Music News

Barber Cuts

Denver seems that it's always trying to legitimize itself as a music town, like, 'This band will be the one to put Denver on the map,'" says Chris Barber, who runs his own label, Pop Sweatshop, and leads a group called Spiv. "But Denver's already on the map. I've played with Love.45 and the Fray, and I'm excited that there's national attention being given. But Denver's got enough rock stories and legends to fill many volumes. It's always been a cool town."

Granted, said coolness remains a well-kept secret in many parts of the planet. Pop Sweatshop was originally based in Olympia, Washington, a community whose name became a hipster buzzword following the grunge revolution of the late '80s and early '90s. Switching the imprint's contact point to a Denver post-office box had immediate -- and negative -- repercussions. "When I had an Olympia address, I got way more interest in what we were doing," Barber concedes. "There was definitely a lag, which surprised me, because I didn't realize it would make much difference. That tells you about Denver's profile and the stereotype Denver's trying to break."

Barber hasn't made it his mission to change this situation for the better -- at least not directly. Instead, he prefers to work at ground level, putting out CDs by acts he likes, including Denver's Hemi Cuda, Salt Lake City's Magstatic, Austin's Migas and Portland's Silverhawk, and marketing them via the website. In addition, he's putting his creative energy into Spiv, a tuneful combo whose online home is Available in both locations is 2003's Don'tcha Know?, a disc featuring production and multi-instrumental assistance by Ken Stringfellow, a favorite of tuned-in power-poppers everywhere, thanks to his work with the Posies, among the genre's best-ever combos, and his membership in Alex Chilton's reconstituted Big Star, which is expected to release its first album of new material in ages later this year.

Since Don'tcha's release, Spiv has gone through innumerable personnel changes; of the musicians who contributed to the disc, only Barber, who writes the songs, sings and plays guitar, remains on board. Yet Barber is excited about the latest configuration, which features guitarist Ryan Hensen, bassist Paul Lanier and Chris's younger brother Brad on drums, in a Colorado approximation of the Eddie and Alex Van Halen pairing. He describes the outfit's approach as "just fun and good times. A lot of love goes into what we do, because any other reason to make music is a complete farce. Really, if your motivation isn't sheer joy for what you're doing, you'll be disappointed at every turn."

This philosophy extends to another of Barber's sidelines: As the Velvet Elvis, he impersonates Elvis Presley. At a gig that found him performing on the same bill with Ooh-La-La Presents, a local burlesque troupe, he remembers "sitting in the front row in an Elvis jumpsuit watching Kitty Crimson dance and thinking, 'It's good to be the King.'"

Although Barber may not have spent a lot of time comparing pelvises with the real Presley, he's had brushes with the notable and notorious since an early age. His mother, who took banjo lessons from Jerry Garcia before the Grateful Dead was little more than a hallucination, founded a writer's group in Salt Lake City (where Barber grew up) that brought scribes such as Ray Bradbury and Amy Tan to the family home. Later, between 1990 and 1993, he attended Evergreen State College, where he went to basement parties featuring performances by Bikini Kill, saw an unknown Beck strumming for tips at a local cafe, and was part of a band that opened for Nirvana at a draft-resistance show on campus. Granted, Barber's combo, Goat Knut, didn't make the sort of cultural impact that Kurt Cobain's creation did, but at least it had an impressive logo. As Barber recalls, "it was the god Pan about to cut off his own testicles."

Upon graduation from Evergreen, Barber moved to Seattle with the idea of documenting the musical earthquake taking place there in prose and on film. Along the way, he hung out with the likes of Layne Staley and Eddie Vedder. "At some point, I'd like to publish a memoir about it," he says, adding that "the characters who didn't get famous were the most interesting ones to write about."

Barber, who became an ordained reverend with the Universal Life Church around this time, subsequently moved to land his family owned north of Silverthorne, converting a large building on the property into a concert venue with a little help from Susan Reinsdorf, whose father, Jerry, owns the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox. Susan, a friend of Barber's wife, Anistacia, donated hand-me-down equipment to what he dubbed the Church of Rock and Roll.

Before long, Barber hooked up with Kofi Baker, son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who lived in Parker for several years before immigration troubles forced him to flee the States. Barber and another brother, violinist Jeremy, were part of Riddlehouse, a band whose debut disc, Rhubarb Dreams, came out in 1999 and is available through Pop Sweatshop. Just as memorably, Barber was present at the Baker spread when Ginger took the tumble that inspired the title of his 1995 recording Falling Off the Roof. "We were rehearsing, and we heard this thud and an 'Oh, my God!'" Barber notes, laughing. "We came out, and he was lying on the ground with a cigarette in his hand."

During the years that followed, Barber skipped from Colorado to Utah to Washington and back again -- and while staying in Olympia, he started Pop Sweatshop, whose moniker was inspired by a dilapidated building with corrugated siding where scenesters like Vedder rehearsed and recorded. Spiv sprang to life around this time, too, with Barber and pal Sean Sippel -- a drummer whose degenerative back condition forced him to eventually abandon the skins -- contributing to a series of catchy offerings, including Junior, By Definition and Seedy Release. Still, Don'tcha Know remains the finest Spiv on wax thanks to exuberant, hook-jammed tracks such as "Everybody's a Rock Star Tonight," in which Barber and company chant, "I've got my fifteen minutes coming to me!"

That remains to be seen, but Barber is eager to enter the studio with his latest collection of conspirators. According to him, "Every time you get a new lineup, you want the people involved to feel that they're a part of whatever product is being represented. It's hard to ask them to sell a CD they're not on."

Meanwhile, Barber plans to keep singing the praises of local music. "Enough of this low self-esteem and bashing ourselves all the time and calling Denver 'Mootown' or 'Cowtown,'" he says. "Denver is a cool town. That's why we live here -- because we like it. So Mootown? No. Mile High City? Sure. Rock-and-roll capital of the world? Hopefully."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts