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Rock Climbers: The Velveteers Play the Westword Music Showcase Main Stage

The Velveteers are Denver's hottest rock band.
Evan Semón
The Velveteers are Denver's hottest rock band.
Brian Schwartz, the 7S Management co-founder who manages The Velveteers, didn’t want to wake lead singer and baritone guitarist Demi Demitro early that August morning. He knew how hard she, drummer Baby Pottersmith and new member Jonny Fig, a multi-instrumentalist, had been working all week on their latest music video to support their upcoming debut album, Nightmare Daydream, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. But Schwartz had no choice.

A COVID-19 outbreak had forced Wolfgang Van Halen and his new band, Mammoth WVH, to cancel their opening slot for Guns N’ Roses at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and the Velveteers had a chance to play their first arena concert, opening for the rock behemoth.

The August 16 show was just a couple of days away when Eric Pirritt, head of Live Nation's Denver office, learned that Mammoth WVH was canceling. He'd called Schwartz and said he wanted the hottest local hard-rock band — the Velveteers — to replace Van Halen. Sure, fans of Eddie Van Halen’s son would be irked, but as Pirritt saw it, the Front Range rock trio would deliver. With backing from AEG, Live Nation and the DIY and independent talent buyers that had nurtured the Velveteers' career, the band was poised for greatness, and Guns N' Roses fans needed to know these musicians.

Playing Dick’s was the perfect way for them to launch into a busy fall. The Velveteers had been chosen as a secret act to play the Westword Music Showcase main stage on Saturday, September 18; AEG talent buyer Danny Sax had tapped the group for a headlining show at the Gothic Theatre on November 26. The musicians were already in the middle of releasing a string of singles and music videos to promote the new album, and they'd be touring the United States with Des Rocs through the fall.

But opening for Guns N’ Roses?

When the bandmates got word from Schwartz, they were stunned. “We had to stay up for multiple days on end, right up to the wire, trying to get [the video] in,” recalls Pottersmith. “We do that, and in two days, we find out we’re opening for Guns N’ Roses, and we’re like, ‘Holy fuck!’ We’ve gotta get a bunch of COVID tests and practice all day.”

They passed the tests, and on the afternoon of August 16, they arrived at Dick's for their sound check.

“We had like fifteen minutes to sound check, and we couldn’t sound-check all our instruments because people were being let in,” remembers Pottersmith. “And the last thing that happened was there was a terrible crackling in all the monitors. I was like, ‘Can we check that?’ [The sound engineer] put on his headphones, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s good.’”

When they took the stage, the musicians were unaware that “THE VELVETEERS” was written behind them in massive letters that could be seen across the arena, or that to each side were towering vertical projections that allowed the most remote audience member to catch their every expression. The rockers looked like giants to the crowd, even as they felt tiny in the massive arena.

“I'm so used to being in our jam space that's really tight,” says Demitro. “So it's weird to be on a big stage where we can actually move. And also, the sound was so weird. Like if we moved too far away from our monitors, we couldn't really hear anything.”

“For a lot of the songs, there was weird shit happening in our monitors,” remembers Fig.
click to enlarge The Velveteers open for Guns N' Roses at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. - KYLE HARRIS
The Velveteers open for Guns N' Roses at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Kyle Harris
As they looked out at the Guns N’ Roses fans, the musicians thought people seemed bored, restless as they waited for the headliner, and wondered if the audience was being subjected to the same sonic chaos that was blasting through the monitors. It wasn’t until later, when Demitro was standing in the pit watching Guns N' Roses play, that she noticed everybody was giving the legacy rock band the same blank stare. And people kept coming up to her, complimenting her band's set.

Some missed it altogether, and others grumbled about an internet failure at Dick’s that had delayed them in line, not exactly putting them in a mood to enjoy the opening set. But others were thrilled by the band, its brutal energy and the musicians’ fresh take on rock. Audience members around me were mesmerized as Fig and Pottersmith smashed their drums in sync and Demitro sang with unparalleled intensity.

“They’re like a small local rock band,” said one music fan. “It’s cool to see them doing this.”

But if promoters and fans alike have their way, the Velveteers won’t be known as a small local band for long.
click to enlarge The Velveteers shot a music video in this field. - KYLE HARRIS
The Velveteers shot a music video in this field.
Kyle Harris

In early September, a few weeks after the show at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the Velveteers agreed to meet me for an interview in a sunflower field near Denver International Airport where they had filmed a music video.

I drove east from Denver, wondering if I would ever find the musicians. When the GPS told me I had arrived, I saw no people, no sunflowers. So I took a left on a dirt road — hoping I wasn’t about to experience some Rob Zombie Texas Chainsaw Massacre rock-and-roll bloodbath.

Pottersmith texted me: “I see u. Pull in a little further if you can. We are in the middle of the field at a table we reserved haha.”

In the distance, far beyond my eyes’ capacity to focus, was a scarlet blob. I waved, hoping it was them, and started trudging across the dirt and dried-up stubs of long-gone flowers. And there the bandmembers were, sitting at a round table they had lugged into the middle of someone's field. The table was decorated with a floral print tablecloth, dainty teacups, playing cards and a carafe of orange juice. The Beach Boys crooned from a small speaker.

Demitro, whose plumes of hair and bangs give her the look of a lion, wore a zebra-print blouse. Pottersmith, with stringy long hair and bangs parted down the middle, had on a see-through net shirt and a medallion with a “B” for Baby. Hypercool Fig was in a casual red-and-black striped shirt, skinny jeans and golden sunglasses. All three protected their pale skin from the blazing sun with umbrellas.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of musicians, many successful, but have never met such natural-born rock stars. If someone had described the setup to me, it would have sounded horribly pretentious. But it wasn’t. As with everything that the Velveteers have done from the beginning, it was meticulously crafted and driven by artful passion.

As the occasional plane roared overhead and flies bit at our ankles, the bandmates chatted about their story, their music and their future. 
click to enlarge The Velveteers' fall album, Nightmare Daydream, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. - IVEY PEACOCK
The Velveteers' fall album, Nightmare Daydream, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Ivey Peacock

The Velveteers got their start seven years ago after Demitro, fifteen at the time, and Pottersmith, fourteen, met at a show in Boulder and connected over their mutual love for local rock sensation Rose Hill Drive. The two soon decided to form a band. Pottersmith had been banging away at the drums since childhood; Demitro had just taken up guitar, knew two chords and had written a handful of songs. She wanted to start a folk band, which Pottersmith refused to do.

Inspired by Rose Hill Drive, they started pounding away at rock songs at their homes. Neither was in a traditional high school — Demitro was homeschooled online, and Pottersmith had somehow managed to avoid traditional education altogether and was devoting every moment to playing in bands and practicing drums. Free from school schedules, the two had endless time to perfect their craft. Every day for a year, they came together to work on songs for hours at a time — a relentless approach to music that they never abandoned with the Velveteers.

“We were literally insane, because we were so intense about it,” says Pottersmith. “We were just learning how to play music together, but we had these giant ambitions. At the first couple rehearsals, Demi was like, ‘Okay, can you envision us playing Red Rocks?’ I was like, ‘No.’ Demi was like, ‘What do you mean? Like, why are we doing this if you can’t envision it?’ I was like, 'Uh…' And it took me a while to understand that we should actually shoot for the things we want to do.”

It also took the band some time to come up with a name. "When we were first starting out, Demi and I spent months sending each other lists of band-name ideas every day — all of which were very bad," says Pottersmith. "And then one night, we went to a bookstore to look through random books for name ideas, and I was looking through a book about grass and saw the word 'vetiver,' and I said to Demi, 'How about The Vetivers?' But I mispronounced it as 'the Velveteers,' and then I shook my head and said never mind. But Demi liked it and wrote it down, and it ended up being the only thing that felt right."

In 2014, the Velveteers played their first show, in the basement of the old Gypsy House coffee shop in Capitol Hill, performing alongside Savage Cabbage and Keep Calm. Friends and family members came to the gig despite a blizzard. Demitro was so nervous that when she was trying to thank the other bands on the lineup, she accidentally thanked herself. Nonetheless, the Velveteers slayed.
click to enlarge The Velveteers play the Westword Music Showcase in 2018. - AARON THACKERAY
The Velveteers play the Westword Music Showcase in 2018.
Aaron Thackeray
Over the years, the band played DIY venues like Seventh Circle Music Collective, Rhinoceropolis and tiny bars. Soon it had its first gig at Larimer Lounge: “One day we got a message from out of nowhere online from the band [Deap Vally], asking us if we’d want to be the first of four,” says Demitro. “There was, like, no pay.”

But Demitro was a fan of Deap Vally, and so the band eagerly agreed to join the lineup. While the Velveteers didn’t make a dime playing, the show paid off in the end. “I guess they really liked it, and we stayed in touch,” says Demitro. “A year later, they invited us to go to the U.K. with them on tour."

As the Velveteers' reputation grew, the band got support from members of Rose Hill Drive, who coached the musicians. Pottersmith pushed the Velveteers to release music, but Demitro refused, arguing that they should hone their sound and vision before making anything public. In an era when musicians are expected to be constant content producers, it was a risky strategy. Though the Velveteers did not produce any full-length records, the musicians recorded demos as they practiced — over and over again, scrutinizing each detail in their songs, often rehearsing and recording tracks ten times on any given day. When they weren’t practicing, they played every show they could.

The Velveteers have gone through multiple lineups over the years, starting as a duo and then becoming a trio. For several years, Demitro's brother John helped create the band's two-drummer sound. But then he left to focus on his own rock group, Pink Fuzz (which will play the Westword Music Showcase on Friday, September 17). Fig, who had fronted another band that Pottersmith played in, joined the Velveteers in early 2020. He brings more instruments to the act while also matching Pottersmith's fury and precision on the drums.

Sax, who got his start in the DIY scene and has since become the go-to rock talent buyer for AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, has been following the Velveteers since around 2016, catching the act at Lost Lake, the hi-dive and the Larimer Lounge.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with them for a while now, staring at Larimer/Lost Lake/Moe’s/etc... and leading up to a 2019 opener spot with Slothrust at the Bluebird, which really was a peek into their future,” Sax writes in an email. “They followed that show up with their own sold-out Bluebird headliner just a few months later. No small feat, and not something that happens on accident. They work hard, they play hard, and people react to their authenticity.”

That Bluebird headlining gig played a huge role in the Velveteers' current trajectory. It was there that Schwartz of 7S Management first saw the band.

“I went to the show by myself,” recalls Schwartz. “And it just became very clear to me that this was a unique and talented band. They had all that I thought a band would need to succeed, from the outside looking in. ...  They had all these elements. And I also saw ways and areas where they could improve and really grow into the role of being an artist.”

So Schwartz invited Demitro to his office. He grilled her about the bandmates' willingness to do everything they could to succeed: wake up early and stay up late, take interviews with the press before long days in the studio and on the road, and have a vision that was bigger than just playing clubs. Could the Velveteers imagine playing Madison Square Garden? Her answers to his questions blew him away.

“There are only so many people who can actually say, ‘We want to play Madison Square Garden’ and do it," Schwartz notes. "Just because someone thinks they could do it doesn’t mean they could actually do it. In this case, the Velveteers, in my opinion, they have a very real shot — whether it takes one year or ten — of having a very successful career.”
So Schwartz became the manager of the Velveteers and began sharing demos of their music. One recording landed in the hands of Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who runs the label Easy Eye Sound, which has produced records for Shannon and the Clams, Yola, Early James and many more.

“I was in the studio. A guy who works for my label, Tom, brought up some of the music, and I just instantly loved it,” recalls Auerbach. “We reached out. It was as simple as that.”

What clicked?

“I loved how unique they were,” says Auerbach. “I loved their unique setup. I love the sound. I love the energy. I like their songs. I loved Demi’s singing and playing. And, you know, they’ve just got that magic quality, I guess. It just kind of caught my ear.” For Auerbach, who listens to many demos and puts out a dozen or so records a year, that experience is rare.

Just before the pandemic hit, the Velveteers and Schwartz flew out to Nashville to visit the Easy Eye studio. Its vintage setup appealed to the band; the Velveteers' small-town charm and dedication impressed Auerbach.

“They're completely unpretentious,” says Auerbach. “I'm from Ohio, and I've never really lived in a major city besides Nashville, you know, and I just connected with them. They're very honest. They're genuine, kind of soft-spoken. And they just have that desire to be great. They make great art, and they were also very open-minded, too. A lot of times young artists can be very insecure, and it causes them to be very closed off to outside help. They’re not like that. They’re very confident in who they are, but also very eager to try new things. It’s such a great combination, and very rare.”

After COVID-19 foiled initial plans to record, the bandmates hunkered down and rehearsed through the year until they could safely travel to Nashville. When they finally did, they were nervous. But because they had practiced nearly every day in the year leading up to the recording session, they banged out the tracks in a few days.

The result, Nightmare Daydream, is heavy, raw and filled with the spit-and-fire passion that makes the Velveteers stand out among competitors, a reminder that rock, as a genre, is far from dead. Yet the performances on the tracks are also perfectly delivered; with two drummers playing simultaneously, that’s not easy to do. The brooding, sultry songs will appeal to both older fans of the genre and younger people looking to connect to a rock and roll that's fully alive and as relevant to this moment in music history as it is aware of its roots.

To help celebrate the release, AEG's Danny Sax is eager to promote the Velveteers’ first Gothic Theatre headlining show.

“The Gothic has a long history of bands playing there before making it big, whether it was Nirvana or Fugazi in the ’90s, or Nathaniel Rateliff or Lady Gaga in the ’00s,” Sax says. “I think it sends an important message that the Velveteers are leveling up, performing on the same stage all these legends and locals played when they were starting out. Personally, I can’t wait to see their crazy live show on the big stage and through the killer sound system. It’s going to be an epic night of new tunes and old favorites, and I think it’s going to be a taste of things to come for the Denver rock scene. It’s an exciting time to live in Colorado, especially with bands like the Velveteers.”
What does he see in the act’s future?

“That’s absolutely up to them,” he explains. “And that’s the most exciting part. They have shown they’re ready and willing to take that next step, and I’m so stoked for them. I’m confident that they have the drive and talent to stay relevant and real. The only thing I’m positive about is that in their future, there's a killer show at the Gothic with lots of love from the whole scene.”

For Denver bands, the Gothic is also a stepping stone to bigger things in the AEG ecosytem. The hierarchy works like this, explains Schwartz: Bands sell out Lost Lake, then the Larimer Lounge, the Gothic, a couple of nights at the Ogden or maybe the Mission Ballroom. After that, there’s Red Rocks. And when local bands can sell out that venue for three nights in a row, the sky's the limit: Ball Arena, Madison Square Garden and beyond. And that’s the plan with the Velveteers.

“They’re not afraid of success,” notes Schwartz. “They’re doing this for all the right reasons.”

Demitro hopes that a Red Rocks show becomes a reality soon, then would like to tour arenas. “We just want to push it as far as we possibly can,” she says. “I don’t think there’s even an end goal, because I don’t think there can be.”

But the members of the Velveteers do have a driving mission — something that has kept them rooted in their craft, from their first practices to opening at the Gypsy House to the amazing Dick’s gig.

“The main goal is to always just make music that we really love,” Demitro says. “Music is always the most important aspect of everything, because if there wasn’t that...it would just feel like an empty career if we didn’t love the music that we wrote.”

Catch the Velveteers at the Westword Music Showcase at 8:25 p.m. on Saturday, September 18, at the Mission Ballroom Outdoors. The Showcase runs September 17 through September 18 in the RiNo Art District; for tickets and more information, visit the Westword Music Showcase online. For more on the November 26 show at the Gothic Theatre, go to gothictheatre.com. Follow the Velveteers at thevelveteers.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the band Deap Vally. We regret the error.