Big City Drugs Is All Comedians but No Joke

After the final open-mic comedy night at the Squire Lounge this past Tuesday, June 28, Big City Drugs hit the stage and played frayed punk rock with a shambolic energy worthy of the Exploding Hearts. Add to that a mutant rock hybrid sound that suggests influences like Reatards, Dead Boys and Gun Club. And yet there was a focus to the music and its performance that reflected what the bandmembers do the rest of the time on stage: Singer Bobby Crane, bassist Cory Helie, guitarist Kevin O'Brien and drummer Sam Tallent are all experienced comedians.

In comedy, you must learn to kill and cook quickly, or you can often die in front of an audience. Jokes — even if you've told them many times, testing them out on unforgiving road audiences — should come off as spontaneous. Those skills translate well to a punk band, so woe to anyone who would try to heckle Big City Drugs. Sure, this band is made up entirely of comedians, but it is no gimmick, and its music isn't a set of jokes. Instead, the music feels like a joyous and cathartic release; it's punk, but informed by so many diverse musical interests.

The group convened in September 2015, playing its first show last October — but the idea for the project, and the name the members finally settled upon two weeks before that first show, began to germinate a year before, when O'Brien and Tallent were out taking their comedy to the hinterlands and beyond.

“We did this road gig in Lamar, Colorado, which is near the Kansas border, [at] the Eagles Lodge,” recalls O'Brien. “It was all these geriatric people. Pulled-pork sandwiches before the comedy show. We had this weed on us, and we may have smoked it. And I was like, 'I don't want to be going in there stinking up the place and all these old people being like, 'Oh, these kids with their big city drugs comin' down.' After the show, we were getting drunk at the Eagles Lodge and this guy says, 'Hey, man, you should come across the street and hang out. I've got moonshine.' So we did, and in his basement he had a guitar and some drums, and Sam and I jammed out for like 45 minutes. After that, we talked for almost a year about starting an all-comedians band.”

O'Brien and Helie had been in high-school bands in their home town of North Platte, Nebraska. Nothing serious — just the typical teenage punk and emo bands, with names like Danorexics, Out Wint Andy and the Closing Theory. Crane had a high-school band of his own when he was living in Westminster called Wimpy Worm.

Tallent, however, had a more serious musical background. Growing up in Elizabeth, he fell in with a group of creative people who moved to Denver shortly after high school and established now-defunct DIY space Mouth House. Tallent teamed up with one of those people, bassist Clay DeHaan, to form a band called Red Vs. Black, a noisy post-punk band in the vein of Minutemen that toured extensively and seemed welcomely ubiquitous in the Denver punk underground at one time. So when those initial ideas of forming an all-comedian band came out, Tallent was far and away the most experienced musician. But with everyone busy with their efforts in comedy, it was meant to be very part-time and not at all serious.

“I just wanted to hang out and play covers like a dad band,” admits O'Brien.

“I always had the idea of getting paid twice for being on the road,” adds Tallent. “A four-hour night. Bands get paid better than comics do. Kearney, Nebraska, on a Thursday night, and you're there playing Foghat? You're getting paid.”

Doing covers wore thin, however, and the quartet started writing original material between touring and other obligations in their main careers. The band was starting to get off the ground, being offered gigs by their friends in Dirty Few and an opening slot for the recent Titus Andronicus show at the Marquis Theater that it had to turn down because it didn't have a record. And now Tallent is moving to Las Vegas, where his wife is attending medical school. That might be the end of many bands, but with his touring schedule, Tallent will be back through town on a regular basis. The group has only played five shows in its eight-month existence, but there may be more frequent local shows in the future, as well as recorded material. Before too long, you might even see some Big City Drugs merch.

“Do you know who had the best band aesthetic in Denver?” Tallent says. “Night of Joy. Those fliers with the Cosmo covers and the girls with those eyes? I just want to steal their aesthetic.”

Big City Drugs, with Champagne Charlie and Cult of the Lost Cause and comedians Sam Tallent, Bobby Crane, Kevin O'Brien and Cory Helie, Friday, July 1, 6 p.m., Denver Tool Library, 555 Santa Fe Drive (rear entrance), 720-943-4385, Free until 8 p.m. / $5 after 8 p.m.  for non-Denver Tool Library members, free for members.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.