Helicopter Copter: Denver Collaboration Uplifts, Refreshes, Challenges

Musicians and music writers alike do get tired of the same. old. thing. Our fingers, usually so merrily picking and typing, grind to a halt. Our songs stop coming. Words don’t flow. Finding new ways to interact with art is, I’d say, essential to creating art.

On a day when my inbox was flooded with coverage requests from bands flitting through Denver on their way to bigger and better, something homegrown caught my eye: an art project I would come to realize is remarkable.

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I became acquainted with Michael John McKee when writing a previous review of Glowing House, a band among several for which he is drummer. Michael is now the mind and heart behind “Helicopter Copter”  – a mixed media art project incorporating “adventurous processes, materials, and collaborations.”

McKee, under his aircraft-ish art moniker, started an experimental song-to-video collaboration among four Denver artists called “Whisper Down the Lane.” The players are McKee (drums), Ian Argys (guitar), Neil McCormick (bass) and Merne Judson III (videos). Here’s what happened, in his words:

Each of three musicians recorded two primary tracks (thematic musical ideas) and passed one to each other musician. Having received two primary tracks, each musician recorded secondary tracks onto the primary tracks. Secondary tracks were passed again, and tertiary tracks were recorded. All recorded layers were then passed to a videographer for visual content, recorded in Colorado. One video was released each week, between March 26 and April 30, 2015.

Helicopter Copter describes itself as a “sound experience,” exploring the ways in which music and sound is created and perceived. Challenging musical paradigms. Asking where music lives and dies, how it consumes and is consumed. The evolution of the songs and attached videos unfolds right here.

I love to imagine the second musician listening to what the first had recorded. The sparks igniting in his musical heart as he considers what comes next. There is a certain solitude that comes through loudly for me when I watch the videos. The way the images roll along, the absence of voice … there’s a melancholy thread to each film. I like to believe it just happens to feel that way as a glorious, unrehearsed consequence of the method used to create the songs.

There are standouts in each film: Ian Argys’ innovative, clutterless riffs in #1, Neil McCormick’s driving bass line in #2,  Michael McKee’s jazz session drums in #3, Judson’s shimmering nightscape in #4 … aaahhh. Throughout, there is plenty of Colorado snow that, to me, stands in for the vocal – a mute witness to each scene. I think the best way to take them in is all at once, headphones in, lights down, somewhere that you won’t be disturbed.

What do you take from the series? What might you and the band do different the next time the muse taps your shoulder? Perhaps Helicopter Copter can illuminate the possibilities. A beacon, if you like, that points to unknown musical shores.

Read another good review of the project on Westword.

The Stubborn Sounds Top 10 Songs of 2014

Drumroll please … I now present the 10 best songs I heard this year by Colorado bands or those with a close Colorado connection. My ears were bursting with so much great local music in 2014! Thanks to everyone who got in touch to share what you’ve created. I love writing about the Colorado sound. Please note some, but not all, of the songs on the list were released this year. In some cases I only first heard the track in ’14. Let’s get to it.

10. Prize, by Plume Varia (Denver). Beautiful, tripnotic dream landscape. As heard on their Prize / Enable e.p. My original review is here

9. Ocean Floor, by The Wild After (Denver). The ultimate melancholy pop song. I love the lyrics. Saw these guys in late spring as their tour was commencing. 

8. Until the End, by Churchill (Denver). This soulful tune puts a lump in my throat. I’m a huge fan, and I felt very bad in my soul when the band quit. I can’t embed the song here, but it is a doozy. Back in May, I interviewed bassist Tyler Rima. Read here.

7. My Ground, by Esther Sparks & The Whiskey Remedy (Lafayette). Disclaimer: I’m in this band. But I love this song that my friend and bandmate Esther wrote. My wife (also in the band) put down some sick drums on it, too. 

6. Flammable Parts, by Rough Age (Colorado Springs). Fans of Elvis Costello will love this. Great whistling section, killer moody vibe. I love it. My original review is here

5. Riding the Ripple, by Glowing House (Denver). Singer Steve Varney recorded this in Jack White’s Voice-o-Graph booth in Nashville. It’s badass and on their new “Balance With Me” e.p. 

4. Known & Loved, by Joel Ansett (Denver). This gorgeous song has layers. Give it a few spins and you’ll hear, as I do, the work of a serious songwriter. Joel recently crowd-funded a new album. 

3. What You Want To, by Ark Life (Denver). A band I reviewed when they were very new to Denver in early 2013 stormed forth with a killer full length album (“The Dream of You & Me”) this year. The piano riff and great harmonies bring me back. 

2. I’m Not Enough, by All Is Not Lost (Woodland Park). This duo, featuring my nephew Russell Patterson and Benji Hobson, put me on notice this year that the kids are gonna be running the show soon. Or maybe they already do. Don’t believe it? Listen to this.

1. Movement is True, by Run Spirit Horse (L.A./Boulder). West Coast music man Aaron Ferenc regularly comes home to Boulder County to visit family and friends. His e.p., “The War,” blew me away this year. “Movement is True” has been my healing song for months. It’s not on soundcloud yet (click HERE instead). 

Glowing House is Breaking the Music Mold (and I love it)

{featured image above by Merne Judson III}

Have I mentioned that I love local music? That’s not to say that my local music is only heard around here. Oh no no. Denver’s music travels. It innovates. It resteth not on its laurels. It … well … it never sleeps. And since I’m listening to so much of it, neither do I.

So we must discuss Denver’s Glowing House, a quintet featuring Michael John McKee (drums); Neil McCormick (bass); Phil Parker (cello, also cellist for Gregory Alan Isakov); and at the helm married duo Jess Parsons (vocals, keyboard, accordion) and Steve Varney (vocals, guitar, banjo, also guitarist for Gregory Alan Isakov). The band is freshly back from some European dates and ready to soak Denver in its tunes.

Glowing House is in the thick of an e.p. project of sorts. Every two months or so, they’re releasing a studio version of a polished track (the single) and a couple of B-sides (live recordings, reworked older tunes). The first songs have dropped; the latest e.p., “Balance With Me,” is released TOMORROW so get to Hi-Dive Friday night for their gig with The Centennial and Kyle James Hauser); and a third offering is planned for January.

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Varney explains: “We’re early in the project, but it’s been fruitful so far. Our first release, ‘Your Own Devices,’ has been received really well. We’re watching our audience grow because of it so we’re really excited to keep it going. It also makes us work our asses off rehearsing, writing, recording, making videos, booking … we’re experiencing everything that makes a band better in a much more dense way than if we disappeared for a year and a half to make a full length record. And that’s why we’re doing it this way.”

You have to stay active and present in the minds of your audience, especially in today’s vast, immediate music culture. – S. Varney

Stop. Reread what you just read. Is it me or is this a genuinely refreshing approach to releasing new music? And speaking of music, Glowing House’s sound is delicate and sinewy. The harmony is my weakness. Accomplished instrumental touches, yet nothing showy. Poetic lyrics. Beautiful.

I have heard the new songs, and I want very much to tell you about them. But I shall not do it. That privilege belongs to the band. Do yourself a favor. Get to the gig. Listen well. Glowing House should be on your radar.

You’re on theirs.