The Short Life of Hot White: One of Denver's Greatest Bands

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Darren Kulback and Kevin Wesley had to be bored living in Parker as teenagers. But both were aware of truly underground music from a young age. When Kulback was eleven years old, he saw the legendary 2002 tour that featured Lighting Bolt, Arab on Radar, the Locust and Blood Brothers. Both he and Wesley had been in bands that barely played out while they were in high school, but by age sixteen, they had formed Hot White and had played Kingdom of Doom before getting into playing at Rhinoceropolis, the DIY venue with which they would be most closely associated and where they lived for a short period.

During its relatively short existence (roughly 2007 until 2011), Hot White made a huge impact on the local underground music scene. By those final months, the band had started to gain a following outside the DIY circuit, and their spirited shows were legendary and had caught an increasing audience very early on and made important, though never careerist, connections along the way.

I first saw Hot White in June 2008 at Rhinoceropolis, when it was just Kulback playing drums and Wesley playing bass or guitar. It was instrumental at that time, but it was unlike anything I was seeing around town or anywhere else, and that is difficult to do. Maybe it was because they didn't know what they should do that made Kulback and Wesley do something different. Perhaps it was seeing way too many cookie-cutter punk and metal bands among their peers. Whatever the actual motivation, the music the duo made struck me as incredibly original, at the least, and I wanted to see where they would take it. That summer of 2008, I got to see the band open shows with The Mae Shi, Religious Girls, Yellow Fever and Yoda's House, and each time, they kept getting better and trying out different ideas while developing their core sound. 

In the fall of 2008, my own band at the time, Tornado Alley, a far more conventional act somewhere between shoegaze and post-punk, was having a CD-release show, and I invited Hot White to play the show because I loved their music and because Kulback and Wesley were always very nice and polite with me. Our CDs didn't arrive in time for the show, but we made the best of it, and anyone who showed up got to see a great lineup, with Married in Berdichev, Hot White, The Silver Cord, Eyes Caught Fire, Yoda's House from Albuquerque and Tornado Alley. That show marked the first time that Tiana Bernard played with Hot White. She used a circuit-bent helicopter of some sort to generate sounds as well as a keyboard. Little did we know what the band would morph into over the next few months.

By the time I saw Hot White next, in April 2009, playing with Fissure Mystic, another future cult band of the time, and Church of the Snake, Bernard was playing bass and singing with such a fearsome presence that she probably terrified people regularly even as her undeniably powerful performance was undeniably compelling. It was then that the band went, in my eyes, from a good band I loved to a great band I respected as well as loved. Something happened sometime between November 2008 and April 2009 where these nice, respectful "kids" became fearless and nearly reckless in their performances. They were still nice and respectful, but when you saw them on stage, you couldn't really take your eyes off them, and they seemed to give their all and hold nothing back. 

The music wasn't punk, but it was more punk in spirit than people trying to imitate some past sound, some past idea in a misguided attempt to keep a torch for a movement going. Hot White was more like if punk followed the path of Greed or Holy Money-era Swans through Arab on Radar's sheer sonic terrorism and Actionist aesthetics. Hot White was the kind of band you could get excited about because it felt like something new.

Playing that Church of the Snake show put Hot White in contact with Bobby Missile of Ballistic Missile Booking, who also happened to be the booking manager for the Mars Volta, and that opened the doors to some of the group's first forays into touring. That summer, Hot White was playing the inaugural Titwrench in July 2009. Before heading over to Blast-O-Mat from the Underground Music Showcase, I told Andrew Novick that he had to check out this amazing band called Hot White. I also gave Sara Century a ride over there from the UMS. Inadvertently, Hot White made some connections happen that benefited the underground scene.

Over the next two years, the band would go on to share the stage with some of their musical heroes like Justin Pearson of the Locust with his band All Leather and with members of Arab on Radar and Chinese Stars. And its crowd went from a handful of people to a genuine crowd that, when it played all-ages shows, could be considerable. The band played the arty weird rock shows, punk shows, some metal shows and the always welcome mixed-genre shows. Which is fitting, because Hot White didn't have a genre. Noise rock didn't fit, punk didn't fit, avant-garde didn't convey what the band was about, and all of those designations described some aspects of what the outfit embodied.

Once in a while Hot White played commercial venues, but you could tell that the trio didn't feel as comfortable there as it did at Rhinoceropolis or Glob or one of Ethan McCarthy's spaces, where it didn't have to hold back and where its under-21 friends could go. After all, for the entire run of the band, Kulback and Wesley were under 21, and Bernard was a venerable 22 at the end. 

Hot White did make something of an appearance at the two big local music festivals hosted by two of the biggest papers that cover music. In July 2010, Bernard had to be out of town during the UMS, so Wesley and Kulback, the smart-alecks they can be, decided to put in a performance that somehow outraged people who had never seen the band and didn't know them. Kulback played keyboards (an instrument he did not then really know much about playing) while Wesley recited strange, almost spoken-word pieces into a microphone while gesturing mock-dramatically. One person expressed to me what seemed to be out-of-proportion anger and outrage at being told how great the band was, only to see this joke that flew in the face of what he had anticipated. I've been told since by other people how they were also outraged by the performance. I thought it was incredibly funny, precisely because it was so irreverent about the nature of festivals.

In summer 2011, both Bernard and Kulback weren't available to play the Westword Showcase, so Wesley performed a solo set with vocals and guitar that was surprisingly sincere and melancholy. But that just highlighted the fact that people should have just caught Hot White in its natural environment at a DIY space, where it could cut loose and put in the kind of inspirational performances that established its reputation and enduring legend.

In August 2010, Hot White was invited to perform the second night of the Warlock Pinchers reunion alongside Magic Cyclops, Melvins Lite, Tauntaun and Itchy-O. For the first tim in memory, the members of Hot White didn't look like they were hating playing outside their usual haunts. But that's what happens when you connect with Andrew Novick, whose support for your efforts you know is heartfelt.

In 2011, Hot White seemed to take something of an extended hiatus, or it just didn't play as often as it used to — though from that Warlock Pinchers show until the end, Hot White played shows with Lower Dens, No Age, Tinsel Teeth, Xander Harris, Iceage and the Men and didn't give a hint that things were winding down at all. Its frenetic performances showed no obvious signs of burnout.

The final Hot White performance happened on September 26, 2011, with Echo Beds and No Babies. Pete Bell, the maker of the Rhinoceropolis documentary Neon Savant & The Silent Trajectory, was filming, and even though everyone knew it would be the last show, it was still as gloriously invigorating as ever.

During its roughly four years of existence, Hot White only put out one semi-proper album, Land of the Rising Fun, perhaps a joke on Bernard's half-Japanese background. It is not the easiest thing to track down. Bernard and Kulback went on to perform in Leather Sky and now CP-208 together. Wesley has explored ideas in various projects, including the recent Prison Glue. They're all worthwhile endeavors, surely. But it is that relatively short-lived band, Hot White, that is still talked about with fondness and respect three and a half years after it split up, with many people marveling that it could possibly be that long ago that one of Denver's best-ever bands broke up. Below are several other memorable moments from across the band's lifespan.

*Author's Note on the High Plains Underground Archive: In the late 1990s, I started going to local shows on a regular basis. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I didn't know there was such a thing as local music worth checking out. But I was drawn in after seeing a band called Rainbow Sugar (an all-female punk/hip-hop/experimental guitar rock extravaganza) opening for Sleater-Kinney's first show in Colorado at The Fox Theatre in October 1998. Next, I learned about a show at the now-defunct Rebis Galleries. From there I went to the first Monkey Mania show, and there was no looking back.

Rainbow Sugar was the first local band I photographed at Herman's Hideaway in 1999. But it was in 2005 when I got my first digital camera that my extensive photo archive started. In this series, called High Plains Underground Archive, I will share a small fraction of the tens of thousands of those photos, focusing on specific venues, bands, time periods, movements and whatever else seems to make sense. The title of this series comes from the working title of my book on the history of underground music in Denver 1975 to the present.

- Seven of Denver's Most Underrated Bands
- Wolf Eyes' John Olson Talks About the Importance of Music Communities
- Why DIY Venues Are Vital Are Vital to the Health of the Entire Music Scene
- DIY or Die: Why Denver Need Under-The-Radar, All-Ages Arts Spaces

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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