The Doctors Are In
Generally speaking, there is little overlap between the demographic destined to practice medicine and the one whose members are fated to play blistering hard rock for the drunken denizens of shoddy bars. In fact, the Speedholes may be the only evidence that there's any overlap at all.
The band is led by guitarist/lead vocalist Dan Merrick, M.D., who moved to Denver a few years back with his significant other, bassist Kelly Knutson, to complete Merrick's residency at University Hospital. The two previously lived in Seattle, where both had been involved in area groups--Knutson with the obscure combo Heldorado, and Merrick with Gorilla, a better-known act that released three CDs (including one on the esteemed Thrill Jockey label) prior to its dissolution.
Once established in Denver, the pair began to work up a stable of tunes with an erstwhile drummer. But the band didn't gel until Merrick happened upon doctor/lead guitarist Sam Grampsas, a relative of state senator Tony Grampsas who'd formerly been one of the Choosey Mothers. Grampsas remembers their early introductions: "We met one night at the Bluebird, and we were all pretty drunk. The next week, I was walking into the operating room and Dan was walking out with this big jar, and I was like, 'What's in the jar?' He said it was a teratoma, which is the type of ovarian tumor that makes hair and teeth. And then he said, 'Hey, would you like to come and play in my band?'"
Grampsas signed on with the Speedholes almost immediately, and when the act's original percussionist quit, John Henry, a drummer for the Rok Tots who was looking for a side project, followed suit. With a solid lineup in place, the group began to play out at the usual dives and quickly established an enthusiastic fan base that included the members of Spell. But before the crowds could grow even larger, Knutson discovered that she was with child.
"We were a five-piece," Merrick jokes, "so we sounded a little better."
The doctors in the band cleared Knutson to continue performing through her first two trimesters. ("Ultrasound is just sound--although ultrasound isn't nearly as loud as my amp!" Grampsas says.) Audiences weren't disconcerted by her swelling profile, Knutson notes: "Everybody knew. We hadn't played that many shows, so many of the people who came to our shows were pretty much our friends." But with the seventh month of gestation looming, she and Merrick decided to take a parental leave, in part because she was unable to participate in rock-and-roll's concomitant rituals. "I felt really stupid," she says. "I was like, 'Okay, this isn't that much fun when you're not drinking and you're just watching everybody get stupider and stupider as the night goes on.'"
Six months after the birth of their daughter, Camille, (who at this point prefers Teddy Bear's Greatest Hits to the Speedholes' raucous repertoire), the proud parents, supported by Grampsas, Henry and a reliable stable of babysitters, hit the clubs again and were pleased to discover that their hiatus hadn't caused their popularity to dim. One fan Knutson encountered at Cricket on the Hill was even able to belt out a few lines from "Call Me Average," a scorcher that features Merrick's curdled, emetic vocals and Grampsas's playful riffing, more than half a year after they'd last played it in public.
The demands of parenthood and the subsequent loss of leisure time meant that Knutson and Merrick had to be savvy with their schedules. Fortunately for Merrick, he was able to call on the discipline that helped him cruise through med school as he was learning how to juggle the roles of dad, doctor and raunchy rock point man. Henry believes that he has some of this quality, too.
"There's nothing undisciplined about being a musician, either," he ventures, to incredulous guffaws from the guitarists. "Certainly it's a rather anarchic type of discipline," he goes on, "but if you want to be a halfway-decent band or a halfway-decent musician, there has to be a certain degree of focus that you have to put into things. It's just nothing you've got to go to college for."
Perhaps not, but both Merrick and Grampsas can lay claim to some musical training. Prior to a tour with Gorilla, Merrick employed a voice coach to ensure that his pipes wouldn't burst after multiple gigs. To demonstrate what he learned, Merrick squeezes out a series of wobbly and corroded arpeggios. "They told me to do that before I sang--so I did that a couple of times in the van," he says. "Consequently, I had to walk to the show."
For his part, Grampsas took a class in classical guitar while earning his medical degree. "You had a choice between classical and folk," he says. "And I thought, 'Folk? Why would you take a class on that? I already know the chords. Is there something more to folk I'm missing?'" Whether these studies contributed to the proficiency of the licks Grampsas weaves through Merrick's heavy aural weft is open to question, but the tandem guitar assault the two create together proves undeniably tight. An analogy can be drawn between their style and what they do at their day jobs. "Sam cuts it out and sends it to me," Merrick says, "and I put it in some formula and look at it under a microscope."
The Speedholes' sound is about more than guitars, however. For instance, "She's Got the Booty," a lusty and melodic slab of noise, finds Merrick and Knutson engaging in a gratifying call and response. Merrick attributes the technique to a former member of Gorilla, who explained to him that "the most important thing is that a whole bunch of people yell something at once and then one person sings for a while, and then a whole bunch of people yell something at once."
The tenets of rock and roll may be just that simple--but not everyone's a sucker for such animal pleasures. The guitarists' professional peers approach the Speedholes with caution. "Some of them like it," Merrick says. "But one person in the pathology department told me that he didn't think he was going to come to any more of our shows. He said, 'Yeah, well, you know, I don't quite like it as loud as you guys like to play it.'"
Those who do are usually within a stone's toss of adolescence--but the age gap between the Speedholes and the bulk of their boosters doesn't trouble them. "They're younger and fewer," says Henry of the folks who attend their shows, and he should know. As music-community veterans, he and Grampsas have witnessed the city swell like a goiter even as many rock venues have faltered. According to Henry, "There's only, like, three places to go see bands in Denver, and people get burned out going to the same freaking place every night. Denver's never been able to support an all-ages venue. There was the Raven, which has the largest disco ball in the West..."
What other factors contribute to the shrinking scene? "We have a couple of thirteen-year-olds who babysit here at our home when we're playing," Knutson says, "and I think that they think it's kind of like old-people's music--because they're into swing."
This irony is not lost on the Speedholes, who are committed to the fierce fun and release the band provides regardless of their vintage or the weight of their responsibilities. Slicing and dicing toothy teratomas by day obviously doesn't rule out other, more barbaric passions. "People have kids while they're in medical school all the time, and that's certainly more time-demanding than this, as these people will tell you," Grampsas points out, motioning to Merrick and Knutson. "They have kids and are rock gods."
"I suppose somewhere along the way, I'm supposed to quit playing this loud rock and roll," Merrick says with a shrug. "But I still like it--so what the hell?"
Boss 302, with the Speedholes. 9 p.m. Friday, October 23, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 303-572-0822.
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