Depending on what you think the proper role of a real musician might be or what a real musician is or looks like, the Inactivists (due at the Walnut Room tonight) might either be the ultimate novelty act or an inspired conspiracy of talented artists with a shared love of warped humor.
Whichever the case, the outfit has a knack for penning incredibly catchy songs that creep back up on you in unguarded moments, not just because they're funny, but because the music is genuinely inventive and well-crafted. Curiously operating on the fringe of the local underground scene, the Inactivists have garnered high praise for bringing together musical virtuosity and a keen sense of the absurd.
As one of the founding bands of the Denver Art Rock Collective, the Inactivists have carved out a niche for themselves among people who appreciate smart, challenging yet accessible music that doesn't dumb itself down to the expectations of people who have to have their art spoonfed to them. The group's latest release, The War on Jazz Hands, is a looser affair than previous efforts, but it also represents the sound of a band having fun and not stressing so much on the end product.
Before the album was recorded, primary songwriter Scot Livingston shopped out his demos to several different companies that take songs sent to them to interpret and record. This resulted in some hilarious versions of each song on the record, and it comes as a free download with the purchase of the album.
In advance of their CD-release show tonight at the Walnut Room, we spoke with the bandmembers about their musical backgrounds and the story behind the vanity recordings that make up Volume Two of The War on Jazz Hands.
Westword: There's clearly an element of humor and the absurd in your music. How would you describe the sense of humor informing some of your songwriting? Do you try to write songs to make yourself laugh?
Scot Livingston: We write our songs mostly for ourselves, because there's a good chance no one else will come and hear them, so if I can't please the other five members of the band, I'm wasting my time.
Matt Sumner: Some of the songs were just funny phrases that cracked us up at one point.
Scot Livingston: Like "Pieces of Jesus" -- I still swear I never said it.
Kelly Prestridge: "Keep Washing With Soap" was one of those.
Almost any time anyone writes about your band, they mention jazz and musical virtuosos like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. What kind of musical backgrounds do you have, and what bands did you play in before starting and becoming a member of the Inactivists?
MS: I was in Rainville [with John Common], and I was mostly in rock bands. I played jazz in college, and I played trumpet from sixth grade until a couple of years in college. I'm a jazz appreciator but not a jazz player.
SL: My first high-school band was the Phlegmtones with Avery Raines, who is now Mr. Pacman. I spent nine years in that. It started in 1992 or 1993. Avery, bless his sweet heart, didn't know a whole lot about music, so I would write a song, but he couldn't play it because he didn't know any chords, so we would just play his songs.
As a child, I had to take an instrument, so I took the drums, because I didn't want to take an instrument and I didn't want to take the piano. My parents found out I couldn't play, so I had to pick something else, and I picked the guitar, just so I didn't have to take piano lessons. My siblings all had to take piano lessons, and they hated the piano teacher, so now I have a piano. So I knew how to play guitar, and that was my first real band where I wasn't playing a tennis racket. Avery sang, played some guitar and accordion. I got to do my songs when he broke a string.
When the albums came out, because I paid for half of them, I overdubbed all the guitar parts. There are three or four albums all on cassette. So on the recordings, it sounded like an even-sided thing, but on stage, it was hard to compete with a guy that's got a piñata taped to his head, tearing apart an inflatable woman with his teeth while he's bleeding out of his nipples. I would get off stage and people would say, "Wow, did you see that band?" And I'd say, "Yes, I'm in it."
So I had a lot of songs written that I never got to perform. My first band after that, I came in with a backload of, like, three hundred songs, and the other guy came in with two. He wanted to do the even trading thing, and I did, too, because I felt like I'd been gypped on the last one. After six months to a year of that, he said, "You know, I can't write any more songs, but since I'm Native American, I think it would be far more commercial if I sang all the songs, so I'm going to sing all your songs."
I took my amp and tried to be a singer-songwriter under the name Ozzy Osmond for a while. I played a lot of open-mike nights, but it was dispiriting. I knew I needed a band, but the only way to make it happen, I had to start booking shows as a band, even if I am just a guy. I called it Scot Livingston and the Inactivists and just started showing up like that. From there, it spiraled out of control.
Cody Schlueter: The first band in which I played shows was Reverend Weird Beard, a jam band. We had some weird songs. We had songs about Raliberto's on 41st and Wadsworth, where they have one-dollar tacos. I've played in a few folk bands, the most popular of which was O'Holloran, that just broke up because the singer moved to Oregon.
Victoria Lundy: I have very little musical training even though I've owned instruments all my life. I started playing the theremin in the '90s, kind of by accident because I had found an instrument I liked and played passably well. I always loved it, found one, and said, "Yes! This is what I must do." I bought my first theremin by mail-order on the Internet. The one I have now, I got from the Moog factory. I happened to be there for a theremin convention, and they offered a special deal if you bought one while there.
In the '90s, how did you become a part of Carbon Dioxide Orchestra?
VL: I was working at the Bug Theater, and a lot of stuff came through the Bug. I had a theremin, and I was really hot to play it. They were putting together Carbon Dioxide Orchestra again, and I agreed to be a part of it. It would just kind of show up and go away. It was like a rash: It would form, go away for a while and form again with different members. We were kind of semi-stable for a few years with that configuration.
The first show I ever played with them was that Silver Apples show at the Bug. It had Cynthia Payne in it. She was a performance artist in the '90s. It had Leroy Jaramillo, who played violin and yelled poetry. Bill Valdez played the dry ice. Dave Dixon was in that incarnation playing samplers. Maybe Eduardo Mendez was in that lineup.
How did you get that copper heart?
VL: I think Leroy made that for a specific show at the Bug called "The Love Show." Before that, we had a big sheet of steel. We'd play the dry ice on the heart and put it through a processor, and it sounded like the El coming in.
Later on, we did a more straightforward band called the Goofus Device. Since we didn't have a lead singer, we put a fake human head, Anton, on a mike stand, and Dave Dixon, for samples, put together spoken-word pieces like Regis Philbin talking about Dean Martin. No one would sing, we would just have that playback with some music, and it was weird. We eventually became a more straightahead band with vocals.
KP: I played drums for Prince. No, I got into metal in 1990, and I got my first drum set in November 1991. I was into your basic 1990s metal like Metallica, Megadeth, Overkill. Then I got into grunge like everyone else, and I learned every Nirvana song, and so anything I heard on the radio I wanted to play. So I'd put the headphones on and play until the cops came. In Montgomery, Alabama, that didn't take very long.
I ended up moving here in 1995. In high school I wasn't interested in playing music at all. But there was a classic-rock station that played a lot of Led Zeppelin, and I thought, "Hey, this John Bonham guy is pretty good!" [laughs] A friend of mine had a drum kit, and we jammed. The minute I sat behind there, I thought that's what I wanted to do.
I got a credit card in the mail with a $900 limit and I, being twenty, not knowing what to do, went to the music store and told the salesman I had a $900 limit and told him the things I wanted on my drum kit, and he gave me the cheapest equipment. The total on my bill was $899.99. I had a penny left, and I was like, "Yes!"
Heather Prestridge: The thing is, Kelly's dad played drums, and the influence never came from there, the learning to play never came from there.
KP: I saw a picture of him behind the drums and thought that was cool but didn't think I wanted to do that until I saw my friend play. It wasn't like girls were all over him or he was a great drummer.
The sound of The War on Jazz Hands is a bit different from your previous releases. What led to that shift in sound?
SL: Because we spent entirely too much time and money making the album before it. Usually whenever we did the last album, we got sick of it by that time, so we wanted to do something different. That previous album, we were very conscious and deliberately trying to make it sound as pristine as possible, and we wanted to do the opposite of that.
MS: We wanted to do something more loosey goosey and kind of jammy.
CS: Scot got his first String Cheese album.
SL: I only need two chords, and I got half an album done? Sweet! Yeah!
Why a war on a "choreographic cliché" like jazz hands?
SL: It was just a funny phrase.
MS: Little Fyodor thought we were trying to make a serious statement with it. We're just anti-swing, that's what it is. I bet there's an emoticon that has jazz hands.
What was that company that rendered your songs for you when you send them out, and how did you come up with such an idea as a companion album to The War on Jazz Hands?
VL: This is all Scot's fault.
SL: There were thirteen different companies that I contacted. I don't remember them all. We'd had most of the songs written by the time we were done with the elaborate process of the last album. That came out in August, and by December, I'm like, "Come on, let's do the next album, now guys!" Even though we'd just spent four and a half grand on the last album.
MS: And nobody was really as excited about going back to the studio as Scot.
SL: I thought, how do I keep myself amused while these recuperate? So I ended up mailing one off every couple of days, just finding one on the internet.
Wasn't that expensive?
KP: He would create the music at home with an acoustic guitar and a Casio sometimes and words, so we could all learn the songs. He took those recordings and shipped them off to these thirteen different places. He gave it to us as a Christmas gift.
VL: We didn't know this existed until December of 2010. It was psychotic. What the hell was this? They inverted the intentions of some of the songs. The recordings we did didn't come out like his demos either. But we did them one way and they went the other way.
HP: They sucked the irony clean out.
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MS: In some cases they added to it.