Music News

Swankly Speaking

Two front teeth. That's what Shanda Kolberg, lead singer/guitarist for local punkers the Swanks, feared she would lose when her band played its first gig in the summer of 1999.

She had good cause for concern. For one thing, her fellow Swanks had a serious predilection for losing their own front teeth and having them replaced with synthetic surrogates: Bassist Shay Moss lost his to an errant ground ball on a schoolyard baseball diamond; and lead guitarist Rex Burdick once looked up during a rock-climbing outing only to see a chunk of rock on a collision course with his choppers.

So when an overzealous fan approached the stage at the Cricket on the Hill and began chest-butting Kolberg's microphone, putting her upper incisors at risk, she decided to thwart the course of destiny. She planted a boot-clad foot in the middle of the aggressor's chest, knocking him into a nearby table and toppling pitchers of beer.

"Fuck that guy," says Kolberg, without a hint of remorse in her voice. "Like I didn't need that tooth."

That scene pretty well sums up what to expect at a Swanks show. You might not get a boot in the chest -- unless you really ask for it -- but you'll definitely be assaulted by an earful of lean, mean and to-the-point punk songs. Ornery, raw and aggressive, the band is fueled by Marshall stacks, rapid-fire guitars and heated vocals. The outcome is a controlled burn that's tighter and more melodic than the usual punk wreck, but suitably volatile and intimidating.

"It's in-your-face rock," says Moss. "The type of music that we play -- and there are other bands in Denver that are playing this kind of music, and national bands that are touring on a semi-independent circuit playing this kind of music -- it's not chug rock, it's not samples, it's not Creed. It's fucking rock and roll." (Chug rock? Moss explains his term by imitating an accelerating choo-choo train, adding, "Kid Rock's for kids. Punk rock's for real men.")

For Kolberg, dishing out down-and-dirty music is something of a cathartic necessity. "I've gotta to do it; I can't help it," she says. "If I keep that shit inside, I will explode and probably become a mass murderer or something."

Volume is a key concern for all of the Swanks, but it's of prime importance for Burdick, a veteran of -- of all things -- Hawaii's heavy-metal cover-band scene of the early '90s. "I just love loud rock and roll...skulls and flames," says Burdick. "My volume knob broke off at eleven."

"We'll all stand around and act stoic when the sound man tells us to turn it down," says Moss. "We'll act like we don't know what the fuck they're talking about."

There really hasn't ever been anything quiet about the Swanks since they formed on Easter Sunday nearly four years ago. The band's ramp-up was fast and furious, thanks in part to a backlog of songs penned by Kolberg during a five-year hiatus from band life. (In her home state of Iowa, she played in a punk band called Period. "We broke up, and then two weeks later, Fugazi calls us up and says, 'Do you want to go on a U.S. tour with us?'" Kolberg recalls. The response: "'Yeah, we would, but we hate each other.'")

A onetime member of the Ted Bundy Band, Moss also had a few originals he was itching to perform. With a full set of material already in hand, Kolberg and Moss recruited Burdick and original Swanks drummer Steve Schwind from another local punk act called Intelligence Is Dead. Phil Atencio stepped into the drummer position after Schwind quit in 2001. (At the moment, Atencio is doing a year's worth of contract graphic-design work in Vegas; his temporary replacement is Doug Hopper of St. James Gate.) The bandmates all shared a vision of an unkempt throwback to the glory days of hard rock, the '70s.

Within six months of their first practice in a dingy downtown closet -- literally -- the band was in the studio, putting the finishing touches on a self-titled debut record. Self-released in 2000, the CD features fourteen tracks that nicely capture the band's live energy, with minimal production gloss. Under the original plan, a follow-up disc would have already seen release and the band would have a tour under its collective leather belt. But that plan was derailed in a major way, due in part to drummer Schwind's departure and the purchase of a citrus-sour van that the players pooled their money to buy in 2001.

"We spent $3,000 on a van that wasn't worth a dollar," says Moss. If the van's engine hadn't imploded, he adds, "We probably wouldn't even be in Denver tonight to do this interview."

"We had people betting us money that we'd be the next band out of Denver to be signed," says Moss. "It didn't turn out that way."

"The state of the Swanks is one step forward, 32 back," adds Kolberg. "We're going nowhere fast."

In addition to automotive troubles, Kolberg says the band had a hard time finding a producer who understood its uncooked aesthetic, which further delayed the completion of its second album.

"We've been to three studios for the new album," says Burdick. "We've spent a fortune."

"Recording hell," sighs Kolberg. "The list goes on and on."

Fortunately, there are a few bright marks on the list. The Swanks have a couple of tracks on the recently released Punk Rock UnDead in Denver, Vol. 1. Burdick has scored a newer (and presumably better) Swanks van, which the group plans to break in for an Easter gig in Vegas. Best of all, the second album is finally ready for release. Dubbed Keep America Rollin' -- a reference to the rolling done with papers, not wheels -- the Swanks' second recording picks up where the first left off, with Kolberg ranting about failed love, booze and all-out nihilism atop a firebrand of rumbling rhythms and razor-sharp riffs. Many of the band's acidic tunes are inspired by romances gone wrong.

"I was in a five-year relationship that made me put my bass guitar down," Moss says. "The girl I divorced, I caught her in bed with a seventeen-year-old kid with a Mohawk. I'm like, 'You're not a punk. Go to hell.' It was time to pick up my guitar again."

"The true reason I moved to Denver was because I was in a horrible relationship," Kolberg adds. "So I wrote a song called '800 Miles,' about having to get away from someone and uprooting your whole life." That song, which appears on The Swanks, is a two-minute rumination on the ravages of love gone completely awry: "How can you think you know me when I don't even know myself?" Kolberg wails. "You wanted everything, you took everything/You broke everything!"

One Rollin' highlight, "Crash Landing Tonight," is a juggernaut of a punk anthem, an unyielding attack of thorny guitars and a bulldozer of a bass line. The simple, dark lyrics -- "You say you want to walk with evil by your side/You say you want to embrace the darkness, but there's nowhere to hide/Crash landing tonight!" -- underscore its fury. The skull- and flame-loving Burdick contributes a few Harley-Davidson-themed numbers, including "Iron Horse to Freedom," a rambunctious ode to a prison escape on the seat of a chopper. "There's just something about jumping on a bike and taking off," he explains. (Burdick's no wannabe: He rides his well-worn Harley Softail to Sturgis every August.)

The Swanks probably won't be taking off from Denver anytime soon. Kolberg confesses an affinity for the local music scene, and if you've got the time, Moss will rant your ear off about the past and present state of Denver's underground.

"There've been a lot of cool peaks in Denver," he says. "Denver's had a great scene off and on for a lot of years, until all the big-hair bands in Glendale; their scene got sucked dry and they tried to infuse themselves into the alternative scene and fucked it up for everybody. Fuck the mainstream. We've had to create our own scene."

Moss appreciates bands "that haven't mellowed with age, that don't think that's part of the program. There are a lot of bands that just don't believe they have to." The Swanks are one of them, he notes. "There is no age factor with this band."

Kolberg interrupts him with a footnote: "Even though we are the oldest band in this town that isn't a jazz band."

And how old is that?

"We're fucking ancient," she answers. "It's pretty obvious we're old, crusty and bitter, isn't it?"

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Eric Peterson