"Thanks, man. Thanks!" he says to Ryan Policky, one of Drop the Fear's three multi-instrumentalists. Drummer/keyboardist Gabriel Ratliffe stands by, his breath a fog in the cold morning air. Policky just offered three Camels to Army-jacket guy, who takes them and cups them in his palm like they're rolled-up C-notes.
"You know, I had an inheritance once," Army Jacket insists. "Nine million dollars. But I had a son who died of this rare disease when he was twenty, and the medical bills came to 28 million dollars, so the nine million wasn't enough."
Army Jacket then informs Policky and Ratliffe that he's recently been in contact with both Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, who, clean and sober since faking his death in 1977, has forsaken music to become a Denver firefighter.
"We play music," chips in Ratliffe. "We're waiting for our bandmate to show up right now."
"What's the name of your band?" Army Jacket asks.
"Drop the Fear."
"What kind of music do you play?"
"Uh, this kind of electronic rock. There's electronic stuff, and then we play real instruments."
After a few more minutes of surreal conversation, the group's missing third, Sarah Marcogliese, shows up. They bid Army Jacket good luck, walk into the Satire and grab a booth, completely unfazed by their early-morning brush with insanity. They're used to it. In fact, they seek it out. In September last year, Drop the Fear hopped in a car and drove around the West, stopping odd people at parks and gas stations -- the odder, indeed, the better. Then, with camcorders rolling, they asked their subjects two questions: "What do you fear the most?" and "What does the phrase ŒDrop the fear' mean to you?"
"We met the craziest people, the most interesting people you could possibly meet," Policky says later over a gyros breakfast sandwich imported from Pete's Kitchen next door. "The first guy we asked was like, 'Drop the what? Drop the fuse?' He was so unique. It just spurred the whole journey."
The guy Policky speaks of -- a gray-haired man in a cowboy hat who exhibits a fidgety grin in response to the band's interrogation -- is the star of the opening scene of Drop the Fear's upcoming, self-titled documentary. When the man finally understands the question, he defines fear zealously as "a lack of trust in God."
"We had to drop our own fears," Ratliffe notes, "about going up to people we didn't know and asking them these questions while pointing a camera in their face." Like his compatriots, Ratliffe has been a involved in film for years. Policky even organized "The Red Reel," a highly regarded but now defunct monthly multimedia showcase hosted by Rock Island. For them, the video element of their aesthetic has always been as important as the audio.
"This project was really an interesting experiment on both ends," says Ratliffe. "You could tell the crazy dynamic that came out between us and the people we were talking to. There was this weird energy going on between us. It was undeniable."
Through the whole documentary, a parade of folks both mundane and bizarre offer their takes on what makes them afraid: loneliness, change, failure, money, being ignored in life, being forgotten in death -- and, naturally, fear itself. One spirited middle-aged woman explains at length the workings of what she calls "the paranoia machine," the methods governments employ to keep their populations confused, wound up and easily manipulated.
The creepiest response to Drop the Fear's query, however, comes from a four-year-old boy, who states in a cute, innocent voice, "My dreams have turned into a crocodile." His response and others turn up as eerie samples sprinkled throughout the group's new, eponymous debut full-length, a work conceived as a corollary to the documentary. Its dozen songs are scalpels that slice straight into the listener's gut, laying deftly bare the inner ticking of instinct, impulse and anxiety that motivate human life.
It sounds heavy, and it's meant to. When the trio convened in late 2003, it staggered under the weight of angst and expectation. Marcogliese had played briefly in a pop-rock combo called Look Eye, while Policky and Ratliffe were part of the long-running local act Pure Drama. But it was Policky, one of the founders and core constituents of his previous group, who felt the most pressure to own up to his past. Pure Drama was one of the most ambitious bands in Denver, although its style -- similar to that of a warmed-over, post-goth Eurythmics -- had a hard time finding a wide audience outside the industrial and electronic scenes. Listen closely to the elegant, Brit-pop-inspired songcraft of Pure Drama's later output, though, and you can hear the sound of Policky straining to pull his music forward -- and ramming headlong into a brick wall.
"I just wanted more freedom with the style of music I was playing," Policky asserts. "It seemed like Pure Drama was just heading in this certain direction, whether Gabe and I wanted to go there or not. We were working our asses off and playing a lot of cool shows, but things were still taking a turn for the worse. We did one of those Film on the Rocks things at Red Rocks. It was huge, but there was this bad energy going on inside the band. Things just disintegrated a couple weeks after that."
"Ryan was trying to get the band to go a certain way, but he couldn't," Ratliffe adds. "There were a lot of people who wanted us to keep doing the stuff we were doing. But we both were kind of wanting something more."
But the duo's wild leap into Drop the Fear didn't happen until Policky, a mere week after Pure Drama's official terminus, got an unsolicited e-mail from Marcogliese -- whose own band had just broken up under similar, if more modest, circumstances.
"Look Eye was the first band I ever started myself," Marcogliese explains. "And I wanted it to be really community-based. But they kept pushing me into the front. Then when I would try to throw something strange into the songs, they'd get mad. Our name came about in a weird way: Nobody would ever make eye contact at practice, so I would start yelling, ŒLook eye! Always look eye!'
"I'd never heard Pure Drama before," she continues, "but finally I was like, ŒFuck it. I'm going to e-mail every electronic band in Denver.' I wanted to put my soul on the line every once in a while, try something that was different, a little more uncomfortable. I like coming up with music that doesn't necessarily work right away, that takes a bit more time to form. Then it really becomes yours. You end up shoving it in people's faces and saying, ŒLook at my beautiful baby.'"
Marcogliese, at last, has cause to be a proud parent. Drop the Fear (which includes revamps of all three songs from the band's limited-edition EP, Listen) is easily one of the most looming, alluring and searingly honest works of music ever produced in Denver. With all three members juggling synthesizers, beats, bass lines and guitar, the album's coherence is as impressive as its emotional rawness. Marcogliese's vocals -- an engulfing croon that crosses Beth Gibbons's slithery rasp with Beth Orton's folky warmth -- leave a trail of bruised hearts, blurry memories and hesitant hope throughout each song. The music is a swelling, amorphous plasm of anguished melody. Like Bjrk making snow angels with Sigur Ros or M83's brain transplanted into the body of Massive Attack, Drop the Fear sculpts circuits and atmosphere into a sound that's as soaring in scope as it is claustrophobic in tone.
Drop the Fear's closer, "Sloan," is the summary of everything that builds over the course of the previous eleven tracks. Slashed by a guitar riff that's metallic and delicate all at once, it's the record's most driving and upbeat track; as the voices of Policky and Marcogliese burst and recede like retinal after-images, a surge of open, unabashed elation splashes out of the song in open defiance of all the world's forces of bitterness, apprehension and regret.
"The last song on the album is the latest one we've written, and that's on purpose," Ratliffe explains. "It's pointing the way to where we're going. It's our leap-off point."
True to its name, Drop the Fear plans to continue trading complacency for exploration. "I think people now are starting to get a sense of the journey we really want to take them on and the journey we've been on," Ratliffe offers. "On our road trip, it was so interesting that a lot of people responded to our questions the same way. People as a whole have the same sort of emotion when reacting to something like that. It's weird. Everyone's connected, and they don't even realize it."
"Like the guy out front earlier," Policky says, remembering Army Jacket and his ever-so-slightly unorthodox worldview. "That was exactly the type of person we love talking to.
"Too bad," he adds ruefully, "we didn't have a camera."