Before Gregg Stone quit drinking nearly five years ago, playing metal was just "something to do while I got drunk," he declares without the slightest hint of irony. These days, the Horse frontman is far more focused. He's got to be: His former lifestyle nearly cost him what could be his biggest asset — his voice.
Stone's distinctive, gravelly voice is the sound of Denver metal, and has been for most of the past two decades. Better known by his radio handle, Uncle Nasty, Stone has been using the airwaves to champion aggression — particularly the heavy music and artists from here — since before Denver had much of a metal scene.
Stone got his start in Plainview, Texas, where he was weaned on the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. But it wasn't long before he moved on to bands that were much harder and faster. "That's what we listened to in middle school and high school," he recalls. "And that evolved into Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Saxxon and the Scorpions and Motörhead. And then you started hearing about this band called Metallica, and Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth. Testament — that whole Bay Area thrash movement that came out. And Pantera, in the late '80s. Being from Texas, we'd known about Pantera for quite some time."
CD-release party, with Apathy, Defeat the Lie and Glass Delirium, 8 p.m. Friday, February 27, Toad Tavern, 5302 South Federal Circle, Littleton, $7, 303-795-6877; with Lovebox and intertwined, 8 p.m. Saturday, February 28, Out of Bounds, 281A East 29th Street, Loveland, 1-970-663-1550.
His early work in radio helped broaden his tastes. Stone began pulling air shifts in his home town before he could drive, and one specialty show in particular, at KFMX, a station in Lubbock where he worked after college, had a sizable influence on him. "This kid was the music director, and he had a six-hour metal show Saturday nights from midnight to six in the morning," he recalls. "It was brutal. I heard shit that I had never heard before. That's when I got hip to a lot of Death, and from then on, I became just this flag-waving fan of metal."
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And soon Stone was rocking the Rockies, at a station that had been waving that same flag for years. As fortune would have it, the KFMX morning-show host came up to Denver to apply for a job at KBCO, and while he was here, he heard that KBPI happened to be looking for someone to work nights, a jock who was young and full of piss and vinegar. Stone fit that profile perfectly, so the morning man passed along his name to the program director.
"I got this phone call while I was on the air — I was the music director and the six-to-ten guy at FMX," Stone remembers. "People would call and pull those types of shenanigans all the time: 'Hey! I'm really interested, I like your voice, you're funny, play me a song.' And so I kind of blew him off the first couple of times. And then he called back a third time, and he's like, 'I'm fucking serious.' So I sent him a week's worth of shows, ya know? I overnighted each one, and after that, he flew me up here and hired me."
That was in January 1990. Soon after, mutual friends introduced him to bassist Doug Tackett, who'd moved up from Pueblo to attend the University of Denver, and the two began wreaking havoc together as Nasty's Nightmare. This was back when the still-burgeoning metal scene revolved around Bangles and the Broadway; tales of debauchery from that era abound. But by the mid-'90s, the band had run its course. Stone's radio career took him out to San Jose, while Tackett headed to Texas.
Stone and Tackett kept in touch over the next few years, though, and at one point, the latter even moved out to California for a short time, where he roomed with Stone's sister. But at the end of the decade, after a stop at KBER in Salt Lake City, Stone made his way back to Denver. By then, Tackett was here, too, and he wasted little time lobbying Stone to get the band back together. The pair recruited Kevin Martinez and Jim Strickler from Angellic Rage to join them. But Martinez opted out before the act played its first (and only) show as U-Joint, and Assassin guitarist Donnie Crisp, with whom Stone and Tackett had previously shared bills, took over on guitar duties. The lineup change was followed by a name change, to A Band Called Horse. "I saw A Man Called Horse on TBS," Stone explains, "and I was like, 'Dude, fuckin-A! This is who we should be, man. It's all about the pain to get what you want, about rising to the top, about trust.'"
Led by Crisp as chief songwriter, the group released Free Thinking Society in 2001. "It sounds like a hard-esque jam band," Stone says today. Drummer Steve Patt, a scene veteran who played in Cerium and Retribution, joined up shortly after that, even though he blew his first audition when, whacked out on "more Ecstasy than most people could stand in one fucking lifetime," he recalls, he couldn't keep much time. Three days later, though, he nailed it after the guys agreed to give him another go. With Patt on board, they were going strong until 2003 — which is when Stone developed polyps on his vocal folds.
Stone left the band for two years while he began to make wholesale changes to his lifestyle, quitting smoking and drinking in an effort to preserve the voice that was his livelihood. The other guys continued playing together under the name deadnotes, eventually reuniting with Stone in 2005. By then, all of the bandmembers had left their partying ways behind, and they pared down the name of the act to Horse — which, in essence, signified a new beginning for all of them.
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Given the stature of its frontman, you'd be forgiven if you assumed that Horse is a novelty act. But the fact is, these guys can play, which is immediately evident when you see them live or hear songs like "Bullets" off their new album, U.S. Metal. They can also write, as evidenced by the incisive lyrics: "Whatever happened to fighting with fists is my question/Why does reality make you all so afraid?/You'd be wise if you picked up a book from the old school/Maybe a good ass-whupping is all that you need." Immaculately recorded by metal maestro Dave Otero, U.S. Metal takes a time-tested, bare-knuckled approach to the type of metal that's built on driving riffs and double kicks, resulting in a taut, classic, thrash sound that nods to vintage Pantera. The fact that Horse's members have been friends and colleagues for so long and have been through so much clearly played a big part in the band's progression. Still, it had to be a bit sobering seeing things through a, well, sober lens.
"It was a little nerve-racking," Stone says of Horse's show at the Gothic in 2005, his first without imbibing. "You're not sure: 'Are they going to like me sober, or am I doing the right things?' And then you look out and get the response that you're hoping for and you start to settle in. I was nervous as fuck — I wanted to drink, you know. But I didn't."
"Drinking was a big part of this band," admits Stone, who's in the best of shape of his life. "If you look at the trash can in our rehearsal space now, there's nothing but empty water bottles."
"I think one of the other aspects that we have in the band right now is that we're all having fun," Tackett adds. "We've had our time where we kind of did that go-for-broke, looking for the stardom and playing the party scene and playing the rock stars. Right now we're just playing pure music. We're playing it for fun, and we're having a great time."