At the center of Denver punk band the Vanilla Milkshakes is a moving love story between singer and guitarist David McGee and drummer Frank Registrato. What started as a meeting facilitated by a mobile dating app has evolved into one of the most unique bands in all of Denver.
In 2013, McGhee was in a bad place. He had recently been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, lacked the proper support system required for a healthy life, was in and out of jail for drug addiction, and even suffered a stroke before age thirty.
“I grew up with an alcoholic, doped-up mother and a very, very strict truck-driving dad,” says McGhee. “I was in Georgia at the time and was always told that being a 'faggot' is the most horrible thing you can be and was told typically Christian values.
“I was disenfranchised in life. I started up a little band after I turned 21 and the downfall of that was drinking, then heroin, then coke, then heroin, then crack, then more crack. From the age of 23 to 27, I was the worst kind of person. I was a junkie, I was a thief, all kinds of bad things. Then they found out I was autistic.”
Had McGhee continued on the same path, he likely would have encountered an unhappy ending. But then he came to Denver and met Registrato.
“I met Frank, and he helped me completely quit my drug use,” says McGhee.
“It wasn’t like, oh, you smoked crack, so I’m just going to leave you here to rot in your own shit. It was more like whoa, dude, we gotta get you off of that stuff!” says Registrato. “He was living in the Doll House Cafe on Colfax. He was sleeping on top of this mattress that was on top of these wood pallets — it was so painful.”
In the six years since their fateful encounter, McGhee and Registrato have produced four albums — and their latest, Punching Cows, is perhaps their best.
Produced by the legendary Jack Endino, Punching Cows is an enjoyable, challenging and ultimately uplifting record. As the singer and songwriter, McGhee de-fangs the stigma surrounding autism (“Everyone Is Stupid"), details the roadblocks complicating his day-to-day life (“On+On+On”), and explores his mental health state (“Green and Sober”), all while expertly channeling the defiant attitude of grunge-punk music.
While band was originally meant to provide McGhee with a creative outlet and some fun, it has added new layers to McGhee and Registrato’s relationship, as well as molded McGhee into a more confident musician and songwriter.
“I always come in [to writing music] open to suggestions, but as all songwriters, we don’t [really],” McGhee says with a big a laugh.
Registrato has taken it upon himself to provide full-time support for McGhee — a job that can include helping him remember how far he’s come in his battle against drug addiction, encouraging him not to quit music, being on the lookout for triggers that could lead to suicidal thoughts, or even knowing when to call off a live performance because McGhee is struggling to feel comfortable with the setting.
“There are days when he’s like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t want to play music anymore; delete our Facebook page and throw everything away,' and I just gotta be like, ‘Yo, stop that, listen to the last album you did, and think about it,'” says Registrato. “Everything is so intimate and intertwined: how David feels and how his day is going, his autism and how that affects the very fiber of his being — what that means if he plays the wrong note, or if somebody is a little louder than usual, a little softer than usual, a little faster, a little slower.”
Registrato adds, “It’s all about the mood he’s in and the mood I’m in. We’re in a caretaker situation 24/7, so for him, it’s one of those things that really depends on the day. You never know what the fuck’s gonna happen.”
In turn, McGhee has opened Registrato up to seeing the world through a whole new perspective. Along with being in a happy, long-term committed relationship with someone he loves, Registrato says he is now more understanding of individuals on the autism spectrum as well as more in tune to the conversations surrounding mental health and how to be a positive force for someone suffering from depression.
He’s even opened up to playing grunge-punk music — something he says he rarely considered, given his experimental and prog-rock background.
“The new music is cool, but a lot of [what David has opened me up to] has been just kind of figuring autism out and what, exactly, it means to have that and what it means to be with somebody who does,” says Registrato. “Not only has he turned me on to new music, but a new perspective to check out shit behind and really think about it: What about this sound really makes you want shoot yourself in the head, or what about this thing that makes you really excited, and why do I sound like the color blue and green?"
Despite what their band name might suggest, there is hardly anything vanilla about McGhee and Registrato’s relationship.
“It’s kind of like trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot of water, as David is in a constant state of movement,” says Registrato. “Nothing is ever stagnant or simple. It’s always a challenge, but I think it's a good challenge. It’s not a big deal to me.”
Says McGhee, “I owe it all to the love of my friend and husband-slash-drummer-slash-caretaker, Frank.”