Approaching a certain nondescript building in the warehouse district north of downtown Denver can be an unnerving experience--especially if you're visiting at night. The street is poorly lit, the people meandering nearby have the look of the criminally insane, and the rabid, wildly yapping dogs prowling the adjacent properties seem to consider each passerby a seven-course dinner on legs.
Make it alive through the structure's rear entrance, though, and you'll find yourself in a far different environment. The room has the look of a sprawling loft, but aside from a spongy, bedspread-draped couch and a few other pieces of hand-me-down furniture, it's dominated by musical devices: a drum kit, a stand-up bass, a ragged-looking squeeze box, a banjo. Bassist Keven Soll, drummer Jean-yves Tola and multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards--the three performers who form 16 Horsepower, the latest great Denver band to sign to a major label--hover over these items like surgeons ready to make an incision. Music has always been a serious matter to them, and now that Los Angeles-based A&M Records is preparing to introduce them to a national audience, it has become more pressing still.
"It's a rarity for this to happen to a band in Colorado right now," Edwards says, "and like a lot of people around here, I probably have an exaggerated view of what it all means. Especially because things are getting harder every day. It took a lot of hard work to get here, and now it's going to take even more work. But it's the kind of work I want to do."
For anyone fortunate enough to have seen 16 Horsepower live, Edwards's response likely comes as no surprise. The trio's members aren't humorless, but they are intense--and when they're on stage, pushing and pulling every last bit of blood and passion out of their songs and themselves, they seem utterly driven. Compositions such as "Black Soul Wire" (apt to be the first single from 16 Horsepower's A&M debut) have a life of their own because Edwards, Soll and Tola have infused them with a significant portion of theirs.
Such a description makes 16 Horsepower sound inaccessible, which it clearly is not: In around two years of life, the act has become one of the top local draws in the Denver-Boulder area. But convincing record-company scouts that something fresh and original is worthy of attention was not easy.
"We did an ASCAP showcase at the Coconut Teaser in Los Angeles in April of '94," Tola notes, "and this guy from MCA went to see us and really liked us."
"He said he did, anyway," Edwards offers.
"He really did--he's still calling us," Tola continues. "But the problem was, he passed along our tape, and after listening to it over and over again, his boss said he didn't know what to do with us."
Edwards nods. "That was why we liked A&M. They have faith in us--that we know what the music is supposed to sound like and how we want to present ourselves."
"One of the first things our A&R guy said," Soll interjects, "was, `They have ideas.' He thought that was a good thing."
He's right. 16 Horsepower has many strengths, but one of the most important of those is the members' conviction that they know what's best. As Soll puts it, "I don't mean this to sound bigheaded or anything, but I have no doubt in my mind that we're going to make a great record. How everything's going to work with the record company is something else entirely, but as far as the music goes, I have no doubt about it at all."
The roots of the band go back to the late Eighties, when Edwards was living in Los Angeles and playing with the Denver Gentlemen, an act renowned for its exciting and heartfelt exploration of traditional American musical styles. Tola, too, was headquartered in L.A.: He was playing with Passion Fodder, a combo that put out a handful of albums on the Beggar's Banquet imprint. Following Fodder's 1992 collapse, Tola, a native of France, joined the Gentlemen. At first blush, the thought of a Frenchman keeping time for such a band might seem incongruous, but Tola assures that the fit was right.
"I grew up listening to American music," he reveals. "Leonard Cohen, bluegrass, old rock and roll. I never got into French music, thank God. They've got a couple of good bands over there now, but it took them fifty years."
By 1993 Edwards's creative impulses led him to leave the Gentlemen, and Tola returned to Denver with him. The pair soon got together with Soll (a guitar-shop owner who recently changed his last name from Warner to honor his late grandfather) and formed 16 Horsepower. After a few months of woodshedding, the group played its first show for around thirty people at the Mercury Cafe. But in a matter of months, this unheralded act had earned a reputation as one of the city's preeminent musical forces--even if no one could quite figure out how to describe what the threesome was doing.
"We've been called country punk, but we never liked that," Soll notes.
"That's because we play country, hillbilly, rock, tons of things," Tola adds.
"A melting pot," Edwards concludes. "That's all we are. A melting pot."
As local acclaim grew, 16 Horsepower won the right to play at the ASCAP showcase--and while the attentions of MCA never came to much, they spurred contacts by a who's who of U.S. music firms. "We heard from Slash, Virgin, Mute, Rykodisc, Columbia, RCA, Epic, Caroline, Sony," Tola recalls. "Some others, too. I can't remember them all."
The connection that counted was California-based Jamie Fraser, who has since become 16 Horsepower's manager. Fraser was friendly with Bob Ferbrache, a Denver musician and engineer who currently handles mixing chores for MusicLink, a music-video program that airs on KUBD-TV/ Channel 59. During a get-together last year, Ferbrache forwarded a 16 Horsepower demo, and Fraser was so impressed that he got in touch with Jeff Suhi, who works in the artists-and-repertoire department at A&M. Suhi was just as floored by the cassette--so much so that he flew to Denver to catch 16 Horsepower live. "And that was pretty much it," Tola admits. "Jeff wasn't like the other record-company people, who would say, `You guys are really great,' but you could tell that they were really only interested because everybody else was interested. He really meant it."
The impending business relationship was solidified after Ferbrache and the members of 16 Horsepower were flown to Los Angeles for a meeting with A&M brass. Edwards, who concedes that he "never thought a major label would be interested in us," was shocked to discover that A&M's president "knew the names of all our songs. He said he'd been listening to it all the time. He said"--Edwards sounds slightly embarrassed--"that listening to it made him feel happy."
As negotiations got under way in earnest, however, a musical experiment went awry. Edwards and company asked Ferbrache to add keyboards to a number of 16 Horsepower songs, leading many in Denver's music community to assume that the engineer had been made a full member of the group. As a result, the trio's decision that the new sound was not working took on sinister connotations among gossips who suggested that Ferbrache had been used for his connections and then cast aside. All parties involved dispute this theory.
"We've heard that people say we got rid of him because of money or whatever, but that didn't have anything to do with it," Soll says. "What it came down to was the music. It was just that the edge and the unity that we had was missing."
"There were spaces in the songs that we thought we needed to fill," Edwards elaborates. "But we realized that the spaces really made a lot of the songs work."
"And it also softened the sound too much," Tola states. "I think all of us realized it wasn't helping."
As for Ferbrache, he claims to harbor no ill feelings: "It was a sideman thing--I was just helping out, but they wanted to go with a rawer approach." Even though he's no longer involved with the music, he touts the group as "the one band that has the sound and style that's going to take them to the next step. I think they're great."
So does A&M, which initially offered 16 Horsepower a contract with a hefty advance. But after talking with some friends with experience in dealing with music companies--including Spell's Tim Beckman and former Fluid lead singer John Robinson--the bandmates decided to avoid getting in over their heads. The final wording on the documents, which are being finalized this week, calls for a modest advance and an agreement that guarantees that A&M will issue 16 Horsepower's first album. If that disc sells 75,000 copies, a second disc is also guaranteed, and A&M retains an option for five additional recordings after that.
The contract also gives 16 Horsepower a relatively large amount of creative freedom, and thus far the company has lived up to these provisions. Warren Bruleigh, who has worked with the Violent Femmes, the Afghan Whigs, Lou Reed and many other notables, was the band's choice to serve as producer (he was recommended by Robinson), and A&M raised no objections. Preproduction on the thus-far-untitled disc begins in Denver on January 23. A few weeks later, after live dates in Kansas and Missouri, the musicians are scheduled to work with Bruleigh at Memphis's Ardent Studio, where Led Zeppelin and Big Star cut memorable offerings. Edwards says the sessions that follow should take about a month, with tracks likely to be drawn from a library of songs he's written or co-written since 1991. "There may be a couple of things from the past six months," he guesses, "but mostly it'll be songs that people around here will be familiar with--and maybe some that we haven't played for a while. We've got so much stuff now that there really isn't much of a point to writing more yet."
Once the album is in the can, 16 Horsepower will be on a fast track. The players want it in stores by July, after which they'll hit the road with a more established headliner (they recently signed a pact with a well-known California booking agency that represents the Cowboy Junkies, Lyle Lovett and Mazzy Star). There are also videos to consider. "We want to film the first one at the Forney Museum," Soll says. "It's my favorite place in Denver. We took Jeff over there, and it totally freaked him out."
Only a year ago, plans like this would have seemed like fantasies. Now that they are not, Edwards, Soll and Tola are tackling them with the same deliberation that marks their approach to their songs. Tola, for instance, notes that the band will self-finance a seven-inch single that they want to ship to fanzines around the country prior to the A&M album's release. "It will let people know what's coming," he predicts. "We want to move slowly and steadily. I don't think we'll go double platinum in the first month or anything, but if A&M sticks with us like they did with the Gin Blossoms and Soundgarden, I think it can work."
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"Yeah," Edwards says with a grin. "1995 will be the year of the horse."
Laughing, Soll notes, "Actually, I think it's the year of the dog."
The mutts outside bay their approval. But the horses inside sound a hell of a lot better.
Violent Femmes, with 16 Horsepower. 9 p.m. Friday, January 20, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18, 444-SEAT or 830-2525.
16 Horsepower, with Slim Cessna's Auto Club. 8 p.m. Saturday, January 21, Bluebird Theatre, 3317 East Colfax, $5, 322-2308.