Simon Katz, bassist for Denver-based post-rock trio Boats Without Oars, suffered from food allergies growing up. At a 2015 homecoming bonfire at Chatfield Senior High School, he took a bite of a s’more with peanut butter, went into anaphylactic shock and died hours later, devastating his family, friends, bandmates and Denver’s music community.
In August 2017, Boats Without Oars released a digital album, Places, Pictures, that includes music the members had worked on before Katz’s passing; the album is a testament to his life and their refusal to let their sound fade away.
“We finished the album for Simon,” says guitarist Alex Sutton, who met Katz at Denver’s School of Rock and is now majoring in engineering at Colorado School of Mines. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I could barely bring myself to play the songs we had performed together on stage. It stung every time I went into the studio. So I worked on it in tiny increments over the course of a year and a half, and eventually we finished it. I think that even if no one were to listen to it, having it done and out there is the biggest weight off my shoulders I’ve ever felt.”
Working through the grief for their lost friend and charismatic musical companion was no small challenge for either of the band’s members. Micky Williamson, father of Boats drummer Elias Williamson, now a college student in Oregon, says his child was all but destroyed by the sudden loss of Katz and has only slowly been able to deal with the loss.
“Their world flipped,” Williamson says. “They fought through the sadness, somehow finished high school and did well, and then went off to college less than a year later. I know that they are just now coming out of some of that grief.”
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Both Sutton and Williamson met Katz at the School of Rock, where they developed a friendship over the course of two years. After a few different group iterations that took in other musicians from the program, the three ultimately jelled into Boats Without Oars.
“During our first season at the School of Rock, Simon and I played an Eric Clapton cover concert together. We barely talked at first,” recalls Sutton, who attended Holy Family High School at the time. “But after two more years, we ended up becoming good friends with Elias. When we became a three-piece band is when we really hit our stride. We started playing some high-profile shows, opening for some interesting bands and becoming pretty well known on the local scene, and we decided to start recording a full-length project.”
While the album, which was released in August, was partially rewritten and required some production tweaks to include Katz’s bass and vocals, Sutton says the finished product provides a good semblance of the group’s sound.
“We had the ridiculous idea for this album to be self-produced even though none of us knew anything about production, so we started recording the songs we had written, and we kept recording and recording over and over again,” Sutton says. “We recorded drums with the help of Elias Armao from the band Overslept and recorded bass in Simon’s basement. We had no idea how to mic a bass amp, so we thought if we put enough microphones in the room, some combination was bound to sound decent.”
The finished product is a convincing indie blend, with enough raw edge to lend it a grungy authenticity. It’s not difficult to hear what fans found intriguing in the young lineup. While the trio is no longer intact, Sutton feels that the digital offering they created provides listeners a chance to hear what was and what could have been.
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“Elias is in school in Portland now, and I’m still finishing my degree. Our musical tastes have changed a lot since we were going strong with Boat Without Oars,” he says. “We’re still great friends, but now it’s a much deeper friendship, and we can’t bring ourselves to play music together without Simon there with us. I still have some stuff in the works, and I’m hoping to take some time off after college to get back in the studio and really focus on pursuing what I’ve been working on with Elias from Overslept.”
The elder Williamson says the bonds that his child formed while in the band were special, and that the quality of the music was impressive.
“I’m joyful that the music will continue to live forever,” he says. “We love that Simon’s bass tracks are on it, as is his voice in a bit of clever mixing. I cry when I hear it sometimes. Elias’s two younger brothers, Kenzie and Sebastian, have the CD on their iPods and know most of the words; they play it almost daily. I think that if anything could be gained outside of the music and connection of the kids, [it’s] that allergies are real, and that if we could just raise awareness enough, things like losing Simon wouldn’t happen.”
Listen to Places, Pictures at Boats Without Oars Bandcamp page.