"There are questions I've tried really hard not to ask myself about my own music--what lifestyle does it reinforce, what niche does it fit into," claims accordionist David Willey, the creative force behind Denver's Hamster Theatre. "Because I'm operating, under the guise at least, that I'm following my heart."
If so, Willey's heart is a vagabond, a collector of impressions rather than a purveyor of souvenirs. On his 1996 solo CD, the primarily instrumental Songs From the Hamster Theatre (on Denver's Prolific Records), he wanders wide-eyed through a stylistic landscape dotted with prog rock, modern classical music, improv, country-and-Western, klezmer, zydeco, techno and the sounds of the carny--and while he never stays still long enough to be identified with any of these destinations, his music is touched by them all. Even better are the sounds Willey makes with a band version of the Theatre: keyboardist/trombonist John Stubbs, guitarist Mike Johnson, drummer Raoul Rossiter, bassist Mike Fitzmaurice and wind and reed expert Mark Harris. Together these players exude a joyful heat and density far different from the restrained twang and oompah associated with Willey's previous group, the Denver Gentlemen--or with any other act, for that matter.
A tour of Willey's formative musical enthusiasms can be likened to emptying the pockets of a Niagara Falls suicide victim: No matter how significant the contents seem, they cannot help but present an incomplete picture. The best one can hope for is the occasional glimmer of insight, which Willey readily supplies. "Most of the stuff that I listened to--after I got over listening to progressive rock in high school--was twentieth-century classical music or bands that used that as an influence, like Thinking Plague or Henry Cow or Fred Frith," he recalls. "I was really into Fred Frith for a long time and the people that he plays with. You know--that whole subculture, if you will, of art fags. For a long time I didn't play anything but improvised music. I had this duet with a cello player, and we would just find somewhere to play every weekend and drive everybody away. I wouldn't play anything that was composed or in a time signature or with a melody, because I thought it was capitalism. You're not going to tell me what to do!
"Then," he goes on, "my taste changed--mainly after I went to a few festivals in Western Europe where there was a lot of that kind of improv going on, and it just turned me off. After that, the things that I liked were more melodic." This shift prompted Willey to realize that "there's nothing wrong with being accessible. You can be accessible and interesting and challenging all at the same time, hopefully."
Hamster Theatre is the fulfillment of these aspirations; its music is inviting in spite of fractured time signatures, pockets of controlled chaos and a refusal to devolve into predictability. Perhaps its most prominent characteristic is an Eastern European feel that Willey attributes to a year he spent living in the Czech Republic. "I went there because I was in love with somebody," he reveals. "Why do you do anything? Everything else is a sideline." When not involved in romantic pursuits, he delved into the music of the region--and he continued doing so even after returning to the States. Among the acts he grew to respect was Tarafs de Haidouks, whose playing is featured in the gypsy documentary Latcho Drom.
Such influences are felt to this day. While many of Willey's compositions build or collapse into ravaged, frenetic polkas, the harmonic intervals he favors conjure a variety of Eastern European forms. "It is just my taste, my flavor," he says. "And also part of trying to invoke that spirit or vibe of...not necessarily that culture, but what music from that culture made me feel." He notes that many of the Theatre's songs were penned during his travels: "I needed something to focus on other than just making a living, so I hauled a four-track around in my backpack. I worked on stuff whenever I could, and I ran into some situations that allowed me all the instruments I needed."
Back in Colorado, Willey fleshed out his four-track creations using the myriad instruments at his disposal: guitar, bass, percussion, marimbas, xylophone, accordion and keyboards. "My intention was to make a cassette for my friends to give them for Christmas," he admits. "I've been making tapes most of my life. But then the guy at Prolific said he wanted to make it into a CD."
That "guy," Arnie Swenson, is a former member of Big Foot Torso, as is Stubbs, who assisted Willey on Songs From the Hamster Theatre. "He didn't help me with the recording of it, but he helped me with the mastering and cleaning it up," Willey points out. "It was really noisy, so we had to go in and sample the noise at the beginning of the track and get it all out.
"For instance, I live in this cabin up in the mountains right next to a big road where there are cars going by all the time. You can still hear cars going by on that if you listen. It's real low-tech--you can hear all the punches, especially on the drum track. But it doesn't bother me. I kind of like it when I hear that in other people's music." Of course, such imperfections sound more prominent to Willey than they will to average listeners, most of whom will find the recording an unmitigated pleasure. Each number is singularly absorbing--a difficult mission for recorded instrumental music to achieve.
Live, this material proves even more enthralling, partly because of increased authenticity (the horn riffs on the disc were synthesized) and partly because of the extraordinary proficiency of the Theatre as a whole. "Everyone was chosen for the instruments they play and for their expertise on them," Willey confirms. "I was really surprised that they wanted to play with me."
At present, Willey remains the Theatre's principal songwriter. "It's so hard to get commitments from the other people," Willey says. "They prefer it if I just write it and give it to them. And every now and then they'll make a suggestion, but not many people seem to want to go in and write for it." Even so, he allows, "I do want to get less imperial on my part, which is why I put the band together. I wanted these tunes to grow, to have something happen to them, and I thought that if I got the right people, they would contribute things that would make them band songs as opposed to the stuff I do on my four-track alone in my cabin."
This transformation is most evident during those in-concert moments when the tightly woven songs are injected with delirious improvisations until they sweat and caper like the fevered dreams of an organ grinder's monkey. "Improvs are structured into a specific point in time," Willey explains, "and they're allowed to go however long they go until someone cues them out. My attitude toward a lot of that is tongue-in-cheek because of my past of doing that for so long. It's taken seriously, but only inasmuch as it's just another thing to grab out of the air like a melody or a rhythm.
"It's like with lyrics," he elaborates. "You can use words to convey things like, 'Oh, I used to drink a lot back when I was 22 and blah blah blah.' You can use music, melody, rhythm or any kind of form or style in the same way. Because improv is a style that's got a history, its connotations are even more common, and at that point in the song, it might have a purpose relating to the rest of the song--or not."
Of course, Willey concedes, there's another reason that most of his songs lack words. "That's simple. I can't write lyrics to save my life. I also don't really enjoy listening to people sing lyrics, for the most part. Generally, if it's in a language I don't understand, I appreciate it more, because it's part of the sonic thing and less someone up there telling me how to think or not to think or what to do or what this means. I like lyrics that are oblique as long as they're not too arty."
As a result of such feelings, only the ghostly, gossamer "Ester," the final track on Songs From the Hamster Theatre, employs vocals. Carmel Kooros's crooning on the cut is as thick and ephemeral as the scent of funeral lilies--and the fact that she sings in the Czech tongue would seem to make her the ideal candidate for Theatre membership. But she has not yet performed with the group live. "She's in Egypt, so it's not very easy to do," Willey says. "But she has a lot of other song ideas, and she sends them to me. Maybe we'll work some of them out."
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The other players are more available, but only just; each of them is involved with at least two other bands aside from Hamster Theatre. Willey is in the same predicament: "I play in a band called Serefe that does Middle Eastern and some Balkan music--music from Greece and Macedonia and Turkey as well. And I play with Thinking Plague, which is the band Mike Johnson is in." Until late last year, Willey also contributed to the Denver Gentlemen, but that group broke up when its prime mover, Jeffrey Paul, left to join 16 Horsepower. The Gentlemen's demise has afforded Willey more free time, but he laments, "I really miss the music--and I wish I had a tape of it, because I worked my ass off in that band, and I don't even have a document. It's kind of disappointing."
Loath to find themselves in the same circumstances, Willey and his Theatre compadres have recorded six new tunes at ex-Denver Gentleman Mark McCoin's studio, Brave New Audio. "I'd like to hole up in a studio for two weeks," Willey asserts. "I think if I had two weeks, I could finish something. We go into the studio every now and then and start tracking new tunes, but it's so sporadic when we can go in there that it feels like we're not getting anything done." He adds, "I'd like to get enough of a name to play some of those international festivals of art fags like the Mimi Festival in France--that's a good one. It happens every year in the south of France."
Goals like ample studio time and choice gigs are typical of musicians, but in Willey's case, these desires are superseded by his simple and private devotion to his muse. "I don't really have an excuse to be doing this," he says. "Except that if I didn't, I would probably just waste away. I don't know what else to do.