Pleading the Fifth

The Fifth dimension: Shane Montgomery Ewegen (from left), Pete Moses, Nick Moses and Nick Smalkowski are the Fifth Utility.
Mark Manger

I just want to share my sadness with the world," sighs Shane Montgomery Ewegen, singer and guitarist of Denver's Fifth Utility.

There's a problem with talking to the guys in the Fifth Utility: They're dead fucking serious. Even more serious, in fact, than their music might lead you to believe. The group's latest release, Ultra Nylon Life of Ease, is anything but a breeze to listen to. It's a challenging disc, dense and oppressive, thick with a murky ennui that belies its soaring majesty and lofty atmospherics. You'd get a killer view from the top of Ultra Nylon -- that is, if you could somehow cut through all the gray clouds and existential smog.

Of course, it takes only a few minutes to realize that Ewegen's stiff-upper-lipped facade is a little less impenetrable than it might appear. "Why are we so serious? Hmm, it's funny..." he deadpans. "I don't know what to say. I'm a very serious man. I hardly ever laugh. I hardly ever have any fun in any situation. And it is true that our music has a very poor sense of humor. It's not very eager to talk or make fun of itself."

Like most rock bands, the Fifth Utility comprises four lily-white dudes in their twenties who could almost pass for some kind of unassuming gang. They even have a clubhouse of sorts, a two-story rental in the City Park West neighborhood where they rehearse and where three of the bandmembers reside. Walk in the front door and you'll hit the living room, a barely navigable labyrinth of boxes, cables, amps, microphones, computers, uncased CDs, stuffed monkeys, a Naugahyde-upholstered piano and, for furniture, two back seats taken from an extended-cab van. Dubbed the Utility Closet, the room is the nerve center of the group's in-house studio, where Ultra Nylon was painstakingly recorded over the course of four months. Tacked to the walls are a guide to film noir cinema and an instructional poster titled "How to Do the 2-Step," complete with dotted-line footprints.

"We have an amazing collection of calendars," says Ewegen as he pushes a path through the detritus. He stops at a table cluttered with a Flannery O'Connor book and copies of Rolling Stone and Enlightened Woman magazine and digs out a rather disturbing George W. Bush 2004 Commemorative Calendar. "We also have one with pictures of all the prominent Republican families, like Madeleine Albright's," he adds. "And they're all naked."

Wait, was that a joke?

Ewegen continues through the kitchen (where he hospitably offers a glass of soy milk or some vegetarian sausage) before making his way down a precipitous flight of stairs and into the basement -- the Fifth Utility's sanctum sanctorum. The ceiling is low, and the whole room is cocooned in blankets, fragments of carpet and a tacky tapestry of a peacock. Littered throughout the cramped space are laptops, keyboards and battered effects pedals. As the rest of the band files down for practice, Ewegen straps on his guitar, adjusts his mike and apologizes for what he predicts will be a rough rehearsal. They haven't played together for three weeks, he warns, ever since they got back from their last tour, a week-long trek down the West Coast.

The instant the four of them hit a note, though, all caveats are forgotten. The small room can scarcely contain the sound pouring out of them, a storm front of melody and emotion that engulfs their house (and probably a couple of the neighbors') in a dismal, monolithic din. True to form, it's somber listening. Drummer Nick Smalkowski spins tangled rhythms and off-kilter signatures that seethe in and out of the bass lines of Nick Moses, who casually bruises bowels with the barest brush of his fingertips against the strings. Beneath all this, Nick's brother Pete and fellow singer/guitarist Ewegen strum and strangle their guitars into the contorted shapes of suspended chords, dissonant harmonics and circuit-sculpted feedback. Their voices are punctured lungs; their words are last gasps. The players stand there, stoic and self-conscious, grimacing occasionally at a hardly audible dropped beat or missed note.

Christ, these guys need to lighten up.

"Personally, I think we should play a song that's not so fucking dour," says Pete Moses after four back-to-back dirges that make "Don't Fear the Reaper" sound like a Barney song. Moses then glances around the basement at his bandmates, all of them stiff and visibly nervous with someone sitting in their practice space, documenting their every word and action. "You guys ever notice," he asks wryly, "how much less funny we are when someone's watching?"

After practice, upstairs in Ewegen's tiny, bookshelf-crammed bedroom, the Fifth Utility tries to throw light upon its apparent lack of mirth. "I take this music very seriously. There's always a model -- the song in heaven -- which we're trying to make something in reality sound like," Ewegen explains as if reading straight from one of the fat books on Plato stacked behind him. "Quite a few people have objected to me in the past about our music, saying that it's not very fun to listen to. It doesn't give one an opportunity to dance or hop around or sing along. But that's not what music is for me, and that's not what I want my music to be for other people. I want people to patiently endure what I have done." At this he cracks a sphinx-like smile before summoning his best Mr. Spock face. "Entertainment," he concludes, "is peripheral."  

"It's all about the music and whether or not it, by itself, can elicit a strong emotional response," theorizes Moses. "It has nothing to do with how good-looking we are or how sexily we jump in the air as we're about to hit a guitar chord."

"Which we all do, very capably," notes Ewegen." I don't think that making serious music and dancing and jumping around are mutually exclusive, by any means. The bands that I adore the most certainly make me shake my ass, but I also keep my ears open and try to make some sense of it."

Making sense of the Fifth Utility's two albums, however, is easier said than done. 2001's Misanthropolis was put together nine months into the quartet's existence, though Ewegen and Moses had been writing songs and trying to assemble a group for two years prior. While calling it a "pretty reasonable document of where we were at the time," Moses also acknowledges that Misanthropolis sounds "rushed" and "mushy." That's pretty accurate: The groundwork is solid, but the unrefined vocals and riff-saturated approach betrays some ratty punk and emo roots that never quite jelled with a grander sonic ambition.

But the progression from Misanthropolis to Ultra Nylon was as quantum as Radiohead's leap from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Suddenly, the Fifth Utility's rocky arrangements and vocals had been smoothed out and melted down into a more malleable ore. Tracks such as "Null" and "Viking Funeral" are alternately fluid and brittle, with filaments of tension strung between bursts of almost dreamlike beauty. Make that nightmarish: As swelling and anthemic as Ultra Nylon is, it's twisted into a knot of bleak abjectness and puzzling complexity.

"It's a much more...patient album," says Moses. "We all definitely have a tendency to write parts that are at the very tip of what we're capable of playing. I guess that's just the particular boundary we feel like pushing. But it's tough to jump off the drum riser and stick the guitar out between your legs and still play something that you can barely play when you're sitting down with glasses on."

The outfit's solemnity, though, can sometimes be misconstrued. "I think we're kind of on the shy, withdrawn side," says Moses. "People will come up after shows and want to talk about the band, and I won't know what to say."

"Especially after we just did the equivalent of having sex standing in front of a room full of people," Ewegen says. "We're really trying to open up and let people in to see our souls when we're on stage. It feels great, like you're actually in contact with people. Then you realize, 'Oh, my God, I just whipped it out in front of all these people. I'm at their mercy.' The scrutiny can be foreboding.

"We don't assume an arrogant posture," he concludes, "but it's very easy to mistake it for that."

Regardless, the members of the Fifth Utility are almost overwhelming self-deprecating. (They incessantly describe themselves as everything from "idiots" to "pussies" to, puzzlingly, "dogs in the sniffing-ass stage.") Moreover, the foursome is not as self-absorbed as it might seem. In fact, its CD-release show will benefit two charities: ArtReach, an organization that makes it possible for underprivileged kids and families to attend cultural and sporting events, and a fund set up by the North Metro Drug Task Force to help children separated from their families after meth-lab raids in their homes.

Ultimately, no matter how monastically they treat their art, the players create and perform music for the same reasons everybody else does: to communicate, to connect with others and to push themselves creatively -- even if it's to the point of utter despair.

"For me, playing music is 99 percent horrible depression," Moses confesses. "I'll never be to the point I want to be. You're always climbing up this rock, and it just keeps going. But that's also what's great about it. That's why music is something you can do your whole life and not something you do for ten minutes and then put away."  

"It's an infinite path, this Sisyphean task," affirms Ewegen. "Part of the joy of making music is being able to revel in the absurdity of it and grow from the absurdity -- and yet be very, very serious about it. I mean, this is incredibly serious to us. This is how we're giving definition to our lives.

"And if I'm not having fun," he adds with a grin, "you can't have any fun."

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