Donovan Welsh and Bryan Knoebel came together over a blow job.
"True story," says Welsh, Dork's bassist. "In 2001, I used to live at this house that was just crazy, and Bryan ended up at a party there. I had just bought a guitar that day, and he was playing it. He was screwing around and played that blink-182 song, 'Blow Job,' and I was actually upstairs receiving one at the time. It looked like it was planned. It was totally embarrassing. It was loud as shit, too. The house wasn't that big. So Bryan left his number on the fridge with a note that said, 'We should jam sometime.'"
They did, and soon founded D.O.R.K. -- despite the fact that Welsh didn't even play an instrument, and Knoebel was busy pursuing a finance degree at the University of Colorado. "He took it a lot more seriously right away than I did," Knoebel recalls. "And it just took off before I knew it."
Dork CD-release show, with Swak 13, Epilogue, the Contender Series and more, 6 p.m. Friday, June 2, Rock Island, 1614 15th Street, $8, all ages, 303-572-9625.
Within six months, the two had entered the studio with Welsh's fifteen-year-old neighbor on drums, and emerged with Rock Out With Your Cock Out, a rudimentary twelve-song demo that exposed the players' definite lack of proficiency. With that disc barely out of the box, they added Schuyler Ankele on guitar, Dylan Martinez on vocals and Wade Brewer on drums and began performing live. By late summer 2002, the band had played dozens of shows -- but its members still weren't much in the way of musicians. Particularly the timekeeper.
"The truth of the matter is, he was awful," Welsh says. "There's no other way to say it. Our first fifty shows were absolutely horrendous. It was fifty to the show, August 30, 2002, and I remember thinking while we were on stage, 'This is the worst shit ever.' He was way too into the rock-and-roll thing, and not into practicing and learning how to play. Even though I hadn't been playing long, I practiced my ass off to make sure I didn't suck -- and I didn't want anyone telling me that I sucked."
But what Welsh and his bandmates lacked in skill, they made up for in sheer audacity. After reading Donald Passman's All You Need to Know About the Music Business, Welsh, the son of New Jersey entrepreneurs, contacted the author, who directed him to Dina LaPolt, a high-powered, New York-bred, L.A.-based attorney. LaPolt agreed to represent the young band, but only after D.O.R.K. proved its mettle -- first by retooling Rock Out (dropping two songs, recording two new ones and reissuing it as One Up), and then by going on tour. The members bought a van, and Welsh picked up copies of Book Your Own Fucking Life and The Musician's Atlas and booked their first cross-country jaunt, which lasted two months. When they reached L.A., they met with LaPolt, who didn't pull any punches.
"She saw us while we were on tour with that shitty drummer," Welsh recalls. "After the show, she says, 'Walk me to my car.' Outside, she says, 'I like the band. Fire the drummer. Has he ever had a drum lesson?'"
Six weeks later, Brewer was replaced by Sergio Aguirre. In March 2003, Aguirre decided the pace was too frenzied and also left. Jimmy Blair took his spot.
As dreadful as those early shows were, they helped build the group's character -- and fan base. The bandmembers recognized that they wouldn't make it just on bar gigs, so they started playing with high school bands, which brought out the crowds. At the same time, Welsh started exploring innovative marketing techniques. At one of its warehouse shows, for example, the act gave away a pair of blink-182 tickets. Before long, D.O.R.K. was drawing very well.
In June 2003, the act was in Los Angeles recording Furious George when Welsh's father and Knoebel's grandmother passed away within days of each other. It was an awful time, Welsh remembers, made worse by a producer who wasn't up to par. "We had to leave, come back, leave, come back, which was costing us money," he says. "There was this tension and not being happy with the record but trying to let someone else lead because he has so much more experience, which he did. In actual recording time, we were only there for eight days. But he didn't budget the time correctly, and it started to feel like he was milking us for the money. So I ended up organizing the studio sessions after that, like, 'We have this much time and this much money, and this is what we're going to do.'"
A month after those sessions, made closer by adversity and still fueled by audacity, the members of D.O.R.K. drove nine hours to Las Cruces, New Mexico, with one goal in mind: to meet Kevin Lyman, founder of the Vans Warped Tour, and plead with him for a chance to perform. Although they didn't even know what Lyman looked like, Blair bumped into him by chance. For whatever reason, Lyman heard the boys out and ended up offering them a slot that day.
Back home, the band continued to attract fans -- despite the fact that Furious George had yet to be completed. Because of the producer's ineptitude, the album wasn't mixed and mastered until the following spring, right around the time that D.O.R.K. was putting pressure on Martinez. Recounts Welsh: "We had this meeting where we were like, 'Listen, shape up or ship out. This is too important to all of us, and we want your vocals to improve.' He's like, 'All right.' The next day, we had another meeting to talk about it, and he's like, 'I'm out. I'm done.' We were shocked. We had to go into crisis mode, because we were releasing Furious George, with him on it, on April 17, which turned out to be the last show with him."
Making matters worse, they'd just found out that D.O.R.K. was invited to play the entirety of that summer's Warped Tour. Welsh had run into Lyman at South by Southwest, and told him that his band was ready to do whatever it took. "He was like, 'and...so is every other band. What are you willing to do?'" Welsh remembers. "I said, 'We'll work. We'll cook food, we'll do whatever.' He said, 'Well, I could use some help on the crew. So let's see if you guys can hang. All right, I'll see you in Houston.'"
Before heading to Texas, D.O.R.K. regrouped. Knoebel and Ankele took over vocal duties, and the bandmembers wrote and recorded enough material for a new five-song EP, Dork Side of the Moon, which was completed by the time they joined Lyman's traveling punk-rock circus. Their first day in Houston, they worked fourteen hours straight -- and then they drove to the next stop and did it again. Lyman's crew was so impressed that they gave the band credentials and allowed D.O.R.K. to tag along for the remaining dates. The tour was grueling: They'd drive all night to get to the next stop by 6 a.m., then work all day setting up and tearing down stages, performing and manning their merchandise booth in between. Although Lyman had invited other acts to join on the tour in the past, they invariably dropped off after a few dates. But D.O.R.K. remained steadfast and completed the entire tour.
"We talk about that to this day," says Knoebel. "And we still have no idea how we did it."
Last summer, D.O.R.K. was invited back. Once again, the outfit finished another record, The K.R.O.D.father, in time for the tour, which proved to be just as punishing and fulfilling as the previous one. By now, the band had earned the respect of both the crew and fellow artists. Fat Mike from NOFX, who's notoriously cantankerous, and the Offspring's Dexter Holland both made it a point to catch D.O.R.K.'s set, then invited the musicians into the "cool camp," a special enclave where the rank and file aren't welcome. Fat Mike even name-dropped the band while on stage at a New Jersey stop.
Today, with more than 400 shows under its belt, the band is going strong. Along the way, it's suffered losses (Aguirre took his own life in 2004) and dropped the periods from its moniker (which were only there to make the name stand out). Dork's now about to issue its latest disc, Suck It, in advance of a third consecutive run on the Warped Tour. Recorded and produced by the act's newest member, guitarist Brian Johannsen, who joined the fold a few months ago, the seventeen-track album reveals a decidedly more mature band that's as road-tested as it is kid-approved. There's no shortage of pithy, pop-punk anthems, such as "Song Writing for Dummies" and "Goin' to Hell," which owe a sizable debt to neo-punks like New Found Glory. But there are also unexpected bright spots, including "Fuck If I Know," a Bad Religion-tinged cut that features a cameo by Stephan Egerton of the Descendents, and "Chasing Lies," which recalls early Get Up Kids.
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The group's musicianship finally matches its moxie. And now that these dorks have gone from geek to chic, has the band outgrown its name, as well?
"I'm not going to lie," says Knoebel. "At first I didn't like the name, and I was embarrassed to tell people the name. But we've had to eat so much shit as the band Dork that now I wear with it with pride."
"I feel like all the facets are working," Welsh concludes. "We're a good live band. We've got good songs. We work hard. We've toured and we've done things that other people haven't done. This is us. If you don't like it, you can fuck off, I guess."
Or suck it.