It's late on a Sunday night in the basement of a warehouse in RiNo. The members of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake are here, preparing to rehearse songs from their new album, Totem. But the ambience needs some work before they can get to the music.They have some new paintings, including a landscape and a portrait of a husky ("We collect bad art," explains guitarist Doug Spencer), which they have hung on the walls. A couple of his bandmates are messing around with a lamp and some strings of Christmas lights while another is passing around cheap beer. They're discussing the wedding they were all at the night before and how they probably got too drunk.
The five musicians of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake have come to appreciate the importance of adjustment and attention to detail in the past two years, much of which they spent crammed into a small room, laying down vocals and endlessly repeating bass lines and synth sounds. They added and removed and adjusted and added again the sounds that would become Totem. Hayley Helmericks, who fronts the band, says they "sunk into" the recording process.
That wasn't the plan. Initially, they went to a studio in Boulder to play the live tracks and mix them from there, as they had done with debut album Sineater.
"We went into the studio thinking we were just going to record a handful of songs," says Helmericks, "but it ended up being twice as many songs, and we ended up taking a different approach with it."
So they took the raw recordings to a home studio owned by Hayley's brother, SRRS synth player Wilson Helmericks. "We decided to...work with the songs and feel them out and see where they needed to go," says Wilson, who served as the primary producer. "I always wanted to do that. All these people are really smart and artistic, and by the end of this process, all of us were communicating in a way about music and about art that was just unique."
It's fitting that Totem took so long to make, because it's an album that rewards patience. There are no clear choruses or catchy hooks. Instead, this is a record with a pulse. It fluctuates, recedes and then lunges forward suddenly. Hayley's vocals are more than compelling enough to carry the listener through, but this is miles away from the band's debut, which sent danceable sensibilities and catchy melodies through a macabre filter. "I think [a darker sound] always kind of bubbled up in how we play music," says Wilson. "We've always been beat-oriented. Certain levels of dissonance and not-so-catchy bright melodies, and just kind of a pulse. That's what we've always gravitated toward."
Totem is still capable of making people move, but this time it's almost ritualistic, with Hayley singing incantations, repeating the same phrases as beats swell and fade behind her. "I root for the antelope, I root for the lion," she whispers over and over in "Versus," while drums and bass slowly build. While the album is very much a group effort, the result comes across as personal and private, the work of a fanged, five-headed beast.
"This was very personal to us," Hayley says. "We went through a lot of intense shit through the making of this record. And it comes across, and I'm happy about that."
Some of that shit included suddenly losing their bass player, Adam Shaffner, who quit near the end of the recording process. "We spend so much time orchestrating our live show and making sure it's tight that when you lose one member and have to teach somebody else these songs, it can be complicated," says drummer Andrew Warner. "We didn't want to rush it. And we know we aren't the easiest people to work with, either -- we're really demanding. We wanted to find somebody who was the right fit."
In spite of the challenge of finding a new bandmember so far into the process, Hayley says they never considered scraping Totem. They'd poured everything they had into the album, creatively and financially. The demands of making it forced them to recede from their active role in the Denver music scene, sparking rumors that they'd split up.
"We went through [a time where] we were like, 'It's taking too long,'" says Hayley. "Then we had to kind of take a deep breath and be like, 'We have to make this just how we want it to be, or none of us are going to be satisfied with it, so let's just let it take another six months and let it be as close to perfect as we can make it for ourselves.'
"When you think of it as a whole little piece of art you're putting together, what's a couple of years?"
In the end, they found a new bassist in Jon Evans, who has been a fixture in the Denver scene, playing with Achille Lauro and others before joining SRRS. "I'm just pumped on the ride," he says. "I really enjoy playing Totem. It's very interesting to sit with musicians who have been playing together for such a long time."
Now, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake feels ready to take fans on that ride, too. "This is the document that's going to last for people," says Warner. "The album is something they can always put on. I can put it on, and I did today. I blasted it, and I loved it."
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