Two for the Road: The Friendly Dictators
ASPEN Kristin Carroll apologizes for being late for an interview, explaining that tardiness is a fact of her life.But the Aspenite has only been a professional drummer for some three years, and has not yet perfected the sort of extreme lateness normally associated with that occupation. In fact, it was her relative ability to be on time that has led to her musical career, and to her romantic interest.About four years ago, Carroll, an uncommonly dedicated music fan, developed an uncommonly strong interest in a local rock band, the Friendly Dictators. The 34-year-old began showing up at the band’s rehearsals, ready to assist in whatever chores needed to be done to get the music out there. Which is more than can be said for several members of the band.”She’d come to our practice space, offering her services to help poster the valley, free of charge, because she loved the music so much,” said Kurtis Sparrow, the leader of the Friendly Dictators. “She’d meet me at the practice space and always showed up before the other guys. So I’d put her behind the drums to give her the fundamentals.”Sparrow, a 36-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who moved from Washington state to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2000, was the main attraction for Carroll. “He was the only one in the band who returned my phone calls, participated in making the posters, put them up,” said Carroll, who soon volunteered to be manager of the band. “The other guys were flakes. They complained a lot, didn’t want to participate.”
Eventually, as Carroll puts it, “the universe came into play.” Both members of the band’s rhythm section had family situations that required them to move away. The two remaining members of the team put those drum lessons to good use, as Carroll became an actual band member.”When those guys went their way, I asked her if she wanted to learn some songs, play some drums,” said Sparrow. “She’s got rhythm. She’s absorbed so much over the years, going to so many shows.”For three-plus years, the Friendly Dictators have carried on as a duo. And early on in that span, Sparrow and Carroll became romantically involved as well.The twosome appears tonight at the Last Stand, the new nightclub under Cooper Street restaurant and bar.It’s possible that, even without Carroll’s propensity for being less late than the two departed members of the Friendly Dictators, that she would have found herself on the band’s drum stool.Carroll grew up in Memphis with a serious music addiction. By the time she moved to Aspen, at the age of 20, it seemed inevitable she would make her way into the local music scene. Not long after arriving here, in 1992, she took a job at the Double Diamond as a production assistant, a position which included putting posters up around the valley, her present day job. (Her clients include Snowmass Village, Mountain Groove Productions, and nearly every other organization whose bills adorn the valley.) Carroll also volunteered to be artist liaison for Jazz Aspen in its early years.She also had a thing for the drums. Well before she met Sparrow, she had bought an African djembe and participated in drum circles. Later on, she decided to learn to play the drum kit, and took some lessons. But it seemed she was waiting for the perfect instructor.
“It just turned out that Kurtis was the right teacher,” said Carroll. “I had a teacher before that, but he was interested in blowing my eardrums out.”
There is a sense of destiny to their story. Even without the drumming angle, Carroll was drawn to Sparrow’s music. In 2003, with the Double Diamond out of business, Belly Up not yet operating, and fans bemoaning the lack of live music, Carroll was walking around town and twice heard unexpected sounds. Both times, the music was coming from the Zélé Music Café, which filled in with the occasional gig. Both times, it was the Friendly Dictators.”I thought, ‘here’s a band I like.’ I thought, ‘I need to help this band. I want them to stick around,'” said Carroll. “I figured, whoever this is, I’ll give them my number and offer my services.”Much of what attracted Carroll was the particular sound she heard. After spending years listening to the jam bands that frequented the Double Diamond (not to mention Aspen and all of Colorado), the more driving music that Sparrow and company were making was refreshing to her ears.”I really liked the music – surf punk, cow punk, rockabilly,” she said. “It was out of the norm for the music we get around here, all the jam bands. I grew up with that, loved it, had a good deal of experience following it. But something different was very cool to me.”
Sparrow had grown up in Washington watching his older brother get together with friends to jam. It being the mid-’70s, their music of choice was Kiss. “But none of his friends wanted to be [Kiss drummer] Peter Criss,” he said. “So if I wanted to be part of the band, I had to be Peter Criss. So he was my first idol.”Sparrow continued on his hard-rock track, getting especially into Rush, and its drummer and lyricist, Neal Peart. He went through stages of old-school rap, metal, and then alternative rock. “A friend turned me onto Jane’s Addiction, and that was a huge influence on my vocal style. Huge,” said Sparrow, who lived in Seattle during the city’s famed grunge era.All of those influences and more have made their way into the Friendly Dictators. With Sparrow playing guitar and Moog synthesizer, and composing music on a digital apparatus that allows him to record multiple parts, and with Carroll starting to test out her vocal skills, the two-piece band plays a wide range of music. Sparrow, who played drums in the local punk band Discolored Perception, says the sounds span stoner rock to disco to “techno freakout stuff.”Sparrow is also prolific in output. Last winter he wrote 20 songs, all with parts for more than a duo can handle. None of that material has made its way into the Friendly Dictators’ shows yet.
“I’d love to have three guitar players, three big black girls singing behind us, auxiliary percussion, dancers, light show,” said Sparrow. “But we’re not so desperate that we want to deal with just anybody,” added Carroll.For the moment, one more member of the team would suffice. Someone like Carroll four years ago – someone who would show up almost on time, enthusiastic about moving the band forward – and maybe even work their way into the act. Sparrow and Carroll agree that it’s challenging to maintain a band and a relationship all by themselves.”It takes a lot of energy to do it all,” said Carroll. “Sometimes we wish we had a roadie, slash masseuse, slash chiropractor, slash bus driver. It takes so much energy to do it all, we get exhausted. We feel we’re so busy that time to actually enjoy the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship – that can be rare.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org