High Plains Underground Archive

High Plains Underground Archive: The Kevin Costner Suicide Pact, Denver Ambient Masters

Before the Kevin Costner Suicide Pact, there was Fellow Citizens.

Fellow Citizens was far better than your average indie-rock band in the early 2000s. Initially based in Boulder, it somehow combined Americana, shoegaze and pop into consistently compelling songs. But its members graduating and otherwise moving on with other priorities meant the band was going to wind down or end by the beginning of 2011. Parallel to that band's existence, drummer Carson Pelo, his bassist brother Tyler and guitarists Peter Goodwin and Nathan Wright had been working on a band that reflected their mutual interest in more abstract but no less emotionally resonant and refined music. They called the band the Kevin Costner Suicide Pact, a nod to the 1983 motion picture The Big Chill, perhaps, in which Costner played the man whose death reunites the other characters, but in which the actor is seen only as a corpse. (There was also a rumor that Costner's son attended CU Boulder at the same time as the guys in the band, but that really had nothing to do with the chosen moniker.)

The foursome could have rested on the usual methods of songwriting that had served them so well in Fellow Citizens. Instead they borrowed the skeleton of an idea from the band Minamo and Geologist of Animal Collective: They chained inputs into mixers, patching them together so that they could all manipulate the soundscape with effects and volume. Instead of manipulating a beat or pure electronics, however, it was guitar sounds, vocals, bass notes and generated noises, perhaps synth, contributing to the evolving flow. It could have been a big mess, but the guys in KCSP knew each other well as musicians, and their intuitive sense of the music made for coherent compositions.

On earlier KCSP albums such as 2010's End Weekend, there were still concessions to more conventional songwriting. But by the time the band wrote the 2012 album Standstill, KCSP had effectively broken with the past in methodology and in sound. The music was more akin to that of contemporary ambient artists like Tim Hecker and Stars of the Lid. In that way, its aesthetic had more in common with experimental film, and it lent itself well to the work of their friend Curt Heiner, a film student who had studied experimental film techniques. When Heiner started doing projections using looped film, it added another dimension to the experience: gear spanning several feet like an art installation exposing the inner workings of the visuals before you. It wasn't for everyone, but it was powerful, hypnotic and otherworldly while grounded in imagery and color of now — made to look like something from long ago.

Because the guys in KCSP had longstanding friendships in the local music world in a broad sense, its fan base went beyond people with unusual tastes. The band found itself playing a variety of shows and some of the major local music festivals like UMS, the Westword Music Showcase and Goldrush. The band also intersected the indie-rock world with the experimental-music scene, playing early shows with groups like Echo Beds, Holophrase, StaG and my own band, Pythian Whispers, as those groups developed.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, the KCSP was a fixture in the experimental-music world in Denver, and by 2013 the band had released its final two albums — Container Ship, on Matt Sage's Fort Collins-based tape imprint, and Tape Phase, on Fire Talk, a label still run by Trevor Peterson of former Denver-based psych/prog/experimental-rock band Woodsman. But in 2013, the KCSP live schedule was minimal. Between changing personal fortunes and shifting priorities, the Pact didn't weather the storm.

The group played one final show on June 17, 2014, opening for Plan for Burial with Echo Beds at the Sidewinder. Shortly afterward, Peter Goodwin moved to Chicago for work and to get a new start. That came as no surprise to anyone, and there had been talk about KCSP continuing after Goodwin's relocation, but nothing concrete has come about yet. As for the individual members: Wright had played guitar with Gauntlet Hair, but now he doesn't often play live. Tyler Pelo doesn't play live music at all. But Carson Pelo occasionally performs in StaG, as well as with his active band, the excellent math-rock-esque Homebody. While KCSP was together, the band provided the perfect soundtrack for soothing nerves, pondering possibilities, letting the mind drift into creative spaces and otherwise imbuing everyday life with a little bit of magic. What follows are scenes from the places the KCSP played, as well as occasional permutations beyond the classic lineup.

*Author's Note on the High Plains Underground Archive: In the late 1990s, I started going to local shows on a regular basis. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I didn't know there was such a thing as local music worth checking out. But I was drawn in after seeing a band called Rainbow Sugar (an all-female punk/hip-hop/experimental guitar rock extravaganza) opening for Sleater-Kinney's first show in Colorado at The Fox Theatre in October 1998. Next, I learned about a show at the now-defunct Rebis Galleries. From there I went to the first Monkey Mania show, and there was no looking back.

Rainbow Sugar was the first local band I photographed at Herman's Hideaway in 1999. But it was in 2005 when I got my first digital camera that my extensive photo archive started. In this series, called High Plains Underground Archive, I will share a small fraction of the tens of thousands of those photos, focusing on specific venues, bands, time periods, movements and whatever else seems to make sense. The title of this series comes from the working title of my book on the history of underground music in Denver 1975 to the present.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.

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