Bobby Jamison – lead guitar
Kurtis Hayfield – lead vocals, guitar
Sissy Marie – bass
Hoss – drums
All of us have seen music trends come and go. Watching a rerun of the movie “Hype!” the other day brought back memories of the Seattle grunge movement, which really wasn’t a movement at all for those musicians and music fans that had been creating and admiring that music for years before Time Magazine and Calvin Klein got their hands on it. The whole scene turned into this really bad joke, and it was no wonder that Kurt Cobain wanted out.
With the media success of The Strokes, The White Stripes, BRMC, Sloan and others, what may be seen as a trend now is a return to the roots of music and rock n’ roll, without all the Bentley-driving hip-hop rockers, DAT machines and glowsticks. But again, it’s not a trend for those musicians who have been playing for 10 to 20 years, or those music fans that have been collecting CDs and attending shows that now fall under the radar of the mainstream. It’s their life.
Tarmints have lived and breathed guitars, amps, minty cigarettes and stage-born sweat for years as individuals and collectively since 1998. After bailing from Boulder and other surrounding cities, they landed in Denver as a group to write, fight, create songs and destroy the invisible rules that bind and choke the music scene. The Tarmints’ complex verbal images are knit with intricate precision into carnal and ferocious bass and guitar lines, then burst wide with thundering drums and vocals that captivate the audience into aural submission.
The real experience comes from their stage presence, where from a small stage and four people with their gear, emerges a sound that is larger than life. No wonder their stickers tout the words, “Dirt, Wind, and Fire.” The only thing missing is the fourth element – sweat. But that’s just not as catchy.
To catch up with the minds behind the music and get a glimpse of what is on the Tarmints horizon, we met up at Paris for some summer evening conversation. After witnessing some juvenile, testosterone-filled vocal combat between the bikers sitting next to us and some SUV yuppie, we dove into topics of new material, their idols, and Denver’s music scene.
KB: Your last release, East of Eire, came out two years ago. Having seen you guys at the 15th Street Tavern and listened to the CD, the latter doesn’t do you guys justice. It’s a good CD. Don’t get me wrong. It just doesn’t have the energy I experienced from your live shows. Are you planning to come out with something new soon?
Kurt: We only played one song at the Westword show that was from that material. We actually have 13 songs for a new CD, plus another 5 songs on top of that.
KB: That makes sense. I didn’t recognize many songs during the show.
Bobby: That’s probably one of our goals, is to make a CD that’s reflective of what we do live.
Kurt: It’s really hard to make a good sounding record that has as much ferocious energy as what we do live. We have had our own studio for the last three years. It’s been a blessing and a curse. Doing 40 takes of a song will take the energy right out of it.
Bobby: When you have your own gear, you feel you can do that. When you’re paying someone to do it or in an environment where you don’t have all day to do it, it comes off a lot fresher.
Kurt: There’s a balance that exists. When a band plays a song once, live, you’ve got 2 and half minutes of solid explosion, aggressively played. When you have a song with a bunch of takes, then you lose that spontaneity. So we took all of our recording gear and now it’s for sale.
Before leaping into a full-length release, the Tarmints plan to get into the studios with Bob Ferbrache for a two-song demo at the end of July. Although they haven’t quite decided what those two songs will be, they will be using that as a tool to book shows for some regional tours to the west, east, and northwest coasts. What’s even more exciting for them is the opportunity to work with Ferbrache, otherwise known as “Big Bad Bob.” Having recorded numerous live performances by Built To Spill, Bush, and Cake, and provided his engineering expertise for such bands as 16 Horsepower, Fluid, and La Donnas, Big Bad Bob’s talent, skills, and experience are legendary in Colorado and beyond.
Kurt: He’s a luminary. He’s spent so much time here in this city and collectively in so many music tentacles. And he’s also the guitarist for Tarantella. His knowledge and credibility is on par with Steve Albini or the rest of them. Everything that I’ve listened to that he’s done is really top notch.
KB: How did you get hooked in with him?
Kurt: He’s been coming to our shows and knows us that way. Plus, he also brought Jello Biafra one time.
KB: When was that?
Kurt: We were playing with Helmet, so I think is was in March or May. But Jello walked into the room and the energy went through the roof. He gave us a gift. Our energy level and our connection together as musicians – we actually felt that for the first time at that level. And it changed us.
Bobby: He walked up to the merch table and asked for our CD. I told him that I really appreciated everything he’s done. He said something like, “well I have your CD and now you’re part of the disease.” It’s a big deal for me. It means a lot when anybody tells you that your band played well at a show. It’s another deal when it’s someone that you’ve been looking up to your whole life. It taught me a big lesson, you never know who’s out there. Not that we’re trying to meet famous people. But if someone has the ability to appreciate what we do like Jello Biafra, you just know that he’s not full of shit and doesn’t have to impress anyone.
Kurt: It made an impact for me. I thought, okay, here we are in this little pool of Denver. What if I go to somebody’s show and stand in the front row and really got into the show. Is it going to elevate that show? What if fifty other people had that same attitude that played in bands? It’s like, hell yes it’s going to elevate that show. It’s going to elevate the whole city. If you can be a direct example of that, that’s what that whole night taught me. One person can absolutely make the difference.
Bobby: If you’re part of that climate that just sits back and crosses your arms saying, “fucking impress me,” It’s not like that. It takes some participation on your part to appreciate a show. If everyone had that same attitude it would be great. [Jello] was up there for the whole set and rocked out the whole time.
Kurt: He was playing my guitar. What an honor that was. I was a kid skating a ditch to his records. I’ve got directions to some punk rock girl’s house in Ft. Collins on the back of one of his records. I keep hearing his song, “It’s what’s in your head that matters.” I’m way beyond my punk rock years to quote that. But that was the time in my life where I became an individual and started thinking for myself. To have somebody who in a round about way, taught me that, and is now on stage playing with us… it blew my mind. If I have done nothing right my entire life, I knew that night I was supposed to be there.
Another element that has taken them to the next level is the addition of Sissy on bass in August of 2001. Sissy also plays in another Denver band, Snatched.
KB: I actually heard of your other band from the guys in D.O.R.K. who played with you at Herman’s. They said you guys could have kicked their ass.
Sissy (laughing): Hey, that’s cool.
Bobby: Our other bass players were good at the time, but we needed someone who was more like us and into doing music their whole lives. She’s definitely got more of what we’re all about.
KB: So how does your songwriting process work between the four of you? Are certain elements of the song the responsibility of certain people?
Bobby: It’s pretty democratic. Whenever anybody comes up with an idea, it’s never like “this is going to be great.” It’s a dynamic process and we play around with it a lot. If we keep our heads together and keep it constructive, we usually do end up with something great.
KB: What about your lyrics?
Kurt: I don’t happen to think that I’m the most interesting individual in the world. So I like to write stories that take me outside of myself. Even though I may say “I” in the songs, it’s not me. It’s a story about someone else or something we experienced collectively. I try to add a little more vision than just the selfish standpoint of “I feel this or that way” or “I’m politically motivated about this.” I try to add more creativity than that, who is it that I idolize and what am I influenced by. I couldn’t really tell you that I sat down and wrote something in response to 9-11. I prefer to put adjectives together that make a picture for the listener to interpret on their own. I think it’s more like reading a book in that way.
Bobby: I have to say something about Kurt’s vocals, having seen and heard him sing for years now. The lyrics are good by themselves, but in the delivery of the lyrics is where he brings them to life on stage.
KB: Again, I’m looking forward to being able to take that passion and energy with me on the ride home from one of your gigs, or the next day when I’m nursing a hangover.
Kurt (laughing): Well, I’d rather be good on stage than the opposite, where something is so overproduced it’s not real.
Bobby: We use a little effects here and there, but I don’t use a distortion petal. It’s just my guitar and an amp, and natural distortion compared to something that’s generated by a machine.
KB: Speaking of gear, you guys were nominated this year for the Westword Music Showcase that included a show at the Soiled Dove. I understand this was your first year, so how did this work for you and what were those issues I heard about with the Dove’s sound guy wanting you to use their house equipment instead of your own?
Kurt (talking to Sissy): Didn’t you use an example the other night like, “okay here’s Tiger Woods playing at the US Open. Hey Tiger, by the way, you’re going to use a rental set of clubs.” It’s just the typical band against the sound guy. They want to make it convenient with one drum kit, one backline. It’s like, what the fuck? It’s preposterous to think we could go in there with anything but our own gear.
Sissy: Then they said, “Oh, we weren’t planning on you guys loading in gear. And there’s no where for you to park to load gear in.”
Bobby: First, we had to show up six hours early to get set up. Then they wanted me to use their standard guitar amp. I don’t use a standard guitar amp and I think most guitarist are the same way.
Sissy: It’s not like it’s open mic thing, it’s the Westword Showcase.
KB: People are coming to your show to see what you’re all about. You’re making a lot of first impressions.
Kurt: We would not have played. I would rather have been a friggin’ mystery then get up there and make a fool of myself.
Bobby: I told the sound guy “we are definitely not using the house drum kit. My drummer will break it. I’m telling you, if you make him play it, he will break it.” And it wasn’t even that good. He told us that it was the drum kit he used when he started some twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful that we were nominated and did that. But it’s not a very good cross section of what’s going on. You can’t rely just on what you read in the Westword. To really keep your finger on the pulse you gotta go out and see shows and listen to bands you’ve never heard of before. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not worth your time. But if you’re experiencing it, you’ll find there’s a lot of great stuff as well.
Kurt: I think it’s unfortunate that we’re stranded between two coasts. People think, “People on the coast – they’re cutting edge and innovative,” but they’re not. People in San Francisco and Los Angeles think, “We have this hip little thing here. We’re different in our thinking and we’re much more cultured.” But it’s not true. The music industry for us is more like, “fuck what everyone else is doing or thinking. This is what we do.” You don’t call it anything. You either like it or you don’t like it. We’re not trying to cash in on any trend. In Denver you still have a huge amount of people that say, “I like this because it’s popular,” or, “I like this because everyone says it’s good.” It makes you feel like people wouldn’t know what’s good if it slapped them in the face.
Bobby: The worst thing that can happen to you is if you get pigeonholed into any type of genre. We’ve never even really thought of ourselves as a local band. Not only that, we’ve never thought of ourselves as a hard rock band or a punk rock band. If you go back to bands that have been successful, they don’t do that. As far back as Black Flag, they don’t consider themselves a punk rock band. If you read interviews with Rollins, that’s what they fought against. We’ve always fought against the same thing. We just want the music to speak for itself. If we just narrow it down by throwing out genres to tell people what we sound like, then we wouldn’t be playing the music.
Kurt: I’m not saying people in general aren’t enlightened at all, it’s just the world everywhere. It’s like, “Buy this today. I’m a consumer and I need this now because it will make my life easier and more convenient. If I get married things will be better ’cause I’ll have to pay less taxes.” It’s like you have to be just one thing. You’re either a conservative that works a corporate job or you’re a fucking black sheep, freak on the outside lunatic fringe and boy, you gotta get as many tattoos and piercings as possible. But it’s all a blur of lines. You CAN go work a corporate job and play in the most fire-breathing, raw band of all time. If you’re a strong enough person, you can get up everyday and kick the world in the balls. I just wish more people would just realize that you can blur the lines, there aren’t any rules, and you can make your own color of anything, any day that you want. All the bands that we respect basically think, “I’m not going to play like you. I’m not going to follow this tradition.” I might steal a little bit from this or that, but I want to create a new strain of something that has honesty and is not a pretentious assumption of genius, but is something from the heart that’s innovative.
Bobby: With the Westword, as an occupation hazard of the town, that type of thing has to be genre specific to get readers into it. And it’s unfortunate that it has to be that way. They put us in the Hard Rock category, but really, almost any of those categories you could have put us in with the exception of a few.
Kurt: Here’s the Denver scenesters rolling into a show, “Hey, this band is kinda cool,” in between smokes saying to the other scenester who says back, “I don’t know, this bass player’s not making me feel too cool.” And they just go back and forth that way about what’s cool or not cool. When I go to a gig and get on stage, I’m going to turn about seventeen shades of red and sweat all over the place. There’s not a lot of dignity in it. But I don’t care. I’m gonna put my ego away ’cause I’m there to do one thing. That’s what people need to do when they go to see a band. They need to put their cool factor on the backburner and listen from their heart. You have these people who show up to shows and think they’re the authority on music ’cause they collect records. I call that person a dilettante. They know absolutely nothing about anything and a little bit about everything. And there’s so many people like that. If you stay in Denver and try to make some judgment from a crowd of who you are, and whether you’re good or not, you will just go insane. You just gotta believe that what you’re doing is good and stick with that.
Thank goodness they did win their battle with the Soiled Dove, because it was one of their best shows yet. Thank goodness that these unique, talented, and sometimes tainted individuals continue to fight against complacency, closed minded attitudes, and occasionally amongst themselves to create something that’s alive, full of heart and minty cigarette smoke.
Check out the blood, sweat, and beers when the Tarmints headline this Friday, July 12, at the Gothic with another great Colorado band, Drag The River (see DTR CD review), plus Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots. Go by and wish Bobby a Happy Birthday. He’ll hate me for that one.