Denver Band Shadow Work Takes Matters Into Its Own Hands | Westword

Dream Weavers: Denver Band Shadow Work Takes Matters Into Its Own Hands

This Mile High band is on a serious come-up, embarking on a tour through France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany. But first, a hometown send-off.
Denver trio shadow work is hard at work on new music, even if this looks like a picture of break time.
Denver trio shadow work is hard at work on new music, even if this looks like a picture of break time. Courtesy shadow work
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Rafael Nava, Joseph Szlanic and Ben Zickau are sitting on the porch of the Denver house they call home. It’s evening, but the sun has yet to set on the three musicians, who make up the indie-psych group shadow work.

The golden glow complements Nava’s uninhibited optimism and determination as the local band readies for its maiden voyage across the pond later this month for a seven-date tour through France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany that wraps up on May 8.

“As musicians, we’re tired of waiting for anybody like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to give us that golden ticket. The more we play music in our lives, we realize that no one comes out and helps you like that,” Nava says.

“It’s like, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we want to do this?’ We ask ourselves those questions,” the barefoot vocalist continues. “We just figure: Let’s make the moves for the dreams that we want to achieve. There’s no point in waiting on anybody to do that for us.”

It’s hard not to feel excited for shadow work's future after hearing Nava speak so passionately about the group’s steady come-up since the three friends moved to Denver in 2021, with plans to bring their group to a bigger metropolitan stage.

“I’m from a small town in Georgia, where they try to make it seem like you can’t do nothing,” Nava says. “You've got this life in your own hands; you've just got to find the right people that are about it and are willing to starve with you, and you keep hitting it head first. It really does pay off, even in small ways.”

Szlanic, shadow work’s bassist, recalls the first apartment they lived in after deciding to relocate to the Mile High City from Boise, where the members initially met. “Ben’s bedroom was in the kitchen; mine was fifteen feet away, on the other side of the room,” he shares. “We had to learn how to get along. We've all grown a lot together. Everyone else’s personality is like a foil for your own.”

Thankfully, shadow work has updated its digs since then and now has a more spacious HQ that also serves as a practice space and home studio. And jumping into such a journey has made the members “as close as family as you can get,” according to Szlanic. “We have a shared common goal that we’re achieving together,” he adds. “Sometimes you have to put your petty bullshit aside.”

Nava, who sits cross-legged between his bandmates like a new-age sage, points to the group's latest single, “Severance,” as an homage to finding a sense of place, both personally and as musicians. “I’ve always been a dreamer, man, so anything that can get me to the next step,” he says, adding that the new single also addresses his search for belonging.

“Being out in Idaho never felt like the right spot for me,” Nava continues. “Idaho didn’t feel like home. Georgia felt like a distant memory of home. Can Denver possibly be home, or is this just something I’m trying to chase, too?”

The front porch scene is reminiscent of the iconic Minor Threat photo that became the cover shot for that group's 1985 EP, Salad Days. The picture captures bandmates Ian MacKaye, Lyle Preslar, Brian Baker and Jeff Nelson hanging out on the stoop of MacKaye and Nelson’s legendary Dischord House in Arlington, Virginia, home of the groundbreaking DIY label Dischord Records.

While shadow work and Minor Threat don’t share any musical similarities, Nava and company employ an ethos that would make the hardcore heroes proud. Nava calls the upcoming European run “super DIY.”

Two years ago, playing abroad was nothing more than a dream. Then Nava linked up with a promoter in Portugal and bands over there who helped book venues and iron out such details as equipment rentals and travel plans. “Logistically, I’ve just been cracking away at it for the last year and a half, then started making moves on the ground about a year ago,” Nava explains.

Now that it’s a go, the bandmates are curious to see how European audiences will react. “I heard of bands wondering if the audience is enjoying it until the show is over and the crowd goes nuts,” Zickau says. “I’m just looking forward to seeing what's different and what's the same.”

But before going international, shadow work — the name is a reference to a Carl Jung school of thought — is playing a string of local shows, starting with an appearance at Boulder’s Trident Cafe on Thursday, April 25, with Guava Tree. The two groups will also be at the Atrium at the Alley Cat in Fort Collins on Friday, April 26, along with Ducki, before a Colorado Springs date at Electric Goodies on Saturday, April 27. Tiny Tomboy is also on that bill.

The bevy of touring is scheduled to continue through June, once shadow work returns stateside for a Midwest trek with Oklahoma band the Odyssey. Nava, Szlanic and Zickau credit the recent surge of activity to waking up from what they call a winter-long hibernation, during which they wrote and recorded new material for their yet-to-be-named debut LP, which is set to be released sometime before the end of the year.

The plan is to share a single each month through at least the summer. “Severance” is the first glimpse of what to expect...or maybe not. “There’s not one quite like it on the rest of the record,” Szlanic admits.

While it’s in line with shadow work’s previously released material on EPs Robben Island (2021) and Imago (2023), “Severance” hits a little harder than the hypnotic psych rock that’s become a band trademark.

“I started that song out on the back porch of the house we live in on an acoustic guitar, then I introduced it to the guys,” Nava says, adding that the idea was more of “an experimental play on how can we keep one continuous layer and build all these other compositional harmonies and layers to really progress the song.”

That’s why Szlanic’s bass plays more like a lead guitar throughout, while Zickau’s improvisational style of drumming drives the track to “different places,” Nava says. “The guitar is the constant, and the others are playing around it."

Nava’s heartfelt lyrics are also a constant. Writing every morning allows him to put his thoughts to paper, but whether the words find their way into a song isn’t always up to him. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it makes sense a couple months later,” he explains. “Sometimes a word just sounds right, like it’s meant to be in that place. … It’s a Buddhist way to go about it.”

Writing lyrics for shadow work allows Nava, as well as his bandmates, to be more vulnerable and “not care if someone is going to make fun of it,” he says.

“It releases the tension in my body. It feels like it’s coming from the soul. Some people use meditation, some people work out. I just happen to write every morning.”

“Severance” is more of a “pull and push of trying to feel comfortable when not really feeling a sense of home,” Nava adds. “Denver is still new to me. Everybody’s got those days where you just don’t feel accepted, or you don’t want to go out or be seen.”

It’s a reflective moment, but Nava says it’s not necessarily indicative of how shadow work feels now about being in Denver. “It’s like a kid in a candy store,” he says of being part of such a varied music community.

It’s getting darker, and the trio is ready to wrap up and head inside. They don’t share their plans for the rest of the night. But Nava ends the chat with a final note about his relationship to shadow work.

“This band is a therapy project in the oddest ways,” he says with a laugh, as Szlanic and Zickau nod in agreement. “I say that jokingly, but in the sincerest way.”

Shadow work, 6 p.m. Thursday, April 25, Trident Cafe, 940 Pearl Street, Boulder (tickets are $10 at the door) and 8 p.m. Friday, April 26, the Atrium at the Alley Cat, 120.5 West Laurel Street, Fort Collins (tickets are $15).
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