If hard work and talent are the formula for success, then intimate shows like tonight's gig at El Patio soon may be few and far between for Durango's Lawn Chair Kings."They've been the next big thing for the last nine years," joked Matt Joyce, the band's original drummer who now lives in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Joyce co-founded the band in 2000 with then-roommate, guitarist and Durango High School teacher Erik Nordstrom, and the two selected Louisiana native Dan Leek on bass to round out what may have been America's first suburban rock power trio. It is believed (by some of us anyway) that Nordstrom and Joyce coined the term.
"It was a mix of urban and country music, so suburban seemed appropriate. And we thought lawn chairs were a good symbol of suburbia," Nordstrom said.
In the early years, the Lawn Chair Kings augmented its stage with other symbols of the Middle America from the band's youth: pink flamingoes, a black-and-white television that broadcasts static throughout the show and, of course, lawn chairs. Nowadays, the stage is emptier, but the crowds are getting larger.
"At our first show (at Storyville in December 2000), we were already thinking of gimmicks because we knew we weren't going to be that good, and it was fun, but it was also a lot more stuff to carry," Nordstrom said.
In a succession of drummers reminiscent of "Spinal Tap" without the freak accidents, Joyce was followed by Eric Hopper before the Lawn Chair Kings landed Steve Mendias, who has been the stick man for nearly five years. In between, the group added a fourth member when they snagged former Goodfoot guitarist Steve Stokes, who has since moved to the Bay Area.
The group still numbers four with last year's addition of the multifaceted Kelly Rogers, who seemingly can play any instrument set before him, including the guitar, mandolin, lap steel guitar and concertina. He's also a technical wizard, engineering sound for myriad local and regional stage productions through his own company.
"He's our Zen master - we call him 'Sensei,'" Nordstrom said of Rogers' seamless integration into a band that was an established favorite on the Durango music scene.
Mendias, who became a fan of the Lawn Chair Kings while he was on a reasonably successful but unfulfilling run with several rock cover bands, said it was Nordstrom's songwriting prowess that drew him in.
"I made a lot of money but wasn't having any fun, and the first thing I noticed about them was, 'here's someone who has enough balls to play their own songs,'" he said.
Mendias also took a stab at labeling the Kings' unique sound: Western garage.
The prolific Nordstrom is the unquestioned heart and soul of the band with literally hundreds of songs in his catalog. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Nordstrom played in several punk, alternative country and bluegrass outfits before founding the Lawn Chair Kings. Songs like "Alien Abductee," "Old Red Car," and "Horsehockey" are representative of his wide range of influences, mixing elements of each genre.
"The Lawn Chair Kings were a culmination of all that, and I like to think that if the music's energetic and melodic, people will like it," he said. "It's nice to be able to play our own songs and be accepted."
The songs aren't long - about three minutes each - and set lists for a typical show number more than 60. Nordstrom's advice to his audience is similar to that given by locals to visiting tourists who question the unpredictable Rocky Mountain weather.
"If someone doesn't like the song we're playing, they don't have wait long for the next one, and it may be completely different," Nordstrom said.
His own trepidation notwithstanding, people seem to like Nordstrom's songs, and the covers the band chooses to play are recognizable without being cliché - songs by The Velvet Underground, Uncle Tupelo, Camper Van Beethoven and The Kinks are just a small cross-section of the band's deep musical roots that it's brought to life on stage over the years.
Audiences, to put it in the rock 'n' roll vernacular, seem to dig it. The Lawn Chair Kings' MySpace page is nearing its 10,000th visitor, and venues throughout Durango and the Four Corners usually are filled when the Kings plug in. The band also is a supportive and driving force on the Durango music scene, sharing bills with and helping to promote the likes of the Soda Jerks, Jaki & the Joysticks, The Beautiful Losers and The Freeman Social, to name just a few. The respect is mutual.
"I love Erik Nordstrom, and I love the Lawn Chair Kings," Freeman front man Bubba Iudice said last week at a Memorial Day weekend barbecue that only coincidentally took place in Nordstrom's backyard.
It would be a stretch to say that the Lawn Chair Kings have been toiling to achieve success since its inception - Nordstrom enjoys teaching, Mendias and Leek are each self-employed in flooring and construction, respectively, and Rogers stays busier than any of them with his business - but they seem poised to take the next step toward becoming full-fledged rock stars.
The band has one self-titled CD and an EP titled "Suburban Rock Favorites." A new CD is in the works that includes a few songs penned by Leek, who said he's enjoying the songwriting process. It also has the assistance of legendary music producer Ed Stasium, whose résumé includes the likes of The Ramones, The Chambers Brothers, Gladys Knight & The Pips and Motorhead. The band has decided on a title, but it's keeping it a secret until it's released.
"We want to push this second album hard, and hit the big capital cities in the Four Corners," Leek said.
"I'd love to be a rock star, but my dad brought me up to be very logical, and I have a hard time grasping it. Still, I think you have to go for it, and we're going to."
Mendias also is ready for the big time, but like his bandmates, he understands the sacrifice of what that will take. The band has played in Austin, Texas, Bluff, Utah, Santa Fe and Flagstaff, Ariz., so it knows the toll an extended road trip can take on a group.
"My wife's a writer, so she understands what it means to take a chance, so that's good for me anyway," Mendias said.
"Records don't sell themselves without a strong stage presence, and that means going out on the road with the live show. We're weekend warriors now, but our lifestyle will have to change, and I think we're all feeling that we're ready for it."