Rock meets opera and works of a Soviet writerwww.rmchronicle.com
To the ambitious 20-something artist, Fort Collins can feel a lot like purgatory. It’s not half as bad as a small town, where young creative types are often ostracized, if not physically threatened; and it’s not half as good as a big city, where the artist — at least in his mind — stands poised to cut teeth in an environment that is infinitely more eclectic, supportive and challenging. To the young artist, Fort Collins sits on scarily comfy neutral ground, where locals seem relatively attentive, if a little too glazed-over by microbrews, shopping and sunlight to be titillated by the pressing quandaries of the soul. It can feel like a place where music is made for dancing instead of discussion, a place where paintings are made to clutter a coffeehouse wall.
And so the young artist either a) skips town weeks after being handed a B.A. at the university, often en route to a teaching job overseas, b) joins in with the small, dedicated local artistic community, goes to a lot of potlucks and reads poetry at the Bean Cycle, or c) after a certain number of drinks, consistently threatens to leave for either coast, but, to the amusement or annoyance of his friends, never does.
Fort Collins band vee device — though young, ambitious and artistic — have done none of the above. Their solution to the dilemma is rather Andy Kaufman-esque: Instead of railing against reality, they’ve made up their own.
The truth is that vee device is a unique local band that plays weird, literate and technically proficient avant-pop that has roots in bluegrass and flirts with chamber pop, indie rock and even prog.
The group is primarily the brainchild of Sam Ernst, 25, a songwriter drawn to esoteric, conceptual projects whose low, nasally voice carries an unorthodox charm. Multi-instrumentalist Dennis Bigelow, 25, arranges much of the music; 24-year-old Denver musician Grant Gordy adds impressive guitar and mandolin chops; and Carole Lundgren, 23, the group’s newest member, plays violin.
vee device have recorded three albums since 2004, all in Ernst’s bedroom studio. Out Of The Darkness from 2004 and last year’s Autobiography Of A Dying Band have received warm reviews from Front Range weeklies and magazines, though they haven’t exactly been huge sellers.
Ernst, Bigelow and Lundgren still have day jobs, and the group — whose live set relies on a relatively quiet room to give space to their trunkload of down-home instruments — has a hard time finding gigs. But you’d never guess their need of money or attention by reading their promotional materials. Granted, a band’s promo literature is often a palace of hyperbole, but vee device’s myth-making is, depending on your outlook, either very funny or outright deceptive.
There are the monikers. Ernst goes by vee, Bigelow by &roid; Gordy is G-man, and Lundgren The Cannone. The band’s bio contains few facts but is packed with references to the “vee Revolution.” A particularly interesting moment in the bio explains the reception of vee device’s last album: “Autobiography Of A Dying Band became a massive, worldwide sensation. Chants of ‘Give me VD or give me death’ resounded off the rafters in every sleepy hamlet and major metropolis.” A slew of gushing reviews from imaginary critics like David Goliath, calling the band “astounding” and “revolutionary,” grace the packaging of the album.
“It’s amazing what people believe of these lies we tell,” says Ernst. “Someone in Canada used one of the quotes from the album; they paraphrased, ‘Long considered one of America’s favorite bands, and it’s easy to see what the hype is about.’ It’s like, what hype? We made up the hype.”
“I think in a lot of ways it’s purely for our own enjoyment,” Bigelow says about their PR tactics. “We really like to just think about it and call each other by our fake names and have a good time.”
In reality, vee device is about to release the first act of a three-part rock opera, Love Will Tear Us To Shreds — Act 1: And Quiet Flows The Dawn. Their site offers a more played-up presumption: “The band made an announcement that shook the very foundations of Western music. They would pen an opera. A dumbfounded world waited with baited breath.”
FROM RUSSIA, WITH RUBS
Few of Sam Ernst’s peers voraciously read semi-obscure Russian history. Even fewer think to write a three-part rock opera on their findings. Ernst keeps a hardbound copy of the Isaac Babel Reader, his primary source for the opera, on his coffee table; the book is hefty, but it looks like a pamphlet in comparison to the life works of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.
Babel, a journalist and a short-story writer, was highly critical of the Stalinist regime. His most famous series of stories, Red Calvary, published in 1926, depicts a disturbing vision of Russia’s military campaign in Poland. Though Babel’s work illuminates truths about Stalin’s ruthlessness, it is also extremely poetic and often surreal.
“His work essentially destroyed him,” Ernst continues, explaining why he chose Babel as a muse for his rock opera. “As soon as I read that, I saw my artistic vision and the same questions we all ask: ‘Why are we doing this if it’s just going to kill us?’”
Of course, Babel was found guilty of espionage and executed in prison for his writings; Ernst, on the other hand, has invented his own stakes. Inside the apartment, Ernst has obsessively compiled ideas for the opera on varying sizes of scrap paper posted to the inside of his front door. There are meticulous rows of plot outlines for all three acts, as well as a mess of a section called “Unused ideas.”
And Quiet Flows The Dawn has the shape of an opera in that characters drive the story through song and pause for all kinds of melodramatic ruminations. And like the program to an opera, the liner notes explain the lyrics and the story in detail.
Track one fades in with Ernst slowly strumming his guitar, singing the part of William Babel, who is on the fields of battle in Poland, poetically waxing about flaming villages, dying men cursing God and gargoyled fountains. The song soon swells with fuzzy bass and squawking horns, as The General, sung by Bigelow, comes on over hammering acoustic guitars and mandolins, boasting about honor and loyalty.
Other characters include Elayna, Babel’s wife, sung in a cool, country twang by Leadville, Colorado, musician Nancy Seiters; Maxim Gorky, Babel’s friend, sung by local musician Scott Bussen; and Stalin, sung by Ernst’s father, Richard. The music, primarily arranged by Bigelow, shows much more restraint than past vee device albums, and the production sounds more crisp, giving extra power to a surging choral march, the background ‘ba ba” harmonies and Gordy’s trademark fret calisthenics.
Although there are opera-like elements here, the title ‘rock opera’ is still suspect. Sure, there is a Van Halen-ish guitar solo in “The Spineless and the Simple,” but for the most part, this has way too much flat picking and too few power chords to hearken Tommy.
“[Rock opera] is the easiest thing for it to be contained within,” says Bigelow. “It’s not like opera you see on a regular stage, and it’s not quite like a big bombastic, Who rock opera either. I like calling it a ‘folk-rock opera.’”
“We started calling it a rock opera because that’s at least a term people have heard of,” says Ernst. “And that’s probably the closest thing that people can say, ‘O.K., I know what you are doing,’ but we say that and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’ People still don’t get it, so it really didn’t help.”
By the last song, “Poetry’s Perversion,” William Babel is left with a quandary: He can stay in Russia, where he is a well-known author but constantly hounded and threatened by The General, Stalin and other bureaucrats for his rabblerousing; or, he can escape to France to live with Elayna, where although he may be content, he’ll have to give up his life’s work.
Ernst relays a salient moment from one of Babel’s letters: “I could become a taxi driver, they are the freest people I know, but then I would be turning my back on all of this writing if I left Russia.”
The drama of Babel’s heartrending quote is swept up by a rushing breeze that punishes the leaves outside of Ernst’s stone apartment building.
“Another quiet night in Fort Collins,” I think.
What, exactly, is Ernst’s struggle again?
WILL THE REAL VD PLEASE STAND UP?
And Quiet Flows The Dawn was literally recorded in a box, a studio constructed predominately from two-by-fours, insulation and masonite in the back bedroom of Ernst’s apartment. The sparse recording booth, dubbed Basement Studios v2.0, contains only crushed velvet on the ceiling, a rope light, a microphone and a collection of sheet music and lyrics tacked to the walls. Because only one person can fit in the booth at a time, the crisp sounding, giant choral flourishes and layers of instrumentation on And Quiet Flows The Dawn were painstakingly recorded one piece at a time.
The meager accommodations build perfectly into the indie lore vee device are hoping to create. Ernst romanticizes the D.I.Y. recording studio as something similar to that of the Elephant Six Collective, the Athens, Ga.-based label that gained notoriety in the late ’90s and housed The Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control. Like veedee records, it was run entirely by the musicians recording on it.
“We really admire what they were able to do,” says Ernst. “Just in terms of community. How they just, ‘Hey, we’ll play on your record, you’ll play on ours.’ They weren’t targeting themselves at an audience of any sort; they were just making music. I mean, when you make music, you think of the audience to some degree, but it wasn’t like they were using market research — ‘Alright we’re going to target 16-to 34-year-olds and stuff like that. So we respect their ‘Who cares?’ sort of attitude; we respect how they all worked together, and we’ve finally been able to do this with this rock opera.”
Besides vee device projects, the studio is also being used to record Leadville’s Nancy Seiters and the newly formed local band The Tanukis — both of whom helped out on And Quiet Flows The Dawn — on Ernst and Bigelow’s label veedee records.
Ernst and Bigelow haven’t always recorded other artists on their label, but that hasn’t stopped them from saying they have. In addition to producing fake fan websites on vee device’s homepage, Ernst also has claimed make-believe artists on the label.
A few years back, a start-up music magazine was holding meetings in Denver in an attempt to get a grasp on the Colorado indie scene. Ernst and Bigelow were invited to a posh French restaurant to talk it over. The magazine execs were interested in vee device and ‘The Igloos,’ a side project Ernst and Bigelow talk about, but haven’t started.
“We were the only ones on the record label at the time,” Ernst recalls through a smirk. “So we made up bands to make it look like we were a record company, to give us some sort of notoriety and legitimacy. So they started asking me things about the other bands on the label, and I had to make things up about them.”
Ernst and Bigelow told the magazine they were “record executives.”
“They put us up in a hotel and gave us VIP tickets to Rose Hill Drive,” Bigelow adds.
For all their posturing, vee device has had a tough time convincing people that they aren’t stoned.
“We’ve had so many people accuse the band of being a bunch of potheads,” says Bigelow. “[People think], ‘These guys must be pretty drugged out.’”
“That’s what [Denver altweekly] Westword’s review of Autobiography said,” Ernst recalls, “‘These guys either have way too much time on their hands or they smoke way too much pot.’”
“’Too much time on their hands’ is definitely the one,” Bigelow confirms.
“This song is about a Russian chemist,” Ernst says into a microphone that’s situated just a few feet from the coffee table in my living room.
Bigelow, to Ernst’s left, has thrown his lengthy arms around three instruments so far: a slightly weathered banjo, a 30-year-old, sparkle-coated accordion and a plump stand-up bass. Gordy, on Ernst’s right, has worked with a mandolin and a guitar, and has shared the bass. Lundgren stands to the extreme right, firing a bow across violin strings when the song requires. A navy blue and silver “V” is strategically placed at Ernst’s feet.
After each song, Ernst tells the group what comes next and the others shuffle around to find their proper instrument. The set list has been comprised of old and new vee device songs, as well as covers. It’s becoming clear which is which: Their older songs are packed with goofy existentialist phrases like “I’m shooting mind bullets/Zoom is the sound they make,” and the new ones are all about Stalinist Russia.
The highlight, thus far, has been a seamless and unlikely melding of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1” and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “I Second That Emotion.” Few groups, if any, have smashed Neutral Milk’s soaring mini-epic about growing up with suicidal, alcoholic parents with Robinson’s good-time addition to the Big Chill soundtrack.
This evening’s occasion, though special, is not some journalistic perk. On the vee device website, the group plainly offers to play living rooms for free, a proposition that’s been open for a few years now.
“It’s where we sound the best,” says Ernst. “I mean, what we’ve found playing out is we don’t fit at bars because no one wants to pay attention. So, if someone invites us into their living room, chances are they are gonna pay attention.”
“It was a way for us to play more shows,” adds Bigelow. “Because we were looking for venues and it really wasn’t working out. And we wanted to play out, and that just seemed like a logical choice.”
But, before tonight, no one but the group’s friends and relatives have taken them up on it.
“We thought we’d get a lot more living room shows,” says Ernst, laughing.
INTO THE BEYOND
Ernst and Bigelow are clearly stressing about their record release party on Friday, Oct. 27 at Everyday Joe’s in Fort Collins, where the group will come costumed to play And Quiet Flows The Dawn in its entirety. Still, with two other acts/albums of the opera to record, Ernst claims to be looking further into the beyond.
“We’re appreciating what we are doing right now, I guess,” he says. “It’s something we’ve always wanted to do. It’s a mammoth project. But we’re thinking like three or four albums into the future, too. Before we even started recording this one, we decided we were going to record an album of 100, 30-second songs. So we’ve recorded six of those.”
Whether or not Ernst and Bigelow are telling the truth, the two have made good on most of their strange and ambitious plans, though they’ve yet to live up to all that goofy talk of “worldwide phenomenon” on their website and album package. Above all else, vee device have created their own world. It’s still uncertain, however, if Fort Collins will care to join them there.
“A lot of people have said to us, ‘You will never make it in Fort Collins,’” says Ernst. “We’re like, ‘We don’t care.’ We’re totally content to keep recording albums in our bedroom and play them for our friends. So many things in this commercialized world are very soul-less: All the heart and the reason behind doing anything has been removed and commodified. And so that’s one thing that’s always been our ethos. It’s just like, ‘Whatever, let’s put this out. We’re not going to make any money. We never have.’”
“If it wasn’t for this thing, I’d be lost,” says Grant Gordy, gesturing toward a checkbook-sized day planner. Gordy, a professional guitarist and mandolinist based in Denver, can’t quite put a finger on the exact number of projects he is involved in.
“I guess I’m officially signed up for four or five,” he says, after a long pause.
Besides vee device, Gordy contributes to Arthur Lee Land, a Boulder-based outfit that calls itself “afrograss folk rock;” the Jayme Stone Quartet, an acoustic group immersed in contemporary jazz and bluegrass; and Interstate Cowboy, which plays western-swing. Gordy also often sits in with Fort Collins jazz pianist Mark Sloniker, and has played such diverse locales as Denver International Airport, a Central City casino and the home of Bronco’s head coach Mike Shanahan.
“My thing is just working as a general sideman in different situations,” says Gordy. “If you are lucky, in any given scene, you get involved in kind of a pool of musicians where if somebody needs a guitar player for this gig, there is a group of people that they can call. So I kind of freelance.”
This summer, Gordy was selected from hundreds of young musicians across the country who applied to new-grass bassist/classical composer Edgar Meyer’s workshop in New York City. The workshop attendees, a diverse selection of 15 musicians under age 30, spent a week learning and playing with Meyer as well as high-minded rootsy-veterans Bela Fleck and Mike Marshall. The week concluded with a performance at Carnegie Hall.
Gordy relished the opportunity.
“In some situations, Edgar and Mike would be critiquing, and in some situations, you would actually be playing in band situations with them,” he says. “Those are the cats who would be like a young jazz musician getting to study with Coltrane or Miles. To me, they are the top cats.”
As far as life freelancing on the Front Range goes, Gordy says he wouldn’t live it any other way.
“It’s really wonderful to have the kind of schedule where, even if you do a long gig, you are hardly ever going to work an eight-hour day,” he says. “It’s really nice, even with the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not you are going to get called for a gig. I’d rather do that than anything else.”
Rocky Mountain Chronicle -- Thursday, October 26, 2006
By Elliott Johnston