Now they're playing with power (from left): Brandon Richier, J.R. Spiegel, Carlos Becerra and Cesar Gomez are the Volts.

Thunder Roll

There are several versions of exactly what happened inside the Cricket on the Hill on Saturday, September 8, at 12:30 a.m., but the popular version goes like this: The guy from the Volts got on stage, threw beer bottles at people and then got beat up outside.

The Pin Downs, a local all-girl rock band, were playing a set when they called out to him -- the guy from the Volts, that is -- to join them on stage and sing "I Wanna Be Your Dog" by the Stooges. When the music started, he became so moved by the rock, as he is known to do, that he began jerking and vibrating across the stage. He kicked his feet out spasmodically in flares, waved his arms wildly at the crowd and flopped around on the floor like a fish in dirt.

Then he spotted a vacant cocktail table in front of the stage, topped with empty Budweiser bottles and glasses. He didn't like what he saw. Those glasses, he figured, had to go.


King Rat

Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue

With the Pin Downs and the Volts

9 p.m. Friday, September 29



So he kicked the table out from underneath, turning it over and sending bottles and glasses flying into the crowd. Glass crashed on the floor and jagged pieces hit people sitting at the remaining tables -- people who were becoming very upset with this guy from the Volts. One woman grabbed an ashtray and flung it straight into his face, like a Frisbee.

Another person who got pricked by glass was a large jocko wearing a tank top. Jocko didn't care much for his new injuries. And so Jocko, not one to take the act of aggression lightly, tackled his enemy on stage and threw him to the ground.

But the guy kept singing, like it didn't matter one bit. He kept clutching his microphone, screaming into it even though he was getting slapped to the ground.

When Jocko finally let up, the guy from the Volts plunged off the stage -- still singing -- and into the seating area, which was mostly empty now (the crowd got had gotten wise and backed up to the bar). Then he grabbed their abandoned drinks and started lobbing them at the crowd.

Jocko and his buddies didn't find the bottle-tossing amusing at all. They were getting ready to kick some ass, right there, on stage. They waited for him to finish the song, though.

And again, this is where people tell the story a little differently -- some say he was thrown out, some say he was chased out -- but everyone agrees that the guy from the Volts left the bar immediately after he was done singing his song. Jocko and his drunk friends followed him, working the bar into a frenzy as they knocked over chairs, bottles, people.

As it turned out, when Jocko caught up to him in the doorway outside Gabor's, the bar next door to the Cricket, Jocko was too drunk to punch, and his target was too quick to get hit.

Now, the bouncers and bartenders back inside the Cricket didn't want to go through this again. Last year a bar fight had broken out during a Denver Joe show and left a man stabbed, and bloodied, on the floor. So the bouncers and bartenders immediately turned off the Pin Downs' amps, cleared out the boozers and closed down the bar.

The people who were forced out of the Cricket hoped to flow right into Gabor's. But like the Cricket, Gabor's didn't want to serve a surly crowd. With all the people, tension and confusion crowding the thin sidewalk in front of the two bars on 13th Street, Gabor's decided to shut their doors, too. Then the cops showed up and told everyone to go home.

It wasn't quite 12:45 a.m. and two of Capitol Hill's most popular bars were closed.

All told, the guy from the Volts was on stage for three minutes. Maybe four.

Now, the guy from the Volts -- his real name is J.R. Spiegel -- is getting a reputation for starting shit when he gets that microphone in his hand. And his band, the Volts -- they're getting a reputation for starting shit when they put instruments in their hands. And all of this is for a good reason.

In 1996, a guy named Carlos Becerra moved from El Paso, Texas, to Fort Collins. He didn't have a good reason to move to Fort Collins, just did. Becerra was a punk and played his drums hard, but he was also a family man. He supported two kids and a wife, and worked in a cabinet shop as a machinist. At night, he played in cover bands that he didn't even like. He just enjoyed playing his drums.

Becerra had kept in touch with a high school friend named Cesar Gomez, a guitarist. Gomez had left El Paso around the same time as Becerra, but Gomez headed for Tucson, Arizona. Again, there was no good reason for Gomez to move to Tucson, but after all, like Becerra, he was coming from...El Paso.

Becerra urged Gomez to leave Tucson and come join him in Fort Collins, but not because he wanted to start another band; it was just for friendship's sake. When Gomez arrived, he moved in with Becerra's family and slept on the couch. While in Arizona, Gomez had tired of playing in the aimless bands, doing all the songwriting, jamming with uninspired drummers and dime-a-dozen bassists. Just like Becerra, Gomez was burned out on being in a band. He came to Colorado for a change of life.

So, naturally, the first thing the two did was start a band.

They had played together for so long, and with so many other replaceable parts, that they didn't need to talk about what they wanted to play -- they just played it. The sound that they craved to create, the one sound they wanted to express, simply needed to maintain an integrity unto itself. It had to be hard, but true. It had to have the foundation of rock and roll, the danger of punk and the veracity of country. Most of all, it had to be something they would want to listen to -- a quality that, they discovered when they turned on the radio, was harder to come by.

Becerra and Gomez drove down to Denver to see shows, but both preferred the small-town pace of Fort Collins by day. They weren't dialed into Denver's "scene," so they didn't have access to its musical hipsters. Then, in late 1998, Becerra attended an Agnostic Front show in Denver and ran into a guy who was looking to start a band.

That guy turned out to be Spiegel, and the talk turned out to be a good one. Spiegel had played oi bands, and he was searching to tap the same gritty vibe as Becerra and Gomez. Spiegel didn't play any instruments or come with any pre-packaged tunes, but by God, he grew up singing in a choir. And he had energy, excitability and enthusiasm. All of it by the pound.

Spiegel also knew where to farm for musicians. He bartended in Capitol Hill, and his happy-hour clientele consisted mostly of out-of-work musicians. The trio of Becerra, Gomez and Spiegel went through a few bassists and rhythm guitarists before they landed one that fit, a guy named Brandon Richier who had just left a punk outfit, the Stressed.

There was only one rule to being in this band: everyone writes. Gomez didn't want to do all the work just because he was the guitarist. Becerra didn't want to remain the silent drummer boy who simply laid down beats. Richier had stashed too many walking bass lines for them to just to go unaccompanied. And Spiegel just couldn't keep quiet long enough to not write music -- even if he had to hum the riffs he was suggesting.

After practicing for nine months, Spiegel booked the first show late last year. He went to a local copy shop to fire off the first round of fliers, a giddy moment in the birth of any band. Becerra, the band's elder, had come up with the name the Thundervolts, which all the members grudgingly accepted. Spiegel, now standing at the copy machine, thought it sounded too much like a WWF tag team.

So he blotted out the "thunder" and got the Volts rolling.

"Some bands just get real popular real fast," says Scott Campbell, booking manager at Denver's 15th Street Tavern. "You can tell because all the other bands want to play with them. And right now, all the other bands want to play with the Volts."

It only took until this summer for the Volts to strike. They began the year by toiling at house parties and small gatherings, but then Spiegel's connections started paying off, and then the band started taking off, and then pretty soon, the Volts got off.

In June, they recorded the single "Scandal" for Radio 1190's Local Shakedown, a high-energy money shot that has since found its way into the more-than-just-occasional rotation at the station. The song, written by Becerra during the Clinton impeachment proceedings, is a clear representation of the band: Gomez's opening slappy riff is an immediate directive, a call to action; Richier's bass line and Becerra's drum fills are a coalescence of country and punk, giving the tune a fast, woodsy backbone. Then come Spiegel's snotty vocals, UK-inspired.

Also in June, the band recorded eight new songs for its first CD release, Dig It, which will be released Halloween night at the 15th Street Tavern when the Volts open for L.A.'s the BellRays, a national act. Prior to that, the band will record five new songs for a split LP with Denver's Down-N-Outs.

Like the band's live material, the Volts' recorded output is seemingly fed by methamphetamines, yet trained enough not to entirely tweak out. Their songs are pushing, provocative, just shy of haywire. The result is something edgy yet familiar. It's said that in rock and roll there's a fine line between cliche and cutting edge, and the Volts are keeping it on the latter side right now. One misstep though, and it's a plunge for the worse, and the songs start sounding a little too familiar.

To keep their live shows from being confused with the customary, Spiegel's onstage "shenanigans," as Becerra calls them, have spawned a potent word-of-mouth buzz. People unfamiliar with the band's music have heard that what happens at a live Volts show is worth the price of admission alone. Or, as Gomez jokes, "Come see J.R. flop around like a damn foo'."

Spiegel's stunts are dynamic: During a show at the 15th Street Tavern last month, he suddenly dove into a standing crowd, knocking some of its members down, then berated them for looking at him as if they were watching television. In the same show, he murdered a window fan with his fists, threw it at the crowd, then got knocked over when they threw it back.

An enigmatic frontman is always good for reviews and press (even here, yes), but the physical theatrics force the other side of the question: Is it for real?

"I don't do what I do to be violent or harmful in any way," Spiegel says. "What's coming out on stage from the band should be an outward expression. I do what I do because I'm moved to action; the music moves me in that way. It's not a conscious act. I'm not there thinking, 'Now, I'm going to do this the second song, and then I'm going to do this the third song.' I'm trying to incite people to be motivated, to interact, to be creative. Whether they hate us or not, whether they love us or not. Whatever is going on, it's better than being passive."

Passivity is what Spiegel and his mates abhor, and so is the thought that his tactics are perceived as shticky or contrived. "I'm sure there are people who show up to see this guy go nuts," Richier says. "But I also think the majority come to see the music."

By the booking numbers, there's little to discount Richier's theory. In July this year, the Volts played five shows. Five isn't a big number to, say, Britney Spears, but it is to a working man like Becerra, who can only perform on the weekends (and who, even then, is giving up time with his children to be in Denver). The Volts' recent surge in popularity -- and the increased numbers at their live shows -- is convincing the band that Spiegel's glass-throwing, body-slamming "shenanigans" aren't the reason why the people want to see and hear them. The more they play, the more familiar faces they see, the more people they hear singing the words to their songs. That is the simple evidence.

"If it were just about stage presence," Spiegel says, "they wouldn't come back. They'd see us once, and that would be enough."

When no one is looking, the Volts practice in a small basement at the corner of Sixth and Corona every Sunday at 4 p.m. They'll play one set, record it, listen to it upstairs and then go back down for another thirty-minute session.

This process goes on three or four times, until precisely 7 p.m. when they all gather on the couch to watch The Simpsons. After that, Becerra and Gomez make the 45-minute drive back to Fort Collins, and Spiegel and Richier go their way.

Downstairs, the space they use to jam in is a laundry room the size of an office cubicle. The painted white brick walls and low ceiling are soundproofed with patches of aging carpet and foam padding. Exposed water pipes run just a few inches overhead. A bare, interrogation-style light bulb hangs in the center of the square.

The quarters are so small, all four bandmembers face one another in a tight circle, nearly touching each other. This underground box smells like sweat and Snuggles fabric softener.

When the Volts start playing, everything is loud except Spiegel. The head of his microphone is missing, and his PA is low and staticky. The instruments drown out his voice.

But he keeps singing, leaning into the microphone stand at just the right moments. When the second song comes, Spiegel is getting warmer, moving a little bit more, tapping his hands at his sides. By the third, he's stomped out the beat a few times but still hasn't gotten it on even though the band is tight.

By the fourth song, Spiegel is ready. Gomez lights up the guitar intro, Becerra drum rolls into a comfortable spot and Richier b-lines his way in. They're waiting for one more part.

No one can hear him. No one can see him. He's looking at a brick wall with carpet over it. He closes his eyes, pulls the hair from the back of his own head with one hand, and puts the microphone beneath his mouth with the other.

Then the guy from the Volts starts to freak out.


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