FaceMan's second show was on September 12, 2009. The attention of most indie-rock fans in the Mile High City was directed elsewhere that day — at Red Rocks and Monolith, to be specific. But for some, it wasn't the Pitchfork-approved indies up in Morrison that were the most remarkable. That distinction belonged to a guy playing a guitar in the darkened basement of the Meadowlark, singing about self-loathing. And — oh, yeah — he was wearing a mask with spinning lights while creepy black-and-white videos of monsters and old cartoons streamed out to his drunken friends.
Steve is FaceMan, but FaceMan is also a trio. The menagerie of crazy shit that is FaceMan might be better termed "visual art exploration," but even that seems too highfalutin: FaceMan's members simply call it "a project." Steve conceived it, writes the lyrics and has even begun to answer to the name "FaceMan." Steve is assiduous when it comes to his personal details, including his day job and last name. Anonymity is key.
"I want to feel like I'm up to no good," he claims. "Like I'm wearing a Zorro mask, running around in the night, jumping into hot chicks' windows."
So how does Zorro place his project? "We're like the GWAR of folk," he offers. "There's this seriousness to the party." The group's self-titled debut came out last fall and features stripped-down, jagged folk and rock with country flourishes. The songs can bounce, but the lyrics are almost always bleak. FaceMan, which was recorded almost entirely at Uneven Studios, improbably toes the line between the decaying grief of late Johnny Cash and the sincere absurdity of Pee-wee Herman. And, fittingly, its creator does, too.
Steve talks feverishly and unabashedly — transcribing a casual conversation with the self-described "talkaholic" would keep all of the City and County's stenographers busy for hours — about his music. It's not exactly what you'd expect from a guy who doesn't want anyone to know his last name. While he was at college in New Orleans, Steve played in a band that landed at the venerable Tipitina's. He was bent on not playing hackneyed music upon his return to Colorado, though, after seeing "white yuppies," as he puts it, try their hand at NOLA funk.
Wanting to learn jazz guitar, he landed at Arvada's Olde Town Pickin' Parlor in 2002 under the care of David Thomas Bailey, a student of Charlie Hunter's who also teaches at Swallow Hill and plays in Man vs. Village and Micro Marauder. A few years in, Steve came up with the FaceMan concept.
"I said to him, 'I've got this crazy idea,'" Steve recounts. "'I'm going to have a mask, a screen on my head with videos, and be the weirdest motherfucker you've ever seen.'" After a couple of run-throughs of Steve's originals, Bailey — much to Steve's surprise — asked if he could be a part of FaceMan.
In the time leading up to the group's formation, Steve went through a divorce and poured himself into the only thing he knew: writing tunes. "I sat there for a year with tons of pain," he recalls. "Then all of a sudden, I had this idea: I could hide. And then it's Halloween. You're the guy with the mask who's hitting on all the girls because you've got more confidence than you've ever had in your life."
Before he came up with FaceMan, he played a few solo gigs but was scared of becoming ordinary. "The only people who cared then," he remembers, "are the people who care about me, and they already care about me, so I didn't fucking care." Steve was nervous to show Bailey his songs, but after the two started hashing them out, they decided to prepare for a live show. Thinking they would go without drums, Steve, on a whim, posted an ad on Craigslist titled "Can you stir the beans?" As he tells it, "One motherfucker responded: Mr. Ryan Elwood."
Elwood is shy, something that Steve initially viewed as a deal-breaker when the drummer showed up at Andenken Gallery, where Steve and his father had been building elaborate prototypes of far-out masks and rotating screens. But after an amble through ten songs, Elwood was in.
The two other men of FaceMan see their roles as complementary. Elwood says, "What Dave and I do is take it into a different direction. I think we break the mold." Bailey adds, "I'm into hagakure — the way of the samurai. When I commit to a project, all of my work is at the disposal of my retainer. Great things happen when you humble yourself to an artist's vision." It also helps if you can play a custom-built instrument that has three bass and four guitar strings, leading Steve to label Bailey "the prisoner of something phenomenally difficult."
The band has made leaps in a relatively short amount of time, and in unexpected ways. FaceMan has played a fashion show and even the St. Patrick's Day parade. (Elwood recalls a gig opening for a samurai sword troupe where he partied too hard and threw up onto one of the Eastern costumes.) Steve dons a mask for one show, then doesn't for the next. Horn sections come and go. Steve recently commissioned a giant sculpture of a distorted face from artist James Ronner. Videos are projected through the eyeball.
And those videos are a labor of love. Steve spends around ten to fifteen hours putting together public-domain film for each of his songs on Archive.org. The beautiful and frequently frightening images include everything from footage of the 1908 World's Fair to a woman eating a turkey leg underwater. Steve sees FaceMan's live shows — to which the videos are integral — as ever-evolving. He compares his act to Cirque du Soleil's strive for excellence. "Some guy making his hands look like Puff the Magic Dragon eating a village of people? That's quality."
Still, the crux of FaceMan is Steve's songwriting. "DarkestDay" (all song titles, as well as the band's name, are mashed together without spaces) may be his finest and most evocative, with qualities equally indebted to Billy Bragg and Charles Bukowski. It certainly is exemplary: an unassuming folk-rocker with punishing lyrics. "I'm a loose nut/A whack job/I'm a crazy loser," he sings. But against that type, it's a stirring bruiser. There's an intended dialectic. "I think everyone hates and loves themselves," he asserts. "There's a lot about the project that's a duality. I live two lives. It's a powerful experience to admit publicly that you hate yourself. Most people don't have that avenue. Hickenlooper can't say, 'I'm a piece of shit, you know why?' "
The culmination of trolling his inner psyche is a Dionysian exclamation point for Steve. This Friday at the Bluebird, nearly forty musicians — Slim Cessna's Auto Club, the Knew and many others will have members present — will play thirty-plus songs from their respective repertoires for close to four hours.
"It's gonna be like taking care of an elementary-school field trip to the Natural History Museum," he enthuses. "The sound guy's gonna fucking hate us." When comparing FaceMan's First Waltz, as the night is being called, to the Band's Last Waltz, Steve highlights the party aspect of Robbie Robertson and company's famous send-off.
During FaceMan's rehearsal with others at the Blackbook Gallery in advance of the Bluebird show, there's a palpable glee in the company of boxed T-shirts and empty Stranahan's bottles. The bacchanal is already in full swing: These sad songs are making everyone quite happy.