On that night eleven years ago, Uphollow was in way over its head. But you had to cut the guys some slack. It was only their fourth show, and they were still high school freshmen; they looked about as big as action figures on the vast stage of the Bluebird Theater. Guitarist Ian O'Dougherty, bassist Whit Sibley and drummer Josh Kennedy -- three cute kids from Castle Rock who worshiped Nirvana and Green Day -- were limping through a set of remedial pop punk before a restless crowd eager to see Denver rock luminaries Boss 302 and El Espectro. In fact, if Josh didn't happen to be the little brother of El Espectro's Chris Kennedy, it's doubtful the young trio would have been on the bill at all.
"The whole time we were up there, I was just thinking about all the big bands that had been on that stage," Sibley remembers.
"Oasis had played there the night before," O'Dougherty notes with a laugh, "but it was more of a big deal for us to play with these local bands that we idolized."
CD-release show, with Porlolo and the Clap, 8 p.m. Saturday, September 24, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $6, 303-322-2308
What started out as hero worship and a horrid version of the Angry Samoans' "Lights Out" has swelled exponentially ever since. The outfit's new disc, Jackets for the Trip, possesses a sound as epic and edifying as opera. For most small-time acts, "ambition" is a word that connotes booking agents, A&R guys, publicity, radio play and contracts. But Uphollow always pumped every ounce of its ambition into a worthier arena: the group's music itself.
"We started the band when we were twelve, in 1993," O'Dougherty explains. "We did a lot of covers of Seattle bands: Mudhoney and Nirvana and the Supersuckers. We played our first couple shows at a biker bar in Franktown called the Stagecoach, which was funny. I was just this little kid, like five feet tall.
"Then we played a battle of the bands at our high school," he continues. "We were shitty, but everyone went nuts. Up to then, our only goal was to play that show. After that, we were like, 'Damn, this is really something we want to do.'"
Uphollow's aspirations quickly skyrocketed. Within months, Mission to the Moon, the threesome's debut, was released. A crudely rendered slab of snotty, catchy rock, its title flew higher than its contents ever did. But after a couple tours and the addition of drummer Justin Ferreira in 1997 -- which saw Kennedy move to bass and Sibley take up second guitar -- the band created a followup, Soundtrack to an Imaginary Life. While the disc was forced and flimsy in spots, the leap it embodied was nearly quantum. Akin to the knotty, emo-laden pop of Braid and Kill Creek, Soundtrack was an interlocked set of songs with recurrent characters, themes and motifs. In other words, a concept album.
"I looked up to my big brother a lot, and he was involved with theater," Sibley explains. "He did musicals all the time. I always thought they were really intense, these long songs with stories that just kept going and going. I remember him asking me once, 'What would be your ideal album?' I said, 'A punk-rock sort of long story-song thing.'"
"All of our parents are big music listeners," O'Dougherty adds. "I grew up on Jethro Tull and Simon and Garfunkel. Whit was into ABBA, the Beatles, lots of complex stuff like that. We went on this five-week tour in '96, and we saw all these shitty bands all over the country that all sounded the same. Everybody wanted to be Green Day. And we weren't all that different, really, so we finally we just said, 'This sucks. Let's create something that's more thought-out and entertaining."
In concert, Soundtrack was as bewildering as it was inspired. Performed as a single, continuous piece of music crammed with dizzying tempo shifts and jagged segues, it barely left room to breathe, let alone applaud. The band even passed out booklets printed with lyrics and a statement of intent, in hopes that the audience would read along and attempt to decipher the dense, heady work.
"At the end of the night, you'd see booklets tossed under bar tables," Sibley recalls.
"If you do something out of the ordinary, people are either going to think that it's amazing and innovative, or that it's just pretentious and overly ambitious," O'Dougherty asserts. "But it at least it forced the audience to make a decision."
As for Uphollow's course over the next two years, a random act of theft forced a decision on them. In March of 1998, after a triumphant set opening for Jimmy Eat World at the Bluebird, O'Dougherty and crew parked their van full of equipment behind Ferreira's Capitol Hill apartment building. The next morning, every scrap of their equipment was gone
"It was devastating, way more than we thought at first," Sibley says. The group was set to leave that day on a six-week tour; through borrowed instruments and amps, it was actually completed with just one missed show. But after returning to Denver, exhausted and heartbroken, Uphollow drifted apart: Kennedy quit the band, O'Dougherty moved to Los Angeles, Ferreira spent time in Nantucket, and Sibley went on an extended trip to Europe.
"At that point, I thought Uphollow was over," Sibley admits. But the band reconvened a few months later ("We got together at Justin's house to jam some Black Sabbath covers for his dad," O'Dougherty says) and played a handful of shows at the beginning of 2000. Soon, though, Sibley was headed to Spain for college; likewise, O'Dougherty decided to study overseas, in Australia, and even played a few solo acoustic shows there. The latter returned to Denver toward the end of the year and placed an online ad that would catalyze the next stage of Uphollow.
"Whit was still in Spain, but Justin and I started playing together a little," O'Dougherty says. "Then I put up an ad looking for pedal steel, cello, whatever." He got more than he possibly could have imagined. Ian Cooke, a Greeley native and music major at UNC, answered the call and began rehearsing with Uphollow on both cello and piano.
"I've never been a rocker, and I kind of hate punk rock," Cooke confesses. "I grew up on ABBA and the Carpenters. When I first practiced with these guys, I was scared. I figured they'd think I was a dork."
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On the contrary, Cooke's elegant pop sensibility and classical background fit perfectly on Uphollow's next full-length, 2002's Ten Fingers. With Sibley back from Spain and moved to bass, the quartet recorded a song cycle that O'Dougherty had written while in Australia -- one that gave new meaning to the term "math rock."
"I wrote the whole album with a calculator, literally," the guitarist says. "I used the idea of the golden ration to figure out bars and beats and where to put what lines. I was smoking tons of weed, sitting in front of the calculator with my guitar, just making demos." A sparse, mostly acoustic disc, Fingers was also the group's catchiest to date. But it still doesn't prepare the listener for Jackets for the Trip. Ever trying to top itself, Uphollow conceived a loose story arc that covers the passage of both time and geography, flush with a baroque, folk-pop lushness that has Cooke taking a much more prominent role as a songwriter and instrumentalist; Sibley also contributes two tracks, one of which, "Songwriter," could pass as a reprise of Soundtrack to an Imaginary Life. Even more grandiosely, Jackets comes as a double-disc set complete with a DVD containing a stunning Surround Sound mix and abstract visuals by filmmaker Zach Putnam. For all purposes, it's Uphollow's opus -- and all but unrecognizable from the band's sloppy, pipsqueak origins. Still, O'Dougherty stresses that over the years, his group's seemingly bottomless ambition has served only as a means to an aesthetic end.
"We've never been a popular live band, really," he admits. "We change our sound every album, so it's totally our own fault. I mean, you have to do a little bit of business to keep it rolling. But we've never thought, 'Ooh, this is something that people will actually like.' We're not that concerned about selling a million albums or playing huge shows. It's always been more about creating interesting music that people have never heard before."
And that's about as grand as ambition gets.