Stevens's disillusionment is understandable, given his limited perspective. He grew up in Westminster and attended Pomona High School in the early '90s, but hasn't lived here for nearly fifteen years. While the scene has changed drastically since then, as far as he knows, no one else from the Denver area has seen the kind of national success he's had over the past few years. "My Goddess," a cut from the Exies' second release, Inertia, cracked Billboard's Top 20 Modern Rock chart in 2002; last year, "Ugly," a song from the act's latest disc, Head for the Door, made it to number six, where it stayed for five and a half weeks. "They were the only stations in the whole country that didn't play it," Stevens says of KBPI and its sister signal, KTCL. "So it was just like, 'Why?' I think it was them and KROQ in L.A. -- that was the only other station. But we never get any love in L.A., either.
"That's the thing that I don't understand," he continues. "With 'Ugly' being the number-six active rock track in the country, it was like, how could all these people ignore who I am now? I have a Top 10 single. I just kind of went, 'What the fuck? Fuck you, then.' It doesn't get any better than this. I know there's a huge influx of music, but at the same time, I was the cream that rose to the top, you know? So it would be cool in my home town if at least somebody played it a little bit. But it didn't happen."
Back in 1991, when Stevens packed up his 1979 Trans Am and headed to the West Coast, Denver's scene was still mostly an underground phenomenon. "There wasn't a music scene in Colorado," he recalls. "Seriously, there still isn't. So I was just like, 'You know, if I'm going to do this, and I'm going to try to find the right people to play with, I'm going to have to go to a city where there's at least more musicians.' And the odds were better there.
"When I was growing up," he goes on, "everybody that I ever saw that played original music, I saw in some fucking garage or some barn out in the middle of a field or some basement, where they couldn't get any exposure. It was just all of us kids going to it, you know?"
So just imagine Stevens's surprise upon learning that Denver now has countless rooms dedicated to original music -- not to mention a thriving scene with multiple acts linked to major labels and even more with indie affiliations that have helped thrust our city into the national spotlight.
"That's great that bands are getting signed and there's actually major-label signings coming into Denver," he says after I fill him in. "I think it's great. I'd say it's about fucking time. I wish that would've happened when I was living there, because I never really wanted to leave Colorado. I loved it so much. I talk about it all the time. I'd love to be able to go back home. I really, really would."
You can't go home again, though, right? Still, Stevens realized a lifelong dream a few weeks ago when his band opened for Mtley Crüe at Red Rocks, a place where he'd hung out as a kid and Iron Maiden had blown his mind on the Powerslave tour. "It was fucking fantastic," Stevens remembers. "The fact that it was in my home town made it even more special. I remember looking at my mother and just saying, 'This is it. This is the dream. And it happened.' You know, ever since I was ten years old, I wanted to play there, and I did."
At the Crüe gig, Stevens ran into former classmates who were stunned to see what he's doing now. Some of them knew the Exies' songs, but they had no idea those were his songs, and they were amazed to see him sign autographs. "I know they all kind of probably look at me and go, 'Wow,' you know?" he says. "But there was a lot of sacrifice in my life, as far as to get here and to be able to do this. A lot of people have moved on and started families or moved on to better financial situations, with maybe a more secure job or future. But I just stuck it out with no money and no real fancy digs or anything like that and just suffered and kept playing and playing and playing. And just now is it starting to bear fruit a little bit."
As scripted and cliched as that sounds -- you know, the whole boy goes to California in search of fame and fortune and toils in dead-end jobs waiting for his big break -- Stevens really has paid his dues. After moving to California, he and his cousin wound up living in his car. "It was brutal," he remembers. "We were staying at friends' houses and living at our job and living in the car, and brushing our teeth and waking up and stuff in the car. It was pretty horrible." To make ends meet, Stevens held down various jobs, including hawking hot dogs on street corners, cleaning aquariums and, in what was perhaps his most pivotal gig, working as a runner for various recording studios in Hollywood. One of the people he met on the job at Summa Studios passed his demo around, and eventually it found its way to Ultimatum, an indie imprint that released the Exies' self-titled debut. Later, at the "worst gig ever" in Miami, Stevens says, he and his bandmates came across a guy who knew Matt Serletic, and they slipped him a copy of the disc. As a result, the Exies soon landed a deal with Virgin Records, where they've been making inroads ever since with a sound that evokes Nirvana by way of Puddle of Mudd on the heavier side, and resembles Switchfoot on quieter ballads such as "Tired of You."
"I'm very grateful for what's happened to us," Stevens concludes. "It's been a ride."
The ride continues this Wednesday, August 31, when the Exies stop by the Hard Rock Cafe in the Denver Pavilions for the capper to the battle-of-the-bands contest sponsored by Sauza. Local favorite As You Are is slated to open the free show.