Lost Walks vocalist Dameon Merkl sits in the back room of Carbon Cafe & Bar. The experience is surreal for him. The now-upscale joint was once home to Paris on the Platte — a hot spot for Denver’s counterculture for nearly thirty years, and a hangout for Merkl until it closed in January 2015.
Back when he was a student at Regis High School, Merkl began frequenting Paris on the Platte, ordering pots of coffee and scribbling in a notebook about his angst. Sometimes he’d read fiction — mostly from horror writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. As he grew older, he devoured the work of Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Henry Miller. All of these authors inform the dark themes and villainous characters that fill Merkl’s writing.
Lost Walks, which will play at the hi-dive on Saturday, May 27, is hardly the singer’s first endeavor. He started playing music in high school — after first playing on the football team, which he’d joined because he thought it would look good on his résumé.
“I was not a football player,” Merkl says. “I found out you only have to be on the team for so many weeks for it to make it onto your transcripts, so I faked an injury.” He remembers seeing a group of girls standing in the parking lot waiting to audition for the school musical. “I quit football that moment, miraculously cured my injury, tried out for that play, 1776, and was in theater for the rest of my high school career.”
Nearing graduation, he formed his first band, Divine Anger, which he likens to Joy Division. The act didn’t play much in Denver, but instead performed at Penny Lane, Ground Zero and Club 156 in Boulder.
Through his late teens and early twenties, Merkl continued to hang out most nights at Paris on the Platte, where he would try to meet women and score beer. He also met Greg Kammerer, who worked at the coffee shop. Merkl would amuse his new friend by reading him bad essays written to push his teachers’ buttons. Kammerer enjoyed Merkl’s writing, and he invited him to sing in a band.
“I told him I couldn’t sing,” Merkl says. “And he told me that it was punk rock and you’re not supposed to be able to sing. He liked my writing and thought I could write some cool songs. That’s how we started Random Victim, and I got deep into the punk-rock scene fast.” In the late ’90s, the group was the de facto house band for the Raven, a punk-oriented club at 22nd and Welton that was booked by Merkl’s roommate at the time. Neither the group nor the venue lasted too long.
Merkl took a break from music for a while, then joined up with Kammerer again in the early 2000s. Together with drummer Andrew Warner, they formed Bad Luck City, Merkl’s best-known band to date.
The lyrics that Merkl wrote for Bad Luck City were both morbid and literary, a nod to the authors he grew up on and the music he loved. He found inspiration in Nick Cave and bluesmen like R.L Burnside, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, who each wrote his own share of lurid, grim tales; the band’s name came from one of Burnside’s songs.
After a good run, Bad Luck City went on hiatus. Merkl was later approached by guitarist and singer (and Westword contributor) Andy Thomas and singer Jen GaNun, who told him about their recent trip to the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in early 2015 and how it had inspired them to start a new musical project.
They explained that the band would be a vehicle for fundraising to support a wolf sanctuary. “So the idea from the beginning was to make a weird concept album and not play shows that often, and look at it more as a project than a band,” Merkl says.
The three decided to hash out songs and give them a coherent form before bringing on other musicians. They worked out a concept for an album that Merkl describes as “a Peter and the Wolf meets The Shining type of story.”
The group’s writing process was meticulous — a challenge for Merkl, who was used to a looser songwriting style. The result was Wolf, Woman, Man.
Because the goal was fundraising for wolves, the bandmembers flipped the script on the typical fairytale story and cast the wolf as the protagonist. But writing a “good guy” proved challenging for Merkl. “The foundation of my lyric writing is to be the bad guy,” he says. “People get murdered. There’s moral ambiguity going on.”
Writing “rainbows and clouds” was something he had trouble doing without some of his morbid tendencies shining through. “I was trying to find a balance so it could [also] be dark, violent and spooky,” he says.
Lost Walks eventually recruited a slate of musicians connected to other popular Denver bands, including Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Munly & the Lupercalians, Strange Americans and FaceMan. The Lost Walks’ concept album was mastered by Chris Fogal of the Gamits, who briefly played in Bad Luck City.
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Lost Walks, which is playing only its second concert on Saturday, will perform on a stage with sets designed by Justin Hicks and Katie Webster of Incite Productions, who are using art provided by photographer Alvino Salcedo and painter Liz Holland.
For the act’s debut concert, at Syntax Physic Opera in November, “Justin and Katie made big banners, and we took Alvino’s photographs and projected them onto white paper, and they traced the trees and cut them out,” says Merkl. “Those were put on top of these large prints of Liz Holland’s art, so it’s kind of a mixed-media presentation.”
The hi-dive show will incorporate a different stage design and will benefit a different wolf advocacy group, Lobos of the Southwest. By next fall, the band hopes to incorporate dancers into its act. Says Merkl: “We’re trying to ramp it up, a little bit each time.”