially when some listeners project puerility onto the entire subgenre. There's been a noticeable backlash against pop punk in general by legions of fans fed up with the chorus lines of dancing midgets and butt jokes that have invaded the style in its most mainstream incarnations. After all, things can only go so far before they become tiresome. Luckily for the Gamits and all of their compatriots in non-embarrassing pop, there's still an audience that's able to look beneath the made-for-the-shopping-mall elements pervading the latest hot sound.
"Like with Blink 182 and all that -- it was just getting out of hand beyond the Green Day thing, and now Sum 41 and crap like that," he says. "I think that people within our scene know better nowadays. MTV and whatever corporate radio is going to pick up on any next new fad. The next time it'll be emo. Now it's like rap-punk or whatever Sum 41 is. It's horrible!"
The Gamits' roots in the Denver scene may be part of what helps their music remain largely untainted by fads. While punk epicenters such as Los Angeles, Berkeley and Washington, D.C., produce a lot of high-profile acts, they are also conscious of keeping up with musical fashions. Denver's distance from such rock-and-roll hot spots is more than geographic: Here there's a much wider acceptance of all forms of rock. It makes for a welcoming atmosphere for bands that don't easily fit into pigeonholes.
"If I ever hear anyone talking bad about the Denver scene, it's not that it offends me personally, but I know that it's out of ignorance," Fogal says, "If you ever go on tour and go to every crappy little town in the U.S., you come back to Denver and realize that, 'Wow, we've got a really good thing going here.' Especially since it's not a really big-sized city. It's big enough where we have a lot of bands, a lot of variety, a lot of big shows, but it's small enough to keep it sort of tight."
Even if his hometown was full of hipsters ready to unleash their venom upon poor pop acts, it's hard to see Fogal and company changing their tune to toe the line. Acquiring the "hippest" label isn't something they're too concerned with.
"When it comes to writing a song, I don't really care what it turns out like," says Fogal. "Punk rock is so broad these days anyway, I don't think it matters, as long as it rocks."
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