When a writer at the New York Times coined the phrase "heroin chic" to describe those underaged bulimia babes who have defined the fashion scene in recent years, he didn't have Augy, the front man for Denver's MK Ultra, in mind. But the term applies.
Consider the evidence. In performance, Augy suggests the ghosts of Jim Morrison and Stooges-era Iggy Pop--a frighteningly thin, black-leather-clad specter who confronts audiences with a mix of poetic musing and smack-addled chaos. Beyond the footlights, however, he's considerably gentler, if not quite so coherent. He intersperses conversations with half-formed, mostly murmured asides about other musicians, homicide and cheese pie.
What's at the root of this unique persona? And could illegal substances have anything to do with it? Augy's friends and associates probably know, but they're not talking, and neither is the vocalist himself. But this much is certain: Augy is loaded with what reviewers call "stage presence"--captivating style, unmistakable charisma and real talent. Together with his bandmates (guitarist Adam Hall, bassist Sara Fischer and drummer Chris Edwards, who exude plenty of presence of their own), he creates a sound of a sort that's rarely heard in this dusty old town--a concoction that's equal parts melody, smarts, glam flair and belligerence.
"Everyone compares us to the Doors on speed," Hall says. "They say we sound like the Doors completely tweaked." After acknowledging similar comparisons to the Fluid and Nick Cave, he adds, "Some days I just sit here and go, 'Why am I not in some freaky, nine-piece acid-jazz band where I can just go crazy on leads all day and freak out? Why am I playing the music that I'm playing?'" His answer? "I think a lot of it has to do with Augy's songwriting...I think he's got a lot of aggression toward society. I try to make the music positive, but the lyrics are, like..."
Oh, yeah--the lyrics. Even though MK Ultra is instrumentally tight and compelling, Augy's baritonal excursions into surreality are what truly demand attention. For example, "Driver," an in-concert standout, is marked by a rollicking beat that serves to draw one into a disturbing narrative about death on the highway. (Augy based the tune on a car crash he witnessed from a nearby Greyhound bus.) "Biker Disco-Tech," meanwhile, juxtaposes an impressively catchy chorus with a hallucinatory refrain: "Jumpstart your halo/Watch that thing glow/Guardian angel on my shoulder/Flying saucers hover over, hover over me/The missiles are flying, hallelujah/We'll never get to the party now."
Augy's favorite theme, though, is murder. His bandmates insist that it's the topic of just three of their dozen or so compositions, but the singer augments its importance by whispering the word between songs like an emaciated Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. When asked why he's so obsessed with the subject, Augy comes up with the kind of cryptic reply that underlines his appeal. "It's a good story," he says. "God, I've been writing about it for so long, I couldn't really tell you why."
Such amorphous obfuscations will be familiar to fans of Augy's best-known band--Pilbug, a Denver standard-bearer during the early Nineties. An unnamed member of that group was unwittingly responsible for the creation of the current combo; he gave guitar lessons to Hall and Fischer, then later introduced them to Augy. Following several stops and starts, MK Ultra came together this winter. Since then, the four have been gigging relentlessly and saving money for a planned CD, although they've got neither a timeline nor any formal plans.
In the meantime, the musicians are playing for the art of it. Their tastes clash brutally: Hall listens to classic jazz, the Grateful Dead and Phish; Edwards enjoys Mickey Hart-style "tribal drumming"; and Fischer favors a variety of alternative rockers. For his part, Augy points to film soundtracks--especially those from spaghetti Westerns--as his biggest inspirations. "I hate the Eighties," he grouses. "It was so jet set. No one listened to the masters, and there were people like Eddie Van Halen. He's horrible; he almost destroyed music for decades. But things are more R&B now. It's more like the Sixties." Not that Augy is a retro-fetishist. "I hate Dylan," he adds. "'I'm a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm'--what is that?"
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There's no good reason why these very different players should be able to create songs that are so seductive, entertaining and scary, but somehow they do. Still, Augy wants more. "If I can reach your mind," he says, "your mind is where I want to be... I've got a gun on you all."
And who wouldn't you like to kill, Augy?
"Chris and Sara and Adam," he replies. "Everyone else is dead."
MK Ultra, with Fox Force 5 and Tequila Mockingbird. 9:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, Cricket on the Hill, $4, 830-9020.