The sarcastic comments and dirty looks came almost immediately when Nathaniel Hammond asked to plug in his synthesizers. Soon the scrutiny became a familiar rite for the Epilogues' keyboard player after the band started playing live in Denver around 2006.
"They'd be like, 'What am I supposed to do with your three keyboards?'" recalls Hammond of those days. "It was a learning curve for me. No one gave the keys respect."
A chilly response from countless soundmen didn't keep Hammond and co-founder Chris Heckman from pursuing the group's early dynamic, a synth-driven sound that reveled in ambient experiments and new tones. Along with bassist Jeff Swoboda and drummer Jason Hoke, the two Smoky Hill High School graduates have spent the past five years refining their approach while keeping a strong focus on the possibilities that can stem from a simple keyboard.
"We basically developed our sound without a lead guitarist," Hammond explains. "Keyboards have always been the lead. It took finding the right sounds." Five years after their initial experiments, the search for new sounds has borne fruit. The bandmembers have progressed notably as performers, and even more strikingly as songwriters. The Epilogues have a single getting airplay in radio markets across the country, and as a result, they're building buzz far beyond Denver. The group is planning a new release within the year, a record that will include revamped versions of tunes from their 2008 EP, The Beautiful, The Terrifying, as well as newer singles like "Futurebox" and "The Fallout."
Whatever modicum of success the bandmembers have had up to this point, they say it all goes back to their early fascination with finding new tones. "We started writing songs for feel," notes Heckman, who spent his first years in college writing solo material as a singer-songwriter. "Now, for this next album, we've been doing that same thing, but giving them breathing room and interludes...while at the same time being songs that you can play without the band."
That duality is clear on songs like "Hunting Season" that fuse ambience and concision. The act's developing skills for marrying mood and structure, however, came after being disorganized early on. The shift was inspired by a movement in the larger rock landscape that saw bands like the Killers and Hot Fuzz drawing sounds and structures from another era. "That's what we clung to, for good or for bad," Heckman remembers. "People automatically associated us with that '80s sound. In all honesty, it wasn't very good at the time."
In the beginning, the Epilogues played smaller places and spent just as much time talking on stage as playing music. "We used to joke with each other on stage," Hoke admits, recalling a specific show in 2008. Following a poor review of that gig, the members started to retool their on-stage approach. "That was a turning point for us. We went from being a bar band to being a venue band."
They continued to improve with the recording of their freshman EP, The Beautiful, The Terrifying, a collection of eight tracks that helped chart the course to come. "I think that's what The Beautiful, The Terrifying was; it was taking those unrefined songs and methods and finding a cohesive feel for them," Hoke notes. "It was the first time that we all realized what we liked playing. It had dark undertones without being over the top."
For the EP's sense of mood, the group drew on an eclectic range of sounds and sources, a creative palette that included everything from video-game soundtracks to the score of the film 28 Days Later, by John Murphy. "Murphy scores in a sense that it's almost like an indie-rock scoring," Hammond points out, adding that the approach made a deep impression on the band. "It's eerie and dark. We were in love with that and Vaux's last album."
Even with the wide range of influences, the Epilogues' love for synth and driving riffs on tunes like "King Arthur" drew inevitable comparisons. "I think the '80s association was a copout," Heckman insists. "We really were a rip-off of the Killers in 2004 and 2005, but by the time that album came out, the only thing that resembled the '80s was some of our synth colors. And that was about to become a huge thing."
"Synths are everywhere now," Swoboda offers, smiling wryly. "We weren't the only ones doing it. We used to have a little bit of fun with it. We'd say, 'Hey, if you like the '80s, you'll love this next band' on stage.
"We take it all in stride," he adds. Still, the guys maintain, the easy association missed the deeper currents of the Epilogues' sound. The songs from the first EP incorporated melodies from Nintendo games like Contra, while "The World Is Yours" mixed in undertones from the score from Scarface.
"That's the fun part of music," Swoboda enthuses. "It's literally everywhere. There's no reason you can't incorporate all elements of it."
The ambitious sonic scope of the EP made for a complex and involved recording process. What started as an excited session in a Florida studio ended with repair work at the Colorado Sound studios under the direction of J.P. Manza. "We made some horrible mistakes. We started working with people in Florida who had pretty bad drug habits," Heckman admits. "We were young. We got talked into going there to record. We came home to salvage it with J.P."
But the constant process of tinkering and editing didn't end with the release of the EP in 2008. Key tunes from the record have remained works in progress that the band hopes to expose to a wider audience on its forthcoming album. "We literally recorded that EP three times before the release and scratched it," Hoke confesses with a note of weariness in his voice. "We're still recording it, for crying out loud," Heckman adds with a laugh.
Part of this continued attention to detail stems from the group's constant contact. The Epilogues follow a living model they picked up from another Denver success story, the Photo Atlas. Living together in a house in the University of Denver neighborhood has given the guys an added proximity, and it's also helped them create a do-it-yourself model when it comes to merchandising and promotion.
"We got home off of our last tour only because we sold enough merch in Bakersfield, California — that we made," says Hammond. "We were going to have to open credit cards and take out debts. To be able to do that — it's just an example of how unique the scene is."
Having a cottage-industry approach to the music has helped the band keep rooted as it considers signing with different labels and taking the next step in its career. "If we're fortunate enough to be one of those bands that really pops," Swoboda says, "we want to be the guys who rep Denver."
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The hometown connection was clear during a Denver show the band played with the Photo Atlas earlier this year, as a capacity crowd at the Gothic Theatre sang along to "Hunting Season" following its rotation on KTCL. "I have video on my phone where you can hear the crowd screaming," Hoke recalls. "It gave me goosebumps."
The model of a native scene has driven the band to consider starting its own collective as a way to support its fellow musicians. The mission of the Inca House Collaborative Collective would be to create an incubator of sorts, a common space for musicians to exchange ideas, similar to other local efforts like Hot Congress.
"We can have a core group of people with each others' careers in mind," Hammond says, "rather than just our own careers." As the members draw up their designs for their future in Denver and beyond, they've kept the basic keys to their success close to their hearts. In their shared house in south Denver, there's a steadily growing number of synths and keyboards, tools that continue to steer their sound and their experiments.
"Between Chris and I," Hammond notes, "we have fifteen keyboards in our band, in our house. I can say I'm going to have a goal of trying to find a new sound. You can literally get lost for an hour and a half looking for one new sound."