"Before I started the band, I'd been taking singing lessons to build my confidence--because I didn't think I could sing in front of anybody," explains Leslie Simon, the hyperkinetic, tambourine-shaking front thang for Denver's Simon Sez. After studying techniques that strengthened both her pipes and her sense of self-assurance, she introduced vocal exercises to one of her bandmates, guitarist Joel Dallenbach, who became an enthusiastic convert. He later told Simon's rhythm section, bassist Jason Tittman and drummer Richard Amari, "You guys, you've got to try this." Now they do it before every show.
After delivering a dignified baritone sol-fa, Tittman adds, "We're ready to go out and sing Gilbert and Sullivan when we get done."
Don't expect to hear "Tit-Willow" when Simon Sez takes the stage, however. The band's performances are more akin to watching Minnie Mouse ride on the hood of a monster truck, screeching gleefully as it clambers over mountains of mud. In other words, Simon Sez is a Molotov cocktail with a twist.
The band began to coalesce six months ago, after Dallenbach left Zoon Politikon to reunite with Tittman, his onetime bandmate in the 180's. Around that same time, Amari, who shares Dallenbach and Tittman's punk roots, acquired a new kit after three years of drumming abstinence. He subsequently called Tittman, and before long, he and the duo were bashing out covers of tunes by everyone from Donovan to the Sex Pistols. Simon was the last to enter the orange-shag-carpeted world that is their rehearsal space. "When she first came down, she stood in the corner, small and sheepish," recalls Tittman, pulling in his giant shoulders to ape the timidity the singer has long since discarded. In concert today, the pint-sized Simon mushes the rabid dogs that pull her sled across chunky rock-and-roll terrain even as the reins threaten to jerk her arms from their sockets.
It's surprising that Simon Sez has learned to play with a unified voice, since the players have such varied musical preferences. For example, Simon is a funk junkie (she's a fan of Boulder's Zuba) who would love to coax the band down that road. This aspiration confounds Tittman, who says, "I have a tendency to write real straight, three-chord rock songs, because I listen to three-chord rock songsESonics, Stooges, Sixties garage music like the Shadows of Knight. I never really got into the funk thing." Likewise, Dallenbach's fondness for improvisation conflicts with Amari's predilection for structure. "It's nice to have the stability of a song that's familiar," Amari admits. "I want to play the same song the same way over and over again. But they don't let me do that."
Fortunately, discord has a way of bringing out the best in the quartet, as the number "Simon Sez/Victim" demonstrates. When asked about the song, Amari claims, "It came out of boredom. Let's get really bored, and stuff like that happens." But Dallenbach has a different take on the tune's genesis.
"It was a strange little number we hammered out in practice one night," he expounds. "I was just sick of listening to Jason going bomp bomp bomp, Richard going bah-ah-ah and Leslie screaming the vocals, so I just sat down and started playing really quietly until everyone else sat down and started playing quietly with me. It's probably the first time Leslie's ever been able to hear her vocals, because the guitars are actually subdued. We've usually got this locomotive punk background, and we threw that out the window." The result is mesmerizing. Freed from contending with the group's typical roar, Simon's voice displays unexpected subtlety.
In Dallenbach's view, the success of "Simon Sez/Victim" provides an argument for spontaneity. "I want to increase the energy level of the band," he insists. "And the best way to do that is by playing live--to kick everyone's butt around until they start shaking loose from all their preconceived band boundaries." Gesturing first at Tittman, then at Amari, he adds, "Like his three-chord thing, and his wanting to play everything the same way. I don't think that's right. There are so many possibilities if the band could improvise off one another."
So what do these four agree on? That they need to play out more often and to capture their work on tape. They've been recording at a Boulder studio, and '57 Lesbian's Matt Bischoff has been offering helpful advice about the results. "It's nice to have someone say 'You suck' when you suck or 'That's flat' when you're flat," Tittman says. "Working in the studio has definitely forced us to solidify the things we've done."
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Now if only they can solidify their relationships with each other. "We've been working too hard to like each other anymore," Dallenbach explains wearily.
Amari counters, "Just because I hate you doesn't mean we can't jam together."
Simon Sez, with Zoon Politikon. 10 p.m. Thursday, March 22, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax, 320-9200.