Revival of the Fittest
Jeffrey-Paul Norlander just doesn't get it. Ever since he and the Denver Gentlemen put down their instruments five years ago, the band has been swathed in an almost mythic lore that constantly eludes him: The Gentlemen, he is repeatedly told, were giants of Denver's then-emerging roots-rock music culture. The fact that the band is credited with spawning many of this town's proudest musical exports -- and forging the darkly Americana sound that has become a hallmark of some of the city's more daring offerings -- doesn't help clear the matter much.
"I don't know what they think happened before," he says. "It's cool, though. You can make things into all of these imaginary things that you wanted them to be when they didn't really exist. You know, it was just this band with a really out-of-tune piano, and half the time I was so drunk that I couldn't even play the parts. It wasn't like a whole bunch of people came or anything amazing happened."
Some might beg to differ. The Denver Gentlemen's legacy is one that is lodged in the local music community's collective memory, fixed by a pastiche of images: David Eugene Edwards, now with 16 Horsepower, intently strumming a Montgomery Ward's guitar; Norlander's brother, Eric, invoking notes from an old Black & Decker saw. An early version of the band found current Auto Club frontman Slim Cessna behind the drum kit, while Frank Hauser Jr., presently with the Kalamath Brothers, squeezed out tuneful belches from an antique accordion. Norlander, who manned vocals and piano, also sometimes spiced up the tunes with a glockenspiel. The Gents' combination of American Gothic hymns with old-world carny music was reminiscent of a Technicolor cabaret. But despite such an eclectic musical palette, the band is mostly remembered for its rootsy tendencies.
"It makes some sense, because we had three or four tunes that sounded pretty straight-up country-and-Western, but that band certainly wasn't an attempt to replicate something," Norlander says. "I don't know if what we made with the old versions of the band was sobering music, but it was really nervous. There was some sort of intelligent conflict going on that made it that nervous. It was the same kind of thing that makes people stutter when they talk."
When Norlander introduces the latest Denver Gentlemen -- with part-time DeVotchKa members Paul Geoffrey and Tom Hagerman -- the similarities between old and new appear to extend primarily to name only. For one thing, the new Gentlemen are more minimalist and less improvisation-driven. But for the time being, Norlander plans to revive the original Gentlemen's more quaint approach to instrumentation.
"It's going to be so good," says Norlander. "I never had a band that made me as delighted as this one. They can recognize the marvel and play for somebody else. What we've been doing right now is so mellow. It's really down, and it's how I've been feeling. This version of the band that I have now -- I know some people won't get this, but it's really not very intelligent. We are making it more of a feeling thing and less of an idea."
A guiding philosophy behind the original Denver Gentlemen involved a purposeful avoidance of ever playing a song the same way twice. The current Gentlemen -- with Geoffrey on clarinet and cello, Hagerman on violin and accordion and Norlander handling piano and most of the vocal duties -- take a different approach. "These guys, who can play my songs better than I can, get kind of bummed out when they just improvise them. They want to keep going over them and tweaking them. They are that rare kind of musician who is completely capable but who just really moves on into just appreciating tone, or appreciating personality. Paul and Tom are less snobbish, because they don't feel like they have anything to prove. They don't feel threatened by good music."
Norlander's decision to revisit the Denver Gentlemen is bound to carry a certain weight of expectation. Yet the Gentlemen have always been characterized by flux, an element that makes the idea of the group's re-formation -- with just one original member -- not only appropriate, but exciting.
The act had its genesis in a project Norlander and Edwards started in 1988; a year later, they tested responses on the East Coast, then in Los Angeles. When the band returned to Denver in 1991, Edwards split the duo to form 16 Horsepower. Under Norlander's sole direction, the Denver Gentlemen navigated an inconsistent eight-year existence, hosting a revolving cast of players that Norlander says is impossible to recount. A late configuration of the group that included David Willey, Mark McCoin, Valerie Terry and John Stubbs recorded Introducing the Denver Gentlemen live at the Bug Theatre in 1996. After languishing for four years, the album was released earlier this year by indie label Absalom Recordings.
Despite the fact that Norlander has been the group's sole constant, he doesn't see the Denver Gentlemen as one man's vision. "I had things that I wanted to happen, and other members had things that they wanted to happen. But the question always was, 'Does it work?' It's not like I ever sat down and gave anyone a paper that said, 'I own the Denver Gentlemen name, and you are on the payroll.'"
When Norlander joined 16 Horsepower for the band's second release, Low Estate, in 1996, the Denver Gentlemen were put on indefinite hold. "It's not like there was some specific item that made the band stop. There weren't any real issues going on, either. I didn't actively so much want to end it, but I don't think that it would have helped with me touring with 16 Horsepower."
Cutbacks at A&M Records eventually spelled the end of his stint with 16 Horsepower, an experience that left Norlander feeling compelled to bury all musical and stylistic expectations. In 1999 he chucked more traditional instrumentation for the sadomasochistic, hardcore-industrial-techno project Hoitoitoi, an experimental effort he shared with cellist Rebecca Vera. Dressed in G-strings and singing about Jesus, Norlander assumed a persona that effectively put to an end to the Denver alt-country clique's perception of him as any kind of a Gentleman.
"I think that I was lost. It seemed really easy to get the body going and leave the emotions behind, but what I was trying to do was figure out how to combine those two elements. I think that the kind of things that pushed me with Hoitoitoi in some ways kind of brought me full circle, back to prayer. I'm probably not as needy as I was then. Maybe I was just so confused that there was no ability for anybody to tag along.
"I don't think that I could be doing the Denver Gentlemen like I'm doing now without having done Hoitoitoi," he adds. "Hoitoitoi is present in this version of the Denver Gentlemen, even though, at least right now, what it amounts to is three guys sitting on chairs."
This current incarnation of the Denver Gentlemen was brought to life on Colfax Avenue earlier this year, at a time when the demand for Vera's playing (with local bands such as the Cherry Bomb Club, Slim Cessna's Auto Club and 16 Horsepower) meant that she had less time to devote to Hoitoitoi; Norlander, consequently, began to consider other musical options. "My friend brought his girlfriend over and said, 'She is going to watch your kids. We are going up to the Lion's Lair, and you are going to get yourself a band.' And I was like, 'How presumptuous is this?'"
On the Lair stage was Boulder's DeVotchKa. Norlander was impressed, although he didn't initially recognize the clarinet player -- Geoffrey -- as someone who had been in line to join the Denver Gentlemen before their 1996 split.
"Paul was talking to us about playing with us, and that probably would have happened if I would have kept it going. So here was a guy who had liked what I had done in the past. After the show, he just said, 'Hey, so you want some clarinet playing?' It was so cute."
The chemistry that Norlander is enjoying with his new bandmates makes him wonder what might have happened if the original Denver Gentlemen had never split. "Can you really imagine Slim and David and me and Frank all in a band together? It would be so silly. It's like, 'Where are the musicians?' It's just a bunch of opinionated hacks, and everyone wants to be the star or whatever. I'm probably the most extreme example from that group of only playing an instrument so that I have something to do while the band plays. But I think in some ways that's true of all of those people. It's more like the idea than the need. Like some big faulty crack in the foundation that means that you have to play music."
Norlander is encouraged by how the new puzzle pieces fit those old cracks. "Now I have these guys who are actually uncomfortable with singing. They will sing because they respect that I think that it should happen in a moment. They just want to play cool music. I'm not a musician. I just want to write good songs, so it's perfect."
One might not expect such modesty, false or otherwise, from a man who was last seen on Denver stages wearing fishnets. With the new Gentlemen, Norlander believes there could be some other things that the locals might not expect.
"I can't predict what people are going to think, but if my own performing past is any indication, the very people who think that they are happy that the Denver Gentlemen are going to get back together are going to be very disappointed in the show. They are going to come to this show and say, 'God, that is so slow. This is so boring. What were people thinking?'"
"As far as my part in the buzz," says Norlander, laughing, "I will successfully put an end to it."
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