"We call it the Blair Witch basement," says Joe Nepomuceno, the group's bassist, as he replaces a burned-out, blood-colored lightbulb. At that moment, lead singer Justin Hackl steps up to the mike and starts screeching Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" -- only changing it to "Welcome to the Dungeon." As drummer Reed White and guitarist Casey Yunko administer earplugs and shots of Crown Royal to themselves, Ryan Welter straps on his ax and offers a caveat: "We haven't practiced in a month. My pick slides are rusty."
Rust is the last thing Cost of Living needs to worry about. Formed two years ago from the remnants of some of Colorado's most lauded punk acts -- Shogun, the Departure and the near-legendary Qualm -- the quintet is a blur of energy and emotion. Taking cues from Refused and At the Drive-In as well as local heroes Love Me Destroyer and Planes Mistaken for Stars, its music nonetheless transcends pigeonhole and pretense. The songs are raw-knuckled, bare-assed joyrides through Hackl's seething psyche, simultaneously downcast and triumphant, melodic and murderous. As if to prove the point, the group rips out the opening chords to "Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead," the title track of its debut EP, and the subterranean lair quakes like a skull being shattered by hammers.
Of course, it isn't all ire and intensity. Cost of Living is still fluent in the irreverent, goof-punk patois of Qualm, the band Hackl and Welter formed at the age of fourteen with bassist Rob Bellamy and drummer Danny McCarthy. At the time, they were snotty upstarts, sneering at pop culture while spitting up a fractured amalgam of NOFX and Face to Face. As Hackl remembers, "We made our first tape as a joke, really. Like, 'Hey, look, here are some songs about Sesame Street and Jake Jabs.' People thought it was funny, maybe because of how young we were. We were a bunch of stoner, idiot skater kids who spent too much time playing music and who happened to meet the right people at the right time."
Those people were the members of Pinhead Circus, a lightning rod for Denver punk in the '90s. After falling in with the Pinhead scene, which included bands like Four and the Gamits and revolved around the Raven (now the Climax Lounge), Qualm found itself -- despite its misanthropic efforts -- becoming hugely popular.
"Things just happened to catch on," Hackl notes. "We had no idea what we were getting into when we started. I didn't know we would end up putting out records or going on tour. I didn't even know what Œtour' was. But we slowly started taking ourselves more seriously."
Over the next eight years, Qualm would become infamous for its urgent, infectious anthems and go-for-the-throat live shows. Off stage, the outfit was just as rowdy. Armed with a cheap video camera bought with Christmas money and inspired by the brutally hilarious CKY skate videos that had just come out, Hackl and Welter began chronicling their drunken stunts and those of their friends. In 2002, they released Our Colorado, a collection of Denver punk videos interspersed with footage of their debauched, raunchy pranks. And, much like the notorious Jackass, the video had a darker side to its piss-and-shit hijinks.
"We were a bunch of drunken assholes, and we were proud of it," Hackl recalls with a note of regret. "I blame the camera, honestly. As soon as that camera was out, people would start running around and smashing shit with their heads. It was so fucking ridiculous. Then I got the equipment to edit the video, and I sat in front of that machine every day for two weeks. I gained, like, fifteen pounds. All I would do is smoke weed, eat food and edit that video."
"We lost a couple years of our life making that thing," Welter reflects.
"I was just going through a lot of shit during that period," Hackl continues. "I don't even remember much of it. I had lost my girlfriend, lost my job, lost a place to live. That's about same time that me and Danny stopped getting along so well."
Troubles between Hackl and McCarthy aggravated a few intra-band tensions, but even after the drummer left to start the now-defunct Murder Scene Clean Up Team, Qualm held on. Although Hackl had been serving as an auxiliary guitarist in Pinhead Circus, Qualm released its third and most mature disc, A Long Story Short, and recruited White of the Departure to replace McCarthy. Bellamy was the next to go, a casualty of, according to Hackl, "a falling out between the two of us that involved way too much alcohol and way too many drugs."
With half its founding roster gone, Qualm called it quits in 2002. The group, created nearly a decade earlier as an ambitionless vehicle for middle-school racket-making, played its emotional farewell show in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Bluebird Theater. "It was about time for it to fall apart," says Welter philosophically. "What we were doing at the end there was just rearranging the patio furniture on the Titanic."
Hackl, Welter and White quickly decided to regroup, but the idea of using the Qualm handle was instantly squelched. "If we were going to start over again," Hackl says, "we wanted to make sure it was in a different direction. We didn't want to have that label on us."
Welter agrees: "Qualm had its own personality, its own energy. It was me, Justin, Dan and Rob. Once we lost Dan, it was hard to keep it as Qualm. Then when we lost Rob, we knew we had to start at square one."
With just the bass slot empty, Hackl recruited Nepomuceno, who had previously played in the metal-oriented troupes Shogun and Angels Never Answer. The four began working on songs that would fit the framework of what each of them had done in previous bands but that would also spin a new synergy. Hackl soon realized, however, that he needed to make a cleaner break with his past, so the singer/guitarist handed his six-string over to Yunko, formerly of the short-lived Stab Stab Stab, and decided to become a true lead vocalist.
"Everyone was against it," Hackl admits with a laugh. "But one of my biggest problems with Qualm was that, since I was playing the guitar and singing, I couldn't focus on the vocals enough. Plus, I wanted to be able to add that energy to the live show. When you're playing guitar, you're kind of stuck in front of the microphone. Now I can be a little more interactive with the crowd.
"One of my favorite things," he adds, "is seeing a band that's really willing to involve the crowds and not make this big barrier between the band and the audience. I hate that. We almost got banned from the Bluebird for throwing pitchers of water off the stage. I almost hit Reed's grandmother."
"Another difference between this band and Qualm is that we have a lot more injuries on stage," Welter points out. "Falling down and bloody noses and breaking shit."
"I threw out my knee at the Ogden once," Hackl pitches in, "and Ryan smacked Joe in the face with his guitar. That ability to be able to fuck with people and still make it a good time is exactly what I want to have."
Now, at the ripe ages of 24 and 25, Hackl and Welter find themselves wizened veterans of the Denver punk scene. Noticeably, Hackl has packed on a few more pounds, tattoos and scars since his teenage years. Hurdle the Dead, though, carries a seed of hope and renewal within its jagged blasts of pop-punk, metal and hardcore. And as he sees it, the trials he's gone through over the last decade of playing music are all part of the Cost of Living.
"The band name started with a thirty-pack of beer and some sheets of paper stapled on my wall," the singer recounts. "To me, it means sacrificing one thing you want to do so you can do something else. It didn't originally have any meaning, but the more we thought about it, the more it fit us. Crappy situations would come up, and we'd be like, 'Man, this sucks. I guess it's just the cost of living.'"
"I think our song 'Reward' says it all," Welter elaborates. "It basically says that being in a band is not about the money or the fame. It's about playing with your boys and rocking out."
"Those lyrics really hit home with all of us," Hackl says. "This is exactly what we do, whether we're playing on a huge stage or just in this shitty little practice space. This is all we get from it. This is all we need."