"We Didn't Do It as a Social Experiment": Cult of the Lost Cause Defies Categories

Cult of the Lost Cause has been defying simplistic definitions since its inception in 2010. The band plays instrumental post-rock and comprises three transplants with eclectic tastes and musical backgrounds: guitarist Mhyk Monroe, bassist Thom McLoughlin and drummer Mike Salazar. Along the way, the band's ethnically diverse membership has been cause for comment when the group plays outside its usual venues. 

"We make a point of that jokingly about having a black guy, a Mexican guy and an Irish guy, because there's poignancy to it," Monroe says. "It gets brought up once in a while, and I'm surprised that some people are still surprised.”

Monroe moved to Denver in 2007 to be close to his young son. Growing up in the Bay Area, he learned about punk and experimental music, forming his first band at sixteen. Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, Monroe was involved in a broad spectrum of musical projects from punk to metal, folk and noise rock. The Bay Area was conducive to this eclectic background, and that diversity informed Monroe's musical outlook and subsequently his specific guitar style in Cult of the Lost Cause: heavy but atmospherically nuanced.

Monroe met McLoughlin while playing together in the band Mainiam and stuck together when that outfit dissolved. Hailing from Long Island, New York, McLoughlin moved to Fort Collins and then Denver in 2007 to attend Regis University to become an English teacher. In New York, McLoughlin played in experimental improv bands, but he sought a project with more cohesiveness. Although the bass player is capable of straying from the usual musical map, McLoughlin's imaginative rhythms and ability to synch with divergent rhythms sets Cult apart from other heavier bands.

Salazar joined Cult after responding to Monroe and McLoughlin's Craigslist ad, wherein they listed famous drummers with compatible styles rather than bands. Salazar, who spent his formative years in southwest Texas, came in with an equally eclectic taste in music, initially interested in thrash in the ’80s before taking to newer bands like Isis and Russian Circles. He also brought to the band a drum kit with nine pieces, including two bass drums. Originally calling themselves Empty Mansions, the musicians changed to Cult of the Lost Cause after an early song of the same name. The suggestive, mysterious quality of the name seemed to fit a group whose sound synthesized influences of metal, punk, atmospheric rock and prog — and didn't fit neatly into one category.  

For Monroe, not fitting into others' prescribed musical categories was a familiar experience.

“From the early days, one of the first bands that was important that way was Living Colour,” recalls Monroe. “They were the first band of that type that I saw where I thought, 'They look like me; maybe I can do this.'"

He continues, "Even into my twenties, when people met me, if they heard I played an instrument, they always assumed it was bass, and they always assumed it was funk bass. I'd have to correct people two or three times, even people I knew. Even in this band, we played a benefit show at some out-of-the-way bar down south. After our set, a guy from one of the other bands walked up to me and said, 'That's really cool. I didn't think black people played metal.' I have no answer for that."

Salazar had a different experience of growing up and exploring musical subcultures. “Where I grew up, it was near the Texas-Mexico border, and there has always been a mingling of the two cultures even before that border was set," he says. "Everybody I played with were of different races, so it was never an issue. I never had someone come up to me and say, 'I never knew Mexican guys played in metal bands.' I've been around when that happened with Mhyk, and since he's dealt with it more often, he's learned to handle it better, whereas I was more like, 'Let's throw down and kick this guy's ass!' But he said, 'No, we're not going to do that.' I was really offended by it.”

“We didn't do it as a social experiment, putting this band together,” concludes Monroe. “When I first heard [Dead Kennedys], I never saw a picture. I had no idea [what D.H. Peligro looked like]. When you talk about a band like that, to this day people only think of Jello Biafra. So it's an easy thing to forget that American music has always had a broader sense of inclusion than it's been given credit for.”

A 2013 self-titled album garnered Cult a degree of attention, but for its next release, the guys wanted to develop their sound further. In early 2015, the opportunity came to record with Dave Otero, the respected recording engineer of Flatline Audio whose name has been attached to noteworthy records from Cattle Decapitation and Cephalic Carnage. The opportunity to work with a band outside of his usual wheelhouse appealed to Otero, whose busy schedule doesn't have many gaps. In early August, Cult entered the studio, and the result is Contritions: a quantum leap forward in songwriting and a musically diverse affair, as it reconciles heaviness with expansive atmospheres and crushing sounds with dynamic layers, almost suggestive of a film score. There are no lyrics, but the music reflects a unified quality among the bandmembers, who are all fathers with professional jobs.

Contritions was very much the idea of, let's make something worthy of the sacrifices we put into making it,” explains McLoughlin, referring to the myriad arrangements, time away from family, and energy put into the music. The cover art, a digital collage designed by Monroe, suits the dark, dreamy yet heavy music within. Now released on vinyl with local imprint Sailor Records, Contritions is the work of a band of maturity and depth.

Cult of the Lost Cause, with Muscle Beach, Abrams and Necropanther, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, February 27, $10, hi-dive, 303-733-0230.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.