Fly Me to the Moon," by Frank Sinatra. "Crying," by Roy Orbison. "Roxanne," by the Police. The hits keep rolling out of the jukebox and bouncing off the faux-walnut paneling and mirrored walls of the P S Lounge on East Colfax Avenue. The four members of Voices Underwater sit clustered around a tiny table, heads bent over, silent, scribbling furiously. Occasionally one of them pauses, pressing pen to lips, and thinks hard. The group, you see, is taking a pop quiz.
"Done," says singer/guitarist Ben DeVoss, who seems to have been sweating the questions a bit. Soon the rest of them -- guitarist MacKenzie Howard, drummer Bill Menchaca and bassist/keyboardist Chris White -- toss their completed quizzes in the pile and order another round of Newcastles. As a warmup to their interview, the four of them have been asked to fill out a brief questionnaire. Their answers aren't as Freudianly revealing as was hoped, but there's some good stuff in there anyway: Their first concerts as kids range from Poison and Van Halen all the way to Megadeth. Albums they know every word to include Low's The Curtain Hits the Cast, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Samiam's Soar and Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell (two of them listed that one). The punkest things they ever did in their lives run the gamut from graduating college to lighting farts on fire on a church bus.
"You know, I met Chris almost exactly where we're sitting now," says DeVoss, gesturing to the next table over. It is, as they say, a lazy Sunday afternoon, and dust hovers in the beams of sunlight filtering in through the gaps in the blinds. "Can I tell the truth? I was really nervous. Chris was wearing overalls," he remembers. The rickety table starts rocking with laughter, almost dumping the pile of test papers on the floor. "I was scrutinizing people. I was a little scared -- I had been burned so many times by these people around Denver who just weren't on the same page."
Voices Underwater might as well be called "Fishes Out of Water." With an amphibious sound that breathes as easily in the atmosphere of indie-pop as it does in the depths of electronic and experimental rock, the group has had to fight an upstream battle to win the recognition it now enjoys. "We've always felt like we didn't fit in here," says DeVoss, who daylights as an autism therapist. "When I moved out here from Lawrence, Kansas, I started hanging up fliers looking for people to play with. After a year, I'd been through the wringer playing with a few other people. I had kind of given up hope on Denver until Chris phoned me."
"I saw his flier, and I just thought it was written cool," says White. "I remember it started out with the sentence 'Can you hear this?' And then it went on to describe Mr. DeVoss. I held onto it for a year, until the band I was in broke up."
After first contact was made, DeVoss and White went about trying to find a drummer -- a process that, according to DeVoss, was an exercise in "complete desperation."
"We were so bored, and looking for this outlet," he explains. "There are some Web sites we checked out, but it was risky business. After maybe ten different drummers we eventually talked to this guy, Bill Menchaca. At the time we had a practice space that was probably about four by ten feet long, about the size of a closet. When someone helped us move into it, they thought we were just storing our equipment there."
"We had to have extension cords running down the hall and around the corner," adds White.
"It was a death trap," Menchaca confirms with a laugh. A student of clinical psychology, he moved to Colorado from Austin, Texas, in 2000 to attend graduate school at the University of Denver. "I remember getting a call from Ben and thinking, this guy's a talkative fella. Chris didn't say a whole lot; I think he was sizing me up. We talked about what kinds of bands I'm into, like Mogwai. I didn't think stuff like that was obscure, but everyone else who answered my ad were Deftones fans, Tool fans. So the three of us practiced a few times, and it just clicked."
The trio called itself -- perhaps a bit unfortunately -- Vuja Dé, and began playing around town in the winter of 2001. After a few months of intense gigging and songwriting, the group began recording what it figured would be just a demo CD.
"All of us had been playing in these crappy little outfits that never did anything, so I think we were like, all right, fuck it; let's book some time in the studio," says DeVoss. "We just wanted to get it out of our system."
What got out of their system was Electric Birds, a six-song disc that sounds unlike anything Denver has ever produced. With fleeting references to Brian Eno, the Sea and Cake, and Stereolab, tracks like "Zero-Sum" and "Light Radiates at Different Frequencies" combine lush-yet-brittle guitars with whale-sized slabs of bass and splotches of electronic ambience. The arrangements are dense and inventive, with vertigo-inducing leaps of dynamics locked into smooth, hypnotic loops. The song "Left to Fit Right In" is a blip-riddled duet between DeVoss and his robotic doppelganger, a computer-modulated voice echoing the lone lyric "I'm so afraid/Of what you might say." Electric Bird's denouement -- the epic "Summer Novice" -- starts with DeVoss whispering an onomatopoeic drumbeat into the microphone. This ghostly rhythm then dissolves into an ocean of seething texture and symphonic movements more reminiscent of Yes than Tortoise. Embedded in the whole thing is a membrane of pulsing harmony and tender, fleshy pop.
"There are these happy accidents in recording," DeVoss says way too modestly. "When we record a song, we're like, oh, this is how it goes."
"You get to see all the details from a different perspective," Menchaca agrees, sounding every inch like the psychologist. "It's more holistic."
The group -- renamed VU or Voices Underwater -- sent out the demo to a couple dozen indie labels around the country, receiving a few form letters of rejection before pretty much giving up. "I was the only one who was cocky about it," says DeVoss. "I figured somebody would like it. Look how much crap is out there. But the months just went by."
Finally VU received an e-mail from Action Driver, a small but well-distributed label based in Toledo, Ohio. Electric Birds was immediately issued on disc. "A month after signing the contract, we got 200 CDs and T-shirts and shit in the mail," DeVoss recalls. "We were like, is this really happening?" With a year's worth of progress and prospects under their belts, the three musicians decided it was time to expand the lineup.
"I play guitar and sing, but it's nerve-racking," says DeVoss. "I was always really nervous, like, just bury the vocals. I just wanted another layer behind it." That other layer turned out to be MacKenzie Howard, a neurobiologist who emigrated from Florida in 2001. After playing bass in various outfits for years, Howard was ready to switch to guitar at around the same time VU was looking for an extra one.
"I met these guys right away when I moved here," Howard says, "and got to know them over the course of a year. If it hadn't been for the friendship, I probably wouldn't have started playing with them. They had some shows coming up, so we practiced every night for three weeks. It became cohesive; it worked out right away."
With the addition of Howard on second guitar, VU's sound became even more intricate and mesmerizing. The group began playing higher-profile shows, opening for indie-rock luminaries like Tristeza, Crooked Fingers and Mates of State, and submitted an application to Austin's eminent South by Southwest music festival almost on a whim.
"I had almost completely forgotten that we even applied. Then we got an invitation, a congratulations thing." DeVoss says. "The only out-of-town show we had done before that was in Boulder."
"I grew up in Texas," says Menchaca, "so I went to South by Southwest every year. I saw so many good bands there. To be a part of that was amazing."
Besides being a live-music fan's Mecca, the showcase is a feeding frenzy for A&R reps and industry bigwigs -- not to mention the musicians that ass-kiss them. "I don't know if any of those people were there to see us, but we got a really warm reception. It was probably the most positive music experience I've ever had," says DeVoss. "But I didn't care about meeting reps or anything. I just wanted to go see Yo La Tengo play."
"It was just like a vacation with your friends," says Menchaca.
"Yeah, we got to ride in a van together ten hours a day and drive places we've never been," adds DeVoss.
"I think the most important reason why this band works is that we're a group of best friends," says Howard. "We're doing this just to express what we want to put out there. I think that makes it really sincere. It provides the chemistry. That's why this band works and maybe other bands don't."
After returning to Denver, VU put the final touches on its new full-length disc, titled simply Voices Underwater. The album was recorded at the group's home studio, referred to lovingly by White -- an apparent Pee Wee Herman fan -- as "the basement of the Alamo." With enough space to stretch out and exhale, Voices Underwater unwinds an entire universe of emptiness and melancholy across its nine songs. In "Sleeping Faces," a weepy, sweeping pop riff drifts below DeVoss's achingly sung lyrics: "Artificial hearts wrapped up in their plastic/The vital organs bask in the blood." As on Electric Birds, a gauzy film of synthesizers contains calculated explosions of arpeggios, melody and noise. Certain parts of the record -- especially the gargantuan intro to "Paws of Black Bears" -- harbor a strong affection for OK Computer-era Radiohead, and a big debt overall seems to be owed to Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica -- and maybe Megadeth here and there.
Still, the majestic scope and cohesion of Voices Underwater is entirely its own. The album's songs flow from one to the next like blobs of mercury, fused together with lulling interludes and overlapping strata of beats and samples. The result is a gorgeous, metamorphic, seamless stream of sound.
"That's all thanks to Chris," says DeVoss. "He always picks the order of all the songs and thinks of transitions. He's the mastermind. He's a visionary, a quiet visionary."
"I spend a lot of time in my truck. I deliver helium," White says, as if that explains everything. "I have a lot of long drives, and I drink a lot of coffee. I always have lots of ideas."
Ideas are definitely not a scarce for Voices Underwater. Sadly, however, bandmembers are about to be: Menchaca and Howard are both relocating at the end of the summer to begin internships in Houston and Seattle, respectively. The move will leave two gaping holes in the group, with DeVoss and White scrambling to plug the leaks.
"We'll definitely have to do some repair work," says DeVoss. "It's kind of weird for Chris and I. The other guys are going off and starting their new lives, and we're just sitting here doing the same old shit. There'll be some remixing of the lineup."
"Voices Underwater will be ever evolving," Howard says. "There's always been a lot of adapting and changing and experimenting. It'll keep going. But we're hoping to do some recording beforehand, get another EP out."
"There's going to be some tears shed when they leave," adds White. "Really. Tears."
DeVoss looks down into his bottle. "The bottom line is we're very sad. I'm getting a little misty-eyed talking about it. People grow, people go," he says. The table gets a little quiet. "It's something we don't even want to talk about. We know it's approaching, but...."
The final question on the Voices Underwater pop quiz was inspired by the Kingston Trio folk tune "It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song." The four members of VU were asked if they consider this statement to be true. Curiously enough, Menchaca and Howard -- the two who are leaving the group -- answer yes, while DeVoss and White answer no. ("People fake it all day, every day," DeVoss writes.) Perhaps Menchaca could apply some psychoanalytic theory here and read into the hidden meaning of their answers as if they were Rorschach blots. Maybe some hypothesis could be made about what they all truly, subconsciously think of the group, of their music, of each other.
But right now, nobody cares. It's time to mooch a few bucks off a bandmate, quibble over the tip, listen to Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" bleat out of the P S jukebox and linger over another round of beers in the slanting, dusty rays of a Colfax afternoon.
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