Snake Mountain commemorates the closing of an underground Denver institution with a new record
On the third floor of a giant, dilapidated Victorian mansion on Franklin Street just south of Five Points, Andy Wild and Joe Ramirez are mixing. The soft gold of the evening lights up the massive yellow structure, restoring it to a bit of its former majesty: It towers over the other houses on the block, patriarchal and imposing, shrouded by tall old trees and, perhaps, legend. Nobody has yet found the motivation to turn on a light inside, and a few people hang around and smoke cigarettes downstairs on the couch in the half dark. From the topmost floor, a roughly ten-second fragment of screeching guitars and feral saxophone — a song's climax — plays, stops, then plays again. Plays, stops, then plays again.
Wild stoops over a laptop that sits on top of a receiver connected to four huge monitors stacked on top of one another on the table in front of him. He plays the loop again and bickers with Ramirez, who's sitting in an easy chair behind him, over whether or not something is loud enough. They're finishing Don't Surf Zombie Beach, Snake Mountain's second EP and probably the last album to be recorded in this house, affectionately dubbed "The Yellow Bordello."
"Our landlord got arrested for mortgage fraud," says Ramirez, Snake Mountain's drummer. "So the city seized all his properties, and this was one of them."
All four members of Snake Mountain — Ramirez, Bryce McPherson, bassist Steve Lawson and Wild, who plays saxophone and keys — are part of the core of what's kept the Yellow Bordello running over the last four years, though McPherson and Ramirez have recently moved out.
"This band was formed on the couch on the front porch," says McPherson.
"It started as a joke," says Ramirez. "My concept was that I just wanted to do a raw, sweaty rock band and call it Free Mustache Rides, and just play one show at Bar Bar and make these cool fliers that said, 'Tonight Only: Free Mustache Rides.' I thought that would be really funny. And we wrote a song, and it was good. And then we just decided to make it not be so, like, a parody joke band."
After a couple of songs, the group decided to change its name, though nobody really knows where it came from. "Well, He-Man, in part," says Lawson. "And it's a Townes Van Zandt song. I always like pointing that out."
"But the name came first: Free Mustache Rides," McPherson interjects. "Before we ever wrote a song, we had the name...so I decided that with a name like Free Mustache Rides, the guitar riff for the song was my best ripoff of Ted Nugent. 'Stranglehold,' I think."
If Nugent provided the spiritual inspiration, the result is something more akin to the reverb-drenched, screeching garage rock of Iggy and the Stooges or the Buzzcocks, with B-movie-obsessed lyrical motifs courtesy of the Misfits: Themes have included werewolves, zombies, bats and "black chicks. As a band, one of our biggest influences is black chicks," says Ramirez. The subject material, everyone agrees, is maybe the most important component.
"Most bands I've been in, you tend to write the music first," says McPherson, "and then later on vocals will come, and then even after that, lyrics and topics for songs. But in Snake Mountain, very often the topic for a song will come first. And then we write the song based on, well, how does this concept sound to us?"
"And then we drench it in our sweat rock," adds Ramirez.
Having soaked the new record in copious sweat, Snake Mountain will release it, fittingly, on Halloween — at what will be the final party the Bordello ever throws.
The party will feature some ten bands, among them Snake Mountain, Big Timber, Oblio Duo, the Qui Quegs and Wetlands — all of which have, in some way, been connected to the Yellow Bordello.
For the members of Snake Mountain, and for countless other Denver musicians, the party will be a bittersweet occasion. Over the years, the Bordello has birthed, housed and nurtured literally hundreds of bands: Planes Mistaken for Stars, Ghost Buffalo, Kingdom of Magic, Git Some and the New American Ramblers, just to name a few. There's a recording studio, two practice spaces, "seven full bathrooms," and generally a just ton of space for musicians to live cheap and make music. "We had a pretty good run," says Ramirez.
It started out as the natural continuation of Pancho's Villa, a similarly chaotic music collective based in an old Five Points grocery store. "Our neighbor," recalls Wild. "I had to fucking ban him from the house because he kept bringing a gun over.
"Dion!" he says, adding: "Bryce smoked crack with Dion!"
"He assured me it was not crack," says McPherson. "It was 100 percent pure cocaine."
When the landlord there raised the rent and priced the group out, Wild and McPherson went looking for another space. McPherson recalls finding the big old yellow mansion and going to check it out.
"We got into the first floor, and in the living room, there was a steady, continuous stream of water pouring out of the ceiling into the middle of the floor," says McPherson. "So I thought to myself, 'Oh, you know, maybe a pipe broke or something; hopefully they can fix it.' Then he shows us the second floor, and in Mike and Charles's bedroom, on the second floor, there's a steady, continuous stream of water flowing out of the ceiling onto the floor. And he kept assuring us, he was like, 'Well, here's the deal, I won't charge you guys a security deposit.' And we were like, 'Sold!'
"By about day three after we moved in," he adds, "raw sewage started coming out of the bathtubs."
Since then, the band — and everyone else who cared to take advantage of it — has enjoyed unprecedented access to the means to make music. "What we've done is just open our doors," says Wild.
"Everyone could live real cheap," adds Ramirez, "and everyone that's ever lived here has been a musician and contributed."
As it turns out, the opportune circumstances were probably a result of the landlord's mortgage fraud. "He didn't care when we were like two weeks late on half the rent, and he was always really supportive," says Ramirez. "And it didn't matter, because it was just going into his pocket. Like, he wasn't paying the mortgage at all, he was just keeping the money. So that's why he didn't care — and that was perfect for us. So many awesome things blossomed out of this house."
While all good things must come to an end, the members of Snake Mountain say there's hope that at least one of the Yellow Bordello crew will put the effort into starting something similar, though none of them have immediate plans to do so themselves. "We're crossing our fingers that someone keeps something going," says Wild.
In the meantime, there's a record to be finished and a tour to plan, and there's not much time to be sentimental about it. "I'll tell you what, though," says McPherson. "Nobody is sadder than East Denver Liquors."
Get the Music Newsletter