Ambassador Wolf is used to playing to an audience of massive roaring engines, with the buzz of industrial lights above them. The band, which started as an after-work ensemble for three engineering Ph.D. students, performed in the lobby of their workplace, the Powerhouse Energy Institute in Fort Collins, last weekend during the SpokesBUZZ InnovationSwap, part of its month-long BandSwap program.
With an engines lab as their playground, they have tools not normally accessible to other working musicians. This is especially important because as the outfit's name implies, it's a band with a link to wolves, and its members took that one step further by creating unique wolf heads. To make a wolf head, bandmembers buy about five stuffed animals from a thrift store, cut them up, resew them, and attach them in a wolf-head shape onto a bike helmet, and it's all done using state-of-the-art technical equipment. All of the wolf heads have been assembled in the old Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, which is now the Powerhouse Energy Institute, part of the Colorado State University campus.
"The wolf sanctuary in town, called the Ambassador Wolf program, is where they bring around friendly wolves to let people know that they aren't terribly scary animals," says Jason Prapas, lead vocalist, guitarist and banjo player. "I liked the idea of some sort of link between mankind and wolfkind. At first I wasn't sure if it was a wolf trying to be a human, but we created a logo that is a wolf in a suit looking very diplomatic, trying to spread the cause."
The band's logo comes to life during shows, when suits are meshed with wolf heads. Prapas, who normally wears glasses, even has a pair for his wolf head. He's a founding member of Factor E Ventures, which helps early-stage companies that are bringing energy to the developing world get there faster and more efficiently.
The band began when Prapas moved to Fort Collins from Boston to start a Colorado State University doctorate program, and he and two other doctoral students started jamming together. The director of the lab, Bryan Willson, plays the banjo and let Prapas borrow it (he's still using it today).
"It got us talking about music and about how this town is actually really friendly to musicians, and I thought, 'Let's have a go at it'," Prapas says. "I had a band in Boston, and thats a really competitive place to have a band, so it's not really that fun. It's hard to differentiate yourself."
His first week in Fort Collins ended with the Tour De Fat; Prapas says he was inspired by the event and had his eye set on playing in it one day. The wolf heads came to life the next year for Tour De Fat, and last August, the band played on the local Grotto stage, creating a full-circle journey for the musicians.
Marc Baumgardner, vocalist, guitarist and animal-sound maker, is a post-doc student working on research projects for two different professors -- mainly on big natural-gas engines and developing an improved bio-mass cookstove. Drummer Tim Vaughn is a grad student as well as a Ph.D. research associate. He works on natural-gas projects as well and teaches an engineering course. The newest member of the group, bassist and cellist Amber Johnson, is a classically trained musician and works at a nonprofit health-care organization.
The group naturally started practicing after work in the open space of the lab, which is next to a skate park. Not only do they have colleagues staying after work to hear them practice, but skaters come over and try to give them tips.
"It's been a really creative community, and then Fort Collins at large is probably one of the most progressive in the country for musicians -- through SpokesBUZZ and incubating bands," Prapas says. "It's an incredible experience as a band to be in Fort Collins."
While Ambassador Wolf is not a SpokesBUZZ band, the act probably would be if its members weren't full-time professional students.
"We started this band because we were both engineers and still loved music and wanted to have that outlet, and that was who we are. It was a perfect storm," Baumgardner says. "We just happened to be in a community that fosters creativity as well. To be playing at an event that fosters that and magnifies that on a bigger level -- that blends the science and art -- it's just great to be a part of it, and we're really thankful."
According to the InnovationSwap website, the SpokesBUZZ InnovationSwap is "fueled by the symbiotic relationship between innovation and inspiration, BandSwap introduces a pilot program geared toward catalyzing creative ideas and fostering successful startups. InnovationSwap invites entrepreneurs to present their companies and pitch their products in partnering cities within the BandSwap network."
When the Powerhouse Energy Institute was chosen as an InnovationSwap company, it was only natural that the facility brought its "house band" out to perform.
"I like to think that we live double lives," Prapas says. "It's really cool to be able to create and build and innovate upstairs as engineers or health-care professionals, and then walk downstairs and loosen your ties and rock out."
Ambassador Wolf is playing at Hodi's Half Note on October 18.
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