Denver musician Rett Rogers was almost a part of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ breakout success.
In 2013, Rateliff had tapped Rogers to play bass with the group, along with his friend and bandmate Mark Shusterman to play keys. At the time, the two musicians were members of soul-infused psych-rock band the Blue Rider, and most of their energy was focused on that project. But the Night Sweats caught fire quickly, and the pair relished the opportunity to tour the world, so they joined Rateliff and company, all but halting their efforts back home.
Shortly before the Night Sweats played The Tonight Show in 2015 and went on to garner worldwide acclaim, however, Rateliff and the band brought on highly versatile guitarist Luke Mossman on lead guitar and moved then-guitar player Joseph Pope III to bass, replacing Rogers. Shusterman continued to tour internationally with the Night Sweats, and while the Blue Rider hasn’t officially called it quits, his demanding schedule has meant limited opportunities for the band to play together.
Rogers, who still does some traveling with the Night Sweats and produces music videos for them, has no hard feelings about the shakeup. While he’s missed out on playing some big shows with Rateliff, he’s happy things turned out the way they did. It’s given him the chance to build his own career with his current band, Bad Licks, which formed in 2016; for him, it’s a win-win.
“I still get to put out records with my own band, and I still get to hang out with [the Night Sweats] and go on the road with them, shooting photos and video,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade what I have right now for anything.”
Bad Licks, a ’70s-style garage-rock explosion that pays homage to bands like the Kinks as well as the modern-day Black Lips, will release its newest EP, Lies, on March 16 at the hi-dive. Along with Rogers, the group comprises former Blue Rider guitarist Alex Eschen, bassist Dan Volmer, drummer Mark Anderson of Paper Bird and the Eye and the Arrow, and notable solo artist/guitarist/keyboardist Kyle Emerson.
Growing up in the Bay Area, Rogers, now 32, had an early affinity for his local scene and bands on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label.
“It was like a big thing for me growing up, because they were based in San Francisco,” he says. “I was super into Dead Kennedys and even a lot of the weird metal stuff [Alternative Tentacles] put out, like Brujeria. Whenever I found an AT record, I would normally pick it up.”
Although music was a big part of his upbringing, Rogers admittedly didn’t play much of it growing up, focusing instead on filmmaking, which ultimately led him to Colorado.
“I got into the University of Colorado’s avant-garde film program, which, out of high school, sounded super-sexy,” he says. He dabbled in music there, but decided he “really didn’t like Boulder at all,” so after completing his degree in 2008, he moved to Denver to focus on music.
At first his options for both film and music were limited, so he made money as a contractor, spending his days building houses until meeting his future Blue Rider bandmates — Eschen, Shusterman and drummer Scott Beck — through shared friends in late 2009.
The bandmates found musical commonality, despite their varying tastes. “[Shusterman] is a classically trained pianist but was more into, like, ’80s krautrock and weirdo electronic stuff, and Alex was into AC/DC and classic rock and had a big blues influence,” Rogers says. “It was definitely a melding of four different people’s influences.”
The Blue Rider started out as “essentially a cover band,” doing garage-rock tributes before crafting original music. At the time, Denver was teeming with feel-good party-rock bands like Dirty Few, Ned Garthe Explosion and Colfax Speed Queen that were equally adept at shredding solos and spraying beer. And while the Blue Rider fit nicely into that scene, its throwback garage-rock sound set it apart.
The band put on a dynamic live show that combined fun and musical prowess, and its on-stage chemistry was organic and natural. In 2013, Rateliff stumbled upon a Blue Rider performance and saw in Shusterman and Rogers the casual energy the Night Sweats needed. The rest, as noted above, is history.
As the Blue Rider’s activity slowed and the Night Sweats’ popularity swelled, Rogers slowly planned his next musical move — a project that would allow him to showcase more of his personality and style.
“I’d never been in a band where I was the only singer. In the Blue Rider, we all sang,” he says. “I wanted to start a band where I played guitar and wrote skeletons of songs and worked with good musicians to help structure them. The Blue Rider way worked really well; I just wanted to try it a new way. I had some songs that were a little too straight-ahead rock and roll for the Blue Rider, and I wanted to explore them.”
Rogers, who’d always admired Eschen’s playing, tapped him for his new project and began looking for a rhythm section. He loved Denver fuzz-rock duo Rootbeer and Mermentau, which comprised drummer Aaron Collins and singer/guitarist Nicolas “Rootbeer” Richardson, two Louisiana-bred Denver transplants who ran in similar circles. Rogers had always been impressed by them and thought they would complement his and Eschen’s efforts.
“I had this crazy supergroup idea that those guys would join Alex and I,” Rogers says. “When I first saw them play, I thought they were one of the coolest new bands I’d seen, and when I asked them, they were super-stoked to play with us.”
Alas, the bonding was short-lived, as Collins and Richardson soon moved back to Louisiana. But while Rogers was sad to see them go, he was not about to let their departure dampen his enthusiasm for his new-formed group, Bad Licks. He persevered, recruiting Emerson, Anderson and Volmer.
Once again, Rogers found himself surrounded by musicians from very different musical backgrounds who found common ground playing together. But this time, he had a clear sense of where the band was going.
In 2016, the act released its first EP, Set Them on Fire, with the title track addressing the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. Rogers had stayed away from political commentary with the Blue Rider, but Bad Licks allowed him to express personal and political frustration with a newfound ferocity. “I think there’s some inherent anger in it,” he says of Bad Licks’ music. “Not everything will be that blatantly political, but I just think that the chaos of living in America right now will be part of our aesthetic.”
Calling on his film background, Rogers thinks about all aspects of his project, from the music down to the visuals and the overall aesthetic. The cover of the act’s newest EP, a skull on a bright-pink background, is a nod to ’80s punk bands like the Cramps and helps augment Rogers’s vision and the Bad Licks’ gritty tone.
While past projects may have led him here, it’s Rogers’s love of the music he’s playing now that keeps him laser-focused.
“The point is to still have fun,” he says. “And it’d be tough to pull off a Bad Licks show if we weren’t having fun. But I also want to take this band seriously. And my biggest goal is for people to hear this music outside of Denver. I just want to always write music I care about.”
Friday, March 16, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $10, 303-733-0230.
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.