Wobbling on antique Schwinns and dressed in vintage shades and button-up shirts, Michael Daboll and Matt Hunt are riding down Broadway looking like extras from the set of an old B-movie. It's a humid afternoon in early July, and the two members of the Omens are arriving at the Irish Rover. After locking up their bikes, stepping into the bar and ordering beers, Daboll sheds his sunglasses and starts twitching and spazzing as if in mockery of some coke-fiend hipster. "We just got done getting hopped up," he explains with a manic grin. "On coffee."
Caffeine and booze is as likely a formula as any for Destroy the ESP, the Omens' debut album. Comprising Daboll on vocals and guitar, Hunt on bass, Forest Bartosh on drums and Greg Dahl on organ, the group houses a sloppy, frenetic momentum that's propelled it far since "Yeah-Yeah," its scorching seven-inch vinyl single from 2004. Still, Destroy ought to come with a disclaimer: No ground was broken during the making of this record. While omens are hints of the future, the Omens are stuck in the tar pit of the past, spewing out a frenzied, feverish rhythm and blues that revels in the golden age of '60s garage rock -- along with all its brutish rage and throwback glory.
"There's something primal about this type of music," says Hunt, a veteran of Twice Wilted, one of Denver's most lauded acts of the late '80s and early '90s -- and an outfit whose dark, ethereal sound couldn't be farther from the Omens' acidic snarl. "Even when Twice Wilted was born, there was a part of me that wanted to start something like this. I was really into garage punk, but in the early '80s, everybody in Denver was a goth. It was very uncool to be into that kind of stuff.
The Omens CD-release show
with Machine Gun Blues, the Symptoms, Jim Yelenick and DJ Patrick Robinson, 5 p.m. Friday, July 22, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $8, 303-291-1007
"I liked it because it was so angry," he elaborates. "But it was melodic. A lot of hardcore and punk rock didn't appeal to me because it seemed so puffed up. It was trying so hard to be overly aggressive and ridiculous, where this garage shit was just what it was. It was dumb, but there were actual songs."
Songwriting and willful idiocy are the two of Destroy's strengths. Like the original crop of garage-bred rockers before them, the Omens wrap howls of betrayed love and thwarted lust -- plus lots of lysergic allusions to losing one's mind -- into two-minute detonations of mangled blues licks and rabid distortion. But it isn't all an exercise in knuckle-dragging. Daboll welds vivid melodies to his throat-splintering screams, even as his lyrics give props to John Fante. And his pulsing, seething solo at the end of "Heart Full of Lies" skirts the fringes of psychedelia, evoking inner-space explorers like the Seeds and 13th Floor Elevators alongside the more riff-heavy eruptions of the Troggs or Davie Allan and the Arrows.
"In my baby book, my mom had written down some of the earliest records I ever had. One of them was Davie Allan and the Arrows' 'Blues Theme,'" Daboll says, citing the fuzz-fueled guitarist's biggest hit of the '60s. "There's a picture of me, four years old, with this little record player."
Naturally enough, Daboll wound up as a radio DJ in Grand Junction while still in high school. And although he had never played in a band at that point, his access to KSMA's library broadened his musical vocabulary, exposing him to more obscure '60s garage bands as well as the '80s revival of the style spearheaded by labels like Get Hip, Dionysus and Voxx. It was at the radio station that he first met Hunt, who was in Grand Junction to play a show with Twice Wilted. The kindred souls discovered a common love for the bygone era of underground rock, but it wasn't until years later that their paths and shared passion would cross again.
"I moved to Fort Collins for college," Daboll recounts. "God, there were so many hippie bands up there. I got so frustrated. I started a band because there were no bands I could go see at the time, just all these barefoot hippies."
That group, the Element 79, came together in 1994 and fully embodied the garage-rock aesthetic: raw, pummeling and, above all, untrained. "We just sucked really bad," Daboll confesses with a laugh. "And we weren't really popular, for obvious reasons. We basically learned how to play with that band. When I started playing guitar, I think I knew two songs. I used to torment my friends. I played 'Wipeout' nonstop for two years. It's like how Billy Childish only knows one whole solo -- I know half of one."
But Daboll did more than emulate Childish from afar. In 1996 he brought the garage legend and his infamous band, Thee Headcoats, from England to Denver for a weekend-long event dubbed Treble Fest. The party drew audiences and acts from around the world and made a name for Daboll's fledgling record label, 360 Twist. But it wasn't until the second Treble Fest, in '97, when Hunt and Daboll ran into each other again, that the first glimmer of the Omens could be seen. Twice Wilted had long since disbanded, and Hunt was just a few months from starting a garage-rock DJ residency at 7 South (now the hi-dive). Around the time that Element 79 evolved into a new outfit called the Down-n-Outs, Daboll and drummer Jim Chandler -- who went on to play in the Makers and the Cramps -- began assisting Hunt on the turntables. As Hunt recalls, "This interest and love for that kind of music brought us together. These guys kept me in mind, and when their bass player quit, they asked me to join the Down-n-Outs."
For a few brief but glorious years, the Down-n-Outs were Denver's prime exponents of retrograde rock and roll, releasing numerous records and touring incessantly. Hunt left the roster in 2001, and the band plowed on for a while longer before falling apart. But within a few short months, Hunt and Daboll were back in the practice space together, plotting a resurrection. Even with their pedigrees, though, they had a tough time completing the lineup.
"We couldn't get anyone to stick," Hunt remembers. "It just wasn't working right. People were just dropping off. They didn't want to be involved with us. I don't blame them."
"Our very first show was in Las Vegas," Daboll explains. "It was, honestly, six weeks after our first practice."
"We made the mistake of dragging those guys out there on a two-week tour," Hunt adds. "We showed up at this place called the Cooler in a strip mall, but they said, ŒNope, the show's not happening.' From the get-go, it was fucking doomed."
After nearly breaking up "about eighty times," Hunt says, the Omens found Greg Wildermuth. The drummer, who was playing in the Risk at the time, brought his haywire, Keith Moon-esque propulsion to the troupe; Dahl, organ-pounder and resident wild man, joined the ranks soon after. After making successful appearances at various garage festivals around the country, the quartet has even been handpicked by alt-rock legend J Mascis to open an upcoming stop of the Dinosaur Jr reunion tour in, of all places, Las Vegas. And although Wildermuth moved to Japan last year (replaced by Bartosh, a former member of Pinhead Circus, the LaDonnas and the Swayback), he remained long enough to help establish the group and complete work on Destroy the ESP.
"A good drummer makes or breaks our band," Daboll asserts. "When our drummer's good, we can make all the mistakes we want."
"Basically," Hunt adds, "it's all stamina in this band. The drummer should beat the shit out of his drums as dumbly and caveman-like as possible. It's just that kind of music."
As true as Hunt's definition of garage rock is, that hasn't stopped a thousand bands from giving the genre a bath, a haircut, and the sheen of radio-friendly civility over the last few years. But the Omens, with all the stalwart resignation of true purists, aren't worried about pretenders watering down the sound that pumps through them like blood.
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"I think the White Stripes and the Hives have a sound that's garage, but at the same time, I don't think that's all of it," Daboll says. "That's what I like about this style of music. I include psychedelic and folk music, and even, like, bits and pieces of rockabilly in it. That's why it's such a bummer when people think garage rock is this trend that's come and gone. I don't see it that way."
"I like those bands, but I don't call them garage," Hunt pitches in. "I call them rock and roll. I never used the 'grunge' word, either. Those people didn't call their own music grunge. These are just words that have been invented to try to hype something up and make money off of it. Garage rock has been consistent since its beginning. The music itself is very derivative of R&B and blues stuff, and there's something very fundamental and primal about that. People like to shake their asses to that kind of music.
"The genre as we knew it is as well preserved as it's always been," he insists, as if talking about a Neanderthal frozen in a block of ice. "And it'll be around probably till the day we die."
And that's a prediction the Omens are ready to back up.