Shon and Cherie Cobbs, the husband-wife duo behind the dream-pop trip-hop band Plume Varia, grew up with military parents, married early and didn’t start playing music together until their thirties.
The couple, who will celebrate their new album on Friday, July 7, at Syntax Physic Opera, met as kids in the early ’90s at the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan. They forged a strong bond, and when Cherie moved away in 1994 to be with her mom in the suburbs of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Shon conspired to be as close to her possible.
His own father was retiring from the military and looking to work in a hospital. Shon found one three and a half hours from Minneapolis, in rustic Cresco, Iowa. His father took the job, and they moved. The couple spent as much time together as possible.
“Shon was really deep, a little bit mysterious,” recalls Cherie. “He’s always been mature for his age. He came to school in black lipstick, skirts, the whole nine yards. He also had an anarchy headband.”
His all-black goth outfits and chains weren’t popular in the small Midwestern town, where he faced relentless bullying.
“Shon had bottles chucked at him from a truck,” says Cherie. But the teenager endured the abuse, finished high school a semester early, and moved to the Twin Cities in the middle of a harsh Minnesota winter to be with the woman he loved. Within a year and a half, they were married with twin sons.
The Cobbses struggled with poverty and found joy in music, singing along with tunes blaring from their car stereo. Shon even started playing bass for Minnesota songwriter Victor Johnson.
Despite being cash-strapped, the couple purchased a karaoke machine in the late ’90s. The creative bug had bitten them, and by the mid-’00s, their music career had begun.
In 2005, Cherie got an acoustic guitar, and the couple formed their first band, Days of Rae. In 2008, Minnesota Public Radio had a contest called Songs From Scratch, in which it tasked songwriters with creating music to lyrics provided by the station.
Shon and Cherie took the challenge, recruited drummer Clint Trotter, and the three recorded “The Gilded Road,” which played on local radio.
The band added multi-instrumentalist Ian Carleton and was set to drop a debut album in February 2011. The November before the release, Shon’s boss told him he could either relocate to Denver or take a severance package. He had one day to think about it. Driving home, he called Cherie, who had just discovered her entire team at work was being laid off.
They decided to move. Days of Rae threw a farewell/album-release show.
Shon moved to Denver, and Cherie waited out the school year with the twins.
When Shon arrived in the Mile High City, he started digging into the local music scene. He soon discovered Twist & Shout and Wax Trax records and attended the Westword Music Showcase.
At the end of June 2011, Cherie and their kids moved to Denver. They started practicing as Days of Rae, this time as an acoustic duo, but neither liked the new direction. In 2012, they released the album The Social Singles, which took their act in a new direction. Shon began to use a music-production controller, an electronic instrument that would become the foundation of their future songwriting.
By January 2013, the duo had scrapped Days of Rae for a new project, Plume Varia, which incorporated the dark moods that Shon favored during his goth youth and the lush beats that drew Cherie to hip-hop.
Plume Varia started playing soulful dream pop, performed its first show at the Larimer Lounge in June 2013, and soon became a staple of Denver’s underground scene.
In August 2015, Shon, who had launched a comedy, art and music podcast, CoScene, interviewed David J. Haskins, the bassist for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. Haskins was in town to play a DJ set at Lipgloss and a few private gigs. Shon, whose favorite band was Bauhaus, drove Haskins to the airport and mentioned Plume Varia, offering to send him some music and suggesting they collaborate.
A week later Haskins responded, saying he wanted to work with Plume Varia if Shon and Cherie would agree to record in a professional studio.
Shon reached out to Tony Rancich at Sonic Ranch — a recording studio near El Paso, Texas, on the border of Mexico — who quoted him a reasonable price. Cherie and Shon visited the studio over Labor Day weekend 2015. Across the border from Sonic Ranch is Juárez Valley, dubbed “Murder Valley” after the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels battled there for control of drug distribution and human trafficking in the region. On a day trip to a pecan ranch, the couple saw fires in the distance and were told they were happening in “cartel towns,” where the drug war was in full effect.
The contrast between the culture of violence and the upscale recording studio where the couple was working with a musician from Shon’s favorite band was not lost on Cherie. She named their album Fact | Fiction.
“The album is about coming to terms with being really privileged on this side of the fence in this beautiful, artistic space where you can explore creativity, versus the other side of the fence, where you’re dealing with life-and-death situations that most of us Americans can’t even imagine,” Cherie says.
Plume Varia recorded for nearly two weeks in 2016. Haskins produced and performed on the album. Each morning, Sonic Ranch hosts a communal breakfast for artists, which is where the Cobbses met and talked with Rhett Miller of the alt-country act the Old 97's; Josh Freese, who was recording with Sublime With Rome; and Diego López de Arcaute, who drums for Juana Molina. Freese ended up playing drums on Plume Varia’s song “Nightfall,” and López de Arcaute performed on “I’m Lost.”
Months passed as Plume Varia struggled to release the record on vinyl; now it will be issued on wax through Erototox Decodings. It’s already available on the duo’s Bandcamp page, and CDs will be available at the July 7 show at Syntax Physic Opera, where Haskins will join the Cobbses.
Now in their forties, Shon and Cherie have realistic expectations for their record. “We looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an anniversary gift to ourselves,” says Shon. “If we never make a full album again, we have this one, and the circumstances behind it are special.”
Plume Varia, 8 p.m. Friday, July 7, Syntax Physic Opera, $10, 720-456-7041.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.