Marquee Magazine: FaceMan unites Denver musicians for the 'first waltz' of his debut release

By Brian F. Johnson

For the last two years, the Denver trio FaceMan has been relying pretty hard on the freak-out factor.

The group has played a slew of Front Range gigs with their leader, FaceMan (he doesn’t use his real name), cloaked in anonymity behind a massive mask constructed from floor vents and ceiling fan motors that spin lights. The contraption is kind of like a modern day version of the creepy patient mask used in the old film Johnny Get Your Gun, which was made famous to another generation by the video for the song “One” from Metallica.

While FaceMan hasn’t revealed himself, the other members of the group, 7-string guitarist David Thomas Bailey and drummer Ryan Elwood, play in the open with multi-media screens above their heads showing videos that fit the music. The other-worldly presentation has caused audiences all over Denver to stop and ask, “What the hell is going on here?”

The simple answer to that question is “an evolution.”

Long before the concept of FaceMan was ever thought of, the Denver born and raised musician had tried to stifle a desire to play music live. While in school in New Orleans he formed an admittedly terrible band, which saw moderate success only because “we stuck around long enough.” Upon his return to Denver, FaceMan began taking jazz guitar lessons at the Olde Town Pickin’ Parlor in Arvada, and after years of lessons he finally brought a few of his original songs to his instructor.

The man behind the mask had just come through a nasty divorce that was not his choosing and guitar was his only outlet for catharsis. “My lessons were like therapy. I think there were weeks when we didn’t even play. So when I finally brought these songs to him I was petrified about what he was going to say. I really needed him on my side right then,” FaceMan said in a recent face-to-face interview with The Marquee. “I finished playing them and he said, ‘You know, if you want help doing this out live I’d totally be down for that.’ It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever had in my life. It just blew my mind.”

They began working on the songs collaboratively and a sound arose that spanned multiple genres, time periods and vibes. The 11 songs that eventually became the forthcoming self-titled debut release aren’t a break-up album at all. From the Slim Cessna’s Auto Club-sounding first track “Darkest Day” to a 1980s era Lou Reed narration on “Fitting In,” FaceMan has crafted an incredible album that could easily stand on its own, without the mystery of FaceMan. The song “Colfax” for example, which talks about driving down the avenue and seeing “birds and trash and the beautiful lights,” could be one of the best songs about Denver in recent years.

FaceMan had already come up with the plan to perform anonymously, so once his instructor was on board and the songs were more dialed in, it was time to work on his mask.

“I’ve called all of the masks prototypes, because every one has been a work in progress, an evolution,” FaceMan said, adding that he and his dad have built the prototypes together. “My dad loves this. He’s one of my best friends and so we get to hang out and build all this stuff. It’s really great.”

The mask progressed through several different incarnations until it became this unwieldy beast that was hot, uncomfortable and (not conveniently) connected to an outlet with a three-pronged plug. But for the last 10 shows or so, FaceMan hasn’t even donned the massive apparel. These days, the mask has morphed — yet again — into a 200 pound stainless steel sculpture with copper rivets, that was commissioned from New York artist James Ronner, who built the piece over a seven-and-a-half month period.

The eye of the beast, which now sits behind FaceMan as opposed to around him, is filled with multi-media images. But while Faceman has taken off his super-hero mask, he still hasn’t revealed his identity and prefers to keep the comic-book image going. “Now that the character has been created, he doesn’t really need the mask,”  FaceMan said, almost as if Clark Kent was defending Superman.

But while people may not know his name, they’re going to start knowing his music. With the February 4 release of the album, the group is getting together an astonishing lineup of Denver musicians to do a very different kind of CD release party, that is being billed as “FaceMan’s First Waltz.”

FaceMan explained that more than 35 musicians are already signed on to perform, and that instead of it being — like most CD release parties — all about one band, FaceMan is planning to make it more about the scene. “We’re going to do mini-sets with each band. We’ll play a couple of their songs and then they’ll play a couple of ours. FaceMan is kind of the house band. So we’ll play our whole album — in pieces — but this is more about the promotion of the Denver scene and the bands that we really respect,” FaceMan said. “In my mind, it’s almost like a meet-and-greet party for us. Logistically, it’s going to be a nightmare. So it’s either going to be a huge success or a horrible failure.”

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