The Czars were one of the more popular bands from Denver in the 1990s and early 2000s. Theirs was a style of music could never be limited. It wasn't dream pop or shoegaze or slowcore. It wasn't even really just moody post-punk. It was all of that, and its dynamic songs could whisper and roar with rich, emotionally-charged atmospheres. Running from 1994 to 2004, The Czars released a handful of albums, most of which came out on Bella Union, the UK-based label run by Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins. Though the band had successful tours in Europe and some short stints across America, and despite the strength of its music, it didn't catch on in the same way as Sixteen Horsepower or the Apples in Stereo.
On December 1, 2014, Bella Union released the digital version of The Best of The Czars with a physical release to follow. Though it mostly covers only the period represented by the presence of guitar phenom Roger Green, from the 2001 album The Ugly People Vs The Beautiful People to the 2004 swan song Goodbye, it is arguably the band's finest era.
See also: Seven of Denver's Most Underrated Bands
Earlier in the High Plains Underground series I shared a picture or two of the Czars, but for this photo retrospective, taken from disposable camera shots I also got to spend some time with Andy Monley, Chris Pearson and Roger Green at their practice space talking about some memories from the band's history. At Syntax Physic Opera on Friday, December 12, they will be playing Czars songs along with drummer Ron Smith and Monley's wife Julie, a noteworthy songwriter in her own right. Original drummer Jeff Linsenmaier and later era members of the band, Dave Devine and Colin Bricker will also play. Also that night, prior to the show, there will be a screening at 7 p.m. of Academy Award Winner Davis Coombe's 2003 documentary The Tornado Dream, which documents three Denver bands at a crossroads: Rainbow Sugar, Orbit Service and the Czars.
Westword: The label had the idea for a "Best Of" compilation. Why are you doing a live show celebrating that in a sense and why do you think it was time for a "Best Of" comp?
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Roger Green:A year ago I did a show at Deer Pile to get together everybody who's still living here in the same room. I just thought if a "Best Of" was coming out I thought there should be some sort of party. The record company says it's for new Czars fans and not a collectors sort of thing. It's to take that catalog and use the kind of marketing engine that Bella Union has now that it's owned by Universal to sort of expose the music of the Czars to a completely new audience. That's why there was no talk of reunion shows or anything. It gives a little bit of a push between John's last record and his next one. They wanted a little push but not enough of one for him to look back and be like, "Hey, here's this cool thing I already did." Because it's confusing or something.
Andy Monley: It's keeping John in the public and also John Grant fans get some music that they may not know existed.
Roger, you weren't in the original line-up of the Czars. How did you become a member of the band?
RG: I was in this band with Patrick Park called Idle Mind. Do you remember Tom Headbanger? My band was playing at The Mercury and we were kind of an emo band that's not like what emo is too. Sera Cahoone and Patrick and me were in that band and we all went to high school with Kerry McDonald from Christie Front Drive so we played with them. Tom Headbanger was like, "I don't know any other bands you should play with except for maybe Space Team Electra and this band The Czars, which he called "lounge rock" or something.
Patrick met Jeff who started playing bass in Idle Mind. Jeff really wanted Patrick to be in The Czars. And Patrick said no so Jeff was like, "Roger, do you want to be in The Czars?" The first time I met them Idle Mind opened for the La Brea Tar Pits of Routine release party. Because I did the lights and Chris was particular about the lights but it was really that John was particular but I didn't know John. After Before...But Longer was made, that's when Jeff wanted Patrick to join and there was a question about Andy leaving and I learned all of the songs and came to practice.
Chris Pearson: Andy had talked about leaving the band but when we got together to practice it sounded really good and he decided to stay for two more albums.
When I first heard about you it was under the impression you were going to be some kind of space rock band. Which wasn't and isn't the case. Did you consider yourself part of any kind of genre?
CP:It all centered around John's voice. When we started he didn't play any keyboards. He just sang. So we fashioned songs around his voice. It's always been dark and kind of moody but it wasn't until Roger came along that we had those sonics and layers. We played with likeminded bands like Low and Dirty Three and it's kind of stylistically kind of like Nick Cave and Wolfgang Press but we had a different sound from that too. Once Roger joined, that's when we got more the space-y kind of sound.
You did a couple of shows billed as Space Team Electra. Why did you do those kinds of shows?
RG: It's hard to fill the Gothic. Recently, Land Lines and Snake Rattle Rattle Snake didn't sell it out.
CP: It holds 950 so it's a tough place to fill. I think the most people we had was 300.
Why team up with that band?
CP: The style, the sound, they were good friends of ours. We did just two of those shows.
Space Team Electra performed "Eyes Are Darker Now" and you did "Oasis."
CP: And then we did that Heart cover, "Magic Man."
The Tornado Dream, the film by Davis Coombe, got into some private moments and catalogued some low points by those bands. Why did you think that was okay to have out in the world?
CP: We didn't know exactly what was happening. He kind of followed us around for a year and filmed. We never saw a prior cut. It just came out. There's a lot of us arguing and not us not being happy. It wasn't always like that. There were good times and we did a lot of great tours.
Andy Monley: It's not like he set out to do that. It's just the way it came out. We didn't portray ourselves as assholes. It was just that point in time where we were redefining ourselves.
RG: We were making Ugly People and he took us out individually to the studio. When I joined everyone was bickering about how to split publishing for Before...But Longer. I had enough pull, at least with John, with Ugly People where I said, "Either we split everything equally beforehand or I quit." It worked for that record and it worked for a little while afterward.
You put out one last record, Goodbye, that was at least partly funded by you.
CP: No, it was completely funded by us. We had a fan who gave us a loan and we would sell shares of the album. To anyone who would give us $20 we would put a thank you to them on the album sleeve and then we gave them an album once it came out. But we got no money from the record label at all. It was [partially out of my pocket and the money the fan gave us].
Once they got the album they put it out and it's selling pretty well now. But that caused a lot of stress and strife. I got fired by email. Jeff and Andy had already quit. And then it was Roger and John.
RG: To be fair, I quit and then John sent an email. It was a long, drawn out fight between me and John. I didn't quit because John was going to send that email alone. There were too many reasons to count to quit, but John had wanted it to be him and I for a while. That didn't work. I didn't feel right about having joined the band late and then that. I got along really well with John musically, but I didn't like being his mom.
*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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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.