You don't have to be serious and emo to make a record," insists Tom "Alice" Gilbert, drummer for the Maybellines. "People are happy in the world. And we're generally four really happy people."
For the past seven years, the Maybellines have done more to push their agenda of musical Pollyannaism than the Glee Club and Up With People combined. Take, for instance, A La Carte, the band's new six-song EP: Comprising songs of syrup-dunked daintiness, the disc glitters with swooning romance, the sparkle of vintage Casios and unadulterated pop innocence that makes Free to Be...You and Me sound like Black Sabbath, Vol. 4.
But there's a somber undertow that's seeped in beneath all the candy and flowers. On "Our Hearts Keep Time," Gilbert doles out a skipping beat as singer/keyboardist Julie Dorough nearly whispers, "I search a sea of faces/No familiar smiles or landscapes/Shadows casting down, and it's gray and cold in the shade/But the sun is finding its own way/Our hearts will keep time/And we'll even travel in the afterlife." The song was inspired by the cancer-related death two years ago of Julie's husband, James Bludworth, who was also a freelance photographer for Westword.
CD-release show, with Quadra-Mess, Foma and the Runners, 9 p.m. Friday, August 26, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $6, 720-570-4500
"I kept avoiding 'Our Hearts Keep Time,'" Dorough admits. "I tried to write about something else, but I just kept coming back to James. The night before we recorded the song, I was, like, ŒAll right, I've really got to work this out.' So I finally caved in and ended up writing that song in twenty minutes after struggling with it for two months."
"James was such a huge part of the band," Gilbert says. "He helped get the band together. He ran the website. He booked all of our tours. He made all of our T-shirts and took all of our photographs. He basically kept the band going. I know Julie had a lot more to deal with, but me and Mike and Dave felt a little lost. James had always defined the direction we went in."
It took nearly a decade for the Maybellines' lineup -- Gilbert, Dorough, guitarist Mike Levasseur and bassist Dave Reeves -- to come together. Gilbert originally conceived the name in the early '90s, when he was an engineering student at Virginia Tech. A graduate of the hardcore scene, his tastes had broadened since the teenage years he spent in the pit watching Corrosion of Conformity; in fact, he came up with the moniker as a tribute to the first lady of country music, Maybelline Carter of the Carter Family. Incidentally, Gilbert met Maine native Levasseur in 1995, when both were stationed in the Ivory Coast as Peace Corps volunteers -- and started an acoustic country combo called the Five Guitar Army with him.
"We did, like, Neil Young and Hank Williams covers," Gilbert remembers. "And when we got home, I asked Mike to move out to Denver and start a band."
Bludworth was the catalyst. A friend of Gilbert's from school, he tracked his old classmate down and in 1997 convinced him to relocate to Denver. Levasseur followed, and he and Gilbert became roommates. The Maybellines began soon after as a humble recording project in their basement, producing a raw demo with Levasseur on guitar and Gilbert on vocals, bass and drums -- the latter being an instrument he barely knew how to play. Once again, Bludworth triggered the next step in the group's evolution.
"We all went out to dinner one night after a Dressy Bessy show," Dorough recalls. "Al and Mike were talking about doing some recordings in the basement, and they needed someone to do backup vocals. James nominated me. So I went over there and hung out with them in the basement and just started singing. After that, Al said, 'Why don't you just sing in the band?'"
Although Dorough had never even considered being a musician before, crooning and tickling keys runs in her blood. Her uncle, Bob Dorough, is a famed jazz singer and pianist who's recorded for Blue Note and appeared on record with Miles Davis. But he's most famous for a kid-friendly style of music that, oddly enough, isn't that far from that of the Maybellines. He was one of the pens and voices behind Schoolhouse Rock, including such indelible ditties as "Three Is a Magic Number" and "Electricity."
"He was the coolest uncle you could possibly have," Dorough enthuses. "We had a piano at our house when I was growing up, and every time he came over, we'd gather around it and sing songs.
"He's one of those cool-cat jazz guys," she continues, laughing. "When he finally heard my band, he was just, like, 'Wow, that's groovy.'"
Reeves was the last to join, and he did so by much more prosaic means. "These guys put an ad in the paper," he explains. "It said 'No rock wizards.' That sounded right up my alley at the time. So many people in bands try to be too technical or crazy or whatever. These guys were the opposite of that."
Originally from Texas, Reeves had tried playing in a slew of groups upon moving to Denver in 1990 -- with little success.
"He got kicked out a band for yawning on stage," Julie jokes. "Wasn't it King Rat?"
"Yeah, I played bass in King Rat briefly," Reeves admits sheepishly, citing one of Denver's rowdiest punk acts. "Then I got the ax. It wasn't for yawning, but, as you can imagine, I didn't really mesh with them."
The rest of the Maybellines were just as happy to find Reeves. "When we put that ad in the paper, we got calls from, like, thirty people, and we actually auditioned six or seven," Gilbert recounts. "We had just gone through this string of totally insane people. One guy was some crackhead who wanted to play slap bass."
"There was this one guy who didn't smile or anything," Levasseur adds. "He just put his foot on his amp and played."
"We were really into talking-hamburger pictures, so we showed him some, and he was just like, 'These are stupid,'" Gilbert says with a grin. "All of our early fliers are pictures of a hamburger with a top hat and legs. For some reason, I thought that was hilarious at the time."
"We just couldn't figure out," Dorough muses, "why he didn't want to get on board with the talking hamburgers."
This goofy abandon and exhilarating lack of rock swagger fueled the quartet's eponymous debut EP. Released in 2000 on the eminent indie-pop imprint Shelf Life, the disc hums with childlike charm on tracks like "Space Mission Bible Camp" and "Happiness Digest." The band credits Bludworth: It was he who decided that the label would be a perfect fit for the Maybellines, and sure enough, their demo elicited an immediate call-back. The full-length Chatfield Holiday followed in 2002, appearing on Gilbert's own Best Friends Records. Some television executive must have gotten ahold of the discs and liked what he heard, because over the past couple of years, the group's music has been featured on the programs Made, Road Rules and even The Sharon Osbourne Show.
Keeping in line with the name of his label, Gilbert is quick to point out that the Maybellines couldn't have accomplished anything without their friends. "I like the team concept of music," he explains. "As soon as we started playing shows, we met all these other local bands like Breezy Porticos and Thank God for Astronauts. We were instantly friends. It's a community, like the punk scenes I used to be in as a kid."
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Of all the Denver groups the Maybellines associate with, one in particular sticks out as a blatantly obvious inspiration. "Honestly, and I'll say this to anybody, Dressy Bessy was such an influence on us," Gilbert confesses. "When I first saw Dressy Bessy, it was so amazing seeing them play the type of music that I loved, and it was actually popular. People like to toot their own horns, but I'll say this: We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to them. We're not going to pretend like we came up with something completely original."
Indeed, both Dressy Bessy and the Maybellines share a sunny-faced fixation on the trappings of childhood, summertime and toothaches. But, as A La Carte shows, Bludworth's passing has marked the band with a reflective -- even world-weary -- melancholy. "Our first record was all about unity and friends and having fun," Gilbert says. "That's what we were going for at the time. That's what was happening in our lives. Then we all went through James's death. Naturally, things are going to sound different."
"It was really hard to be so happy and bubbly like we've always been," Dorough says. "It felt almost impossible to write a really happy song. One of my friends listened to the new CD and said, 'Wow, this sounds really sad.' No one has ever described our music as sad. It's always, 'This must be the happiest band in the world!' And now I don't know what we are. We're kind of in between.
"But," she adds, flashing her best cloud-burning smile, "we'll probably go back to singing songs about teddy bears and popsicles. Some day."