Not so long ago, the ghosts of Denver's past were threatening to become this city's only future. On any given night, an earnest drone could be heard emanating from various downtown clubs; hymnlike songs summoned spirits of a boomtown from days gone by. With themes ranging from black lung to a love of the Lord, from ditch-diggin' to impending damnation, 16 Horsepower, Slim Cessna's Auto Club and the Denver Gentlemen, among others, were hard at work mining the rich vein of traditional American country, bluegrass and gospel music.
Jeffrey-Paul Norlander was a cornerstone of that melancholic, minor-chord roots scene. His guitar, fiddle, cello, organ and vocalizing skills were essential ingredients on releases by 16 Horsepower and the Denver Gentlemen, the latter of which he started. After a time, however, it became clear to some -- including Norlander -- that this former one-horse town was in danger of becoming a one-trick pony. Like a stubborn mule, it needed a good kick in the ass and, like any good cowboy, Norlander was at the ready. What Denver didn't know at the time was that beneath Norlander's vintage button-down shirt and pressed pinstriped slacks, there was a restless hip-slayer in a vinyl corset itching to get out.
"What I discovered as I was playing with all of these white guys was that whenever I was concerned about the more physical aspects of the music, nobody else ever was," says Norlander. "You look at old-time guys like Hasil Adkins, who is an Appalachian-type of Southern one-man-band performer who influenced bands like the Rolling Stones and was influenced himself by Hank Williams. He would talk about why he was a one-man band, and he said that he could not get the other players of the band to dig the fact that during the last minute of the song, the chicks were dancing and he wanted to keep [the groove] going right then and there. And I thought, 'Wow, even old white guys from the South were paying attention to that physical stuff.' I mean, look at Elvis.
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"Many years ago Frank Hauser, then with the Denver Gentlemen, said that he thought that music was probably never interesting if it wasn't dangerous on some level. And I think that there was a time, I suppose, when some of that old roots American music was kind of dangerous. But it's not really if you just keep doing it. And without being mean at all, I had kind of gotten bored with the rhythm-free four-minor-chord thing."
Increasingly, Norlander found himself facing a dilemma, in a roots-rock rut of sorts. More and more, he felt unable to deny his inner harlot. The solution was soon made clear. In a campaign that would surely strike horror into the heart of the alt-country echelon, he broke out the bullwhips, riding crops and handcuffs, stole a wardrobe from his wife's panty drawer, joined forces with a diaper-clad female cello player formerly with the Rocky Mountain Symphony, and began playing -- what else? -- hardcore industrial techno.
Today, Hoitoitoi is the result. The two-piece -- which includes Rebecca Vera on cello, violin and vocals -- first started playing about a year and a half ago. Norlander, who hails from Colorado originally, handles the bulk of the writing, vocal and programming duties. And though Norlander is best known for his six-year stint with the Denver Gentlemen -- a group that became known as the genesis of the Denver roots revival after its breakup and included a forever-revolving list of players, most of whom are still actively making music -- the music he's writing today has little in common with the scene he helped inspire. Rather, influences from two of his earliest bands, Pavilion Steps and Bloodflower, are more evident, as is the eclectic aesthetic brought by Vera who, along with her initial training with our own hometown symphony, has also played with the Cherry Bomb Club and Munly de Har He.
Vera and Norlander are linked by, among other things, a shared love of roaming around in scanty undergarments (and looking mighty good in them). It's something they are known to do during rehearsals and performances, for themselves and the ever-present lens of a black-and-white Pixelvision camera that records the sessions for posterity -- and the voyeuristic Internet audiences that can later watch the archived feeds from the privacy of their own computer terminals. Brave visitors to the band's Web site (hoitoitoi.com) are invited to submit artwork of their own -- musical, written or otherwise; those that Vera and Norlander deem worthy just might be invited to join them in a rehearsal. Currently, they are putting out a call for a contortionist.
Prior to that discovery of those mutual interests, Vera and Norlander shared a tie to 16 Horsepower, arguably the presiding king of the Denver roots realm. Yet while Vera can be heard among the strings on the band's new release, Secret South, Norlander's last involvement with David Eugene Edwards and company on the band's second release, Low Estate, was motivated by something other than music.
"I really joined up with them more to see if I could reconcile some friendships. I was eventually laid off when the record company was going down, there was no cash and they were only able to keep a three-piece going," Norlander says in reference to the cutbacks at the band's label A&M. "Things happened after playing with them that weren't related to anything that had to do with the band. Those things have kept the possibility of playing together from happening again. My relationship with each of them is different now."
The way in which Norlander's past musical partners perceive him was perhaps forever changed one Saturday night last fall, when Hoitoitoi made its debut performance for a live audience at Seven South. Of the many priceless moments to transpire during the evening of entertainment (which resulted in a call to the fire department, among other things, following a minor pyrotechnic mishap), the duo's entrance -- and the shared look of shock that subsequently spread to the faces of Denver Gentlemen loyalists -- was a particular gem.
"I think the reaction was utter horror," remembers Vera, "because I think a lot of them expected a similar [country-influenced] sound. They didn't expect to see Jeffrey-Paul in women's underwear." Despite the fact that a portion of the crowd decided to disperse, apparently not all in attendance instantly soured on a man's attempt to publicly break from his past and start destroying some new boundaries -- while wearing fishnets. Vera does wonder aloud, however, at what the motivation of repeat audience members may be. "They actually still come back," she muses. "Numerous people still come to the show, and I know that they can't possibly enjoy it, but they are there to support us, I guess."
"It's not like we are getting the happiest response, but it's not that different for me personally," says Norlander. "The Denver Gentlemen never really had any big audiences." What he does find perplexing is the current intense interest in his old band, an interest that really seemed to only spring up once the music ceased in 1996. "It's nonstop. In fact, I was asked about it twice today. That is so strange."
Stranger still is what occurs at a Hoitoitoi show. According to Norlander, the band's name means "self-awareness is its own reward," and his darkly sensual yet playful antics at a live performance seem to be inspired by a desire to get his audience to wake up to some new possibilities. Brandishing a walkie-talkie, he roams the crowd looking for willing -- and not so willing -- participants to join him in song. "I never had anyone freeze before," Norlander says when recalling a recent bout of stage fright by a spectator caught off guard when he unexpectedly shoved the device in her face. "It's amazing how most people just jump to the occasion."
Those audience members who think they might enjoy participating in a Hoitoitoi show would be wise to look before they leap; the band's attempts at audience interaction do not always go smoothly. At a recent show at the Mercury Cafe, one of the band's friends volunteered for a segment of the performance that involved a particularly large riding crop. "[She] got hashed up at that Mercury show," says Norlander as he describes in detail the after-effects of the piece, wherein Vera used the crop as a unique percussive instrument and beat it against the flesh of her partially clothed (former?) friend. The spectacle initially involved gently lashing the crop to the beat of the music, but inadvertently evolved into a wayward whipping.
"We had no idea. She was a mess; it looks like she got hit by a car," says Norlander. "Her legs were black for almost two weeks later. We have been hitting each other when we rehearse. We never hurt each other at all like that -- it must have been something about her skin. It wasn't like we were hitting her with rocks. They are good friends of ours and they are not happy. She's just like corned beef, a puffy disaster. I guess we are going to have to pay closer attention next time."
Vera is still troubled by the incident. "Jeffrey-Paul kept telling me to do it really hard or it's not going to be worth doing it and that it needs to look like I'm not holding back. I don't have that much strength to begin with and I didn't expect it to even turn out like that. I feel horrible, because I've never really publicly beaten anybody before."
Practice, as they say, makes perfect. With plenty of upcoming shows scheduled, the band will be sure to hone the skills that are involved in the proper execution of a public flogging. Despite plans to take future precautions, Norlander is not one to miss a promotional opportunity. "I just got pictures of it. I think that they'll wind up on the Internet in a couple of weeks," he says.
The photos will be a natural addition to hoitoitoi.com, Norlander and Vera's bizarre digital home. It contains the only music that Hoitoitoi has yet to make available. At this point they have not recorded any material for traditional release, but are planning to add to the list of songs that can be currently downloaded. Hoitoitoi's future show dates, in which they hope to exploit the possibilities that only the combination of pyrotechnics and a contortionist can offer, are updated on a regular basis. The site's peculiar links to other home pages (which offer detailed descriptions of fire-eating and warnings about failing to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior) at first may appear to be random, but are actually very telling of the man behind the fetishist. "I love Jesus, that's why that's there," he says in explaining the link to christ.com. Along with the unexpected links, the tone of the site, which was designed by Norlander, is decidedly ambiguous in its relationship to its subject.
"We're not about putting some big verbal diatribe up there to read. I do hate explaining stuff," Norlander says. "I work for a Web company now, and I've really learned what people do when they are online. With our site, you can go about as deep as you can stand, but there is no way that someone could see everything that's there. If they wanted to try to do that, it would just demand their curiosity."
Norlander's access to multimedia and pop culture in general has gone through quite an evolution, considering his upbringing. "I had church music and hymns to listen to, and I was almost prohibited from listening to [any other] music. Me and my brother, when we started junior high, found some records that were my uncle's buried in our basement. My parents would have been outraged to know that they were even in our house. He had Revolver, and a Leadbelly record. Can you believe it? Here I go from almost nothing to those."
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The beliefs that were instilled in him as a child remain. While these convictions were presumably easier to uphold while playing in bands surrounded by God-fearing men crooning about their struggle for salvation -- as is often the case with 16 Horsepower -- the potential paradox of Norlander's faith reaches a new level considering his current project involves spanking his bandmate onstage while wearing a G-string.
"That's why I do it. It seems like every moment is a conflict with my relationship with God and something else that I want. I think that that's why I put it out there," he says. "I can't always understand why the hell my sexual life is whatever way it is. Whether it's been going well or poorly it's always a little bit baffling to me. I talk to God about it. It's obviously not standard-issue stuff. I have the opportunity plenty often to face that [my sexual life] is strange or can create awkward positions for me sometimes, so I speak with Him about it a lot. I wouldn't say that it's resolved. But it's not like I'm hiding or fooling myself. I'm trying to reconcile."
Norlander is not a man who's shy about inviting his audience to dance with the skeletons in his closet. Hoitoitoi's trappings, which may at first appear to be a mere attempt to garner some attention or publicity, actually do serve some other purposes.
"As I've grown older, I've realized that I'm not just an emotional- and mind-[based] being, and that I'm getting more into my body. I'm just trying to push myself that way. I was musically repressed in the past as far as the physical aspects of performing. The bands that I played with before were extremely earnest, just insufferably to most people, I think, just dreadfully serious. That didn't bother me. I thought that was cool. It's just more complete now. I know that I can make an emotionally wrenching tune, but I haven't known that I could make something that is, you know, hip-slaying. I'm just trying to recognize that music isn't just for my prayer life and my emotional life, but it's also for my groin."