Most musicians aren't known for having impressive vocabularies. Then again, most musicians aren't members of volplane, a Colorado combo whose unexpectedly arduous search for a name amounted to a crash course in lexicography.
"I guess we're just too damn picky," says volplane guitarist/vocalist Jeff Suthers--and he's not exaggerating. The group, which also includes guitarist/vocalist Todd Ayers, drummer Dick Bosse and bassist Shannon Stein, performed some ten gigs over the space of five months before deciding on its current moniker. Not that the four went completely nameless during this period: They ran through a slew of handles, including Park 45 and Cruiseomatic, which, according to Ayers, "sounded really good when we were stoned one night." He adds that there was actually an evening when the group had two names: The players first hit the stage as Bleed before returning as Born With Teeth, an appellation derived from the folkloric belief that tots who emerge from the womb with a full set of choppers are destined to become either powerful rulers or hideous demons.
Unfortunately, none of these designations held up long enough to become a fixture, causing the musicians no shortage of embarrassment whenever they had to explain their predicament to club bookers and media members. So desperate for closure did they become that they once considered retreating to the Boulder-area mountains with a passel of peyote in a self-deprecatory attempt to conjure the spirit of Jim Morrison, whom they hoped could provide them with the inspiration they so sorely lacked.
A solution to the problem was finally found last month. Ayers wanted a name that could catch listeners' attention without pinning the band down to a specific style--and he also wanted it to start with the letter "v," for reasons that are personal and not terribly clear. So the musicians began flipping through dictionaries with the intensity of grade-school spelling-bee contestants, and after nearly settling for "virga" (a word for rain that falls toward the earth but evaporates before hitting the ground), Suthers blurted out "volplane," which refers to the type of gliding that an airplane or winged missile does when its power source is cut off--and suddenly the quest was over.
In Ayers's view, "volplane" fulfilled all of his requirements because "number one, it is sort of a vague term that not a lot of people will instantly recognize. And number two, I think the actual definition describes our music. It's sort of a flying, gliding kind of sound. Like, you could listen to our music on headphones while you're hang-gliding and it would be appropriate."
The band's sound, which combines the ethereal influences of groups such as Bailter Space and My Bloody Valentine with a rhythmic authority that suggests a more oblique Smashing Pumpkins, makes perfect sense when you consider the volplaners' pedigrees. Suthers and Bosse were both members of Boulder's Plunger, while Ayers is best known for co-founding Dive (which evolved into Space Team Electra) and playing in two defunct but well-remembered acts, Sick 'Em Fifi and Twice Wilted. Ayers calls the Wilts "the loudest band I ever played with"--so much so that a case of tinnitus (an ailment characterized by a ringing in the ears) forced him to take a sabbatical from the group shortly before its breakup. For several months following his Twice Wilted departure, Ayers grappled with a case of depression. But he finally decided to buy a pair of earplugs and jump back into the ring, first with an unnamed Plunger side project and now with volplane. And although volplane has hardly performed under its chosen designation, it's already receiving plaudits from those listeners fortunate enough to have caught the combo live at venues such as the Bluebird Theater and Boulder's Club 156.
The band shimmers most brightly on such numbers as "On My Star," essentially a one-chord dirge whose groovy monotony is punctuated by distortion-laden tonal swells and squalls and the breathy, sometimes discordant vocals of Ayers and Suthers. Neither of these singers will be mistaken for Luciano Pavarotti, a fact that Suthers acknowledges: "We figure two half-assed singers could maybe make one good one," he says. Ayers elaborates, "We don't sound like Fleetwood Mac or something, so that when there's a different singer, you definitely know there's a different singer. But our voices are close enough stylistically that I think it works very well with this particular sound."
"In a nutshell," Suthers explains, "I think we tried to get away from the traditional lead/ rhythm guitar thing by interweaving guitar lines so closely that it's difficult to tell where one instrument ends and the other begins."
"We don't necessarily want it to sound like one guitar or two guitars or even ten guitars," Ayers concurs. "We just want sound."
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Achieving this aural epiphany hasn't come cheap. Bosse owns a glittering, Sixties-era Gretsch kit that sported a hefty price tag, while his bandmates possess some 25 different effects pedals, including six Boss Hyperfuzz units whose presence on stage can create a veritable jungle of patch cords. Because Ayers, Suthers and Stein all work for a musicians' supply store (Rob's Music in Boulder), you might think that employee discounts would ease the financial burden linked to such purchases--but you'd be wrong. Suthers likens the situation to "putting a drug addict in charge of a pharmacy," while Stein concedes, "The band exists on Todd's credit cards."
This fixation with flangers, phasers and the like is either volplane's greatest strength or its most profound weakness, depending upon your perspective. Ayers, an impeccable instrumentalist who recently served as a sideman at sessions with jazz stars Ron Miles and Bill Frisell, has a stage persona that can seem overly professorial, while Suthers makes it a point to never look up from the floor until at least the fifth song of any given set, preferring instead to pounce on his treasured pedals with the determined enthusiasm of a Jurassic Park-style raptor who skipped breakfast. "It's not that we're really there for the audience," Ayers admits. "We're there kind of getting inside of ourselves more than anything. It's at that time that we're more confident with ourselves. We're not just this punk garage band playing to our friends."
Now that the four have finally won the name game, they're pooling their resources en route to laying down their debut recording--although Ayers is reluctant to be specific about the timing of its release. "I hate it when you read about bands and they say, 'Yeah, we've got a CD coming out in the summer,' and then it never comes out," he says. But one thing's certain: You'll be seeing a volplane disc long before you can pick up anything by Born With Teeth, Virga or Cruiseomatic.