Gregg Dolan isn’t looking much like a rocker, sitting in a noisy corner of Sketch Wine Bar off Broadway. Wearing a fitted green golf shirt that accents his dyed-magenta hair, the pale, thin Dolan sips on a glass of malbec and stares emptily out toward First Avenue.
Dolan isn’t your average hipster musician, though he makes a living as a graphic designer and admits that he rarely leaves the Baker neighborhood — home to Sketch and rock clubs the Hi-Dive and Skylark Lounge. The self-effacing, often outspoken artist is a passionate member of Denver’s ever-evolving music community, and he’s also the voice behind one of Colorado’s most prolific, underrated indie bands, Kissing Party.
“I’ll probably make music until I write a record that I love,” said Dolan with a far-off look in his eye. “I can’t stop until then — like, ‘This is better than anything anybody else has done.’ Not better, but maybe it sits next to T. Rex. And I’ll probably never do that, so I’ll never quit.”
Though Kissing Party is a five- piece band that has released five albums in the past five years, it’s fair to say that Dolan is the person holding things together. Until the band’s most recent release, “Wasters Wall,” Dolan wrote nearly all the music and most of the lyrics. He schedules practices and takes lead on the recordings. He makes the fliers and is responsible for the artful, impressionistic aesthetic that defines all things Kissing Party.
But Dolan is also a lightning rod — a catalyst of controversy and drama, a straightforward speaker with a penchant for pushing buttons and telling it like it is.
If you see him on the street, though, he’s more likely to tell you a story than talk smack. Ask him about the time he weaseled his way backstage to give the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid his demo tape. Or about him shoplifting for the first time: the CD single for the Lemonheads’ “My Drug Buddy,” when he was 13. Or about him getting called out at a Smokin’ Grooves concert years ago by OutKast’s Andre 3000.
Depending on the day, Dolan is either friendly and outgoing or reclusive and unapproachable. At Sketch, he’s sitting quietly without making much eye contact and speaking in the occasional incomplete thought. His gaunt face is feminine, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s cripplingly shy or just rude. When asked if he was wearing eye shadow at a recent gig, he blushes frustratedly. He wasn’t.
“I’ve been getting that since the second grade,” he said, his naturally pinkish eyelids aimed down at the table. “When I worked at a Halloween store, one day a little girl said, ‘Daddy, I want eyelids like him.’ ”
A glass of wine arrives at the table, sent over from an attractive blond across the restaurant.
“From Deirdre,” said JD, our waiter, with a smile.
Dolan’s bandmate Deirdre Sage is meeting a friend a few tables down and sends a friendly wave. Dolan acknowledges her with a shrug. In a few days, Dolan and Sage — along with bandmates Lee Evans, Shane Reid and Joe Hansen — will play the biggest show of their career, the “Wasters Wall” CD-release party at the Hi-Dive.
“I feel (expletive) good, man,” said Dolan. “I’m not hating Denver, but nationally and worldwide we’re doing more. We’re huge in Brazil now. We’re not huge, but we do have fans there. More than one. One guy in South America is asking us, ‘Why aren’t you guys famous?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Dolan grew up outside of Youngstown, Ohio, and studied at the Pittsburgh Art Institute before moving to Maui. He landed in Denver simply because his brother had moved here, and he continues to have an awkward relationship with the city he now calls home.
Like other locals, Kissing Party has started to benefit from blog love from all over the world. The band got played on tastemaking Seattle station KEXP and scored an invite to the elite Athens Popfest. The band’s addictive blend of tender vocals and guitars that alternate between chunky and chiming creates a jangly sound that has become a Denver trademark. Its early work drew comparisons to sugary, twee icons Belle & Sebastian, a fact that drives Dolan crazy. But Kissing Party’s later works, including 2010’s “The Hate Album” and the recent “Wasters Wall,” are charged and confident, while still keeping the boy-girl vocals that are at the band’s pop-music core.
“Just because there’s a girl in our band doesn’t mean we sound like Belle and Sebastian,” Dolan said. “And we have some weird (expletive), too. We have some Velvet Underground stuff in there. Deirdre doesn’t sound anything like Nico. They’re both horribly out of tune, but they don’t sound anything like each other.
“Just kidding. I can say that because she’s right there.”
Dolan isn’t afraid to address the primary criticism of Kissing Party: Out-of-tune vocals, especially in the live show.
“Are we off-tune? Of course it’s true. If you have any sense of hearing, it’s true,” he said.
“On the album, we don’t sound bad, I don’t think. Actually, that’s not true. There are two songs on the album that aren’t listenable. And that goes for all of our albums. People don’t understand this, but I’d take Deirdre over Gwen Stefani any day.”
With Dolan, it seems like there’s a constant battle being waged in his head: self-hate versus self-love. It’s a fascinating perspective.
“I’m trying to figure it out: Why does this (expletive) keep releasing anything if he hates his own music?” he asked of himself. “But I don’t hate it. I spent two years on it. I’m not going to put it in the (expletive) and not release it.”
“He just says it”
A few days later, Kissing Party released its new CD at the Hi-Dive to a crowd of 150 people.
The band employed a merchandise person for the first time and actually sold CDs. And a few days after that, we met up again with Dolan — this time with Sage in tow. In the same way that their vocals complement each other, the two are clearly close friends who understand one other. When asked about Dolan’s potential for abrasiveness, Sage relents.
“I don’t think he holds back much,” said Sage, sipping a whiskey ginger. “He’s not one of those ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ people. He just says it.”
Sage is a vocational-rehabilitation specialist at a mental health center by day, and she got to talking about how much some of her clients enjoy Kissing Party’s latest CD.
“A lot of people with mental illness really relate to music,” Sage said.
Added Dolan, as if on cue: “It must be why we’re in a band.”
But Sage was pleased with the CD release. They had a good crowd, and people danced. And some kids even showed up with their own homemade Kissing Party T-shirts, asking Sage to dance and bumming a rosary off Dolan, who was dressed in his rock-star best.
Dolan liked the show, but he seems like he had a better time at the afterparty, where he fell asleep in his backyard until 4 a.m. He shared an exchange about coming in from the cold that night — “next thing I knew it was 4 a.m. and I was cold, and I went inside and told Deirdre, ‘I’m frozen on the inside’ ” — and it’s clear their bond is singular.
“None of this is about Gregg being a nice person or not,” said Sage. “He gets wrapped up in his internal world sometimes, and when somebody approaches him, he’s wrapped up in that la-la land or his own personal diagnosis of mad-cow disease or lung cancer and he comes off the wrong way.”
One element of Dolan’s life that is impossible to misinterpret is the reasoning behind his work ethic. Even after his 40 hours a week at work, he’s hustling for the next song, the next show, the next record. His possibly unattainable goal of creating something truly great and self-realized hangs around his neck like an albatross, but in his own words, “I’m keeping it together.
“Bands do break up,” Dolan said with a blank stare. “A lot. And it’s really (expletive) hard to keep a band together, for so many reasons. And there are millions of reasons not to make music. But at the end of the day, my band makes me laugh. And that’s enough for me.”