Wheelchair founder and MC Kalyn Heffernan started the project in 2008 while she was still attending University of Colorado Denver. Through friends, she learned about underground music, and those friends helped to disabuse her of preconceived notions about the local hip-hop scene and the music scene in general.
"I started playing concerts every weekend and I realized, 'Oh, there are a lot of really dope people here; you're just not involved,'” says Heffernan. “I'm still, to this day, like, how did you slip from my radar? I thought I knew everybody in Denver, and that's not the case.”
Heffernan took an early liking to the experimental rock band Rubedo, and after playing a gig with the group at the Skylark, learned she had been in classes with drummer Gregg Ziemba. Through school connections, Heffernan went on to make music with various collaborators, including former saxophone player Abi McGaha Miller and current trumpet player Joshua Trinidad. But it was through the guys in Rubedo that Heffernan came to know the late Ikey Owens, who became a mentor and producer for the band, most notably on Rubedo's 2013 album, Love Is the Answer. Heffernan was really struck by that album, and she wrote to Owens praising the record, adding that perhaps the two of them could connect and collaborate in the future.
“He wrote me back and called me and was like, 'Yeah, what do you want to do?'” says Heffernan. During the ensuing conversation, Owens paid Heffernan one of the greatest compliments of her life by comparing her to one of her biggest musical inspirations. “'I've been wanting to meet you and talk to you because you remind me of Bahamadia,'” says Heffernan, quoting Owens. “When he said that, I was like, 'Oh, this is the dude.'” The two worked on a timetable, and by April 2014, Owens was in Denver to record with Heffernan, Ziemba, Trinidad and upright bass player Mike Brown, formerly of Gladhand.
Over two weekends of what seemed like rushed activity at Dryer Plug Studio, Owens pushed and challenged Wheelchair Sports Camp in directions none of the musicians fully understood at the time. Owens directed the proceedings, with Dryer Plug head Chad Saxton as engineer; his suggestions for suggested radical changes to beats and tempos and song ideas struck Heffernan as bizarre at the time, but she now appreciates them. Although Owens, not a rapper himself, couldn't guide Heffernan on vocals, he knew exactly how to talk to all of the musicians involved to extract the best results.
“He was able to talk to everyone in their language,” says Heffernan. “He could talk to Josh about trumpet, but he wasn't a trumpeter. Not just about keys, but about notes, specifically — like, that's flat or sharp, more Miles Davis or more that. He went to stand-up bassist Mike Brown and was like, 'You know those DJ Premier albums? He only switches it up two two times. Stick with it.' He really spoke the language of music, something I'd like to do eventually. But I don't play an instrument proficiently enough.”
Heffernan provided Owens with a folder of some eighty beats, and Owens whittled it down to essentials, particularly on the track “Honey Don't Go.” “The first thing he took away was the snares, the defining thing of that beat,” says Heffernan. “Now, hearing it, I completely understand it. He stripped it apart, made it weird and asked us to do some really crazy things. It's the first time I feel like we have a really cohesive thing. That's also a hard thing for rap — it's easy to put together an album full of singles, or really good songs, but there's not this fluidity, there's no concept. Now we got it.”
The album had not yet been mixed when Owens passed away on October 14, 2014, while on tour in Mexico with Jack White. He had planned on getting the album mixed and then putting in some finishing touches, but it was not to be. Heffernan had already compensated Owens for his work, including the mixing, but felt it only right to honor his choice of mixing and mastering engineer, Anthony “Antoine” Arvizu at the Compound Studio. Heffernan raised the funds to hire Arvizu for his services, and after the record was complete, she sought to find a label for the album.
“I don't know how to shop for record labels on my own,” says Heffernan. “It's stupid and unnecessary. You have these dreams, and you get inside those dreams and it's not as dreamy as you thought. I'd been in touch with people at Sub Pop and Stones Throw, my two dreamy labels, but I'm not great at pimping myself. I didn't want to bug the contacts that I already had. I just wanted to be cool about it. If it's not a 'Fuck, yes,' it's probably a no, and it wasn't a 'Fuck, yes.'”
The members of Wheelchair Sports Camp realized that they would probably have to do the record themselves. Though the digital release is coming out on Sage Francis's Strange Famous imprint on September 30, WSC is issuing the physical release itself. With three promotional videos for the album out, including footage filmed with permission at the Tiny Town amusement park near Morrison, new T-shirts printed and postcards printed featuring the band in Tiny Town, it seems as though Heffernan and company are finally promoting their band in a way that many others already on labels can't or don't. Toymaker Sucklord is making a miniature version of Heffernan, which will be available through his website before long.
As for the show celebrating the album release, WSC plans to perform the record in its entirety with guest musicians and those involved in the process, like videographer Chris Bagley, on hand.
“This is going to be 'Wheelchair Sports Camp and Friends' for real,” says Heffernan. “It's almost like a senior recital, which I didn't do because I wasn't a performance kid. It's like our coming out. We've been able to do some really fucking cool shit like tour and play cool shows with cool musicians, but we've never had an album, and this is our first one, and we're trying to do it as dope as we can.”
Wheelchair Sports Camp, with Church Fire, Milk Blossoms and DJ Venus Cruz, Thursday, September 22, 9 p.m., Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, 303-615-4000, 21+.