Kal Cahoone has always hated spiders.
It's a chilly Thursday evening in luthier John Rumley's studio/workshop, and the smell of lacquer probably hasn't driven away any creepy crawlers -- spinning webs in the shadows, possibly nesting in that old player piano in the corner. Even so, the members of Tarantella are determined to run through their set list tonight, arachnids be hanged. It's been ages since Cahoone and Rumley got together with the band's four other busy and versatile members: violinist Kelly O'Dea, a Painted Saints alum and current member of Bad Luck City; guitarist Bob Ferbrache, mix wizard for Absinthe Studios; bassist Shane Trost, a touring member of both Wovenhand and Slim Cessna's Auto Club; and drummer Chad E. Johnson of the jamtastic Polytoxic. Surrounded by a half-dozen American flags (one stapled to the wall behind Rumley's keyboard displays 48 stars), the exotic six-piece seems as comfortably out of time as its music, an intoxicating blend of ancient European folk ballads and accordion-driven spaghetti-Western cabaret. The band is named after a rapid, whirling dance popular in southern Italy 400 years ago that was considered a remedy for tarantism, an uncontrollable nervous condition attributed to a tarantula's bite. For frontwoman Cahoone, however, any fear of spindly, eight-legged things suddenly evaporates at the prospect of christening Tarantella's rehearsal space once and for all. It's an auspicious moment for this word-loving Spanish teacher and Littleton-bred daughter of a dynamite salesman.
"We'll name it right now: La Mina," Cahoone declares, hoisting a glass of cheap red wine. "But it has a double meaning. In Argentina, they call chicks minas. Miners always referred to Œthe mine' as a woman because they have all these superstitions that if a woman enters a mine, it'll collapse because she gets jealous."
Without a canary to warn of falling oxygen levels, Tarantella has been holding its collective breath off and on in La Mina since 2000, the year Cahoone met Rumley at the Denver Folklore Center, where he works as a guitar technician. After commissioning Rumley to fix an instrument for her then-husband, Christian Basso (a well-known composer in Argentina), Cahoone gradually enlisted other players from Denver's incestuous so-called heroin-rock scene. The Auto Club's rhythm section, bassist Daniel Jon Grandbois and drummer Ordy Garrison, came aboard, as did O'Dea. Then Cahoone met Ferbrache at a card game hosted by the Denver Gentlemen.
"I had no idea he was this studio engineer," Cahoone recalls. "All I knew was that he was this killer poker asshole guy. We whipped out the Trivial Pursuit later on, and by the end of the night, Bob was saying, 'I'll take on all you guys, plus the Internet.' That's what happens after forty: You just know everything."
Worldly and soft-spoken, Big Bad Bob has been everything from a self-made geologist and photo historian of Ebbets Field to a fixer of primitive, government-owned data-card computers in Egypt. A onetime pedal-steel player for 16 Horsepower, Ferbrache has toured with the Healers, the Haters, the Soul Merchants and Blood Axis, whose internationally acclaimed shockfest, The Gospel of Inhumanity, featured snippets from a three-hour jailhouse conversation between Charles Manson and Blood co-founder and journalist Michael Moynihan. A notorious recording that garnered death threats in '95, Gospel remains Ferbrache's best-selling work. "Absinthe records wouldn't exist if it wasn't for that album, that's for sure," he says. It's a good thing for local music lovers too, considering that Ferbrache's endless resumé includes DeVotchKa, the Czars, Lilium, and Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots.
"I've been pretty successful in not doing stuff I'm not interested in," Ferbrache admits. "I just heard John and Kal's music once and thought it was fantastic. It doesn't sound like anything else."
For a guy who actually went to the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to capture every single key of the pipe organs on a DAT recorder, such an admission speaks volumes. Then again, Rumley's own bouncy, staccato stylings counterpoint Cahoone's accordion lines like a dark, tangled melodrama from the Middle Ages. It's enough to make a gargoyle weep.
Cahoone has seen more than her share of sorrow, lugging a squeeze box throughout South America, spending four years in Buenos Aires -- the setting for Manuel Puig's acclaimed drama Kiss of the Spider Woman and the birthplace of Che Guevara. "I lived in a home with a boy whose parents were killed for reading Karl Marx," she reveals. "Being this American chick who's just romantic and stupid, I honestly learned so much that it was almost too much. I didn't want to know that my country was responsible for training people to rape women and torture college kids."
Equally sobering to Cahoone, who attended Columbine in the late '80s, was trying to explain to anyone weaned on Argentine tango how a pair of teenagers could shoot up a school. "Imagine. You're in this obscure country on the other side of the equator," Cahoone says, recalling April 1999, "and your old high school is on the front page of the local newspaper. People wanted to interview me and do writeups, but I didn't want to talk about it. They all laughed and said, ŒWhy are you so violent and into guns?' I had no answer."
As much as she considers Tarantella a political band, Cahoone prefers poetic metaphor to sermonizing -- at least in song. That she mostly vocalizes in romance languages opens her lyrics to varying interpretations.
"I was encouraged in Argentina to sing in Spanish," Cahoone says. "They loved to hear my accent in their native tongue. You can copy it without knowing the meaning. I had a friend there who did Tom Waits in English like you've never heard. So I could listen to any song in any language and imitate it -- just like anyone could -- if I heard it enough times."
Repetition seems to have paid off well on Tarantella's exceptional debut, Esquéletos, released on Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles. Stylistically diverse, with a sprawling, cinematic influence credited to Rumley's passion for soundtracks, the album evokes wide open spaces, everywhere from the steep Pawnee Butte ("Miss Gringa") to a cactus-soaked landscape that could make Ennio Morricone's mouth water ("Alder Tree"). Cahoone's emotionally languid tone is a perfect fit for lovelorn ballads like "Mexican Wine" or "Un Año de Amor." ("Be sure to include the tilde," she notes, laughing. "Otherwise it translates to 'Anus of Love.'") During the disc's most ambitious, shapeshifting track, "Dame Fuego," Tarantella sounds like ELO covering Procol Harum's "Conquistador," wisely abandoning every restriction of conventional four-four time.
"I hate rock," Cahoone declares. "It's become such a cheesy, overdone thing. Maybe I'm too old, but I don't want to hear noise."
With the album's gorgeous, slow-loping title track, Tarantella won't be accused of rattling amps gratuitously. "Esquéletos" paints a dreamlike vision of skeletons dancing on a sandy beach, wasted to the bone from unfulfilled yearning. "It has a personal history for me," Cahoone admits. "When love dies, it's just skeletons of love. It's a bit Day of the Dead. And sometimes when I'm around a lot of people and I'm really bored, I just imagine everybody being a skeleton, blabbing away. I'm a freak, man."
Cahoone's twangy little sister, Sera Cahoone, a recent Sub Pop signee, addresses heartache from a more countrified perspective. But for Kal and company, the archaic Latin influence allows Tarantella to explore a grander, more historic scheme of human drama, including political struggle. It's little surprise that Cahoone helped to launch Coloradoans for Immigrant Rights. (A vague but direct bumpersticker on her car declares, "No Human Being Is Illegal," a sentiment repeated in the disc's liner notes en español.)
"Before I had a baby, I was more active," Cahoone notes. "It's not my cause anymore; I'm too busy just trying to survive. But how can you not feel compassion for someone who's crossing a border in the desert, in the heat, to save their family? Your relatives came in a boat. What's the difference? Mexicans weren't brought here from Africa, but they still work like slaves.
"Singing in Spanish might not seem like much," she continues, "but to me that's empowering for that population in itself, no matter what I sing about."
Skeletons? Blood-soaked sand? The final resting place of a single tear? Pero que sí.
"When Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead, they're laughing at death," Cahoone insists. "They stay with the dead for at least 24 hours, talking with them and making jokes. Here when someone dies, it's a cold tragedy, which I'm not into. I'd like for people to celebrate and have fun when I die.
"Maybe I'll come back as a spider," she concludes, "so I shouldn't be killing any bugs."
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