Q&A with Greg Hill of Six Months to Live
Having released three albums in four years, Six Months to Live has been one of the most prolific of poppy rock and roll bands out of Denver. Formed by former members Mr. Tree and the Wingnuts, Six Months' membership has included Mendel Rabinovitch of Cabaret Diosa and Zack Littlefield of Sonnenblume. With the relatively humble goal of being a great rock and roll band, this quartet weathered the slings and arrows of playing the local circuit and became exactly that. These guys never assumed that they were not as good as their peers, rather they set out each show to be the best band on the bill and not be intimidated by anyone. This bravado was not without its share of good humor but any band worth its salt never tries to go for second best.
This amplified self-expectation resulted in This is What Happens, the band's worthy latest release and regrettably its swan song. We had a chance to speak at length with singer and guitarist Greg Hill for a candid discussion of the band's history, the artwork for its latest album, the pitfalls of phone interviews and the musical future of the members of the band. Hill's dry and absurdist humor informs much of the act's songwriting as well as its lively and bombastic performances. Catch Six Months to Live for the last time with Dario Rosa and deadbubbles at the Meadowlark this Saturday, November 14.
Westword: The name of your band sounds kind of like a built-in death sentence. When did the band start and how did you come up with such a name?
Greg Hill: The band started in 2005. When the band started, I didn't want to be in a band where I was the lead singer. My goal with the band wasn't to exist for four years. I just wanted to play ten gigs and see what happened. I got home from work one day and said, "There's no way this band is going to last six months." There are people that would argue that it's a terrible name for a pop band. At our first gig, I swear to God there were goth kids there thinking they were going to see some Cookie Monster band.
Actually, we met at a Make-A-Wish Foundation thing because we had nephews that had died of leukemia. We were all talking about how all our nephews had six months to live.
WW: Clearly, there's a sense of the whimsical and playfulness to your performance and songwriting. How would you describe your sense of humor and the role it plays in your music?
GH: That is a good question, sir, because it speaks to the very state the band is in right now. As I mentioned earlier, we are a serious band. But as time has gone on, you just get more reactions out of people by being silly and with bratty behavior. But the rest of the band, especially with the current incarnation, they're not up there to be clowns; they're up there to play music -- which is in their job description and which is the band that they joined. As time has gone on, I've been more silly with keytar behavior. I just like being silly because I like entertaining people. But the rest of the guys aren't that into that, so that's one thing that's making me okay with the band not existing anymore. We've never had arguments, we just talked about where we wanted to move as a band. Chris and I spoke about it at great length, and he said he wasn't interested in being a half-comedy, half rock and roll band. And I understand that.
WW: Your band always seemed to have a bit of a sartorial flair on stage. What prompted that kind of visual approach to your performances?
GH: When a band starts out, you ask yourselves if you're going to dress cool or look like you just got off of work -- t-shirts and jeans and whatnot. That's the classic band conversation after you talk about the name. We chose to do suits. It took forever to get everybody in suits, and we still don't always do it. We're rock and rollers. It's against our natures to wear suits and ties. Do you know what it is? Even though we're rock and rollers, we want to bring a level of professionalism to the stage. And all these people with their piercings and their tattoos? We want to show there can be dignity in a job where you're paid in beer.
Also, playing in the Orang-U-Tones, it was all about being a cohesive unit on stage and give people something to think about. Plus, I had watched a movie called The Corporation. I also read a lot of Naomi Klein stuff and she talks about how branding appeals to the lizard part of the brain. I realized early on that we had such an inappropriate name for the style of music we were played, so we had to make our brand. So we took all the things they said was evil in the world and applied it to us, unsuccessfully. We wanted to project this image of comfort and confidence on the stage, which is obviously nonsense.
WW: Can you tell me about the cover art for that album as well as your previous efforts -- i.e. the placing of the words on This is What Happens? It doesn't seem completely random.
GH: It's a mandala. The dude who did most of the cover art is named Andy Brzeczek. He's this super cool artist guy. Unemployed, he drinks a great deal. I asked him to take over the artwork. That cover thing is in his living room. The words on there I wanted to be clear but that you could read it in different ways, but that no way to read it made sense except for the correct way.
We sat down one day and went through the song titles, and I gave him an image for each one and he tried to integrate them. From the time we talked about it and when he actually painted, some things changed. Ideally, you're supposed to find every song in [the insleeve artwork]. There's some curious random elements that more fun to the project. My favorite part of [the game inside the cover] it is the solution [shrunk and upside down]. The CDs themselves, he and a friend spraypainted the CDs, and some of them have flecks of paint on the bottom, so some are guaranteed not to play. And if someone doesn't like it, they'll let us know, and we'll give them another one. On the back is Klondike and Snow. They were originally lying on a blanket, but Andy said, "Have them flying in the sky!"
WW: What were your favorite shows during the time the band was together?
GH: My favorite moment with Six Months to Live happens once at almost every show. We're playing a song -- usually something where Chris sings lead -- and we're harmonizing on a lyric and Chris's voice is coming out his mouth like a -- I don't know -- like a flashlight, I guess, and I'm somehow not fucking it up. Sandler's eyes are rolled up backward in his head, and he's plopping out one fat melodic note after another. Donnie's right foot is keeping us all in line, and he's whacking the cymbals so hard your ears are trying to pinch themselves shut. There's a moment of clarity, or delusion, where I think to myself, "I love the fact that we're allowed to make music on this stage and that there are people willing to come to watch us and that this band is so goddamned awesome. I wish this could last forever."
But if you asked the whole band, they'd all say any show at the Larimer Lounge. No one would ever come and see us at the Larimer. There's five bands on the bill and, "Oh by the way, there's a touring metal band on the bill." But there'd be three people watching us and some people at the bar pretending we weren't there. But the Larimer Lounge would always invite us back because they're the sweatshop of rock and roll. You'd get up there and be silly, bang the cowbell and be a total jackass. We felt this liberation because we didn't really care. I think we played ten shows at the Larimer, and I broke it down by the total amount of money paid per band member per show - $2.31. You know there's going to be no money, no exposure, just you on stage with a fairly incompetent soundman. So you've got nothing to care about except rocking. The funny thing about the Larimer is that the second we started bringing people in, they stopped calling.
WW: Why break up the band now that you're starting to get some well-deserved critical recognition?
GH: The decision to break up was months ago. That's one of the cool things about this band. I was able to come into rehearsal and say, "The current situation doesn't fulfill my desire to move in a more silly direction, and I know that makes you guys feel uncomfortable." Of course when I said this at practice it took ten minutes, and at the end, I said I wanted to break up the band. To this day, I don't have an adequate explanation for them. We could play 3 Kings Tavern three times a year or the Lion's Lair, and forty percent of our shows will get something going haywire in the booking process, and we'll get frustrated with that.
It's okay to tread water, but it's not good to tread water. You want to do something. We constantly improved as a band; we became more competent musicians, but I am flighty. I've quit every band I've ever been in, and it's hard to quit a band where you have the role I have in this band. I would love it if they continued on, get Matt Shoup back in the band. Everybody's busy, Chris is having a baby. And we hate each other! I can't stress how gracious how these guys have been.
WW: Why is it that you don't like about talking with people on the phone?
GH: Because every fucking phone interview I've ever done has come off terribly. I'm walking in circles in the house saying stupid shit, probably saying the same stupid shit I'm saying here, but you don't know if that person is smiling or nodding. You hear clacking on the keyboard or pencil scratching. It's like going to confession, and I like to see my priests.
WW: What's next for the members of your band?
GH: Shawn Sandler will always be playing music in some form or another. Chris Brumbaugh, I hope someday to record his solo album. Donnie, he can get in another band immediately, because he's easy to get along with. It's not out of the question we'd play another show as Six Months to Live. I have this nebulous idea which involves me and my wife Maureen playing in the Babysitters, which is a new band. She plays drums and I play guitar. We're a power trio with just two people. A silly, freeform show with puppets. Our friend Lucas has been making sock puppets, and we all built a puppet stage. We want to integrate our band with the puppet show. The puppets are making dirty jokes, we're playing music, and we'd have a guest artist join us when we play three or four times a year, like The Muppet Show.