We Have Liftoff
Depending on your perspective, Rocket Ajax guitarist Todd Schlafer harbors a musical dream that is either of the loftiest or the lowest sort.
"I wanna be Korn," he says.
"We're writing singles," adds vocalist Dan Miller. "We wanna be on the radio; we wanna be, you know, big!"
Whatever your opinion of Rocket Ajax's career aspirations, you've got to admire the band's unbridled ambition -- especially now, when admitting you'd like to make a living from music is tantamount to auctioning your soul on eBay. Having already achieved a certain Korn-flavored look -- the occasional dreadlock on some bandmembers, lots of tats on others and brooding stares displayed by all -- Rocket Ajax is preparing for a physical move toward bigness. In early November, the four-person outfit will pack up its gear and head for the rolling and musician-infested hills of Hollywood, California. One of Denver's most successful hard-rock acts, Schlafer, Miller, bassist Ryan Morrow and drummer Craig Glisson will go from big fish in a Mile High pond to little fish in a sea of starving metal bands.
"Out there," Miller says of Los Angeles, "there's competition, and we're gonna go out and find out how good we are."
Before they go, the members of Rocket Ajax want to remind Denverites of just how good they are. Receptive to the Unkind, a new, radio-ready six-song CD that's as powerful as a Lockheed-Martin booster rocket, will be released this weekend. Many of the disc's tunes are as good as any recent work by Korn, Staind, Linkin Park and other bands killing time on MTV and (occasionally) commercial radio. The six songs bristle with monster guitars and the aggressive crunch that head-flopping metal lovers crave. Miller's embattled, metallic vocals slip easily from an Alice in Chains wail to a Stone Temple Pilots croon; he sometimes screeches as if his tonsils are locked in a vise -- all, thankfully, without sounding too histrionic. Though brief, the recording explodes with titanium-barbed hooks, plenty of angst, a few layers of studio gloss and all the turn-on-a-dime thrills a headbanger can dream of.
All told, the disc is an atomic blast of smartly crafted rock, made whole by a tightly cinched, sixteen-cylinder rhythm section. (Bassist Miles Marlin, who left the band in May, plays on five of the CD's six tunes.) Receptive also benefits from the big-league production values of local musician and producer Jeremy Lawton, who mixed and mastered it. The sound is nearly as rich and full as anything the band could hope to record in an oceanside studio.
That's not to say it is a nice sound. Though Miller counts John Williams's Star Wars scores, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Elvis as early musical influences, his own music is the stuff a mom could hate and a rock-radio programmer would love.
"The songs are about what everybody goes through, what everybody feels: anguish, some mental instability once in a while," Miller says. "So people can totally relate to the lyrics. I'm a serious worrier, about everything. These are things I've gone through. I wrote these songs when I'd been up for two days, it's five in the morning, and I need to get something out."
Schlafer plays for therapeutic reasons of a different sort. "I love hearing Marshalls pounding on my back," he says. Miller's songs, he notes with pride, "are all about pain. It's a good release. Our music is aggressive enough where there's feeling in it, but it's not too heavy where it becomes a bunch of noise."
After hearing Ajax's previous CD, 2000's Sentenced to Life, record company reps advised the band to drop the hints of electronica that peppered that album and instead craft songs that radio pitchers could sell. Receptive reflects its desire to do that while staying true to its muse. "It's not like we've sold out," says Schlafer, who counts George Lynch and White Zombie's Jay Yuenger among his favorite guitarists. "We all feel everything on the record. It's just that we've learned to write better songs that, at the same time, the masses can understand.
"There are bands that say they don't care: They're going to write how they're going to write," he adds. "Well, I want to be heard more than they are."
"Writing singles is hard," says Miller, whose soft-spoken nature belies his intense singing style. "It's hard because it's like a science. You've got to fit your style into that single structure. The labels want you to reinvent rock. That's what they want to hear."
For the past seven years, Miller and his mates have been reinventing themselves on Denver's music scene. When they grouped as Rocket Ajax in 1998, they soon found themselves in the upper tier of area hard-rock acts; along the way, the band has done about everything a local outfit can hope to do, including consistently drawing capacity crowds to Herman's Hideaway, the Soiled Dove and other venues. In 2000, Rocket Ajax was a semifinalist in Jim Beam's national band search; 2001 brought a regional win in Rolling Rock's nationwide search for unsigned talent. The group has landed numerous nominations in the Westword Music Showcase over the past three years, charted on MP3.com's Alternative Metal chart and opened for heroes such as Orgy, Mötley Crüe, Kid Rock and others. It also played KBPI's Birthday Bash in 2000 and fulfilled a dream of playing Red Rocks.
"We've done a lot for hard bands in this town," Miller says. "Sick started it off and Blister did a lot, and we've made a big impact. But short of, like, playing the Pepsi Center or Invesco and getting a song in rotation on KBPI, we've done everything we can do here." Besides, Denver is a hard town for hard-rock bands. "A lot of emphasis -- a lot of emphasis -- is put on punk style," Miller says. "You've got the 15th St. Tavern, the Lion's Lair -- it's their bread and butter. There's not a lot of room for hard rock."
Rocket Ajax's commercial-minded rock is considered too mainstream by punk lovers, while mainstream audiences deem it too heavy. "The hard-rock scene here, like every other scene in this town, is pretty small," Miller says. "You get 200 people to a show, and that's a big thing, because there's only about 300 of them here."
The band hopes to benefit from a larger audience base in California. But it'll be competing with hundreds of acts that are willing to pay to play shows while trying to tickle the fickle ears of LA's music-business reps. Those are tough circumstances compared with the easy Denver lifestyle. The members are now prepping for their move by looking for jobs and places to live. Schlafer, a computer graphics designer, has lined up a job, but he's still a little anxious about leaving.
"I'm totally nervous, and I know I'll be homesick as hell," he says. "But this is what we've got to do, and I'm excited about going. I don't want to have any regrets. I don't want to stay here and then have nothing happen. Do I hate myself and everyone I'm around for the rest of my life, because I'll be second-guessing myself forever? I want to go out there so I can give it everything I've got."
In a couple of months, Rocket Ajax will be doing just that. But the band leaves the high country feeling optimistic, complete with ideas of how its return engagement, say, a couple years from now, might shake out.
"I want to be back on the Family Values Tour at the Pepsi Center," Miller says, adding, "We'll play the Cricket on the Hill, too."
Schlafer's dream homecoming date is equally grand: "Headline Red Rocks -- that's my goal," he says.
Yeah, with Korn as the opener.
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