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For guitarist Mike Serviolo--the creator of the wonderfully twisted Denver-based group Iz--making music is an arduous and painstaking process. And keeping a band together isn't that easy, either.

Iz, you see, has existed for only about a year, but during that time it's already undergone the kind of personnel shifts that would have killed most musical troupes. Original second guitarist Dan Zelnikoff moved to Buffalo in August 1994 to attend graduate school. Original bassist Adrian Romero resigned in December in order to devote himself fully to his namesake combo, Adrian Romero and Love Supreme. And original drummer Scott Young quit shortly after Romero went his own way. "I don't have any idea why he did it," says Serviolo, who's the only remaining member of Iz's inaugural roster. "The funny thing is, we all seemed to be getting along."

So what's left of Iz? Plenty, as it turns out. Zelnikoff, with whom Serviolo remains close, was replaced by guitarist Chris Steele, a player of uncommon dexterity able to handle the music's myriad demands. And while a new drummer has yet to be recruited (the search is ongoing), Romero's slot has been filled by Kaveh Rastegar, a young bassist most recently heard creating the bottom end for several free-jazz outfits.

Rastegar's aptitude for swinging will serve him well in Iz, since the tunes Serviolo has written for the group are among the most intricate to be heard in Denver in a long, long time. The band's self-titled CD alternates accessible, vocal-driven punk/pop numbers such as "I Am Here" and "Sixes" with instrumentals like "Candy Man," "Running Man" and "Bumpercars," in which the bandmates' technical skills are put to an extremely fierce test. "When we're playing live, I don't really know how people are reacting," Steele concedes. "I'm usually too concerned about whether I can play my parts right. I look at the audience when I'm singing, but when we're doing instrumentals, I spend a lot of time looking at my hands."

The difficult nature of the elements that make up the Iz sound has led some local scenesters to suggest that the band is simply a studio project. These observers point to the fact that Serviolo and his charges released Iz to the marketplace before they'd so much as performed a single gig. In addition, Serviolo and Steele are part of Elan, a fascinating avant-garde configuration that has played live only a handful of times over the course of its lifespan. Serviolo acknowledges the basis for these speculations but feels the conclusions drawn are unfounded.

"I do believe that playing shows too much locally is not really too good a thing," he says, "but I also believe that a CD is a long-lasting thing. In a purely business sense, it's far more important to have something that's really solid, something that someone can take home." He adds that Elan's gigs are few and far between because they are so elaborate: "We do performance stuff, crazy visuals, and have mechanical things that spin around, table bombs that explode out propaganda. That kind of thing."

Moreover, Serviolo notes, he's not what you'd call a sufferer of stage fright. A Denver native, he has played in bands in the area for most of the past thirteen years, beginning with Problem Youth in 1982 and progressing through Acid Ranch and a prominent incarnation of Jux County. Serviolo remains on good terms with Andy Monley, the main man in Jux County; Iz and Jux have appeared on bills together, and Serviolo gives guitar lessons to Monley's wife, Genae. "It's really fun teaching," he says. "It helps me focus back on playing and understanding music better."

Serviolo's rigorousness doesn't bother Steele. According to him, "Mike has a real specific thing in mind. The music's not loose--which is to say that it's not lowest-common-denominator material. But I'd rather have somebody say, `This is what I want,' and have everybody rise to the occasion."

That was certainly the case with the last Iz lineup. During a showcase last month at Seven South, Serviolo, Steele, Romero and Young were able to render their songs with a precision worthy of Robert Fripp while at the same time seeming not the slightest bit stiff or distant. The music may not be a cinch to reproduce, but Iz did so in a manner that accentuated its accessibility. So confident were the four in their individual abilities that they succeeded at sharing their creative joy--and their pride at simply getting from one end of Serviolo's songs to the other.

The new Iz will meet these high standards, Serviolo believes. In the meantime, he's already thinking of new challenges to set before his cohorts. "There's a lot you can do in a standard rock format--bass, drums, guitars, vocals," he says. "You can make it sound like a symphony if you organize it in a certain way. I'm not saying that's what we're going to do, but we could if we wanted.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts