There are definitely people who think we're legendary, who think we're the greatest, and that's so cool to me," says James Clower, guitarist for the Fluid, one of Denver's best-ever bands, which is reuniting, at least temporarily, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus. "I still can't get over the fact that people like us so much."
Granted, the affection of fans and their peers wasn't enough to turn Clower and his mates — lead singer John Robinson, drummer Garrett Shavlik, bassist Matt Bischoff and guitarist Rick Kulwicki — into big-time rock icons. The Fluid was the first group based outside the Pacific Northwest to ink with Sub Pop, the indie that served as the launching pad for what became known as the grunge sound; as such, it became a key component of a musical revolution that helped define the late-'80s/early-'90s rock era. But when a record contract with Hollywood Records turned out to be far less than advertised, the band imploded in late 1993.
With each passing year, rapprochement seemed more unlikely. But an unexpected encounter between Robinson and two Sub Pop lifers — Jonathan Poneman, who co-founded the imprint, and receptionist-turned-veep Megan Jasper — broke the ice.
"I ran into them at a Band of Horses showcase in New York, and they told me about the twentieth reunion," Robinson says, referring to a festival planned for July 12 and 13 at Seattle's Marymoor Park to celebrate the company's two decades of existence. Robinson notes that Poneman and Jasper "were very flattering about the Fluid in general and about what the Fluid meant to the Seattle scene and to the label early on, and strongly encouraged me, in a very positive way, to consider reuniting for their show."
Once everyone agreed, the band booked a June 15 warm-up at the Larimer Lounge along with a June 20 blowout at the Bluebird Theater in advance of the Seattle fest. As a bonus, all three shows will be videotaped by TV-news cameraman and rock junkie Jim Hucks, who's profiled elsewhere in these pages (see page 15), with an eye toward a possible documentary that will tell the Fluid story from its beginnings to the group's rebirth.
It's quite an involved tale — one that emerged from the burgeoning Denver-Boulder punk movement of the mid-'80s. Shavlik, Bischoff and Clower came together in White Trash, a band that Shavlik describes as "super-fast, really tight hardcore" that was "over-the-top political, but really stupid eighteen-year-old political." When they weren't barking out numbers such as "The Ballad of Ronnie Raygun," however, they'd indulge in goofy ditties like "I Hate My Toes," whose words Shavlik still remembers: "I hate my toes/They're ugly and pink/I hate my toes/They're dirty and stink..."
Around the same time, Kulwicki was riffing with the Frantix, a band Bischoff ultimately joined, too. The most memorable Frantix cut — one that's arguably the signature tune for this entire period of Denver underground music — was "My Dad's a Fuckin' Alcoholic," which struck an unmistakable chord among fans. "Even though it's kind of a joke song, it's kind of not, because it hit so many people," Kulwicki confirms. "Seemingly everybody in the whole world said, 'Your dad's a fuckin' alcoholic? Wow, so is mine.'"
In the end, neither White Trash nor the Frantix was built to last, so Kulwicki, Bischoff, Shavlik and Clower formed a new unit with Augy Rocks, among Denver's more eccentric (and magnetic) vocalists; his credits include Pil Bug and MK Ultra. But when it became obvious that MadHouse, as the combo was dubbed, suffered from a split personality, the instrumental foursome turned to Robinson, a friend of Shavlik's who had precious little experience singing with a band — not that the drummer had any doubts about his ability. "He was a really gregarious kind of guy," Shavlik says. "He's very flamboyant and really fun and loud, and I thought, this might be a perfect fit. And it worked out famously."
True enough: Robinson became the extravagant, strutting focal point for the newly christened Fluid, which nodded to past masters — the five readily acknowledge their debt to the Rolling Stones and the MC5 — even as it anticipated styles that didn't yet have a name. Before long, the group was among the biggest draws in Denver, and the players' debut album, 1986's Punch n Judy, brought them to the attention of Glitterhouse, a German operation that pressed the platter for European distribution and financed a second, 1988's Clear Black Paper. When the folks at Sub Pop heard the latter, they wanted to put it out in the States, so they exchanged the overseas rights to a recording by Sub Pop signee Green River, featuring future members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam, for a domestic dose of the Fluid.
Once the deal was done, the band traveled to Seattle for what Kulwicki deems "a killer show" with a veritable Sup Pop all-star team: Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. Later on in the visit, Nirvana opened for the group — a favor that would be returned when Nirvana was allowed to headline over the Fluid at the Garage, the site of its initial Denver appearance.
Clear Black Paper became the inaugural one-band full-length on Sub Pop, following a string of singles or compilations, and the Coloradans would soon break more ground. The Fluid worked with producer Jack Endino on 1989's Roadmouth before Nirvana did likewise in connection to the same year's Bleach, and for 1990's Glue, the group collaborated with producer Butch Vig, who'd go on to helm Nevermind, Nirvana's seminal 1991 disc. Glue "was an experiment, and I think it was probably one of my favorite-sounding things," says Bischoff, who agrees that the band had "the hardest damn time" capturing its live sound on tape.
Nevertheless, the Fluid five's sales failed to match the fervor of their boosters, leaving them to watch as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and others reached ever larger audiences. Eventually, they drifted into quasi-limbo, and Bischoff and Shavlik started '57 Lesbian and Spell, separate side projects that shared a member, singer/bassist Chanin Floyd. Then, amid the Great Grunge Signing Frenzy, the Disney-owned Hollywood imprint set its sights on the Fluid, offering some nice coin to rekindle the flame. The firm's corporate lineage raised eyebrows among the local alterna-crowd, and a laughing Bischoff concedes that "our eyebrows were raised, too. To us, it was like poetic fucking justice. Like, see what happens if you dick around too much? You end up being gobbled up by Disney. That was our big joke: 'Got to go work for the Mouse today.'"
Soon enough, the wisecracks turned sour. The quintet headed to California to make what became 1993's Purplemetalflakemusic, but the majority disliked the sonics fashioned by engineer-turned-producer Mike Bosley: "His first mix, I swear to God, it sounded almost like a Boston record," Kulwicki says. Moreover, culture clashes sparked between the band and the label over just about everything, including tour allies. Although the Fluid received offers to travel with the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, Robinson says that "Hollywood wanted us to go out in support of the Goo Goo Dolls" — an astonishingly terrible fit. Finally, Robinson and his cohorts chose to headline their own jaunt, but financial assistance to help them along the way evaporated when a shakeup among Hollywood's upper management wound up claiming company president Peter Paterno and nearly everyone else who'd backed the band. "We were out for nine weeks," Clower says, "and I came home with twenty bucks in my pocket."
Upon their return, the cracks opened by the Hollywood experience began to expand. Shavlik felt the fun had drained from the Fluid and was more enthusiastic about Spell, despite the bad blood it had caused between him and Bischoff. According to Shavlik, "Matt had '57 Lesbian going on, and Chanin was playing with him as well, and then she just decided to start playing with Spell full-time." Shavlik split from the Fluid to do likewise that summer, setting into motion a familiar chain of events; Spell signed to a major, Island Records, which didn't provide the kind of backing that might have given the group a legitimate shot. A frustrated Clower walked out next, but the remaining threesome planned to carry on, asking Dave Stewart, the drummer for the Frantix and '57 Lesbian, to handle the sticks. Within months, however, Robinson decided he "just wanted to do some really pretty music," he says. When he dropped out, Bischoff and Kulwicki realized that the Fluid had finally dried up.
In the years since, Bischoff drifted away from music — he currently works for an Austin-based lighting distributor — as did Kulwicki, a longtime employee at a sign company, and Clower, a mechanical-engineering student at Metro State. As for Robinson, he briefly thought he might get the chance to partner in a quiet, change-of-pace album with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and the Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan; he and Cobain brainstormed about it after Nirvana's final Colorado show in December 1993. When Cobain's death nixed that prospect several months later, Robinson hooked up with Das Damen's Jim Wallerstein in the New United Monster Show, which lasted until 1999. Afterward, he shifted into freelance set design, and he's done well in the field, contracting for clients such as Target. That makes Shavlik the only Fluid alum who hasn't stopped rocking. His current act, the Press Corps, features Mudhoney's Dan Peters on drums; Bruce Fairweather, once of Green River and Mother Love Bone, on guitar; and another Colorado expat, Cold Crank's Erik Roper, on second ax.
Still, Shavlik was game to play with the Fluid again, especially after an air-clearing phone call with Bischoff. Prior to his arrival from Seattle and Robinson's from Texas, where he spends about half his time, Bischoff, Clower and Kulwicki sharpened their chops with an assist from fill-in drummer John Call, formerly with Baldo Rex, and everyone expects the band to be at full power for its biggest concerts. No one knows for certain whether the appearances will lead to anything else, be it reissues of out-of-print Fluid material by Sub Pop, the completion of a documentary or even more performances. But they're all as eager as Robinson to raise a righteous racket together again.
"It's going to be great fun — and it's time," he says. "It's been fifteen years, and the guys in the Fluid are all my brothers. It feels really good to be doing something to honor what the Fluid was, and if that's all this ends up being, that's enough for me."
Visit Backbeat Online for extended interviews with all five members of the Fluid.