"We were playing at the Market Street Lounge, and some guy comes up to me and says he wants a CD," he remembers. "I said, 'Ten bucks,' and he says, 'Ten bucks?' So I said, 'Give me whatever you have.' So he gives me a five-dollar bill and I gave him a CD. Well, we went back to playing, and the guy comes back up, all pissed off because I was kind of short with him, and he throws what I thought were five ones on stage. And I ate one." But following the end of the set, Alexander discovered that he had chewed up not a single, but a hundred-dollar bill that the alcohol-addled patron had inadvertently thrown at him. How did Alexander feel when he discovered that he had just consumed a C-note? "I felt...richer," he says with a laugh.
It's music, not money, that matters most to Alexander and his partners (guitarist/vocalist Kurt Jones and drummer Jim Mundy). Over the past three years, these rockers, all of whom are hovering around forty, have carved a niche for themselves in the local scene by warming stages for acts large and small. But while many an aspiring Mile High musician might feel limited by such a role, the Damn Shambles are so proud of their status that they've coined a title that celebrates it: "Denver's greatest opening act."
"I feel like I'm making it any time I'm on any stage anywhere," says Jones, a talkative live wire of a man. "I've made it in the rock-music business as long as I'm playing out there, having a good time in the present. I have all of the thrills, chills and everything. The five seconds before I go on stage, it could be anywhere--Madison Square Garden--and I'd feel the same way. When you're plugging in and you're getting ready, it's like the top of the black-diamond run if you were a skier. It's terrifying when you look out at it, but once you've pushed off and you're in the moment, you're there and nowhere else."
With that, Alexander interrupts--something that's common when these two talk music. "It's like you've got to turn at the right time or you're in the trees," he says.
"And we hit the trees a few times," Jones adds.
Such reckless abandon and unabashed enthusiasm is a key to the group's charm. During a recent opening slot at Cricket on the Hill, the boys entertained the early crowd with a raucous hour of loose, under-three-minute treats. Alexander, clad in a vest, lean black jeans and bowler hat, cavorted about the stage, pogoing gleefully as Jones provided competent, galvanized Telecaster squalls. Meanwhile, Mundy, his glistening head bobbing like a dashboard dog feeling the effects of a gravel road, used his skins to push the songs forward at breakneck speed. The band wasted little time between songs, which included vaguely familiar originals and a few choice covers like "Marie, Marie," a Blasters classic that brought the attentive crowd to its feet at the show's end. A twentysomething woman seated at the bar offered an appropriate review of the gig. "These guys have no pretensions," she told a friend. "I like that."
The act's self-titled CD mirrors the group's live approach with originals that stretch from garage rock and Sixties thrash to jangly roots rockers and punk salvos. This refreshing collection features 24 crunchy compositions whose decidedly blue-collar subject matter runs the gamut from fast-food jobs ("Jackie the Burger Boy") and cars ("Four Door 283," "Pink Plymouth Fury") to tributes to alcohol, road trips and the pursuit of happiness. The platter's opening rip-snorter, "Behind the Eightball," serves as a credo of sorts, outlining the joys of smoky rooms and cover tunes in late-night drinking holes. The song poses the musical question "It's nothing new/Can you dig it?"--and in this case, the answer is a resounding yes.
Clearly, the Damn Shambles are proud of being a bar band--and a bit defensive about how this descriptive is perceived. "I've noticed that even Westword uses 'bar band' as a derogatory term," Alexander alleges. "But to me, it's a good thing. I mean, I've been doing this long enough to be told I was uncool hundreds of times--the week after it was cool. So we may be out of fashion, but that's what we do. And it is new and original. It's not like we're doing 'Freebird' or something."
"If that term means 'traditional,' well, I'm proud of that," Jones emphasizes. "To me, 'bar band' means you survived, and it's something people can relate to. It's too bad people slag it, because it's really a great thing. It's like pickles and hot dogs--or, in my case, foul balls and home runs."
Listeners who come to see local bands "are there to see the latest music of some sort," Alexander argues. "They are there to throw down. It's like, okay, they're standing there with their arms crossed, and there's every other local band there, and you've got to throw down. That's what I love."
"Every bar I've ever played on a Friday night is full of a bunch of working guys who want to be entertained," Jones says. "They're like, 'Come on, let's go.' Then once they see us, they come back and they love us. They're like, 'Yeah, we know you're going to rock out with us.' In some situations, bands present themselves so hostilely--they just look at the floor or something. They're not into the show; they're not into nothing. And to me, that's a drag. If you're going to be there in a bar, you're in there--have a good time." As he puts it, "We're proud to be the redneck Replacements."
What about those young dudes in the audience who might consider the Shambles too old to rock with credibility? "If people told me, 'Come on, old fool, go back to bed,' I would," Alexander concedes. "But that's never happened to me. I get good feedback when we play. It's a good feeling. It's the best time, and there is nothing compared to the feeling of playing rock, baby."
The Damn Shambles have been doing so for a long time. The group's roots can be traced back to 1985, when Jones started the Tremblers, which he describes as "a biker rock band." Alexander, a veteran of the Ohio music circuit and a fan of such Sixties garage torch-bearers as the Seeds and the Sonics, joined up in 1992--and when the band folded two years later, he and Jones convinced former Wanker frontman Jerry Lee to beat the drums for the new outfit. (Originally branded the Shambles, the three added "Damn" to its moniker after discovering that a national act had the same handle.) When Lee left the fold recently, onetime Trembler Mundy (who performed in the interim with Fox Force Five) took his place behind the kit.
Today the players are busy opening up for fellow locals and, on some occasions, headlining at venues where they rip through up to four sets a night. They're also in the midst of planning a followup to their first disc, which they hope to record sometime this summer. Their long-range goals are notable for their modesty. "We want to write some more songs, and we'd like to play the Lion's Lair," Alexander reveals. "And I wouldn't mind doing some more shows at the bigger venues, opening for bigger bands."
"That, to me, is a big thrill--just playing the Ogden and the Bluebird," Jones concurs. "And someday playing Red Rocks as part of a bar-band revue or something. They could put Southside Johnny up there, Suzi Quatro..."
"And the Backdoors," Alexander suggests, referencing a Doors cover band. "That's what we could do. They could have all these different tribute bands, and we could just open up for that."
Until that fine day, the Damn Shambles will continue treading the floorboards of local lounges, gladly toiling in the trenches. To those who are sympathetic to their efforts, Alexander offers encouragement and advice. "I would urge all Denverites who claim to like live music to go on out and see live bands, to form live bands and to write live music," he says. "Because other than that, you're just all going to watch TV and die. People need to get on out. That's what I do, because I'm not comfortable not--"
"Not rocking," Jones interrupts one last time. "We've just got to rock, man. That's all."