I first met Kathryn Ellinger, who went by Kat, at one of Worm Trouble’s shows at the now-defunct Cafe Cero. I’d first seen her band, an experimental rock and pop trio, at the end of 2000 and was immediately taken with the group’s sound, which defied trends and avoided imitation.
At a later concert, Ellinger walked up to me and said that she’d seen me at some of their shows and declared that I was now a friend. And she meant it. Ellinger was genuine that way. She loved everyone in her circle of friends and family, even when it pained her to do so.
Like many, I saw Ellinger as an older sister. Her warmth, compassion, sense of humor and wisdom endeared her to many people. And when she passed away on June 5, grief rippled through Denver’s music community.
Ellinger and I shared several coincidental bonds. We both started playing bass at age 27. We both spent time in Okinawa as kids because we had military parents stationed there. Her dad was an educator with the Department of Defense on bases; mine was in Special Forces during the Vietnam War.
She was born in Landstuhl, Kaiserslautern, Germany on April 28, 1964, spent her elementary-school years in Korea, went to middle school in Okinawa and finished high school in Hanau, Germany. While down to earth, Ellinger had a worldly sophistication born of those experiences.
In 1983, Ellinger started college at the University of Colorado Boulder; she didn’t get into the music scene until well afterward. Her first time on stage was sometime in the ’90s, at Alibi’s, a long-shuttered Glendale bar, as a member of Requiem for Lassie.
“No one threw tomatoes,” she recalled in a 2015 interview.
But Ellinger was meant for bigger things, and she started her own project, Worm Trouble, in 1996, with then-future husband Michael Trenhaile.
That band dropped a self-titled EP and then its first fully coherent artistic statement, 2000’s The Poison Kitchen, released on Tarmints member Kurt Ottaway’s Denver Coffee Achievers imprint. Around that time, Ellinger brought into the fold members of local bands that had inspired her early on: genius guitarist Doug Seaman from dream-pop group Sympathy F, and talented ex-Twice Wilted drummer Greg Johnson.
Following a 2003 opening gig in Denver and a few on-the-road dates with the Breeders, Worm Trouble split into two projects to represent varying songwriting styles: Trenhaile formed the Absolute Zero and Ellinger started Sleepers.
Sleepers’ 2004 album, Birthday, veered away from the Worm Trouble sound, but by the time 2007’s Home dropped, Ellinger was writing in her own voice. Her marriage to Trenhaile had dissolved by then, and an ongoing custody fight for their son, Max, ensued. That same year, Ellinger was arrested by a cop who mistook her cannabis paraphernalia for a crack pipe. While in jail, she was assaulted and put into solitary confinement, triggering post-traumatic stress disorder.
While working as a bartender at the 15th Street Tavern, Ellinger met Dan Kuhn of sludge-metal band Audio Dream Sister. Kuhn joined her band as a bassist, and the two eventually formed a romantic relationship.
Later, after Ellinger moved to Florida to live with her father and undergo therapy for PTSD, Kuhn stayed in touch, calling her regularly.
Ellinger eventually returned to Denver. She moved in with Kuhn and wrote a new album, 2015’s Drive, which was an open and powerful articulation of her past traumas. It included a song about her abuse at the hands of police, “Four Years, Four Cops,” as well as the title track, which was inspired by her trip from Florida to Colorado. The drive had served as a powerful form of therapy.
Sleepers had a new, all-star lineup that included Tony Morales of Sympathy F on drums, guitarist Eric Davies of experimental rock band Kong Toss, and Kuhn on bass.
Because she got started at 27, Ellinger brought a lifetime of experience to her songwriting. All of her music has aged well (though very little of it is online), and she was the rare person who stayed clued into new music. It helped keep her own music from staying stuck in nostalgic old sounds.
Sleepers played several shows in 2016. But at the end of that year, Ellinger’s mother began battling health issues, and in January 2017 she passed away. That single event impacted Ellinger so severely that she all but disappeared, and on top of taking her medications for anxiety and depression, she began abusing alcohol.
Prior to that, Davies and Ellinger had met regularly for coffee to talk about life and dealing with the down times — each helping the other to get through them. But in 2017 those talks tapered off for a year that Kuhn describes as nothing less than “terrible.”
That fall, Ellinger went to rehab, and when she was released, around Thanksgiving, she reached out to friends to spend time with them in her gentle way.
In February 2018, while on her way to her therapist’s office, Ellinger noticed a sign on a restaurant, Kat’s Cafe, that announced it was looking for help. She walked in and said that her name was Kat and she wanted a job. She was hired as a cook. She enjoyed the work and used cooking as a chance to bring her music scene friends together for meals.
This year, Ellinger was working on new music, and as usual, even the skeletons of her songs were promising. But she also had serious health issues related to her substance abuse following her mother’s death. Her liver was stressed. She had seen a doctor in the spring, spending a short time in the hospital, and was told her ailment could be treated.
On the morning of June 5, Ellinger was not well, and Kuhn called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Doctors told them she would recover. But the following day, her liver quit functioning and then her kidneys failed. Her father was called in from Florida; she died that night.
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Kuhn could only bring himself to notify a few friends in Ellinger’s inner circle. The news was a shock as word spread across the music community, especially because Ellinger had been doing so much better, says Davies, who notes that in recent months she had shown more focus and strength than ever.
Ellinger was cremated. Her family will take some of her ashes, and Kuhn will release the rest at a secluded spot that he and Ellinger liked to visit when they wanted to get away from the city.
“I’m going to set her loose to the winds in the mountains she loves so much, and if anyone wants to visit her, her memorial is the entire Rocky Mountains,” Kuhn says. “If you want to visit her, go stand in the trees and feel the wind in your hair.”
Ellinger is survived by her sons, Max and Ben. Davies is organizing a get-together for friends to celebrate her life on June 30. Interested parties are encouraged to contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.