'Who are these people, and how are they finding things out about me?"
Jay Munly is not being paranoid. Well, not entirely. The gauntest member of Slim Cessna's Auto Club is also the Denver band's most cryptic presence, and he's mystified by the biographical details interviewers sometimes find online.
In this case, the detail in question is the fact that Munly spent his college years working as a summer camp counselor. Not exactly what you'd expect, given the dark sentiments that permeate Petr & the Wulf, the recently released debut album from his other band, the Lupercalians: "When I was a pubescent pup with my purity affecting my teary eyes," sings Munly in his gallows baritone, "I went prostrate on the floor of an abyss, my situation was dire."
Emerging from an incestuous "Denver scene" that included early incarnations of DeVotchKa and 16 Horsepower, Munly and Cessna play Gothic Americana that, while often wildly funny, is possessed by a Pentecostal fervor that sets them apart from bands who traffic in Southern revivalist shtick. While Cessna is the son of a Baptist preacher, Munly was raised in a "very stereotypical Catholic family," and both have an abiding reverence for their subject matter.
"It's best not to take things personal, but when I hear people say that we're tongue-in-cheek, that's pretty offensive to me," says Munly, who will perform with both bands during the Auto Club's 10th anniversary New Year's Eve shows at the Bluebird Theater. "I work really hard — this is my life. So you know, is this a joke? I hope not.
"And tongue-in-cheek is a really low form of humor, I think. You know, there are elements of our songs that have humor, as all writing does. You can have drama and humor and mix them all together and you have a nice balance."
Cessna, whose wildly grinning onstage personality serves as a foil to Munly's somber countenance, describes his cohort as brilliant, talented and genuine. "Yeah, I guess I would say that there is a darkness there, and I don't know what that's about," Cessna told me in an interview last year. "But I respect it and it's real and it's sincere. And that's important."
Those seeking further reassurance can consult the now-defunct online zine Splendid, where Cessna described Munly as "one of the nicest guys in the whole world. He's wonderful with kids and animals and the whole thing. People shouldn't be scared of him."
Duck, duck, wolf
When Munly & the Lupercalians played the Bluebird last year, their onstage costumery was as unsettling as their arsenal of propulsive rhythms, gloomy keyboards and keening vocals. Seated center-stage with his banjo, Munly was framed by two drummers and two organists wearing robes and hoods that looked like they were lifted from the set of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
Factor in elegiac lyrics that sheath social commentary in biblical-grade fire and brimstone ("Do you have no more women to blame? Are there no more blacks to censure?"), and you get the notion that Munly is not the kind of guy who, like Crosby, Stills & Nash, would be likely to live in a "very nice house with two cats in the yard."
Actually, Munly says he and fellow Lupercalian Rebecca Vera have three of them.
When asked about his partner, Munly momentarily brightens. "There's that 'it factor' that people throw around, and she understands it," he says of Vera, who also played cello in Munly's previous side project, the Lee Lewis Harlots. "She understands where the music comes from, you know? Not that it's all mystical or anything, or that you have to be a certain way to understand it. But she does. And at times she'll take it in different directions, and they're always right on. I've had other people try to do that, and it's usually extremely awkward."
Munly describes Petr & the Wulf as the "prequel" to a story that will unfold over the course of four Lupercalian releases. "For us, the album went fairly quick," he says of a process that sounds anything but. "It was just a matter of getting the players in place, constantly switching players, getting new people, getting rid of old people, people getting sick of me..."
The album's thematically linked songs are told from the perspectives of the various Russian folk-tale characters (bird, cat, duck, boy, grandpa, wolf) who inspired Prokofiev's celebrated symphony for children. And that's where the similarity pretty much ends.
"I never thought the story was right, so I just felt we needed to tell the true version of it," says Munly, who uses it as a springboard for themes Grimm enough to make brothers Jacob and Wilhelm uncomfortable.
So how does Munly's version differ from its predecessors?
"I wouldn't compare them. You know, they're rooted in the same place."
Munly's own story, as he tells it, dates to early encounters with what would turn out to be his primary instrument.
"My father had a banjo that I was not allowed to touch, but of course I did," he recalls. "He didn't play anything; he just had it as more of a piece. He was what you'd call a Civil War buff. I don't like using that term, 'buff,' but he was one."
Munly secretly taught himself how to make music on the 19th-century artifact. He never took to learning other people's songs — "I have a hard enough time playing my own" — and rarely opts for the fingerpicking techniques preferred by many. "I do that every now and then, but I more just flat-pick it like a guitar would be played, which was actually the first way the banjo was played, but it's not anymore."
While Munly is generally reluctant to talk about musical influences, he speaks with reverence of Harry Smith's field recordings and praises artists like Ralph Stanley.
"He's a special man, and he brought a lot of people under his wing, too," he says of the bluegrass living legend. "There's something special about caring for so many young musicians and letting them go off on their own and getting them their own careers and lives. So many of his backing musicians have gone on to have larger careers than he had."
But even as he admired those musicians, Munly says it was really their stories that captured his imagination, sparking literary pursuits that have won serious awards and resulted in a volume of short stories. ("All of the publishers that have had it have gone out of business," he brags.) Munly also earned his master's degree in modern English literature from Columbia University, after which he returned to Colorado to join up with his old pal Cessna.
It's a friendship that continues to be marked by both mutual respect and playful ridicule: "Now Munly went to East Coast schools, he thinks he is so deep," sings Cessna on the most recent Auto Club album. "About the deepest thing on Munly are the divots in his cheeks."
That may technically be true — he's remarkably thin for someone not yet dead — but the gravitas isn't just skin-deep. Few contemporary songwriters can tap into primal anxieties in such a sophisticated manner, which may account for at least some of his offstage reserve.
"I'm not trying to evade anything. It's just the way I am. I just think too much, maybe," says Munly. "No, that's not true. That's a terrible statement. How can you think too much?"