Preacher's son Slim Cessna, along with his even slimmer cohort Jay Munly, have been saving souls and raising hell for more than a decade now. In the process, the fiery frontmen for Slim Cessna's Auto Club have also become central figures in what's sometimes known as the "Denver Sound," a musically incestuous group of friends and collaborators with an unnatural predilection for Gothic Americana.
In the case of Cessna and company, it's a sound forged in both the Pentecostal fervor of the Louvin Brothers and the punk-rock fever of the Gun Club. But what separates them from your standard-issue psychobilly is their excess of imagination, skillful musicianship and an unrepentant perversity that would have made Flannery O'Connor blush.
"We're not trying to be disturbing," says Cessna. "It's just what we do."
Cipher, the group's 2008 album, deftly transitions from the Appalachian a capella of "An Introduction to the Power of Braces" to the deceptively upbeat "This Land is Our Land Redux." From there it's on to the swampy din of "Jesus is in My Body My Body Has Let Me Down," and a sprawling amalgamation of country gospel, ska, metal, spoken word and pop titled (you guessed it) "That Fierce Cow is Common Sense in a Country Dress."
And then there's the matter of those two frontmen, whose previous bands have included members of 16 Horsepower and DeVotchKa. Cessna's high lonesome voice, white cowboy hat, single gold tooth and perpetual shit-eating grin are, in their way, as unsettling as principal songwriter Munly's low lonesome voice, stick-insect frame and ghoulish countenance. (Think Max Schreck slipping out of a frame from Nosferatu and ending up on the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou?.)
"I don't see dark and light as being the equivalent of good and evil," says Cessna of Munly, whom he describes as brilliant, talented and genuine. "Listen, you know, he'll die for you if you are friends with him. And yeah, I guess I would say that there is a darkness there, and I don't know what that's about. But I respect it and it's real and it's sincere. And that's important."
As for the group's quasi-religious fervor, Cessna says, "It's not tongue-in-cheek. These are real stories and real things that are important to us, absolutely. People mistakenly think that it's kind of kitschy, or that we're just putting people on, or it's a joke band. But those people haven't necessarily heard the albums. They've just seen the live show, where we do tend to enjoy ourselves too much."
One of the most refreshing things about SCAC's music is its unpredictability. Take, for instance, "Pine Box," a concert favorite whose accompanying video, Cessna explains, "shows the End Times through puppets." The song itself downshifts from a hellfire hoedown into a Gothic interlude, then resurrects itself in the form of a beatific country waltz. Like Elvis' "An American Trilogy," it's pretty much three songs for the price of one.
"Yeah," says Cessna, "it was a song that Munly brought in. And in the process of trying to figure out how it ended, it got joined with other songs that we had been working on. So there you go: They found each other and it worked perfect and the world is a better place because of it."