Denver musicians frequently complain about the local scene. But in the minds of the musicians in Venus Diablo, Colorado's capitol is a virtual mecca compared with their home base of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
According to bassist Johnny Cassidy, a onetime member of the M80s, a trashy, Sixties-style garage act signed to Estrus Records, he wound up in Albuquerque as the result of a whim. When he and his wife moved there in the summer of 1994, he says, "We didn't know anybody--just wanted a change." He jokes, "Blindfolded, we threw darts at a map."
Upon his arrival in the dusty, sun-baked municipality, Cassidy hit the open-mike beat. "I went to this thing called World Beat Wednesday, where they encouraged people to bring instruments other than guitars or your typical this and that," he recounts. While there, mandolin in hand, he met saxophonist Jess Graham--and the following week he jammed with Graham, guitarist/vocalist Steve Mickelsen and drummer Chris Hutton, who together were known by the unwieldy moniker Ballads for a Scratch and Sniff Girlfriend. The name was changed to the more economical Venus Diablo after Cassidy joined the fold. "I think they felt it became a real band once they had a bass player," he ventures, adding, "I was brand-new in town and didn't really know anybody, so I didn't know where the shows were. And the next thing I know, I'm getting in free to all these clubs because I'm playing with respected musicians from around town."
At the time, the Albuquerque live-music community was dominated by punk and alternative bands. Prior to joining Venus Diablo, for instance, Mickelsen had been part of the Belly-Achers, a combo that was courted by A&M Records during the early Nineties grunge harvest. "People were looking to pick up bands that sounded like that," Cassidy explains. "And they had that Pearl Jam-esque kind of sound and were one of the bigger draws around Albuquerque. They'd pack them in all over the place, and they were being flown out to L.A. to work on this record and being taken out to dinner and going to all these parties. They were inches away from getting this major deal when they were just dropped all of a sudden."
Given this environment, it's only natural that Venus Diablo, which delivers swingy cabaret pop with a Middle Eastern flourish, was greeted by a wave of popularity both at home and beyond. Santa Monica's Laser Records ultimately signed the group and issued its eponymous debut, which Mickelsen financed by selling the painting that adorns its cover to the owner of a billiard hall. As Cassidy tells it, the album came into existence at an area venue called the Dingo Bar. "It's nothing cool like the Bluebird. It's just your little corner bar. We recorded live there on the stage one weekend during the afternoon, when nobody was in there. We wanted to go for that live ambience that you get in a place like that."
The approach served the players well. A strong collection of tunes driven by Graham's globe-trotting horn scrolls and Mickelsen's barfly growl, Venus Diablo exudes the retro ambience of old jazz recordings; Graham's sax squawks are so immediate that they're capable of blowing back your hair. "Until I met Jessie, I had never really been into jazz," Cassidy admits. "I swear, just playing with the horn and realizing what a different instrument it is really turned me on to the appreciation of jazz."
That wasn't the only way in which the horizons of Mickelsen and Cassidy were broadened. "Jessie's into hand-drumming and Egyptian music, so a lot of his influences are gypsy-style," Cassidy allows. "And Chris is really into hip-hop and soul music. He just throws in all these beats that are more hip-hop-oriented without being super bassy. He's more subtle about it, but those influences are definitely there." Meanwhile, he and Mickelsen contributed "the beat-generation sensibilities, the real beat-poetry-jazz lyrics and the snapping of the fingers, and that cool, loungey, moody thing."
Among those impressed by the results were the players in Denver's 16 Horsepower. "They talked to one of the promoters at the Dingo and said that they really liked us, that we were one of the cooler bands that they had the chance to play with while on tour and that they wanted to do a show with us," Cassidy recounts. "Following through on it, we ended up playing two nights last August with them at the Bluebird. That was a tremendous experience for us, because we had only been out of Albuquerque one other time. We played in Los Angeles the first year we were together, so it was good for us to get out of town again."
The Denver gigs allowed the band a deserved and much-needed breath of out-of-state air. Cassidy reveals that taking to the road was made difficult by the fact that "Jessie had an addiction that was hard for him to kick. He had been using heroin and had resigned himself to that lifestyle, so practices before that and after that were especially trying, and it became no fun anymore." When Graham finally left the band, it was both a disappointment and a relief. "We knew that it was coming for a while," Cassidy says. "We had our CD-release party in November of '96, and two months later we were playing in Taos. After the show he threw his saxophone down and started flipping out and screaming at the audience and walked off stage and left. That was the last time we ever played with him."
To this day, Cassidy can only guess at the reasons behind Graham's behavior. "I don't think that he really felt in tune with our music. We couldn't even write new songs after a while because he didn't feel it needed his part, or that we weren't giving him enough space. We never really knew what he wanted or needed. It's hard unless everybody reads music, which we don't, to deal with a horn player when you're a string player. Guitarist and bassists can look at each other and know where they are, whereas a horn player needs to know what key you're in, what scales they can use. He was playing all by ear, pretty much. He's a super-talented person, but he just had some other things that he needed to work on, and I guess we were taking away from that."
In the wake of Graham's departure, the remaining members rallied. "It took us a while to get over that hump that he was gone and to realize that, damn, we have all this space now that we need to fill up with something," Cassidy comments. At first they supplemented the lineup with guitarist Ryan Martino, who produced Venus Diablo, but this experiment was later scrapped in favor of continuing as a trio. In Cassidy's words, "We've written a whole new album of material that we were working on--ten or twelve brand-new songs that Jessie never played on that I feel are some of our better songs, actually, because we're not used to hearing that extra part now. We wrote them as a three-piece, and we're playing them as a three-piece. They just feel solid that way.
"We have a few songs now that tend toward swing-style music, where you could actually dance to them," reports Cassidy, a jitterbug enthusiast. "There is a swing scene in Albuquerque, but it's pretty small, and we only get out to swing dance maybe twice a month when those shows are happening."
Denver's swing-friendliness is only one of the reasons that Cassidy and company are hoping to spend more time in Colorado--or practically anywhere else. Although Venus Diablo still draws crowds in New Mexico, Cassidy notes that "it seems like we're getting less shows here. The promoters want to keep the scene fresh, or something like that. It seems like we don't get as much respect here as we should, and it's been making the band restless. For a while we couldn't get out of Albuquerque due to Jessie's condition, and once we got over the hurdle of losing him and rebuilding ourselves, it didn't seem like we were getting any appreciation in Albuquerque. So everybody was kind of like, well, I better start doing something else, because this is sucking."
At this point, the three men in Venus plan to stay together, but Cassidy concedes that there are times when doing so is difficult. He offers as an example a recent gig with singer-songwriter Lori Carson, who lobbied to play her mellow set first. "All these people were coming in asking if we've played yet and sticking around to see us," Cassidy contends. "And then the Dingo Bar ends up paying us $100 on a Saturday night while we kept the crowd there to see Lori Carson--and she got her guarantee.
"It's terrible," he grouses. "When you're a band that lives in a small place, it seems like they treat you like shit. Because you're expendable."
Venus Diablo, with the Czars, the Perry Weissman 3 and Idle Mind. 8 p.m. Friday, September 12, the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, $5.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.