The members of Vices I Admire noticed something odd about the bass player as soon as he showed up to audition. It was early 2009. Vocalist Dave Curtis, lead guitarist Mickey Dollar and drummer Mark Towne had been looking for a replacement for departed bassist Robert Marston for eight months. After unsuccessfully trying out at least twenty bass players harvested through Craigslist ads and mutual contacts, the search was starting to take a toll on the band.
"One thing was off with each of them," Towne recalls. "One guy was really good but just not quite our style, more rooted in Rush or something. When we started playing something...it just didn't sound right. It was really a frustrating time."
The tedious and taxing process of finding someone new to hold down the low end was keeping the group from refining its sound, the structure of which was rooted in a modern-rock style popularized by late-'90s outfits like Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age: densely frenetic vocals, driving distortion and pointed tempos. With a fresh batch of songs written and ready to record, the lack of a bass player was the main roadblock to the group's development into something more distinct. "I know that we were starting to lose a lot of steam," Towne admits, "because we had all of these plans, and we couldn't do them."
Vices I Admire
Vices I Admire CD-release party, with Take to the Oars, Genre Theory and Microdots, 8 p.m. Friday, December 9, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $9.33-$12, 1-888-929-7849.
Enter Dan Battenhouse, a jack-of-all-trades who had earned money doing everything from driving a cab to building furniture after earning his bachelor's degree in business from Colorado Christian University. A bassist who favored an elaborate finger-picking and slap-bass style, Battenhouse showed up for the tryout with a considerable handicap. "I had a cast on," he recalls. "I had just been rolled by a horse, and I had emergency surgery on my right wrist as a result of that. I couldn't do any of that slap stuff that I've done, and definitely no pick, so I just ended up playing with my two fingers — my index finger and my middle finger."
The injury was only part of what made Battenhouse stand out. His background could arguably have been just as off-putting for a band seeped in carefully calculated feedback and speedy tempos, a group that had settled early on a niche slightly outside the boundaries of mainstream rock. Battenhouse, you see, had played bass for the Fray when the group was still a five-piece, immediately before it signed with Epic Records in 2004 and went on to achieve national fame with a brand of rock that was decidedly poppy. But neither the injury nor the experience with a pop outfit hampered Battenhouse's performance in the audition. Starting with the bass line for "Heartbreaker," a driving tune anchored by straight-ahead figuring in both verse and chorus, the bassist followed the cues with ease.
"He started playing, and he fit better than anyone else, which is crazy to think about," Curtis asserts. "It was surprising how many people came in and knew fuck-all about the track. It was pretty quick with Dan."
That quick fit allowed the band, which formed in 2002 while the members were classmates at Colorado State University, to get into Colorado Sound Studios with engineer and Take to the Oars bassist J.P. Manza. Finding Battenhouse finally gave the band the personnel it needed to complete The Politics of Apathy, the followup to Plan B that touted a more progressive style than the band's debut. Songs like "Monster" and "Apathology" revealed a mature approach to composition and songwriting.
Two years later, the band is poised to take another significant step forward with the release of Venom and Pride. The four-track EP will represent Vices' first effort written and recorded with Battenhouse on bass. In "The Union," for example, what starts as an ornamented bass intro weaves its way into the lead melody, while "Hero" layers a choppy, aggressive guitar riff over a bass line that becomes progressively more insistent and prominent. These subtleties underlie structures that sound more streamlined, songs that rely less on well-worn elements of alternative rock and more on a new chemistry.
"When Dan first came in, we had a ton of songs," Dollar notes. "It was all pretty much stuff that Rob had written before he left. But this is the first time that we've put anything down with him. We started the songs with him from the beginning."
That process has been liberating for Battenhouse, who still bears the figurative scars of difficult lessons learned about the business side of the music industry. The grittier dynamic of Vices I Admire seems more suited to Battenhouse's approach to the bass, he notes. The marriage of driving riffs and a wider harmonic palette has offered more artistic leeway.
"It's allowed me to both simplify things and make my approach more intricate in other ways," Battenhouse points out. "I did all my own engineering for this album, for the bass lines. It's really allowed me to bloom. I hadn't had the opportunity to do that before."
The benefits of the band haven't only been creative. Battenhouse admits his departure from the Fray came as a shock, and he's quick to praise the strengthened sense of loyalty and confidence he feels in his new band. "We have a good relationship," he says of his new band, adding that his split with the Fray "wasn't an amicable dissolution. The way that I learned about the business was kind of the hard way. Even if approached by a label and huge fame, I think these guys would be less swayed by the powers-that-be out there if things were leaning away from loyalty."
That security has had an impact on his role as a musician, Battenhouse adds. "It's definitely helped me to process that and helped me to feel like I have a place creatively." Whether it's because Battenhouse has been part of the group for multiple years or because of a natural maturing process, the band sees Venom and Pride as a creative watershed. Just as Politics refined the '90s rock template, Venom and Pride strives for a new chapter.
For Curtis, that growth hasn't necessarily been easy. The lead singer has taken on a new role as guitarist on the release, but what stands out to him on first listen are the darker lyrical undertones. While tunes like "Stay Away" and "Forever" bear elements of past releases, it's their content that makes them stand out. Amid Curtis's rapid-fire delivery of words and images, it's easy to pick out moments of loss and dilemmas: "Don't move a muscle 'cause I ain't finished yet," Curtis sings on "Forever." "I said I love you, but I'm prone to forget...I said forever, but forever is in doubt." The words from "The Union" offer similarly bitter undertones: "Hope you dream of love, and when you kiss his lips, he'll be a lot like me."
"I love the songs, but I'll tell you, they make me extremely sad," Curtis confesses. "It's almost painfully honest; it upsets me to listen to them sometimes. It's pretty intense.... This one is just darker for me than anything else."
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It's not as though Politics, with its themes of weakness and guilt, didn't veer into dark territory. Still, the bandmembers insist, Venom and Pride seeks to boil that down to a feel that is even more immediate and accessible.
That may stem from the shifting landscape of popular music, they admit. What was generically referred to as "modern rock" in the '90s has since found a more mainstream spot; what was the gritty middle ground between pop and metal has found a greater acceptance and a wider audience.
Still, much of that polish and maturity is the inevitable result of years spent together, of maintaining a sound through personnel shifts and personal crises.
"Some bands say, 'We're going to revamp,' but we never did that," Towne concludes. "We never took a strong stance on adjusting our sound. As musicians, we changed. From Plan B to Politics was five years; a lot happened. A lot of things change."