Well the old world may be dead
Our parents can’t understand
But I still love my parents
And I still love the old world
I want to keep my place in the old world
Keep my place in the arcane
Because I still love my parents
And I still love the old world
“There’s an old rule in rock and roll, that if your parents like it, it can’t be any good,” Paul McCartney tells me as a waitress hands us our drinks in a Denver bar. “And we’ve ignored that. We’re playing the music that we want to play. We’re not out to just piss people off.”
Okay, okay, it’s not really Paul McCartney telling me this.
But if you saw him you’d forgive me for thinking so.
The man sitting across from me in this booth is the pure doppelganger of 1967 McCartney; complete with slug mustache, psychedelic tie and shaggy brown hair with trimmed sideburns—you’d swear he just fell out of the video for “Penny Lane”. But this is 2011 and the man’s name is Nathan Brasil. He is currently surrounded by his bandmates, who collectively make up Fingers of the Sun, the band that has been (begrudgingly) labeled Denver’s ‘60s revivalist troubadours, carrying on that great tradition of eulogizing an era they never lived in. The time of mini-skirts, acid, and music with a distinct romanticism.
“A lot of bands in this city are afraid of not being original,” says Suzi Allegra, the other half of the Fingers of the Sun songwriting team. “They don’t want to admit that they’re taking something from someone else, or not coming out with the new happening sound. And we’ve had that fear, but we’ve overcome it.”
The bar we’re having this conversation in contains a few of those Denver bands. They sit in tight jeans, warming their hands after their fixed gear bike ride down here, probably listening to a Sonic Youth cassette on a Walkman, celebrating finishing an albums worth of one-minute noise songs on a Mac laptop. It’s difficult to see where Fingers of the Sun fit in with a city like this; when I ask if the Denver scene has any influence on their music they all say no, that they could make their music anywhere, some referencing Portland or Austin. It seems that, unlike those aforementioned cities, Denver’s underground music scene has yet to find its own distinct sound and culture. And in this insecurity many musicians will lazily drift into the abrasive, unromantic sounds of the avant-guard. Hiding in cynicism, masking inability with experimentation, a lot of musicians in this Colorado town deliberately avoid all of the things that make up Fingers of the Sun.
“When I lived in Portland there were a lot of poppy bands,” Nathan explains, ordering another round for everyone at the table, “there were a lot of bands just playing nice music because that’s what they wanted to do. A lot of Denver bands are riff based, and we’re not. Most of them will come up with a cool riff, then put some stuff on it, then the singer will come in and just say something. But Suzi and I will have a chord progression. We like to have a melody over a rhythmic structure.”
“There’s a real stigma in this town against being in a poppy band,” Suzi agrees.
Though it doesn’t seem like Fingers of the Sun are enemies with any of the riff-based bands that fill this bar. They play the same venues and have compliments for all of them, but this group of hippies four generations removed don’t really fit. Not only does their sound hearken back to a very un-punk era, but the songs leave you with an optimistic sense of the future. Their self-titled debut (released February 12th) is the kind of music that could be used as therapy for Seasonal Affected Disorder, tunes with a Vaseline around the lens type of romanticism, something that can rescue you after your family mocks your haircut at Thanksgiving Dinner.
On the jukebox of this bar the Modern Lovers’ “Old World” comes on. Jonathan Richman’s song about not fitting in with a scene that hates its parents’ generation is an eerily poignant commentary on Fingers of the Sun’s place in this bar and this city. Whether it is conscious or not, the band have taken the same route that Richman did with his entire career. Being unwillingly thrust into the role of punk-rock icon, Richman rebelled against the scene that had no use for his old world; his rebellion was in direct contrast to theirs, by using a drug-free cheeriness and love for his parents, Richman out-punked the punks. And whether it’s conscious or not, Fingers of the Sun are using the same tactics, embracing imitation and cleanly structured songs in opposition to the sounds of their contemporaries. After all, when you’re a band in a city like Denver, whose underground music scene has pigeonholed itself into demanding a lip-curling sneer and ear splitting feedback as a prerequisite for cultural acceptance, the only route left for insubordination is to make music with a commercial sound.
“I’m definitely living out a lot of fantasies in this band,” Suzi tells me. And if there is one consistent thread throughout my conversation with her and Nathan, it’s that there were a lot of things they weren’t allowed to do in other bands, and that now the flood-gates are open. You want to have each band dress up as their favorite planet, collectively making up the solar system? Sure. You want to write ridiculously accessible, happy songs about thrift stores and cups of tea? Why not.
Having met years earlier, back when “Fingers of the Sun” was just the name of a 1968 song by the Fugs, Nathan and Suzi had been in two different bands together before they formed this one. Their second, the Pseudo Dates, gained a significant group of fans in Denver and while they did have a decidedly trippy sound, Nathan proudly states that Fingers is “the most unapologetically ‘60s band I’ve ever been in”. The Pseudo Dates broke up unexpectedly in the spring of 2009, but at the time it was still clear to Nathan and Suzi that they had uncommon songwriting chemistry. Continuing along the path of the Pseudo Dates, the pair began writing some even more unapologetically ‘60s music. Like most Denver musicians, each of them were in several other bands at the same time; Marcus (the snail) Renninger was plucked from his and Nathan’s David Bowie cover band, Width of a Circle, and recruited as Fingers’ second guitarist. Despite never being in a band before, Jamie Bryant, a petite olive skinned beauty, was hired on to play organ. Fez Garcia, a slim, hairy man with the look of an A-list ‘70s porn star, was brought in on drums, and the blindingly (yet not obnoxiously) cheery Meghan Wilson was found, miraculously, on Craigslist as the fourth vocalist and percussionist.
Collectively the band pulled from a deep pool of talent and creativity, writing songs that display each member’s incendiary ability, yet never do they distract you from the songs with any kind of impressive instrumentation. Marcus and Nathan’s dueling guitars contain a touching reminiscence of early Love records. Fez’s drums at times seem dangerously sloppy, yet they glue the music together and add a subtle personality to each song. Maria’s organ is minimal yet expansive, like the undertow of Al Kooper’s contribution to those great mid-‘60s Dylan hits. Meghan’s voice is strong, but never arresting, delivering an opiate shot of mushy, sweet-tempered harmony right into the darkest of hearts. And Suzi is the foundation of it all, keeping those polished songs together with simple bass playing, lacquering it all with a voice that is at times so confident and projecting it can make you squint.
Being together less than a year, Fingers of the Sun have garnered an impressive following. Fans will come out to their shows, singing along to each song (despite the fact that they have yet to release an album). “Sometimes there are people at the shows in black hoodies that look like they never would be into what we’re doing,” Suzi explains, “and they’re the ones who are most into it.”
I’ve eavesdropped on a few conversations about Fingers of the Sun… those Denverites in black hoodies who typically only listen to cassette copies of Metal Machine Music or something by the Raincoats. And they are “into it”. They love the music of Fingers of the Sun. But typically these statements of praise are suffixed with an apology. Just like no one will consciously admit to liking a U2 or Bruce Springsteen song without dismissing it as a “guilty pleasure”, they hang their heads in shame for liking Fingers of the Sun and will subtly ask for your forgiveness. “I like them,” someone will say “but I don’t think you will. They’re just too… happy. And they sound like a band from the ‘60s.”
Similarly, critics will dismiss them for being too derivative. Their album received a glowing review in The Westword, but in Robert Flemming’s local zine, The Pink Shovel , he refers to them as “a very fun, proto-‘60s garage band who excel in their musicianship so much you’d swear it was a different band on each song. But in the end they are too indebted to their ‘60s influences, to the point where they will be seen as a tie-die equivalent to the Darkness. In the end they are a very talented group of kids who’ve simply shown up to the party 40 years too late.”
“It’s a lot cooler to be an ‘80s band than it is a ‘60s band,” Nathan says.