Music News

Without a Net

Hans Buenning is best known as one fourth of Acrobat Down, an ultra-catchy Denver-based combo. But Buenning is more than just an accomplished musician; he's also a dance-floor superfreak who recently invented his own trademark step.

"It's called the 'Prairie Dog,' and it's the perfect dance for big, empty concert halls," he declares. "I came up with it at a LaDonnas show a while back. It was pretty sparsely attended, I guess, so I just decided to make a fool out of myself in public. And before I knew it, it was sweeping the nation."

Well, not quite: Although the wigglers on MTV's The Grind may someday start indulging in this hyperkinetic variation on the tango, they haven't yet. But the Acrobats (rhythm guitarist Buenning, guitarist/vocalist Aaron Hobbs, bassist Eliot Zizic and drummer Jason Jones) aren't complaining. After all, the act has only been together for a year, but already it's shared stages with faves such as the Emirs, the Hate Fuck Trio and the aforementioned LaDonnas and has won a dedicated following of its own. And why not? One part pop, two parts bombast and 97 parts youthful exuberance, its chiming guitar excursions exude enough raw vim to charm the Airwalks off even the most cynical listener. And, oh yeah: The music kicks like an oversexed mule.

This last quality has led many onlookers to categorize these twentysomethings as punks, but Hobbs rejects the tag. As he puts it, "We're too happy-go-lucky to be a punk band. Our songs are way too friendly-sounding. I mean, there's still some contention there. We try to poke people a little bit--step on some toes, ruffle some feathers. But it's not that serious. We just try to make it fun."

That's not to say that Hobbs isn't familiar with the punk medium. On the contrary, the guitarist has played in plenty of thrashy collectives, including Small Dog Frenzy, a Denver punk-pop trio that gained a great deal of notoriety in the early Nineties. During its five-year tenure, the group released a pair of singles and an impressive CD, Davenport Champions, on the now-defunct Titanic label. Furthermore, the players inspired more than their share of locals as a result of their DIY values and explosive live shows. Members of Christie Front Drive and Linus are among the many artists who have cited Frenzy as an influence.

Unfortunately, time wore down the threesome, which disbanded in 1995. Today Hobbs blames the breakup on the usual personal and artistic differences. "It pretty much ran its course," he explains. "We were having a good time, but somehow I think we forgot that and started taking ourselves too seriously. It was probably me more than anyone else in the band. Somehow I had it in my head that our songs had to be profound or something. And I felt weird about that, because it didn't really fit with our personalities. I mean, it's cool to have substance to your songs, but you don't have to be a pain in the ass."

Buenning, who pounded the skins for the band, concurs. "Being together for five years should have worked to our advantage," he notes. "But it seemed to work against us for some reason."

The slate wiped clean, Hobbs hooked up with Zizic and Jones, two longtime friends whose own outfit, Jorge Coyote, made occasional appearances at the Lion's Lair. Still, jokes Zizic, "we've probably played more shows with Acrobat Down in the last year than we played the entire time we were in Jorge Coyote."

For a brief period, Zizic, Jones and Hobbs performed as Race Bannon, a name that paid tribute to a character on the cartoon Johnny Quest. Zizic and Jones subsequently took a two-month sojourn through Asia, after which the principals, supplemented by drummer-turned-rhythm guitarist Buenning, regrouped under the Acrobat Down moniker. Since then the quartet has been plugging away on the club circuit, evolving into an act whose gigs are marked by solid chops and spontaneity. Indeed, the band switches course so many times in a given performance that you need a scorecard to keep track.

Much of these guys' unpredictability can be attributed to their predilection for inviting guests to join them on stage. In addition to the traditional guitars-drums-bass lineup, the band has been known to feature extra vocalists, supplementary guitarists and horn players such as Old Bull's Needle trumpeter Tim Franklin and Blast-Off Heads clarinetist/guitarist Shaggy. In addition, the core Acrobats enjoy trading instruments. During the band's grand finale, "Bird," Buenning often surrenders his guitar in favor of the drum kit, providing a backbeat as Hobbs blows gleefully on "the green horn," a plastic noisemaker that Zizic picked up in Montreal. ("It's just like the one that Bart Simpson uses to do beer bongs in The Simpsons' St. Patrick's Day special," he boasts.) All in all, an Acrobat Down appearance is more like a party than a concert, and that suits Hobbs just fine. "We try to make our shows a little different every time," he admits. "And so far, we've been pretty successful."

"When we started this band, we wanted to really mix it up so that things would stay interesting," Jones adds. "I mean, we'll let anybody come up and perform. They don't even have to play an instrument. They can juggle if they want to. Just so long as it's entertaining."

Acrobat Down takes an equally cavalier attitude toward its repertoire. While many of its songs can be loosely described as punk pop, the foursome goes to great lengths to stretch the definition to its limits. "Pissboy (Anti-Boss Song)," for example, is a hilarious, I Spy-like number that spotlights Franklin, while "The Rumbleseat Dream" is a twangy, psuedo-hillbilly nugget that Hobbs lovingly describes as "a country-sounding song that talks smack about country music."

Both of these tracks should be making an appearance on a self-released split single with the Blast-Off Heads due for release later this year. In the meantime, the band will continue to take its musical mayhem to the folks who need it most. "We want to get people jumping if they can," Hobbs says. "But so far, it's been hard to crack the shell. I don't think anyone's dancing to anyone right now. Hopefully, they'll come around."

Of course they will--as soon as they learn how to do the Prairie Dog.

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Brad Jones