What do you get when you combine a politically minded indie rapper, a folk singer/songwriter, and a German producer specializing in ambient new wave sounds? Nighthawks at McCoys, a Tom Waits-inspired concept album about the north Denver diner McCoy's Family Restaurant, brought to you by Time, Maudlin Magpie and A Thousand Vows.
Time, aka Chris Steele, is a north Denver native who's been making waves in the hip-hop world for years now, working with the likes of Mick Jenkins, Psalm One, Common and Talib Kweli. Back in 2010, he decided to put out one album a month, resulting in 86 songs released as The Hydra Collection. Someone from his mailing list who had been a fan of his music sent him some beats to potentially use. That person was A Thousand Vows, aka Florian Filsinger, a music producer from Germany whose style ranges from hip-hop to electronica to experimental new wave. They ended up collaborating on several tracks, including a few with Jason Horodyski, the frontman (and currently the only member) of Maudlin Magpie, whom Steele met when they both worked at the Regis University library.
The foundation for Nighthawks at McCoys was laid as the three artists continued to collaborate, but busy lives, other projects, health issues and time differences delayed the completion of the album for years, until COVID-19 put the world on pause.
"I was doing some more touring before COVID, and doing a lot more shows with Talib Kweli, and I had released the album These Songs Kill Fascists last year," Steele explains. "Then when everything got shut down, like a lot of people, I lost my job at that time. Jason lives in north Denver, and that's where I was living, and we just buckled down and finished the project."
The two started working together six years ago, but just as they began recording an album in Horodyski's basement studio, Steele was in an accident that nearly took his life.
"The song 'I've Always Loved the Monsters' talks kind of exclusively about dying. A lot of people make fun of me because my music is so existential, but this one was really explicit. And I recorded it the night before I almost died," Steele recalls. "One of the bars on the song is: 'I mean, how many breaths are we guaranteed? One second your heart could be pumping and the next it may not beat.' I recorded it in his basement, and the next night, me and my partner were stopped on Santa Fe, and this car rear-ended us going about fifty. I got a severe concussion and internal bleeding, and my partner had to be taken in an ambulance. It was really scary, and after I came back from that, because my head was all messed up for a while, Jason was like, 'You have to keep that take.' I wanted to redo the verses, and he was like, 'No, you have to keep that take, because it's so surreal and crazy that it was recorded the night before."
They kept the original take, and Steele's near-death experience and subsequent road to recovery informed the direction of this burgeoning album.
"I've always loved Chris's music and lyricism. I find it very inspired and inspiring," says Horodyski. "It's interesting. It's distinctly different from our other stuff in different ways. We kind of pull each other closer to our own sort of work. It was fun to do this project, and I feel really close to the songs, too. It's like a different part of me is being expressed through this music."
Steele agrees that the joint project allowed him to experiment with new genres. "The collaboration was cool for me, because I'm a big fan of all types of music, and a big fan of new wave, big Ian Curtis fan, Joy Division, Bright Eyes — just so many different types. I'm a big jazz fan, so it was cool to have Jeff McGill on there. I'm a big Tom Waits fan, as you can tell from the album title, so we were able to smash all these things together. It was cool to work with Jason, because he has this range that I could never attain, and it's music I love to be a part of.
"It was kind of tough working with Florian because he's in Germany," admits Steele. "Florian isn't your average cut-and-paste hip-hop producer who uses a lot of pre-canned samples and stuff. He's what you would call a knob-turner — bending sound, so you don't always get the same exact waves and stuff."
Despite the distance, Filsinger was able to make it to Denver to work on the album briefly in 2019, and naturally, one of his first stops was McCoy's, for some eggs Benedict, with Horodyski and Steele. Nighthawks at McCoy's is actually not the first album Steele has made in homage to the diner.
"What's funny is that the album Naked Dinner, an older album I did, was really based on McCoy's, too, so Florian was so hyped to go to McCoy's," laughs Steele. "He thought it was this famous place."
While it may not be the international tourist destination Filsinger was anticipating, McCoy's is an important touchstone in Steele's life, both personally and artistically.
"I grew up on 49th and Lowell, so I would walk to McCoy's, and it's a place where my grandma used to go and get Long Island iced teas," Steele remembers. "My mom would take me there after school, too. It's a place where I've been jumped. It's a place where my dad went to shake the ketchup bottle without the lid on it, and you can still see the stains of ketchup on the painting there.
"It's a place where I have a lot of nostalgia," he continues. "It's also a place that survived gentrification in this area, where a lot of places have just been destroyed. People move here and talk about how good this neighborhood is now, and it's a form of colonialism that north Denver has gone through. McCoy's was open 24 hours [it's been closing at 9:30 p.m. during the pandemic], and a place that's open 24 hours invites in different ghosts and different energies, and people traveling, because it's right next to I-70. And it's a place where I've created lots of art. That's why we kind of refer to it as a portal — this diner being a portal for the album."
With nine tracks, Nighthawks at McCoy's is a frenetic but somber tribute to the diner atmosphere immortalized on Tom Waits's 1975 Nighthawks at the Diner, but one that is firmly situated among the perils of modernity. Here the diner is a safe haven for those who have been left behind, bypassed and overlooked by a rapidly changing world.
From the cruelties of capitalism to the equity of death, the lyrical content of Nighthawks at McCoys is poignant, moving, thought-provoking and unsettling, while at the same time soothing in its frank acceptance of our place in the world.
"I wanted it to be kind of a permission for something like caffeine clarity," says Steele. "And giving permission also to the listener that this is a dimension, this is a portal where you have permission to be vulnerable, and in this clarity you have permission to say, 'My job sucks, I'm being exploited, I'm in a dying world that's being killed by capitalism.' There are reflections on alienation, depression, mortality — all these things. That was the whole imagination of this diner being a portal to look deeper into things."
In approaching the album, Horodyski says he found inspiration in Patti Smith's M Train.
"A lot of that is her communing with the ghosts of the past, and these people who no longer exist in the world," he says. "To me, it feels a little bit like that for north Denver. There's these spirits and way of life that you can still sort of see in some of the culture that it's lost, in some of its ruins. I feel like it's wanting to hold that memory and that experience of having it shift and change."
Steele hopes that listeners are comforted and inspired by Nighthawks at McCoys.
"Something that I always want people to take away is to give people permission to know that life may feel messed up — and that it is — and permission to feel weird or outcast or sad or depressed or hopeless," he says. "That feeling isn't forever, but it's important to hold those feelings. And then the other point about making art is to inspire other people to make art. I feel that's the best gift, when you make art and it inspires someone else, because we live in a world that can just be so uninspiring, and I would just love to provide any type of engine for another artist."
Nighthawks at McCoys is available now for streaming and download on all music platforms.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.