Denver singer-songwriter Blake Brown experienced culture shock after moving from El Paso to Fort Collins when he was fifteen.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends right away, so I just ended up staying in my room and playing guitar,” Brown recalls. “I eventually met some friends, and then we started a band.”
It was the late ’90s, and Fort Collins was hardly the booming music hub it is today. But despite his underwhelming surroundings, Brown, a teenage introvert, managed to find like-minded, inspiring musicians.
When bands from Denver and beyond would visit Fort Collins, Brown’s group, To the Sky, jumped on to as many shows as it could.
“We were opening up for bands like Pinhead Circus, Planes Mistaken for Stars, Guttermouth and Jimmy Eat World. There was this house in downtown Fort Collins we called the Five Fourteen House, and all these bands would play to as many kids as we could jam into a living room. You couldn’t move, but the bands loved it, because there was a sense of community.”
Having made connections in the emo and punk scenes, To the Sky began touring with other groups, including screamo stalwarts Blood Brothers. While Brown embraced loud, aggressive music, he also dabbled in quieter acoustic material.
“I always loved that dichotomy, because I liked the surprise factor that kind of came with it,” Brown says. “I would play solo, and then my band would play and we’d scream our heads off. I can remember one show where I played acoustically, then Rocky Votolato played, then my band played, and his band, Waxwing, played.”
To the Sky broke up in 2002, and Brown decided to hit the road as a solo artist.
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“I started to transition away from full-band shows because it just got to the point where I was having a really hard time with other people’s schedules and lives,” he says. “At the time, I was just young enough and nimble enough to go do a five-state run and then do it again a couple months later. They were really just glorified road trips.”
Those solo escapades were fruitful, but Brown ultimately found himself missing the camaraderie of a band — so when his friend Doug Spencer asked him to collaborate on a project called Monofog, he bit at the opportunity.
“It seemed like a natural progression, because Doug and I were bringing each other songs we had written,” Brown says. “I joined, and it was the first time being in a band that wasn’t just my songs. I was just the rhythm guitar player, which was awesome. I loved it, because it wasn’t necessarily my voice. I did write quite a few songs, but I wasn’t the sole creative driver. It was nice to be a part of a crew.”
The band, fleshed out by vocalist Hayley Helmericks, drummer Lucas Rouge and bassist Dave Yob, quickly found footing in the Colorado scene, performing frequently with national acts such as Dinosaur Jr. and locals including Matson Jones.
Brown relished his time in Monofog, but parted ways with the group in 2004 because of what he characterizes as creative differences. Monofog continued on as a four-piece without him, and Brown put his music career on the back burner and moved to New York City.
“I literally went with a guitar and a duffel bag and stayed with a friend for a couple months on the Upper West Side,” he says. “It was one of those weird self-analyzing times that I don’t even know if I was really doing the legwork it takes to get to know yourself.”
While in New York, Brown confesses, he “drank too much” and bounced between bizarre jobs, including a gig working for famed fashion designer Patricia Field.
“It was such a weird time,” he recalls. “I always had this weird sense of not belonging.”
After a year, he’d had enough of the Big Apple, so packed his bags and returned to Colorado. While he felt defeated coming back home, he says the move allowed him to “get his shit together.”
Deciding that a career in music would not give him the solid footing he needed, he moved to Denver to study art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
“Of course I studied, like, the one thing that has no fucking income attached to it,” Brown jokes. “And right before I graduated, my girlfriend and I broke up, and it felt like everything was falling apart. I had been studying this thing for so long, and then the economy was in the toilet, so there was all this fear and anxiety surrounding my future.”
In the midst of writing his thesis, to stay sane, he would take breaks and strum his guitar. Noodling around led him to start writing songs again, for the first time in years.
When he took a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, he shared his songs with co-workers who were fellow musicians. One of those people was Frieda Stalheim, who had performed in 16 Horsepower and Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots. Stalheim expressed interest in Brown’s music and suggested they play together.
After recruiting fellow MCA employee and accomplished bassist James Yardley and drummer Ben DeSoto, Brown’s newest endeavor, Bare Bones, was formed. Unlike Monofog, Bare Bones was an opportunity to showcase the songs that Brown had been writing over the years. Although it was essentially a solo project, he was cautious about putting his name on it.
“I’ve always been leery about using my name, because I’m not like Elliott Smith or Jason Isbell, who are these fucking amazing songwriters,” Brown says. “I’ve always felt much more comfortable being part of a thing.”
He formed Bare Bones with the idea that “this will forever be my thing, but I’ll just have a revolving cast.”
The problem with a revolving-door band, though, is that people sometimes revolve out and no one takes their place. Eventually, Brown’s bandmates were gone, leaving him again to re-conceptualize his place in music. Part of that was ditching the name Bare Bones.
“It felt like the name didn’t fit the music, and I felt like I was removed from it,” he says. “I felt like I needed to put that to rest.”
So Brown assembled a new cast of musicians into Blake Brown & the American Dust Choir, and in 2013 they released their first album, We Believers. Brown’s raspy voice still gave the music its trademark sound, but the instrumentation was now more lush.
The American Dust Choir released two more EPs, one in 2014 and one in 2016, and with each new song penned, Brown inserted more of himself into his arrangements.
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On March 9, Blake Brown & the American Dust Choir — now comprising drummer Adam Blake, guitarist Trent Nelson, bassist Jason Legler and keyboardist/vocalist Tiffany Brown — will release their first full-length, Long Way Home.
The album is an autobiographical account of Brown’s musical journey, touching on realizations he’s had along the way — one of the most important being that community is what got him to this point in his career.
“I’m really fortunate to be playing with everyone,” he says. “I feel kind of like a fraud, and I only say that because these musicians are just so much better than I am. We all have a very deep-down respect for one another.”
Blake Brown & the American Dust Choir, Friday, March 9, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $12, 303-733-0230.