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Skull Session

The ties that bind can often strangle. Just ask the members of Skull Flux, who during their six years together have experienced as many setbacks as successes. But after nearly dissolving in 1998, the band--vocalist Conrad Kehn, drummer David Hesker, bassist Steve Millin and guitarist Greg Stretton--appears to be back...
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The ties that bind can often strangle. Just ask the members of Skull Flux, who during their six years together have experienced as many setbacks as successes. But after nearly dissolving in 1998, the band--vocalist Conrad Kehn, drummer David Hesker, bassist Steve Millin and guitarist Greg Stretton--appears to be back from the brink. "I think we have some really positive moves going right now," Kehn says. "And for the time being, I think we're all pretty content to sit back and let things happen by themselves."

This almost hippie-happy attitude isn't reflected in the group's all-or-nothing Joy Division-meets-Soundgarden mix of glowering intensity and nailbiting grind. But it illustrates how the players have changed since 1993, when the act was born. According to Kehn, a student at the University of Denver's esteemed Lamont School of Music and the obvious guru of the group, he and original bassist Jesse Woods decided to team up on a new project out of sheer frustration. "I met Jesse in another band we were playing in that sucked, and we left to start our own," he says.

The pair subsequently recruited Stretton, whom Kehn had met at numerous local shows. "Actually, Conrad and Jesse were concerned that I wasn't going to play heavy enough when we first started," Stretton notes. "But we all decided at the beginning that we wanted to do something different yet still maintain that aggressive edge."

Finding a drummer with enough spleen to do the job proved to be a more difficult proposition. As Hesker says, "They ran through a lot of pussies before getting me. But my first encounter with Conrad was one of those cul-de-sacs in time. I met him at Wedgle's pawnshop when I went in there to buy a snare-drum head. I told him I was going to audition for this band in Longmont. He said, 'Why don't you come down and audition for my band?' and I was stoked. I went down and did it, and I figured I'd blown the audition, but they liked me, thank God."

With this lineup in place, Skull Flux began woodshedding and quickly hit upon its aural trademark--a moody, testosterone-driven sound that few area acts can match. "Everything we do, whether we want it to or not, has a fair amount of angst involved," Kehn says. "We weren't planning on being a heavy-metal band, but playing heavy really is kind of fun, and that's how we started out." In a fit of red-blooded honesty, he concedes, "I just wanted beer, pussy and rock and roll."

As soon as Skull Flux entered the Denver club scene, all three of these goals were suddenly within reach. "Our first show was at this place called the Smokehouse, and the show rocked," Kehn says. "We opened for Sympathy F on a Friday night, so we got to skip that working-your-way-up-with-mid-week-slots bullshit."

More choice gigs followed, which was fine by Hesker. "For me, in particular, I feel performing live is where the greatest exchange of energy takes place between you and the audience. When you're in that moment in time and you feel that they're receptive to what you're doing, it makes it worth doing. It's very satisfying to achieve something in the studio, but the live event is much more attractive."

Before long, Skull Flux had sizable followings in Denver and Colorado Springs, and even the 1994 departure of co-founder Woods, whom Millin describes as being "like Sid Vicious--a ball of angst and violence with no direction," didn't slow the momentum. Encouraged, the performers headed into Alley Studio, emerging more than a year later with 1996's Ophelia. Co-produced, engineered and mixed by Eric Ryan, the self-financed platter is an outstanding piece of work highlighted by "Sleep Forever," in which some deceptively simple Classix Nouveaux-esque chord changes build to a tension-filled crescendo, and "Grima Wormtongue," a showcase for Stretton's crushing guitar work and some appropriately disturbing sexual references. Kehn's lyrics go a bit overboard on the gruesome "Worship," but his words elsewhere are first-rate, and his throaty, full-bodied singing brings out the best in material as varied as the whimsical "Bleeding Bride" and the hook-tastic "Nailed to the Floor." Toss in strategically placed samples (manic laughter, random noise, Monty Python outtakes) that would turn many electronic bands green with envy and you're left with an excellent package that speaks to the intelligence of the musicians who made it.

So why didn't the CD become a hit? Budgetary constraints were definitely a factor, Kehn believes. "After we spent all of our money recording Ophelia, the Alley offered to promote us. They wanted 50 percent of the profits from the disc, and it didn't sound like a good deal at the time. But they really did have a decent PR machine for bands like Chaos Theory and Sweet Water Well, and it probably was a mistake to pass on it."

Instead, Skull Flux promoted itself via club dates. But in retrospect, Kehn feels that they oversaturated the marketplace by performing too often. "We'd play every weekend if we could," he says. "And I don't think that was the best idea. We played over 300 shows, and there were times when we were banking it and times when there weren't that many people showing up."

Complicating the situation was the band's stylistic approach, which touches upon metal and goth without conforming to either genre. Like the now-deceased Chaos Theory, a unit that opened for Skull Flux on a number of occasions, the four-piece defied easy categorization, and minus overwhelming media attention, its resistance to pigeonholing became a liability.

"I think we did a few things wrong when we started Skull Flux," Kehn says. "We were playing pretty heavy music, but we didn't want to be called a metal band. But at the same time, all of our fliers were black, we had big heads of hair, and our name just suggests that. Image was a secondary consideration, but we didn't realize how that plays out until we got stigmatized."

"Our unfortunate situation when we started was that we didn't necessarily sound like those metal bands, but, boy, we sure looked like them," Millin acknowledges.

"And we're far too live and loud to fit in with the goth scene," Stretton says. "I mean, we're not one lone soul with a guitar on stage, singing with a depressed voice into a microphone."

Throughout this period, the players never wavered in their commitment to their music. But Kehn admits that dwindling crowds eventually began to take their toll. "We used to really slug it out, playing live all the time, and we were beating our heads against a wall. Spending six years together three times a week got to be too much."

Hesker adds, "We got tired of not getting any recognition or kudos for anything that we did, whether it was from the lackluster local music community or from record companies not willing to take a risk."

Indeed, A&R scouts reacted to Skull Flux in much the same way as local audiences. "We had a guy with a lot of European label connections, and he shopped us at Foundation," Millin says. "His comment to me after making his rounds was, 'Hey, they like the material, but they don't know how to market it.' We don't fall easily into one category, and labels don't know what to do with us, so that was the end of that."

Not quite. In 1997 a ray of hope surfaced after Skull Flux played a warehouse party in tiny Gering, Nebraska, where Kehn was raised. "It was like having one whore in town, and all the underage kids wanted some," Hesker says. "We made more money that night than at any other gig we've done."

Like investment bankers in leather pants, the four used this windfall wisely. "Brian Bean, who worked at Color Red magazine and ran Pulp magazine, dug the band quite a bit and loved our CD," Kehn remembers. "So he sent some discs out for us to reps, made some phone calls, and Bruce Duff, a rep with Triple XXX Records, was the most interested taker. So we took the money we'd made and flew him out to see us at the Ogden one night, when it just so happened to be a really big gig."

Duff was suitably impressed and eventually arranged for Skull Flux to contribute a song, "3-Peat," to Dim View of the Future, a goth-themed collection issued in 1998 by Hollow Hills, a Triple XXX subsidiary. (Filmstrip, a Denver combo led by Brendan Russell, also appears on the CD.) With its melodically catchy guitar work and plodding rhythm section, the Skull Flux tune is every bit as striking as the number it follows: "Forever Came Today," a song cut under the Shadow Project moniker by Christian Death vocalist Rozz Williams shortly before the singer committed suicide. But that doesn't mean the tracks are similar. "When you hear it, it's not goth," Stretton says. "We definitely stand out. That CD is a good example of the problem we have with categorization. That was the best that a label could do with us--place us on a goth compilation."

Nevertheless, the musicians are grateful for the exposure, and for the shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles that Duff set up for them. "We did three in 24 hours, the last two at a club called the Coconut Teaser on the Sunset Strip," Kehn enthuses. "I thought L.A. was kick-ass, even though I didn't see any bands I thought were all that good while we were there." Still, misunderstandings were unavoidable even in the City of Angels. During a visit to a McDonald's, Kehn says, "these kids asked us to sell them some ecstasy or coke because they thought we were drug dealers hanging out in the parking lot. I'm like, 'Dude, we're not even from here.'"

Experiences like these convinced the men of Skull Flux to stick together--and since deciding not to disband, they've been pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowds coming to their shows again. With a stockpile of songs at the ready, they're even planning to make a new CD. "We're definitely going to finish this new record," Kehn says, "but I don't think we're in any hurry."

The slow-but-steady approach suits Millin fine, too. "I don't think any of us want to get to the point where being in the band is a burden, like it was when we were about to break up. It stopped being fun, and we don't want to let that happen again."

That seems unlikely: These days the Fluxers display a natural affinity for each other's company, as well as a relaxed sense of humor. "It's not like we're divorced," Hesker jokes. "We're more like separated, but with supervised visitation rights."

Millin corrects him: "Separated but still sleeping together."
And still hoping for that one big break. "I don't think we would mind being in a position to be shamelessly promoted any time in the future," Stretton says.

Kehn concurs. "All we need is a supermodel to make us look sexy."

Skull Flux, with Rocket Ajax. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 18, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $8, 303-322-2308.

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