This band with costumes would be GWAR," says Victoria Lundy, who plays theremin for the Inactivists, offering one of the most astute assessments that's been uttered yet regarding Denver's strangest and most eclectic underground rock band.
For a decade now, the Inactivists have amused, confounded, offended and even inspired other bands in town with their mixture of musical chops, strong songwriting and a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. The sound is like Dada rock and roll, only without any particular allegiance to rock and roll, along with a liberal sprinkling of musical ideas nicked from ranchero, country, bossa nova and — despite the irreverently surrealistic title of the band's 2011 album, The War on Jazz Hands — jazz. The outfit was the brainchild of singer/guitarist Scot Livingston, whose most active project prior to the Inactivists was the Phlegmtones.
"My first band I had in high school was with Avery Raines, who later became Mr. Pacman," recalls Livingston. "We were together nine years. Apparently, I have a hard time breaking up with bands. They moved to Montana for a year and a half, and we were still 'together.' I was supposed to move out with them to some small town in Montana and become a tight, functioning rock unit, and I lacked the guts to actually tell them I wasn't going. So they all moved, sold their stuff, and I just didn't answer my phone for a month.
"We had been practicing in this huge barn somewhere between Littleton and Golden," Livingston continues. "The bass player's parents were trying to sell it, and they needed someone to stay there to show it. We practiced/lived there for two and a half years, and eventually they did sell it, and he had to go where the rest of his family was, which was in this small town outside of Kalispell, Montana. The rest of the band figured we were going to go out there and woodshed for a year and come back and be great. The idea of living in a remote cabin with Mr. Pacman? I had a strange feeling I might not come back."
From there, Livingston did the solo singer-songwriter-ish thing by playing alone at coffee-shop open mics — just him, a guitar and a drum machine. Initially, this lone endeavor was promoted as Scot Livingston and the Inactivists: He was able to book better shows under the auspices of being a band. But by the time he played a show at Herman's Hideaway so that he could record his music from the sound board (he didn't have the ability to do so on his own at the time), he'd shortened the name to the Inactivists. It was that CD that he shared with his future bandmates, including bassist Matt Sumner.
"I saw tons of fun potential there," Sumner recalls. "It was very creative and weird-sounding. It was exactly what I needed, because I had been playing in a band called Rainville that was in that Americana circuit. I didn't have any real creative input in the music." Sumner had also seen a sprawling manifesto — which drummer Kelly Prestridge jokes is a full eight pages printed out — on musicmates.com that Scot had written to attract/screen potential musicians to play in his band.
"I had said something about the Steely Dan and Sex Pistols schism," Livingston remembers of the document, which is now posted on the band's website, "and how I wanted to bridge the divide between music with heart and music that was complicated."
"I was hesitant to respond to it," says Sumner, "but I agreed with everything he said — but it was so overly written. I thought, 'This guy sounds super-overbearing and like a control freak.'" Sumner had already been in contact with Lundy because he was intrigued about this instrument she played called the theremin, an instrument he wasn't aware of but that is familiar to anyone who has ever seen a science-fiction movie from the 1950s or 1960s. "I was at loose ends," says Lundy, "after all the stuff I had done with the different incarnations of Carbon Dioxide Orchestra and Übergrüber." Turns out, both Sumner and Lundy had been in contact with Livingston, and both thought he sounded like a freak. They ended up changing their minds, though, once they worked with the songwriter.
"I didn't realize it was the same person until later," Lundy admits. "Then it was like, 'I guess he's okay.' He's not a dangerous loon."
Although the first gig with the band, including Sumner, was on October 20, 2003, at Pinkee's, it wasn't until the second show, two days later at the Blue Mule, that Lundy showed up, not knowing what anyone in the band looked like. She also didn't really know what the music sounded like. Just the same, she got on stage with the band and played, fitting in perfectly that first time.
In 2007, the band was ready for a change in its lineup and invited former Third World Dogs drummer Prestridge to join. It was a relatively easy decision for Prestridge, because Livingston's cousin Heather, Prestridge's future wife, had admired his talent. "The first time I saw you guys, I thought, 'That's just stupid,'" Prestridge confesses. "Another few months went by, and [Livingston] kept getting more and more serious, but I'm like Matt, and I need something fun. So I tried out for the Inactivists."
Prestridge has been with the band ever since. Over the past few years, the group has added horn player/multi-instrumentalist Alekzandr Palesh and vibraphone player Cody Schlueter, and with five albums under its belt — six, if you count the Christmas album a band like this was bound to do — the Inactivists are set to unleash their latest set of songs on the double-entendre-titled platter, You're So Kingin' It.
"Someone blurted it out at practice, and we couldn't let it go," says Livingston of the album's title. "That was Alekzandr's idea. But that wasn't stupid enough, so we had to make it stupider. You'd be surprised at how much that's a consideration for our titles."
The inspired stupidity, as it were, suits this band because the music itself takes a great degree of skill to execute, and the lyrics likewise require a high degree of intelligence to put together. While most truly smart people appreciate a great dumb joke, the Inactivists take it a step further and include conceptual musical humor in their songwriting, on tunes like the samba/bossa nova-driven "8 1/2 Bar Blues" or ditties like "Tom's Microdance," which was inspired by Lundy's mathematician husband, Dr. Thomas Lundy.
"It's trying to dance as small as possible, so you just sort of hold your hands to your side and shake almost imperceptibly," Livingston explains. "He would always do that at gigs, particularly when there was something completely appropriate to do that to."
There are even more oblique examples of the band's wit to be found on cuts like the truly bizarre but superficially straight-ahead "Be Careful About Falling in Love." Livingston says, "It was tough to do because it's country, but it's 7/8."
"It's about accidentally on purpose marrying a transsexual in Trinidad," adds Lundy.
The band also seems to have a knack for writing unexpected ranchero-style songs that drop into a set like Marty Robbins appearing in a Twilight Zone episode. "It's just so wrong," enthuses Lundy about why the band perpetrates such things. "We like to challenge ourselves and say, 'Hey, here's something we don't know how to do. Let's do that!'" Livingston adds.
In contrast to The War on Jazz Hands, the Inactivists made the songs on the new album more complex, as a challenge to themselves as talented musicians. "Well, yeah, you have to be really good to goof off as well as we do," Livingston allows. "The whole album is an inside joke to ourselves. I wonder why we don't have more fans? If it were easy, I think we probably would have quit by now."