It's an unseasonably warm Sunday, and the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs are embroiled in a bare-knuckle, winner-take-all slugfest. Clinton Portis has just scored his fifth touchdown of the day. Earlier, ex-Bronco-turned-Chief Eddie Kennison had accused his former team of being scared and promised to "put something on their ass." Now Portis is prancing around the sidelines with a gold-plated championship belt around his waist. There's a fine line between arrogance and confidence. The difference, as exhibited by Portis, is results.
"How 'bout that game?" Chris Romero asks as he opens the door of his suburban home a few hours later. Although he's stout enough to be mistaken for a middle linebacker, he's no football player. But he's a die-hard Broncos fan, and there's no doubt he's been pulling for Portis and the boys. As a musician, Romero has frequently found his zeal mistaken for arrogance. He knows what it's like to be backed into a corner, to have his integrity questioned, to be misunderstood, disliked, even hated.
In the '90s, at times it seemed like his old band, Sick, had everything handed to it, from gigs at the Vans Warped Tour and Lollapalooza to opening up for the Deftones and Megadeth at Red Rocks. Sick may have been the first unsigned act to be inducted into the Hard Rock Cafe and have a song added to regular rotation on mainstream radio. And the usual suspects were just waiting for Romero to fumble. To fail.
But they didn't know Romero. They didn't know how hard he'd worked or how far he'd come. They didn't know that before he ever played any of his own material, he'd spent years playing other people's songs, honing his craft. They only know the guy they saw behind the mike. The guy with his game face on.
They didn't know the guy I knew. Romero and I have been friends for nearly a decade now, and for two of those years, when I managed Sick, we worked side by side.
Today we're on opposite sides of the field. But Romero's not playing any game. He's confident in who he is, a regular guy who divides his time between shuttling his youngest son back and forth to baseball and wrestling practices, spending time with his wife of thirteen years -- and making music. With his family, he's more Mr. Mom than Mr. Wonderful. In fact, if it weren't for his office decor -- autographed posters, laminates and pictures of Romero with the various rock icons he calls friends -- you'd never suspect he was a performer.
"Some of my friends will tease me," he says. "They'll be like, 'I think you dropped a name; let me get that for you.'"
Long before Romero had Tommy Lee's phone number programmed into his cell phone, he was a starry-eyed teenager in Brighton who worshiped at the feet of Eddie Van Halen. For his sixteenth birthday, his parents gave him an electric guitar that he taught himself to play. Soon after, he formed his first band with a few friends from the neighborhood. From the minute he and his buddies plugged in and started playing "You Really Got Me" at a high school homecoming dance, Romero knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
"That was the first time I was ever on stage," he remembers. "Man, I was hooked!"
For the next five years, Romero toiled in a slew of cover bands, paying homage to his idols and getting paid for it. The grueling demands of playing four to five nights a week took their toll on his body but not his spirit, and when he developed carpal tunnel at age 21 and could no longer play the guitar, no problem: He became a frontman. Nothing was going to keep him from the stage.
But then he started to lose his voice, and common sense prevailed. He bid adieu to Typper Gore, his band at the time. "I needed to figure out what my next move was," Romero says.
When an opportunity presented itself a few months later, he was ready to rock. All of those years serving as the equivalent of a live jukebox, everything he'd been through had led him to this moment.
Former bandmate Aaron Greenwall and his brother, Eric, had put together a new act: Sick. The name perfectly fit the music, an explosive hybrid of funk, metal and soul. But it was also an apt description of the Greenwalls themselves. Aaron, a master of the four-string -- like Flea on a Duran Duran kick -- had just quit Valor, one of the hottest bands in town at the time. Eric, an untouchable badass, had just graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood. Together with Chris Ortega, a drummer friend of Eric's, they'd put together four or five songs. But Sick still needed a singer. So Aaron called Romero and asked if he wanted to get together and "goof around" with some new songs Aaron had written.
"We got together and jammed, and it was awesome. We hit it off right away," Romero remembers. "I was like, 'Dude, we should play out.' And Aaron was like, 'Nah, I just want to play for fun.' He had no intention of making this thing a band. He said he was through with the music business. He was pretty burned out on it."
Propelled by Romero's persistence, Sick not only played out, but before long, the band headed into the studio and recorded a powder keg of a debut, Just Deal With It, released only on cassette. The cuts ranged from the heavy-handed "Innocent Child," which dealt with kids caught in the crossfire of gang violence, to the groove-oriented "Just Deal With It" to the spastic fun of "Whip It," a Devo cover. But as Sick was getting ready to deal Just Deal With It, Romero checked himself into rehab.
That kind of put a "bump in the road," he says, adding that it was just the start of a saga that would make a great Behind the Music special, complete with jail, marriages, divorces and rehab. It turned out that Romero was a little too good at emulating his heroes, and his life began to imitate his art.
"That was my first stint in rehab, which I needed, but the timing couldn't have been worse," he says. "But the guys were really cool. No one freaked out, because at the time, the band was a hobby and no one was serious about it except for me."
Romero emerged from rehab with a new vigor, more determined than ever to make music. With the buzz generated by the new recordings and the group's incendiary live show, Sick soon pushed past everyone's expectations -- everyone but Romero, that is. For him, it was never a question of if, but when.
Over the next eight years, the act that had started as a hobby became a force to be reckoned with, with a reputation as the band that no one wanted to follow. A few lineup changes -- Vinnie Levshakoff replaced Ortega behind the kit, and Pat Searcy was added as a second guitarist -- enhanced an already tight unit. And Sick's momentum just kept increasing, fueled by some good fortune combined with Romero's naive audacity -- when Sick first toured California, he walked into Perry Ferrell's office and asked to be considered for the Denver date of Lollapalooza, a request that, shockingly, was granted.
By early 1998, having played every major venue in town as well as most of the big summer festivals, Sick had accomplished damn near everything that a local act could without being signed. And then that May, Uncle Nasty, an old DJ friend, gave it an extra push. He'd been playing tracks off Just Deal With It at the two stations where he worked in San Jose and Salt Lake City, and when he returned to KBPI, he and Willie B. lobbied the program director to add Sick to the station's birthday bash at Red Rocks, opening for the Deftones and Megadeth.
A few months later, in an unprecedented move, KBPI added "Seize the Day," from Sick's new Carpe Diem, to regular rotation. Romero's phone was ringing off the hook, and major-label A&R reps were lining up in droves. But just as it looked like these local boys were going to make very, very good, everything came to a screeching halt. By that October, labels were merging and artists were being dropped left and right. Romero's phone stopped ringing.
Sick played on for almost four more years, releasing two more records, Slam and a three-song EP, but it never got back up to speed. And after an eight-year run, in June 2002 Sick played its last show at the Whisky A Go-Go in L.A.
Romero returned to Denver, dejected but far from broken. After weighing his options, he started sending demo tapes across the country in the hopes that someone might be looking for a frontman. Within a month, he'd been granted an audition with the Lynch Mob, George Lynch's band, and was in contention for the slot now occupied by Scott Weiland in Velvet Revolver, Slash's new outfit, right alongside Sebastian Bach from Skid Row and Buck Cherry's Josh Todd.
But then Sick rose from the dead. When Romero got the chance to play a radio fest in Nebraska, he convinced some of the band's members to reconvene for what was supposed to be a one-off date. Mike Crisler, the former Angellic Rage drummer, joined in the fun -- a fan of the band, he'd already learned all of the material. The gig went so well that Romero, the Greenwalls, Searcy and Crisler decided to give it another go.
And that's how Drug Under started up.
At first the new band was just Sick with a new name. But within a few months, all of the material was new, giving the band a fresh sound.
And soon, Drug Under had some fresh faces, too. Earlier this year, Aaron Greenwall burned out and quit playing music in order to spend time with his family. He was replaced on bass by Ron Chavez, who'd been in a band with Romero. Searcy also left the group.
Drug Under's latest lineup is now getting ready to release the band's debut album, Disconnected. Romero says the new material has gotten a much better response than any of the old stuff -- which is a little hard to imagine, since songs like "Seize the Day" and "Broken" kicked major ass. But listening is believing: Eric Greenwall has put a much larger emphasis on melody -- Disconnected could be his most accessible work to date -- while maintaining enough of an edge to keep the music in the realm of aggro rock. What the band lost with Aaron's nimble bass playing and undeniable stage presence, it's gained in Chavez's deft harmony vocals, which take the band into uncharted territory. And lyrically, Romero is still fascinated by his dark side. Some folks wear their emotions on their sleeves; Romero tattoos them on his arms, like Guy Pearce in Momento. Still, songs like "Change My Ways" suggest that this segment of his Behind the Music -- the well years -- may be reaching for a PG rating.
Drug Under isn't quite a year old, but Romero is confident it's going places. Just where, exactly, he doesn't know. He's taking it one gig at a time.
But in his office, he's already making room for that championship ring: a platinum record.
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