DEN­VER’S MU­SIC SCENE HAS ELECTRO-SOUL

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Dy­lan Owens

In stu­dios, af­ter-hours par­ties and rock clubs across Den­ver over the last decade, a sound has taken shape.

It’s half-man, half-ma­chine — the syn­the­sized boom of a dig­i­tal bass drum, a silk­ily fret­ted gui­tar and maybe a dis­em­bod­ied vo­cal sam­ple. And out­side of its de­voted fan base, it is largely ig­nored.

As with all fledg­ling gen­res, lit­tle about electro-soul is de­fined — even what to call it. (Of the eight artists in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle, none agreed on any one name.) But what does seem sure is its rise, es­pe­cially lo­cally. If Den­ver can be known as the mu­si­cal torch­bearer of any genre, it’s electro-soul’s half-live, half­pro­duced swirl of hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz.

From venues like Cer­vantes’ Masterpiece Ball­room to Red Rocks Am­phithe­atre, electro-soul artists have found a home in the Den­ver area, play­ing shows to au­di­ences here that dwarf sets just a state away. For some, that home has be­come lit­eral, in­spir­ing ris­ing mu­si­cians like 26-year-old Detroit na­tive GRiZ, who sold out Chicago’s 12,000-per­son Navy Pier this year, to re­lo­cate to the area.

If the genre is news to you, it’s prob­a­bly not your fault. Much like the jam-band scene or elec­tronic dance mu­sic — two of the genre’s fore­bears, and what GRiZ re­ferred to poignantly as “pop mu­sic’s black sheep” — elec­trosoul has been cast aside as some­how un­wor­thy of dis­cus­sion and, in many cases, re­spect. Only a hand­ful of blogs — like Brook­lyn’s Live for Live Mu­sic and Boul­der’s own This Song Is Sick — du­ti­fully cover the scene.

One rea­son for that, as Live for Live Mu­sic ed­i­tor-in-chief Kunj Shah ex­plained, is that your av­er­age mu­sic jour­nal­ist isn’t in­ter­ested in or equipped to delve into the “messy” world of live mu­sic.

“When you’re re­view­ing a live show of a band like Pretty Lights or a band in the jam-band world like Phish, it feels like you’re cov­er­ing them from an ESPN an­gle of a sports team,” Shah said. “You’re judg­ing how they tran­si­tion, their song se­lec­tion from show to show, crowd in­ten­sity — all these dif­fer­ent as­pects. It’s an art, but it be­comes a game be­tween fan base and mu­si­cian.”

Roughly 15 years af­ter it was cre­ated, the genre has swept across the coun­try. But Den­ver re­mains one of its ear­li­est adapters and most fer­vent sup­port­ers.

“In most cases with a cer­tain sub-genre of mu­sic, it typ­i­cally builds out of a spe­cific re­gion or city,” Hunter Wil­liams, an agent with the Nashville-based Creative Artist Agency, said via e-mail. “In this case, Den­ver fully sup­ported this move­ment from the be­gin­ning ... . ”

Look­ing around Den­ver’s mar­quees this week­end, that goes with­out say­ing. In­clud­ing elec­tronic mu­sic blowout Deca­dence, there are a dozen elec­trosoul af­fil­i­ated shows set to light up Den­ver for New Year’s Eve week­end.

If it’s clear that Den­ver is an electro-soul mecca, how we got here isn’t. But as with so many of the city’s post-Grate­ful Dead mu­sic mem­o­ries, it started with a jam band.

Drum ’n’ bass

Ele­men­tally, electro-soul is live in­stru­men­ta­tion quar­ter­backed by an on-stage pro­ducer. The jammy elec­tronic Santa Cruz, Calif., five-piece Sound Tribe Sec­tor 9, or STS9, is a pro­to­typ­i­cal, in­stru­ment-heavy ver­sion of that, and for good rea­son: Ask any other artist in the genre and they’ll tell you that STS9, for all in­tents and pur­poses, started electro-soul.

STS9 per­cus­sion­ist Jef­free Lerner doesn’t deny that, but he will de­fer to an in­flu­ence the band shares with vir­tu­ally ev­ery rock band formed af­ter 1975: Pink Floyd.

Around 2001, STS9 was try­ing to find a way to play drum ‘n’ bass, a fran­tic style of dance mu­sic stem­ming from English rave mu­sic, with live in­stru­ments. It be­gan to fold com­puter pro­duc­tion into live in­stru­men­ta­tion to get at the de­sired ef­fect, an ex­per­i­ment Lerner said was sem­i­nally in­spired by Pink Floyd and its early use of ana­log syn­the­siz­ers in its mu­sic.

“I was pro­gram­ming a part while our key­boardist, David Phipps, was pro­gram­ming the other, and some­thing clicked,” STS9 gui­tarist Hunter Brown said in an e-mail. “It felt like we were im­pro­vis­ing in slow mo­tion.” The band wrote “We’ll Meet in Our Dreams” that day, a song they still play to­day.

What they ended up with wasn’t drum ‘n’ bass — it sounded more like a thump­ing, ex­trater­res­trial-sound­ing style of live dance. But from that fail­ing, a style was born.

The band took its ex­per­i­ment live for the first time that year at its first show at Den­ver’s Fill­more Au­di­to­rium, play­ing 14 songs over a se­quence off a com­puter. The crowd was con­fused, hav­ing never heard any of the songs or style be­fore, but even­tu­ally came around. They were on to some­thing. Pretty Lights, aka Derek Vin­cent Smith, per­forms at Red Rocks Am­phithe­atre on Aug. 7, 2015.

“I don’t know of a band that was do­ing it at that time,” Lerner said, “and even to­day, we feel like it’s day one.”

Some 15 years later, they’ll once again re­turn to the Fill­more Au­di­to­rium, where it all started, for a three-night run of New Year’s Eve shows.

Elec­tronic mae­stro

With the foun­da­tion in place, two kids from Colorado took the genre to its log­i­cal ex­treme.

Derek Vin­cent Smith and Michal Men­ert started the Pretty Lights Band af­ter dis­band­ing a four-piece called Lis­ten. The duo started by play­ing 50-per­son par­ties at a house near Boul­der’s Left Hand Canyon.

In 2006, Pretty Lights played its first of­fi­cial show in the base­ment of cof­fee shop Mug’s Cafe in Fort Collins. Smith and Men­ert dressed in suits, serv­ing wine, cheese and hors d’oeu­vres, play­ing for about 20 peo­ple.

“We were try­ing to present elec­tronic mu­sic as some­thing classy and taste­ful and chic,” Men­ert said.

In Oc­to­ber 2006, Men­ert and Smith re­leased “Tak­ing Up Your Pre­cious Time,” a free al­bum, and played about a dozen shows to­gether through­out the year. But the duo didn’t en­vi­sion them­selves as a live project. Pretty Lights would go on to achieve huge live suc­cess — ac­cord­ing to Poll­star, it grossed an av­er­age of about $525,000 per show in the last three years — but with­out Men­ert.

In De­cem­ber 2006, Men­ert was stabbed in the chest while sell­ing mar­i­juana in Love­land, lac­er­at­ing his hand and nearly miss­ing his heart. On the swelling buzz of “Tak­ing Up Your Pre­cious Time,” the only Pretty Lights al­bum that fea­tured Men­ert, Smith car­ried on with­out him.

“To put out one of the best al­bums I’ve ever worked on and watch it do re­ally well and pass me by just be­cause I was in­jured was weird,” Men­ert said.

Un­der the Pretty Lights name, Smith pressed on, bring­ing on Lis­ten drum­mer Cory Eber­hard and re­tool­ing his set to fuse the big-pic­ture po­ten­tial of a pro­ducer with the in-the-mo­ment thrill of live in­stru­men­ta­tion. Within a year, they’d opened for some of the elec­tronic and jam scene’s big­gest bands, in­clud­ing STS9.

Thanks to the pre-pro­duced pieces Smith played through his com­puter dur­ing his sets, Pretty Lights claimed a huge, com­plex sound that be­trayed its small size. But some­thing was miss­ing.

“The live (as­pect) of just pre­sent­ing mu­sic wasn’t giv­ing me the full ex­pe­ri­ence I want as a per­former,” Smith said. He wanted to push the idea of what a pro­ducer could do on stage, reimag­in­ing the role as a sort of elec­tronic mu­sic con­duc­tor.

“Peo­ple are quick to look at how DJing is lack­ing in tra­di­tional mu­sic val­ues, but it has some­thing else,” Smith said, “a pro­ducer (who) is able to look at the set as a whole.”

Tech­ni­cally, this is what sep­a­rates the genre from just elec­tron­i­cally-in­flected jam. Where a jam-band is prone to get­ting caught in the eddy of a mu­si­cal mo­ment, the live pro­ducer can keep a top-down per­spec­tive of what’s hap­pen­ing on stage.

“There’s some­thing pow­er­ful about a sin­gu­lar co­her­ent vi­sion that’s able to di­rect it and sculpt it and paint the pic­ture and cu­rate the mu­sic,” Smith said.

In its lat­est it­er­a­tion, Pretty Lights & the Ana­log Fu­ture Band, Smith is one of eight on stage, mind­ing the di­rec­tion of each song as well as di­rect­ing the set as a whole like an elec­tronic mae­stro. For the last two years, Smith brought the band to Tel­luride Town Park for what he calls “episodic fes­ti­vals.” Men­ert sat in on his 2015 show.

“He’s ba­si­cally con­duct­ing with in-ear head­phones in­stead of a ba­ton,” Men­ert said.

Pretty Lights changed Den­ver’s mu­sic pro­file. The big­gest name in a strange new dance mu­sic beast was born in Colorado. Artists and fans alike flooded in af­ter him.

“Mo­town vibe”

In a post-Pretty Lights Den­ver, a new gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cians found the genre’s Emer­ald City.

Across the coun­try, artists mak­ing this live-elec­tronic mash-up flocked to play shows for the city’s home­grown le­gion of electro-soul fans. Lo­cal venues such as Cer­vantes Masterpiece Ball­room and Red Rocks be­came leg­endary among artists and fans alike.

Few have drawn crowds like GRiZ, a sax­o­phon­ist who pulls shim­mer­ing funk riffs over elec­tronic-in­spired break­beats. GRiZ is Grant Kwiecin­ski, a 26-yearold Detroit na­tive who moved to Boul­der in the sum­mer of 2011 af­ter an in­vi­ta­tion from his man­ager, who lived in the area. He soon fell in with Paper Di­a­mond, a Colorado-born pro­ducer, and the Boul­der stu­dio he man­aged.

The mu­sic scene “in Boul­der seemed so invit­ing and ac­cept­ing,” Kwiecin­ski said.

In a makeshift shed-turned-stu­dio used by Late Night Ra­dio (Alex Medellin, 30, and drum­mer Tyler Un­land, 29) in Den­ver’s Berke­ley neigh­bor­hood, the foundling com­mu­nity comes into fo­cus. Un­land and Medellin are sit­ting in with Marvel Years, aka 22-year-old Cory Wythe. Un­like Medellin and Un­land, Wythe doesn’t even live here, de­spite hav­ing played his first con­cert (and many af­ter) at Cer­vantes in 2013, a show he said “spoiled him.”

“I thought ev­ery show was go­ing to be as rowdy and awe­some as Cer­vantes,” Wythe said. “I’ve never had a bad show out here.”

When I vis­ited, the three took up a drum set, acous­tic gui­tar and syn­the­sizer and started to jam. It’s forced, and the sum of two dif­fer­ent bands with dif­fer­ent styles — Marvel Years veers to­ward gui­tar­ban­nered funk, Late Night Ra­dio prefers hip-hop syn­co­pa­tion — but their sounds dove­tail flu­idly, gal­lop­ing to a pulse around Un­land’s drums.

This com­pat­i­bil­ity isn’t an ac­ci­dent so much as a cir­cum­stance of electro-soul’s tight-knit scene here, where collaboration in the stu­dio and on stage out­weighs com­pe­ti­tion.

“There’s room for all artists, and the im­pact each one of us has on each other and our mu­sic is tremen­dous,” Un­land said. “It feels like some­thing be­fore it had a name, like we have this early Mo­town-type vibe.”

An even play­ing field

Pretty Lights met hip-hop pro­ducer and cur­rent Pretty Lights drum­mer Adam Deitch af­ter open­ing for STS9 in New York City. Deitch asked him straight up: Where are you from? Where is this hap­pen­ing?

“It was one of the first things he asked me,” Smith said. “‘How did you come up with this sound of hip-hop and elec­tronic mu­sic fused to­gether?’ He made such a big deal about it.”

When Smith told him it was in Colorado, Deitch couldn’t be­lieve it. Es­pe­cially back then, Colorado was mu­si­cally equiv­a­lent to the mid­dle of nowhere for some­one like Deitch, who lived in New York City and had been work­ing with rap­pers like Talib Kweli and 50 Cent.

“Colorado’s po­si­tion in the coun­try and right in the mid­dle be­tween the coasts made it so there wasn’t one kind of mu­sic or one scene that was re­ally dom­i­nat­ing,” Smith said.

Jazz on Wed­nes­day, hip-hop on Thurs­day, house mu­sic on Fri­day — why not all three on Satur­day? That’s Den­ver: a genre melt­ing pot for the chron­i­cally mu­sichun­gry. In this weird mu­si­cal amal­gam, it might just have found its soul food.

Alex Medellin (key­board), Cory Wythe (gui­tar) and Tyler Un­land (drums) of Late Night Ra­dio and Marvel Years jam at a stu­dio in Den­ver. EDM bands such as Late Night Ra­dio, Sun­squabi and Marvel Years are part of Colorado’s uniquely thriv­ing elec­trosoul scene — which con­tin­ues to fly below many mu­sic fans’ radar.

Mem­bers of Sun­squabi, Dyno­hunter, Break Sci­ence and Late Night Ra­dio take a bow af­ter a show at the Og­den Theatre on Nov. 23. Pro­vided by Cait Falc

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Alex Medellin, key­board, Cory Wythe, gui­tar, and Tyler Un­land, drums, jam at their stu­dio in Den­ver.

Adam Good, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

STS9 per­forms at Red Rocks Am­phithe­atre on Sept. 11, 2015.

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