"You can come anytime you want to see us be stupid and loud," says Ryan Spradlin as we make plans for an El Toro de la Muerte photo shoot during his band's Sunday evening rehearsal.
Buried deep within a warehouse that's just crawling distance from the North Nevada Avenue K-Mart, El Toro's dank practice studio has a lot of history for the four musicians. Spradlin (vocals/guitar/keyboards) and Jay Schwan (drums), who've been in bands together since high school, used to rehearse here with their group Sacco & Vanzetti, while Mike Nipp (bass, vocals) and Jeff Fuller (vocals/guitar/keyboards) practiced with their old band, Against Tomorrow's Sky, in the studio next door.
"The place smells like piss and cigarettes," promises Schwan, who'd served as the band's keyboardist prior to drummer Julian Dumont's departure last winter. "It's like 2002 all over again."
Actually, it's mostly pot that permeates the building's bleak corridors, thanks to a medical marijuana dispensary that shares the premises. Wall-mounted air fresheners periodically spray the hallway, adding a vaguely sickening aroma to the mix.
El Toro's cramped rehearsal space isn't all that luxurious, either, despite a couple strands of Christmas lights, some salvaged acoustic tiles and two floor-to-ceiling carpets faded to the color of mortuary makeup.
Yet it's in this setting that the magic happens, as El Toro rips through airtight versions of songs from their debut EP, Dancer These Days, whose release will be celebrated with a five-band gig at Zodiac this Friday.
Through it all, there's an obvious camaraderie, the kind that enables lifelong friends to give each other endless shit, as when Fuller drolly tells a bandmate, "It's the right note, you just played it wrong."
As for Spradlin's warning, El Toro is definitely loud, but not at all stupid — as anyone who saw their electrifying set at this year's Indy Music Awards Festival can attest.
"Despite the group's menacing name, its music is as gentle and smart as it is well-honed," wrote Westword music critic Tom Murphy, who also hailed El Toro's "richly appointed pop that borders on symphonic without coming off as pretentious" and likened the band to "an indie-rock version of Supertramp."
That was back in 2009, when the group had one single ("Atop the Belle Isle" b/w "Blood on Their Tongues") to its name. And while "gentle" may not be the most common way to describe the raging "Bull of Death," the rest of the review rings pretty true — even the Supertramp bit. With a little imagination, the contrast between Spradlin's ragged upper-register vocals and Fuller's comparatively smooth delivery could be viewed as a warped fun-house reflection of the '70s prog-pop icons' dueling approaches.
Still, with the release of Dancer These Days, any lingering "symphonic" elements have taken a back seat to concise, if somewhat twisted, alt-pop songwriting. Not that they're gone entirely: There's a middle eight in Fuller's "Like a Ghost" that's downright majestic, and whenever Nipp joins in with the other two vocalists on the band's ubiquitous "whoa-oh-ohs," things can still get pretty anthemic.
These days, Spradlin is more likely to compare El Toro's sound to that of '90s alt-rock icons like the Pixies, whose rough-hewn, punked-up power pop would fit nicely on a mixtape with the band's newest songs.
But mostly, El Toro sounds like El Toro. During their six-year existence, they've won over enough hearts, minds and votes to take first place in the Indy Music Awards' rock category this year.
Plus, their collective résumé reads like a who's who of local indie-rock practitioners. In addition to the aforementioned Against Tomorrow's Sky and Sacco & Vanzetti, their alma maters include Jetpack, Enemy Swim, the Zimbricks, Age of the Engine, Victory Boy, the Gadflys, and — best name of all — Lorito Opens His Beak. "Yeah," says Schwan, "all the bands here in town are interrelated and incestuous and it's kind of ridiculous."
Away from the studio, in the comparative quiet of a downtown happy hour, Nipp and Schwan drank beer and answered questions about what may well turn out to be the year of the bull. While Fuller was out of town and Spradlin's car had broken down on his way back from the airport, the interview still went on for two hours. Here are some highlights.
Indy: So let's start out by talking about concept albums, specifically the one you guys shelved. What happened to that?
Jay Schwan: I think it was one of those situations where those songs had been around for a long time, and it took a little too long to get them down.
Mike Nipp: Yeah, to get them fleshed out and recorded the way we wanted them recorded.
Jay: And that never happened.
Indy: So they were starting to feel stale?
Jay: Well, that and we kind of switched around a little bit. We had a different drummer, Julian, and now he's not in the band anymore. So we kind of re-thought what we were gonna do. It was like, are we even doing this, still? And to be honest, when we re-formed we almost changed the name, because we were like, you know, this isn't the same band.
Indy: So besides Jay moving over to drums, how are things different now?
Jay: I think the writing dynamic is definitely different. The concept record was gonna be about Roy, so we'll just call it the Roy record. And the Roy songs were very much scripted by each individual writer ...
Indy: So who exactly was Roy?
Jay: Roy is the concept. [Turns to Mike.] What was Roy's name?
Mike: Roy Sullivan.
Jay: The guy got struck by lightning like seven times.
Mike: And then he killed himself over a woman when he was 72, which was really just bizarre. And yeah, so everything was much more scripted. But now we're taking more of a band approach with it, where Ryan and Jeff come in with the song parts, and then we all kind of mold and craft them, which is a lot more fun.
Indy: I don't hear any lyrical theme running through the songs on Dancer These Days, but would you say there are any particular musical connections that tie them together?
Jay: I think these songs, if anything, are a little bit more introspective. We definitely had an idea in mind of how we wanted to go about writing songs and how we wanted those songs to be structured. We wanted really short songs that were fun to play, that were maybe a little bit more dancey than what we were used to.
Mike: Definitely. I mean, we would play these Halloween shows where we did these tribute-band things. We did the Cure, we did the Rolling Stones, and we did the Cars. And people would be dancing around and it was totally fun. That's something we thought about as well.
Indy: Who are you doing this Halloween?
Mike: We're not doing anybody this year. We're doing the CD release and trying to play our music and move forward with that. Instead of retracting and doing the tribute thing.
Jay: As fun as Halloween is, it takes a significant amount of time to learn all those songs. And we have such momentum in writing and with releasing the record right now that we don't want that to stop. So locally, there's been a lot of good stuff that's happening with us. We're just trying to ride the crest of a very small wave right now. [Laughs.]
Indy: Maybe it's just because I heard you cover "Under Pressure" in Acacia Park this summer, but the vocal on "Things in My Head" struck me as having kind of a Bowie quality to it.
Jay: Oh yeah, you know, it's funny that you say Bowie, because during the second verse, the cadence of the vocal is so Thin Lizzy to me.
Indy: And those two sound nothing alike. So it's funny, because I'm wrong.
Jay: Well, yeah. So it's not funny. But Ryan, he loves Bowie, so he'd probably glow if he was here to hear that.
Indy: Does he glow when you mentioned Thin Lizzy?
Jay: No, not so much. I've only said it to him once, and I don't think he knew what I was talking about. [Laughs.]
Indy: Jeff's "Chattering of Rats," meanwhile, is a really poppy song, despite the title.
Jay: It is. It's a great song.
Mike: It's totally great, yeah.
Indy: And like most of the new tracks, it comes in well under the three-minute mark. Whereas if you listen to some of the old recordings, and watch the old YouTube clips, the band seems to have these kind of schizophrenic mood swings between math-rock and almost alt-country.
Mike: We were kind of scrambled for a while. Jay started playing keyboards with us after we did our first Cure tribute, but before that, we were definitely doing more bar rock. Not alt-country, I wouldn't say, but there was definitely that in there.
Mike: [Laughs.] We had some carnie keyboard parts, and it was really weird for a second.
Jay: So when we re-formed in January of this year, we had a different mindset completely. We didn't want to make songs that sounded like that, even though a lot of those songs are awesome, and we'd still love to play them. But we made a conscious effort to just not write songs like that, to get rid of this sort of alt-country carnival thing that we were doing before.
Mike: And get rid of the math.
Jay: And just write songs.
Mike: I mean, we've already shocked the shit out of ourselves, as far as shocking-sound stuff goes. It's like the shock has kind of gone. And now I think it's more like, just, what's good? Or what do you like?
Mike: And yeah, hopefully people will want to see us because they have fun when they come.
Indy: I've heard of this "fun" thing.
Mike: People should have it more, you know? Shiny, happy people.
Jay: It makes you live longer. You know, I've definitely gone through periods of my life where I didn't play music, like I wasn't in a band and I wasn't doing anything musically. And I can honestly say that that was when I was most miserable, you know, when I wasn't producing anything.
Mike: I can follow up by saying I've never stopped playing music, and it's because I feel crazy or insane when I don't. For me, it's like, at least I know I can do this. I mean, I do construction, I do any kind of work, but this is the one thing I know how to do. I think everybody comes back to that.
Indy: So getting back to the math-rock thing, I'm guessing your drumming style is simpler now than it was when you and Ryan started playing together in high school?
Jay: Absolutely. When you're in high school and you're in a band, you wanna show off, you know? You want people to know — especially other musicians — that you know your shit.
Mike: That you got chops.
Jay: Yeah, exactly. And I think it led to a lot of kids playing above their ability — which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it might push you to be better. But these days, I'm definitely more reserved, and I don't spaz out as much as I used to.
I think the mark of any good musician is knowing when to play and when not to play. Or knowing when to back off. I think we're all conscious and hyper-sensitive about that now. We want to make sure that there's one or two things that need to be in the forefront of what's happening, and, you know, there doesn't need to be an awesome drum solo.
Mike: Right. Or a bass line that goes on for days.
Indy: Has bass always been your instrument?
Mike: Yeah, for the most part. I started out playing guitar, and I still write songs on the guitar for the most part.
Jay: I think one unique thing about this band is that, at one point in time, we've all been the principal songwriter in a band. So it's like you have a band with four frontmen, and there's no one-ringleader-thing happening. It's a process where everything is pretty democratic. So if you bring an idea in, you have to be willing to see that idea mutate. For the better. Or worse, sometimes.
Indy: So you all started playing in your teens?
Jay: Yeah, we started when we were 15.
Mike: And I started playing in bands when I was 17.
Indy: So you're pushing two decades here of playing out. That's pretty good.
Jay: Yeah. Or pretty sad. However you want to look at it. [Laughs.]
Indy: Do you ever miss the way the scene was when you started out?
Jay: No, I don't miss it at all. We're all in our 30s and we all have families. And this band started out as just a way for us to have fun. It's like, we'd all known each other forever, and we all wanted to keep making music. We didn't really care if we did anything with it, you know?
Mike: Yeah, in the very beginning, Ryan came to me and Jeff, saying that he and Julian were messing around, and did we want to come play. Maybe do some bar shows, just so we can get a tab and play some rock and roll. So we kind of went with that. And now I would say we're trying to do something with it. I mean, I don't want to say we're whoring ourselves. We're not. But we want to try to get more exposure. We want to do some touring, we want to get the music out there.
Jay: Yeah, we made the decision to just try this time around. Whereas before, we virtually didn't care. And now we care.
Indy: Which is weird, because in a way you guys had been getting almost reclusive, just in terms of not putting out records and only doing the occasional Rocket Room gig.
Jay: That was never intentional.
Mike: It wasn't, no. We've heard that before.
Jay: Not playing a lot of shows, that may have been intentional. I mean, I truly believe that you can saturate yourself in a small market like this. But the record thing was never intentional. That was something that we were all very upset about, actually, that the Roy record got lost. It didn't really turn out the way we wanted it to sound, and that was a sore spot for a long time.
Mike: And I don't think it was anybody's fault, it was just kind of all of us stumbling and not really focusing. Which is what we're doing now.
Indy: So how would you say the scene here has changed over the years?
Jay: I don't think it's so much that the scene has changed, it's that we've changed. You know, venues open and close. Trends change. And right now, I think people are more open to every kind of genre, as the Indy music showcase revealed. People are just into a lot of different kinds of music and they have it all at their fingertips now.
Mike: And now there are more people getting into the scene and making moves, you know, like We Are Not a Glum Lot and the Flumps. So it's good to see some new blood finally coming in here and doing good stuff. Those bands are great.
Jay: Yeah, you know, Colorado Springs has always ebbed and flowed in terms of its music scene. We've been around during times when it seems like every venue in town shut down and there was no place to play. And then there's times where there's plenty of venues but all the bands end up breaking up.
And now I think we're in a time where it's like, everything is on the same wavelength. There's a lot of places to play. There's a lot of bands in town. And there's a lot of people that are more willing to get out there and go see them.