Once again, Colorado Springs has the military to thank for one of the cornerstones of the local music scene. Mike Stephens, one of two singers/guitar players in the indie-rock outfit Against Tomorrow's Sky, came here in 1986 when his father was transferred to Fort Carson for his last assignment. When his father decided to stay here after retirement, so did Stephens.
After graduating from Doherty High School in 1989, Stephens and fellow classmate Jeff Fuller formed their first band, the Zimbricks (named after a teacher at Doherty).
"The Zimbricks were just really bad college rock. We liked R.E.M. and it was real jingly-jangly. That was when the Auto No was king of the music heap here in town," Stephens said. "That was a lot of fun. Then things here became pretty metal."
In 1995, a few years after the Zimbricks died out, Stephens and Fuller reunited again to form Girth, an indie-rock band that never really caught on. Girth broke up in 1998 and Fuller and Stephens parted ways until 2000, when they decided to get back together once more -- though this time without any serious intentions.
"In the summer of 2000 Jeff and I hooked up with Michael Nipp (bass) and Shawn Stafford (drums). It was the first time either of us had been in a band that had any real chemistry," said Stephens. "Once we started playing with [Michael and Shawn], the sound started shaping into what we'd always wanted. ... With Girth it was mostly lows, but with Against Tomorrow's Sky we tapped into something that people liked right off the bat, so it motivated us to get serious."
They quickly acquired a devoted local following and ATS began playing gigs at places like 15th St. Tavern in Denver and The Fox in Boulder -- gigs that gave them the opportunity to open for bands like Pedro the Lion, Girls Against Boys, and Cursive.
This exposure also garnered them a growing fan-base in Denver, and before long ATS had put together enough material for an album. They began recording at the famed 8 Houses Recording in Denver with Matt Van Leuven, former bass player for The Gamits, in late 2000 and early 2001.
The result was Jump the Hedges First (released in October 2002 on Universal Warning Records), a riff-driven rock album that touches down somewhere in the strange gulf between first-wave '80s hard rock and a conglomerate of '90s sounds with good old love lyrics that just barely graze the outer pastures of sentimentality.
Stephens attributes ATS's sound to differences in the various members' ages. "For me and Jeff, it was Van Halen and AC/DC, whereas for Mike and Shawn, it was Nirvana. It's hard to pinpoint our sound, but I think it's something in between. I'm not saying we're the most original rock band in the world, but it's a sound that isn't easily classifiable."
Whatever the sound, the foursome have found themselves at the top of a rising tide of local musicians who are gaining large fan bases both in and outside Colorado Springs. After their show this New Year's Eve with 34 Satellite, Idiolectic Conception and Dirty Day, ATS will headline the Bluebird in Denver -- on a Friday night, a huge and definitive sign of their growing popularity.
Like so many other local bands, ATS has had to struggle with the lack of local recognition and the scarcity of venues. Nevertheless, Stephens remains optimistic about the burgeoning number of talented local bands who've decided to stick it out here.
"I've always been pretty cynical about the scene, but now I can think of about eight bands I'd go see any time," he said.
For the immediate future, ATS has plans to go back into the studio to record a split album with 34 Satellite -- a Denver band that recently recorded an EP with help from J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. -- and already has a new album's worth of material that Stephens hopes to begin recording in March.
"The new album should have more going on, and it's a step up in terms of song-writing," said Stephens. "We're really comfortable with each other now, and you can tell."
If ATS cracks the bubble of insularity that has so kept so many musicians tucked tightly into the folds of Pikes Peak, they'll have earned it. "We're not afraid of success," said Stephens. "I never had any delusions of grandeur living here. We still don't. It's just a matter of how motivated and lucky you are."