When we were in high school in Fort Collins, Hayley and I would play guitar for each other on the railroad tracks behind my house," remembers Doug Spencer, guitarist of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake. Then he laughs. "She'd always sing about this jerk that she liked."
That jerk, of course, wound up being Spencer. Now married, he and singer/keyboardist Hayley Helmericks form the core of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, one of Denver's hottest new indie-rock bands. Since playing its first show in early 2009, the brooding yet electrifying sextet — which also includes bassist James Yardley, guitarist/keyboardist (and Hayley's brother) Wilson Helmericks and dual drummers Kit Peltzel and Andrew Warner — has built a steady buzz that culminated in being crowned Westword's Best New Band in 2010.
Making music together, though, is nothing new for Spencer and Helmericks. It's been ten years since the couple founded Monofog, the first of many groups they've shared over the past decade (including the massive ensemble Moonspeed, the one project they've been part of that doesn't revolve around the pair's songwriting). Viewed as a whole, these groups form a single animal — one that, like Snake Rattle Rattle Snake's namesake, sheds its skin from time to time to reveal a fresher, brighter incarnation.
"We started dating when I was seventeen and he was eighteen," Helmericks recalls. "I had always played guitar and stuff like that, and when I got out of high school, I started hanging around with Doug's little crew while they were playing music and stuff, and I quickly realized I wanted to play music with the boys, too."
Spencer was in a punk band at the time that bore the inspired name Jake Fucking Jabs. After Helmericks started attending Colorado State University, she moved in with Spencer — as well as the rest of his bandmates, all of whom shared a house in Fort Collins, complete with a basement practice space.
"That was the start of Monofog," says Helmericks. "I think that's what it came down to, living in a place where there were always drums and amps set up. I had no problem abandoning the acoustic guitar. Doug and I never really had to sit down and think when it came to writing songs together. It was all pretty natural from there."
Monofog's sprawling, unvarnished post-punk showed plenty of promise, and Helmericks's rich voice and poetic lyrics evoked a young, hungry Patti Smith. But the band didn't make much of a dent in the local scene. Says Helmericks, "We were in our little Fort Collins bubble. There wasn't a lot going on up there except our friends who were playing music. We would come down to Denver to see touring bands, but we weren't really involved in any sort of scene at that point."
The band sputtered out completely in 2003 when drummer Lucas Rouge moved out of Colorado, but the remains of Monofog morphed into the short-lived project Ready Machete before reforming under the old name in 2005. During that tumultuous time, Spencer's guitar lines had become leaner and sharper. And Helmericks, in addition to honing her voice into an even more cryptic yet compelling force, started playing the keyboard, a moody-sounding instrument that was carried over into the resurrected Monofog.
"I think Ready Machete and Monofog kind of collided," says Spencer. "We couldn't just go back to what we had been doing before Ready Machete. There was still some life left there."
Helmericks agrees: "That last Monofog record we did in 2007, Runner, has half Monofog-style songs. The other half is stuff that trickled in from Ready Machete. A lot of it has to do with those keyboards. When we transitioned back in to Monofog from Ready Machete, I kept playing keys. I just like doing it. That's why I still do it in Snake Rattle Rattle Snake. It's a good songwriting tool."
That tool would come in handy when, in 2008, Spencer and Helmericks realized Monofog was drifting apart for the second time. Although building a lot more momentum since relocating to Denver — and embarking on a few brief tours — cracks in the previously tight-knit band were starting to show.
"We were happy and revitalized due to being in a new place," says Helmericks. "We wrote a lot of new songs here, but at a certain point we kind of stopped. Touring wasn't really in the cards. We did it a few times, but nothing really came of it. We recorded and put out Runner, but after that record came out, we kind of lost steam. We'd get to band practice, and we'd just want to hang out together. When we tried playing music, we'd all just get kind of grumpy, so we were like, 'Let's just keep drinking beers and hanging out.'"
"No one ever said, 'Let's stop playing for a while.' We just kind of did," Spencer recalls. " I remember Lucas saying that we just loved each other too much. If we didn't care about each other, we probably could have broken it off cleaner."
During that downturn, Spencer and Helmericks revived an acoustic project called Sweet Tooth Meat Tooth that they'd formed years before in Fort Collins. Not only did it keep the creative bond strong between the two, but it gave Helmericks a much-needed opportunity to crank the vocals down a notch.
"In Monofog, I felt like some of us wanted to rock so hard," she says. "Sometimes I was like, 'I think I have a pretty good singing voice, but I'm sick of screaming all the time.' That was a pretty minor concern, but it did drive a wedge into things."
In 2007 and 2008, Sweet Tooth Meat Tooth played a few shows. The modest duo, though, soon outgrew its format. Warner and Wilson Helmericks were gradually added to the mix, and it wasn't long before the band realized it had turned into an entirely fresh entity. The newly dubbed Snake Rattle Rattle Snake began playing in early 2009, and the expanded roster — including Yardley and Peltzel, whose electronic drums intertwine with Warner's acoustic kit — built on the seething, shadowy music of Monofog while somehow streamlining the whole sound.
"When Snake Rattle Rattle Snake started practicing and writing songs, we were like, 'Oh man, this is kind of fun. This is where we want to put our energy,'" says Spencer. "Everyone in the band really adds a lot. The idea was, let's make this a fun project. Let's make it physical and base it around that."
And although Spencer is hesitant to use the word "dancey" to describe the SRRS sound — captured beautifully on the band's self-titled debut EP from early this year — Helmericks is less shy on the subject: "If someone's inclined to do the d-word while we're playing, that's great."
Both of them, though, are a bit more leery of another oversimplified tag: goth. As Helmericks explains, "Doug has always written weird, darkish things, and that's what I've always attempted to write, for whatever reason. We're not big fans of the major chords. The music's not so weird that it's inaccessible, though."
"I'm always trying to be a creep," adds Spencer with a laugh. "There is some goth leaking out of us. Oozing out."
With a new, two-song single being released soon — one that features the slashing, syncopated "Dead Man's World" and the hauntingly spacious "Ornament" — Snake Rattle Rattle Snake has already staked a claim for itself far outside of any easy pigeonholes. And with a full decade of playing together behind them, Spencer and Helmericks are able to look back and appraise their long, ever-evolving past — not to mention their future.
"If anything ever happened to this band, we'd still keep doing some kind of music together," says Helmericks. "This music just feels natural to us."
Spencer seconds that emotion. "Making music together is a big part of how me and Hayley's relationship works," he says. "I remember we were up at Black Hawk once, and we saw this old couple in the casino playing some show tunes together. I told Hayley, 'Get ready for this. In twenty years, that's you and me.'"