Stuffed into a pair of oversized booths at Mickey Manor, the members of Ten Cent Redemption could pass as a support group for male pattern baldness. And from the sound of it, this isn't the first time these follicly challenged musicians -- vocalist/guitarist Rhett Lee, guitarist John Waggoner, drummer Bill Thomason and bassist Tony Burke -- have been mistaken for something they're not.
"We were at Toad Tavern a couple weeks ago, and he and I are sitting back to back in a booth," Lee recalls, motioning toward Thomason. "And Jay, the sound guy there, comes up to Bill and goes, 'Hey, Dave. How's it going?' Bill's like, 'Uh, my name's Bill.' He's like, 'No shit? The guys from Tequila Mockingbird just told me you're Dave Herrera.'"
There are worse things you could accuse these guys of than resembling a crass, overweight, chain-smoking, curmudgeonly music critic. Being a bar band, for instance. Sipping his beer, Lee blanches at the mere suggestion. "When you say 'bar band' to me," he says, "I think of a cover band."
Ten Cent's music is far more sophisticated than that of your average bar band: Equal parts Brit pop and Americana, it would sound more at home in a Dublin pub circa 1983 than, say, a Jersey shore dive today. But the act's ethos is definitely that of a working-class bar band. Taking its moniker from the recycling notice printed on the backs of beer bottles, Ten Cent Redemption formed in July 2004, after Lee's previous outfit, the much-lauded Carolyn's Mother, disbanded. And according to Burke, these thirty-somethings have no delusions of grandeur. They're all about playing music purely for the joy of it.
"We decided that right up front," he says. "We talked about it openly. We're like, 'Hey, this is for fun.' We've all been around the block. It's almost like because of all our past, our contacts and everything else, everything has come to us more easily than it did before. But we're not necessarily expecting anything to happen. We're just having fun, and I think that that comes across in our performances."
"The intent," Thomason interjects, "is as long as we keep writing really good material, and the four of us really enjoy it and really believe in it, that's what it's all about. Every time we get on stage, about halfway through that first song, everything fades out, and it's just the four of us in a room, playing."
"We're just four guys who really enjoy playing together for the right reasons," Waggoner adds. "We're glad when people receive it well, and it's definitely more fun to play for a room full of people, but it comes down to enjoyment."
"We're open to people who want to give us millions of dollars," Lee clarifies with a laugh, "but we're not actively pursuing it."
That's evident when you see their impassioned live show. While countless counterparts blindly follow the latest trends and obsess over projecting just the right image, Ten Cent Redemption simply plays from the heart.
"I feel young again, honestly," Lee confesses. "It feels like it did when I was eighteen and we were starting a new band and wanting to take over the world."
If Lee's exuberance makes him seem like a divorcée dating for the first time in years, that's understandable. Ten Cent is only his second true band experience. He formed an outfit called the Floor with Thomason in 1992, when he was just out of high school. Although the two had an acrimonious split in 1996, Lee continued with the group (which changed its name to Carolyn's Mother along the way) until its farewell show in October 2004. Meanwhile, Thomason devoted his time to deejaying under the moniker DJ B-Ill. The old friends made amends when Thomason e-mailed Lee the day Carolyn's final album was released.
"At that time," Lee says, "I already knew that Carolyn's days were numbered. So we started talking about jamming together. We played together a couple of times, just the two of us. It was kind of ridiculous."
"He and I were dicking around in the basement at my house," says Thomason. "And we were talking about getting something together just to try it out and play around and see what happens. I'd been out of the band scene for so long, I didn't know anybody anymore."
As luck would have it, Lee was having conversations with a few other potential suitors, including Rexway's Mike Mitchell (who was in the band for eight hours, Lee says) and Waggoner. But he was most eager to reconnect with Burke, who'd just moved back to Denver after parting ways with Mere, his former band in Los Angeles.
"Tony and I had been talking for a couple of years," Lee remembers, "kind of half joking that we were going to start this alt-country band as a side project. Then I saw him playing, and I said, 'That's the kind of guitar player I want.' And I ended up getting that guitar player. So I definitely had him in mind for what I wanted to start."
"This band has been destined to start since mid-2002, before I moved out to L.A.," Burke adds. "I was on the fence, trying to decide whether or not to take the plunge and move with those guys. And Rhett was trying to keep me here in Denver. He's like, 'We'll end Carolyn's and start the Wilco band.' I was thinking about it -- I considered it briefly -- and then I ended up moving out there. As soon as I got back, I didn't have anybody in town to play with. I kept meaning to get ahold of Rhett and say, 'Hey, let's start our Wilco band.' And finally, I ended up bumping into him a couple times, and it turned out happening."
And how. Within a few months, Ten Cent debuted three songs at a Halloween party at Bob Rupp's house. By New Year's Eve, the act had amassed enough songs for a full set, which it played in support of the Railbenders. Soon after, the band entered the studio to record its exceptional debut, prophetically titled Worst Plan Ever. The disc's name was "apropos," Thomason says, "because of the way it was recorded, mixed and released. We went through a lot of challenges getting it out."
"There were a lot of things we were going through," Lee explains. "Basically, when it came down to mixing and mastering, the only one that could be there for it was Johnny. Julie, my wife, was in the hospital, so I was out. And these guys were busy with stuff, so they were out. We had a deadline. We had our CD-release party booked before we were done recording. So it just kind of became the worst plan ever to actually try and get it all done. But in the end, I'm happy with the way it all came together."
Although that time period was trying, it also produced one of the disc's most poignant tracks, "Already Raining," a song Lee penned as his wife was hanging on to life in a hospital bed. "She had a 47-degree angle in her spine," he recounts. "When we walked by, when they showed us the X-rays, she told me later that she was looking at the X-rays on the wall, thinking to herself, 'At least I'm not that person' -- and that was her.
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"Don't ask me about this," he continues, letting out a nervous laugh as his eyes mist over. "She was supposed to be in the hospital three days, but one of her lungs collapsed and she almost died. She was in the hospital about two weeks."
Elsewhere on the disc, Lee wistfully eulogizes his former band with "Somewhere in Between," perhaps the best song he's ever written, and the singer gets downright menacing on "Bring Your Gun." Although some fans say that Ten Cent's debut already outshines his former band's entire output, Lee insists that Carolyn's Mother will always have its place. As long as his songs continue to resonate, he'll be happy.
"When Bill and I met in high school, when we were first starting out, we said, 'If we can write music that touches people, then we've done it. We've accomplished the ultimate thing.' So as long as we keep doing that," Lee concludes, "if you want to call us a bar band, that's okay with me."