Not long after moving to Aspen, Jai Vatuk became a part-time member of Jes' Grew, a rock band that has been on the local scene for more than a decade. That continued the pattern that Vatuk, a guitarist, singer and songwriter, has been following for some two decades - joining a band that is already in progress. Vatuk, 49, has joined reggae bands in Los Angeles, spent most of 2009 as a touring member of the U.K. ska band the English Beat and joined the Bonedaddys, a California world-beat group, as a guitarist only. On one occasion, Vatuk had become the most prominent part of the band he joined: The Orange County reggae-rock band Common Sense never had recorded, toured or performed original music before Vatuk came on board; with Vatuk, they wrote songs, played outside their home ground and released a handful of albums.
But Vatuk hasn't been on the ground floor of forming a band since Elektro Lovekit, an adventurous Wisconsin rock-pop quartet he founded with, among others, his buddy Wally Ingram, who has gone on to play drums with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow. Among Elektro Lovekit's distinctions is that its debut album was produced by Butch Vig a few years before Vig produced Nirvana's "Nevermind."
Not having a band to really call his own is part of what led to Vatuk calling it quits as a musician a couple years ago.
"In Elektro Lovekit, we wrote the songs together. Everyone did their parts," the 49-year-old Vatuk said. "It's been a long time since I felt that way, like you could all get together in a room and make music."
In June of 2010, after a stretch of years in which it was not uncommon for him to play 350 gigs, Vatuk quit performing - "because of the day-to-day drudgery," he said - to take a job as production manager at Belly Up.
Recently, Vatuk became re-energized about performing, thanks to helping put together a spanking new band. The group - Matthew Moon and the Deadly Bells - doesn't bear his name, and Vatuk says the group revolves around Moon's voice. But Vatuk has played a key role in its formation. Moon, the singer-songwriter who serves as frontman, had been based in Denver when, a few months ago, Vatuk floated a proposal.
"I suggested Matthew move to Aspen," Vatuk said. "It was one of those schoolyard things you say: 'Move here and we'll get a band together.'"
A four-piece version of Matthew Moon and the Deadly Bells was launched with a few gigs this weekend in Utah. Tonight at Belly Up sees the debut of the full six-piece group: Vatuk and Moon, bassist Steven Vidamour, drummer Tobyn Britt, and singers Olivia Daane Reische and Dana Underwood, who Vatuk met at showcases for local musicians at Belly Up.
Vatuk's role in the band has extended to writing songs; he has collaborated with both Reische and Moon in the writing process. Having two writing partners is something of a new dynamic, with an unusual set of challenges, but Vatuk has found it invigorating.
"You write with one person - then you add another. It's complicated," he said. "You're always thinking about two other people, other combinations. But the end result is more gratifying. You have people to share it with. You write a beautiful song, then you look at that person you wrote it with and you both understand what it took to get to that place. When you write by yourself, you don't have that strength behind it. With three of us, it's more a team feeling."
Vatuk, who was born in Ft. Collins and was raised by his parents, both professors, in New Delhi, Berkeley and Chicago, began playing music after seeing Led Zeppelin on one of its final tours, in 1979. Around the same time, he also saw Bob Marley, Miles David, Supertramp and Jethro Tull, each of which he considers a significant input into his artistic make-up.
"Those are the bands that set the tone," he said. "And from there it got wider - the whole jazz world, then I ended up with a career playing reggae music."
Vatuk's musical experience encompasses more than playing and writing. He ran a venue, the Caspar Inn, in Mendocino, for four years; produced several albums by guitarist David Lindley; has been a tour manager and a sound engineer. The day job at Belly Up has given him yet another angle on playing.
"It's enlightening," he said. "It gives me a real well-rounded perspective on the room. You can put shows on all your life, but there are things you'll never know if you're not up there on the stage, getting that perspective."
As a founder of Matthew Moon and the Deadly Bells, Vatuk is falling once again for being one of the musicians.
"Now, I play music, and every time I do, I enjoy it," he said. "I don't take it for granted; I don't feel a need to play every night. It's not an ego trip; it's just the joy of playing, doing it organically, just getting local people we enjoy playing with. That brought me back to the feeling of why I got into it in the first place.
"Performing original songs again and getting them out there - that feels good. Playing with people who are excited to try new things - that's where I'm at now."