Something's rotten in the music industry, and Ian O'Dougherty, guitarist/vocalist for Denver's Uphollow, thinks he knows what it is. During performances, he says, most local and national musicians he's seen lately have spent more time looking down at their hands than at the audience members with whom they're supposed to be communicating. "Bands have lost sight of their role as entertainers," he complains.
Fellow Uphollow guitarist/vocalist Whit Sibley concurs; with only a few exceptions, he asserts, "bands are so unprofessional. They get out there, and the drummer will play his drums for whatever reason. Then the guitarist will play full volume, making sure things still work instead of just performing and not having the crowd listen to that stuff. We're really sick of bands talking and tuning out loud between songs."
In an attempt to counter such showbiz ineptitude, Uphollow, which also includes bassist Josh Kennedy and drummer Andrew J. Ferreira, has embraced old-fashioned theatricality both on stage and on its latest recording. An Imaginary Life is a thirty-minute rock opera that treats listeners to a nonstop, near-seamless melange of music and storytelling that suggests the Pygmalion saga as told by the Pixies. Other influences revealed by the piece range from the stiff-upper-lip stylings of British rockers like Queen and Pulp to statesiders as diverse as Bo Diddley and Metallica. In penning Life, O'Dougherty states, "we wanted to get away from the typical verse-chorus rut"--and judged by that criterion, the quartet has certainly succeeded. The opus careens wildly from punk to new wave to grunge--and once a melody is left behind, it is almost never revisited.
If eclecticism is Life's greatest strength, however, it's also the work's most profound weakness. The epic bombards listeners with so many snappy sound bites in such a short period that it's virtually impossible to recall any of them when the piece is finished. Likewise, O'Dougherty's and Sibley's practice of sharing vocal duties makes the narrative difficult to follow without a lyric sheet. These imperfections help account for the quizzical response Uphollow received during December shows at which Life was debuted. Typical, according to Sibley, was the crowd at a Club 156 date: They applauded briskly, but once the players put down their instruments, "nobody really wanted to talk about it." Things went better during a subsequent two-week tour that took them to New Mexico, Washington and other Western locales, in large part because this concentrated series of outings allowed the musicians to tighten up their presentation as they went along. (See the results of their efforts at Uphollow's next local show, February 22 at the Snake Pit.)
Still, tailoring itself for the marketplace has never been an Uphollow forte. For example, O'Dougherty concedes that the group's moniker--an alternate spelling of Apollo, the Greek god of music and male beauty--is "terrible," because most people who see it in print have no idea how to pronounce it. (The folks at Hooked on Phonics no doubt wouldn't approve of it, either.) Nonetheless, he continues, "we could never, ever change it, because we can't think of anything else."
Adds Kennedy, "It's also tattooed on my leg."
Before acquiring any body art, the band's founders--Kennedy, O'Dougherty and Sibley--spent nearly five years honing a sound that evolved out of a shared fondness for Screeching Weasel and the Queers, whose songs they frequently covered. They experimented with various configurations, including one in which Kennedy played drums and O'Dougherty plunked bass, before hooking up with Ferreira, a local pal who previously pounded the skins for the now-fizzled act Pocket Rocket. Heavy touring was part of the package. O'Dougherty claims that Uphollow has appeared in most states west of the Mississippi, as well as in Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin. But in contrast to those musicians who describe the road as a hellish place, he and his cohorts sing the praises of the traveling life.
"We have a good time, because kids will totally welcome us into their homes," Ferreira comments. "And their mothers will make us food."
"We're somewhat clean-cut," Sibley elaborates. "We're not drug addicts, and so people just trust us." On occasion, the bandmembers have been left with fresh towels for showers and instructions to lock up when they leave.
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Of course, not every tour story has a happy ending. The boys relate with pride how they once snuck onto the football field of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers for an after-hours romp. But the high was short-lived. "The next day we played to zero people," O'Dougherty admits.
In an attempt to build a larger fan base in their hometown, Uphollow released in mid-January a five-minute excerpt from Life on a split seven-inch single that also features the Blue Ontario. (The platter is available at Wax Trax.) But even O'Dougherty acknowledges that this gambit is no guarantee that the album as a whole will be embraced. "Bands like Jethro Tull have done full-length concept albums before," he points out. "And, I don't know--sometimes they're hard even for me to listen to."
On a more positive note, Sibley says, "I think that there's not a lot of bands doing this type of thing. It's kind of a new type of media; it's still in the punk-rock vein, playing small dive clubs, but it's also more theatrical. At least we hope eventually that it will be."
With the planned addition of elements such as a light show, this may indeed come to pass, but O'Dougherty worries that accoutrements like these may not induce people to commit the time he feels is necessary to digest Life. If they don't, though, the Uphollow crew will likely stay on its current artistic trajectory anyway. "If you ask me, I'm having a hell of a good time doing it," Kennedy announces. "And if nobody else likes it, I don't really care.