After eight years in its current lineup, Tequila Mockingbird has seen its fair share of conflicts, drama and strains. Struggling to carve a viable niche in the Denver music scene hasn't been easy, and recording a new album during the past two years has only added to the pressure.
"I think it's a pretty rare animal when you have a band that has remained in the exact same lineup as long as this one has," declares bassist Rhett Haney. "Some of the struggles that we had during the recording of this album would have absolutely, without a doubt, shredded some bands, chewed them up and spit them out."
But just as internal conflicts didn't stop the completion of its third record, Luck and Trouble, the prolonged exertion of recording, engineering and releasing the album independently hasn't dimmed the group's commitment to making a name for itself. "One thing none of us ever think about," insists guitarist Mark Mauldin, "is stopping or quitting."
Tequila Mockingbird CD-release party, with Zuet, Melanie Susaras Band and Holly Hathaway, 8 p.m. Friday, February 12, Toad Tavern, 5302 South Federal Circle, Littleton, $8-$10, 303-795-6877.
So instead of driving the bandmembers apart, the drawn-out recording process for Luck and Trouble brought them together, giving them a new sense of focus, purpose and unity, which is precisely what Wendy Clark had in mind. Essentially, Tequila Mockingbird conceived a baby to save its strained marriage, and, in contrast to conventional wisdom, the bid worked.
"I thought we needed a new album," Clark relates. "We were getting a little restless, we were bickering. We needed something to bring us together, and it did."
Clark has a qualified opinion. In 1996 she co-founded Tequila Mockingbird with guitarist Daniel Paschke, following a move to Denver from Florida. "The music was all original," she recalls of the band's early material. "At the time it was pop rock, high-energy pop rock: The Refreshments, Material Issue and Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers were big influences."
Since playing its first gigs at Cricket on the Hill in the late '90s, the group has expanded from a quartet to a quintet and has moved beyond its pop-rock roots to include tinges of country, ska and alt-rock. "We're genre-benders," notes Clark.
Indeed. There's a wealth of styles packed into Luck and Trouble's nine tracks. The opener, "Blue," showcases the members' individual soloing skills, with straightforward rock riffs, extended acrobatic guitar solos from Paschke and convoluted bass fills from Haney. "La Carta" includes a speedy, ska-inspired tempo and brazen horn lines from guest trombonist Gus Hoffman, while "Luck and Trouble" offers Clark's musing, mid-range vocals over a country framework of shuffled rhythmic pacing and clean pedal-steel lines. "Actual Size," a driving and distortion-laced rock anthem penned by Tequila Mockingbird collaborator Eric Shiveley, pushes the album in yet another direction.
"This album's got a lot of different styles," confirms drummer Rob Cameron. "We can be spontaneous, that's for sure."
But the band's evolution from its more straightforward pop-rock roots did not come quickly or easily. It took time for Clark and Paschke to develop their songwriting chops, and for them to play in front of enough crowds in enough live venues to get a sense of what worked on stage. It took cycling through different players to get just the right lineup.
"It was just like any band," Paschke recalls. "There was turnover. There were conflicts and other people getting involved in other relationships, a lot of different reasons. All the typical reasons that people come and go."
The band's mutable lineup even endangered the quality of its first album, 1998's UFO.
"After all of the tracks were laid, our bass player quit on us," says Paschke with a tone of disbelief still audible in his voice. "We were all freaking out because we didn't know what we were going to do. He made it very clear that he didn't want his stuff on there."
A crisis was averted when producer Bill Thomas enlisted the aid of Rob Squires from Big Head Todd and the Monsters. "That was a great learning experience from somebody who's been there and done that," Paschke notes.
By the time Tequila Mockingbird recorded its second album, 2004's Alien-American, the act cemented its current lineup with Mauldin, Haney and Cameron as the group's rhythm section. The addition of another guitarist gave Paschke more space to focus on leads and offered Clark a chance to settle into her role as lead singer.
Produced by Eric Shiveley and recorded in the band's rehearsal space, Alien-American offered the group firsthand experience in engineering and recording. The experience ended up steering the band's approach to its latest album.
"Eric would just come in and record us," Paschke remembers. "That's actually why we decided, on this last one, to record it ourselves. We got the equipment necessary to do it, to take it into our own hands to save money and take the time that we needed." Ultimately, though, the process proved more challenging than first anticipated. "We went through almost a two-year learning process with this," offers Mauldin. "Our bass player, Rhett, engineered and recorded it. We all assisted. He also did a lot of mixing with Bill."
Drawing on the expertise and input of Thomas, who produced the band's debut, the group was able to craft its own creative statement, a recording free of the constraints of a rented studio. "Engineering from within the band is a different animal," Haney says. "I think it's better. You know what the band wants to sound like."
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While it's taken two years to complete, recording the album on their own terms has given the band an added sense of ownership and accomplishment. "This recent one, we put so much into it — so much work, so much thought, so many people, so many hours. So much of everything," Cameron points out. "The way it's turning out, it's beautiful and it's wonderful, and I think we're all highly satisfied."
The release of Luck and Trouble has also offered a sense of validation among its hard-earned grassroots fan base. "It's been tough to find people who actually believe in us," Mauldin admits. "It seemed more or less that everybody was giving their attention to the popular bands, the popular kids in school. Because we stayed the test of time, I think people are starting to take us seriously now and starting to look at us more."
Fourteen years after Clark and Paschke first arrived in Denver, it's gratifying to know that folks are finally beginning to pay attention. It's that kind of consideration that keeps a band's inertia intact, regardless of whatever personal struggles or conflicts may arise.
"For me, personally," Paschke concludes, "this album shows that we're not going away. We're here to stay."