Jay Munly has been a figure on the Denver music scene for many years now. For years people have recognized him as the front sideman of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and the frontman for other well known Denver act, Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots, with a total of five album releases thus far. Tall, rail-thin, with a hairstyle that I have seen range from mohawk to bare skin, and frequently dressed entirely in black, Munly cuts an imposing figure. The first time I met him he was inquiring into the strength of the security bars on my windows. I had no idea who he was and became sufficiently intimidated. Later, I wandered into one of his shows on the advice of a friend. Watching him take the stage, I had an “Oh Shit” moment as realization struck.
For me, that show was a revelation. It started with such power and force that I literally took a step back with my mouth agape. Here was this guy and his band playing dark, haunting, yet absolutely beautiful music I would describe as Southern Gothic.
I found it hard to look away as his burning eyes gazed over the top of the crowd. Displaying a captivating stage presence, Munly sat perched atop a stool attacking his banjo and sang with a terrifying intensity. Even the instrument itself was a one-of-a-kind after he modified it to remove some of the higher twang and added another bridge, creating a sound all his own.
Eventually, I was able to look over to the three girls who inhabited the other side of the stage. My first reaction was “Holy god, those girls are pretty.” I’m a guy, and that sort of knee-jerk reaction can’t be helped, so I apologize. However, within seconds I was admiring The Harlots for their obvious talents. The violin and cello have always struck me as some of the most difficult instruments to master. Already impressive, they step it up even further by pulling out a stringed, wooden contraption. This is apparently an instrument of Scandinavian origin that I am too stupid to even spell.
The Harlots played and sang in harmony with an effortless grace that would have been sexy even if it were Bea Arthur up on stage. In the end, it was Munly himself that commanded the audience’s attention.
Munly was kind enough to allow me to interview him, and while I knew it would be interesting, it quickly turned into my favorite interview to date. I had to keep reminding myself to stay on topic.
He is completely different from the fiery demon you see on stage. Soft-spoken, he measures out his words before he speaks. I, on the other hand, stepped on my tongue straight out of the box and asked a stupid question. I pointed out that he was from Canada and wondered how his music had such a Southern American bent. In return, he pointed out that he had spent all of his formative years here in Denver and considered this town home more than anywhere else, adding that his music, along with that of Slim Cessna and 16 Horsepower, was something unique to Denver. I had to concede the point. While there are similarities with music I have heard in places like Kentucky and Louisiana, this is something entirely new about his songwriting that manages to sound very old.
In the latest self-titled album you will find a DVD, which in addition to songs new and old, contains several tracks of Munly reading some of his songs as poetry. This is when it really struck me that his style of writing contained a very old vernacular. He told me that this is because he is extremely interested in words. He catalogues all of the unusual words that he comes across, and mentioned that one day he would like to create his own dictionary.
On the subject of his non-musical writings, many of his music fans may not know that he is also a published author. The book is entitled 10 Songs Without Music and contains stories about the characters that inhabit songs from his previous albums. It is available at Twist and Shout or the Tattered Cover. After he informed me of the second book that’s in the works, I was also surprised to find out that Munly is also a playwright and two of his plays are currently in production.
Coming back to his music, I would have to say that one of my favorite songs of his is “Cooney vs. Munly,” because in it he manages to lend gravitas to the words of Tutti-Frutti. This is also a result of his love of words and word play, where he feels that the nonsensical lyrics of the song were indicative of where music was at that point in time. Munly likes the idea that he can take something silly and fun and layer it with darkness.
Prior to our meeting I had mentioned to several people around town that I would be interviewing Munly, and all of them had heard some rumor or another about him. It seemed strange that people who had never spoken to the man claimed to know specific facts about him. I figured I would try to sort it out by asking him directly about these various urban tales of Munly.
The first was that he only ate bagels and sprouts. I got the impression that this was not entirely true, but he did say that he had a “very restrictive diet.” Another friend told me that she had heard he runs six miles a day. Once again he hedged his answer, but admitted that there could be someone in town who looked like him that enjoyed running.
The one true rumor was that he is avid hockey fan and former player (a guess Canadian origins may play a part). Munly didn’t really get emotionally involved with the fortunes of one team or another, just the pure art of the game is all he needs to relax. Although we spoke before the NHL announced their return, I would venture to guess he’s probably looking forward to having his hockey back.
In the end, I felt guilty for pointing out that people are wagging their tongues around town. It served no real purpose other than to probably to make him paranoid. However, I think that people have certain conceptions about him, but have never really talked to the man behind the music. I found Munly to be extremely kind, which is how the people who are actually in the know describe him. His questions about my security bars turned out to be innocuous as well. He had just moved to the neighborhood and was merely trying to find some for his own windows.
There are a couple of acts around that everyone should be required to see, and I feel that these are judged on the quality and uniqueness of the music as well as the power of their stage show. I would say DeVotchka is one, and Munly and the Lee Lewis Harlots are another.
No matter what sort of music you listen to, a good show is a good show.
They will be playing at Bender’s Tavern on August 5th and 6th. I recommend the 5th, because you are going to want to go back on the next night.