- Ryan Cox
- Frontman Clay Rose finds high concepts in low places.
Although Clay Rose and Mortimer Leech are intimately acquainted, they virtually never talk about each other.
Maybe it's because, as Boulder-based bandleaders, they both compete for a limited number of gigs. Or maybe it's because they have such radically different personalities, both onstage and off.
Or maybe it's just because they're the same person.
In his high-concept death-polka band The Widow's Bane, Rose assumes the role of 18th-century zombie ringleader, writes punk-cabaret songs about plagues and debauchery, and sings a lot like Tom Waits.
Meanwhile, in Gasoline Lollipops — an alt-country band whose alumni include Gregory Alan Isakov — Rose performs as himself, writes alt-country songs about Elvis and highways, and sings a lot less like Tom Waits.
While both bands' songs contain shades of darkness and light, Rose has found himself drifting in the latter direction since giving up drinking two years ago. Even his relationship with Mortimer seems to have lightened up a bit.
"I can bring levity to it now," he says of his undead alter ego, "which I think is a really fucking important ingredient in that character. Otherwise, it's nothing that I want to bring into the world, and it's nothing I want to hang out with."
Gasoline Lollipops describe themselves as a Colorado band that combines "the sincerity of dirt-floor folk with the rebelliousness of punk." They were named Best Country Artist last year by Denver alt-weekly Westword, and will be performing at Red Rocks as part of the venue's "Film on the Rocks" series in September.
This past Valentine's Day, the band — which also includes electric guitarist Donny Ambory, upright bassist Brad Morse and drummer Adam Perry — released Resurrection, the third and final installment in a series of exceptional EPs that also includes Dawn and Death.
Songs like "Hard Times" echo the baritone twang of early classics by Johnny Cash and his guitarist Luther Perkins. The hook-laden "Vanilla Baby" finds Rose venturing into Springsteen terrain, with flashes of Buddy Holly along the way, until a plaintive wail comes out of nowhere, falling just an octave short of Roy Orbison.
The singer still lapses into Tom Waits territory sometimes — "my voice just goes there without me meaning to," he says — but he's getting a handle on that, as well.
In a genre that has its fair share of poseurs, Rose's Americana roots run relatively deep. His mother, Donna Farrar, co-wrote "Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning," a chart-topping hit for Willie Nelson. His father, a truck driver, was the inspiration for "Pop's Song," which includes some of Rose's most evocative lyrics:
Somewhere in Nebraska, a ghost of the Boss's harp still blows
Somewhere on I-80, an eighteen-wheeler rolls
And there's a little boy riding shotgun, his Papa's listening to Hoyt Axton
And they're trying to find the alphabet, in the license plates as they pass 'em.
"I was probably 5 when my dad put on Buddy Holly," says Rose, "and I went fucking ballistic, right? It jazzed me more than a cup full of sugar. I just started going crazy, like jumping off the couch. Those kinds of music did for me what punk-rock would later do, which was to make me extremely happy, and full of energy, and feeling invincible, really."
Not everything about Rose's youth was quite so idyllic. "I grew up around a lot of drug addiction, alcoholism and, you know, varying degrees of neglect," he says. "And then, when I got into the public school system in rural Tennessee, as a 12-year-old punk-rocker with a mohawk, then things really took a turn for the worse. [Laughs.] I ended up finding myself incarcerated many times, and institutionalized, and, yeah, I learned how to be all things criminal during that time in my life, and I stored up a whole lot of rage. Music served as a pressure relief valve for that, to an extent, but the rest of it went into drugs and alcohol and destructive living."
But there have also been bonding experiences along the way. During Gasoline Lollipops' Death tour, they visited seven favorite musicians' gravesites, where they recorded themselves playing one of their heroes' songs at each.
"When we got to Townes Van Zandt's grave, it was like 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and me and [drummer] Jonny Boy are like piss-drunk in the van," recalls Rose. "So we get into this argument and tumble out of the van screaming at each other. And then Jonny Boy flicks his cigarette and hits me right in the eye with it, and I just go ballistic. I just coldcock him, and then he grabs me in a headlock, and we're rolling around, beating the crap out of each other, on top of Townes Van Zandt's grave."
So when it comes time for Rose's own funeral, which of his songs would he want played?
"I think it would be 'Cannonball' off of the Dawn EP," he says. "It's an instructional song on how to love. It's basically advising people to abandon all hope of self-preservation in order to love. And I think, if I was going to leave them with a last thought, that would be the most important one."