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If you’ve spent any amount of time exploring the Front Range music scene, chances are you’ve heard of singer and songwriter Clay Rose and his “bleeding rock n’ roll” band, Gasoline Lollipops. Rose is somewhat of a living legend around here—someone who has long strived to live as his authentic self while fighting for social justice—and he has a wealth of stories to tell as a result.
Fresh off a harrowing tour stop in Dallas, Texas, last month, Rose and the GasPops are set to debut some new music at East Colfax’s Bluebird Theater on May 26, with support from singer-songwriter and fiddle player Phoebe Hunt and the bicoastal, indie-soul group Mama Magnolia. We sat down with Rose to learn more about the upcoming show, dig into his past as a punk outcast without a true sense of home, and find out what really happened in “the belly of the beast.”
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Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Have you played the Bluebird Theater before?
Yes, a handful of times. I always have a really good time there. It’s the perfect-sized theater because you still get the spectacle of the big show that I’m sure audience members love. But for me, it’s still small enough that I can maintain the intimacy and connection that I feel I need to have with an audience in order to put on a good show.
Phoebe Hunt is joining GasPops for your show on May 26. What can you tell me about the multi-talented musician?
Phoebe’s awesome. I met her last year. She and I were facilitators for a songwriting retreat that happens up in Estes called the UpStream Songwriting Workshop. She wears her heart on her sleeve, even more than I do. As a writer and performer, she’s just fearless and a powerhouse of talent, and I’ve never seen somebody do a solo fiddle set before. She just plays fiddle and sings and stomps her foot. It’s incredible. Mesmerizing. She’s got Appalachian roots, but then she’s also bringing her own thing to it, and bending and breaking the box.
Also joining you will be Mama Magnolia. Have you been friends with those guys a while, or will this be your first time playing with them?
This will be my first show playing with them. I’ve known of them for quite a while, because [drummer] Kevin Matthews has played in their band quite a bit. He was playing with them a lot when he first joined the GasPops. So I’ve been aware of them, but I’ve not actually met them yet. But their music is really cool. I might be totally off; it’s just my opinion, but they’re kind of a blend of Joni Mitchell, Lake Street Dive, and Buena Vista Social Club.
Is there anything else your fans should be looking forward to with this show? Are you going to be playing any new music?
We’re going to be playing a lot of new music. We’re trying to get all the songs together for our next album, so we’ll be workshopping a lot of those songs at the Bluebird. It’ll be a debut for a bunch of them.
Your website says, “Gasoline Lollipops stitch scraps of American roots music to patches of their own tattered hearts to form an all-new tapestry of bleeding rock n’ roll.” How would you define “bleeding rock ’n’ roll?”
I think there’s a sincerity and a vulnerability that come from folk music that you don’t typically hear in rock—there are miles and miles between Leonard Cohen and Led Zeppelin. One was there to publicly sort through the demons and the blessings and to evolve as a human being onstage or on-mic, and the other one was there to shake off the cares and worries and to party and get laid, and never the twain shall meet. I’ve always had a deep need for both of those worlds—they just sort of naturally blend.
I think that there’s a real valuable catharsis of punk rock, for instance, where you get into the pit, and all the anger and frustration and anxiety of the week just sweats out of you in a community of people who are doing the same thing. There’s a camaraderie in the pit of a punk show that you’re not going to find anywhere else, kind of like the constructive and therapeutic function of destruction. And in folk music, it’s a very solitary kind of healing. So that’s what I would call “bleeding rock ’n’ roll”—the hybrid of those two things.
What’s a Gasoline Lollipops song or lyric that is the most revealing of who you are as a person?
Each song is about a facet of me or a particular struggle that I have. I guess the song that best encapsulates me as a whole picture would be “Homesick Remedy.” That sort of frames my major plight in life, which is a sense of homelessness. In it, I ultimately come to the realization that the only home I have is on the road on the journey of finding myself. My dad was a truck driver, so my earliest memories are of riding shotgun in a big rig. He would drive all summer, and in the fall, he’d get a different place every year. So there was never really a sense of home. I think my main journey has been to find comfort in that. Ultimately, everything is changing all the time. We’re changing, our homes are changing, our children are changing, our jobs are changing, and so if we’re looking for stability outwardly, we’re never going to find it. So if we can find stability in the change, meaning that we have to find it in ourselves. I don’t know that I’ve gotten there, or anywhere near there, but I am convinced that that’s the only way to find peace.
You’ve performed all over the world. Where did you play your most memorable show?
It was not at all my favorite show, but I’d say the most memorable show was probably our CD release for “All the Misery Money Can Buy” at Red Rocks at the height of the lockdown. It was surreal. It was apocalyptic, really. They let 250 people in, and we got to have two shows in one day—a total of 500 people. The 250 people who were there had to be separated by 10 feet, and everybody had to be masked. To be standing onstage at Red Rocks, looking out at 65 rows of empty seats—it was strange. It’s most up-and-coming musicians’ dream to play at Red Rocks, right? But that situation was almost nightmarish. “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.”
Do you hope to have another opportunity to play there again, in different circumstances?
I would love to open for one of my heroes there, like Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson, or something like that. But ultimately, I would rather play the Gold Hill Inn than Red Rocks any day of the week. I feel like I can actually connect with each person in the audience in that environment, when the stage is only a foot off the ground, and there’s no barrier between you and the audience and you can make eye contact with every person in the room. It’s really hard to connect in the same way with 6,000 people.
There’s also a spectacle involved in big theater shows, or arena shows, where the stage is five feet tall, and there’s all these lights, and all these speakers, and a fog machine, and it makes the performer seem more than human. That’s dishonest. I don’t think it’s really accurate for anyone. Even Led Zeppelin. They’re not gods. They’re not demigods. They’re just frail humans trying to sort out their pain and grief onstage. And I don’t personally think that’s something that should be enshrined. I think it should be common.
I wanted to ask you about the Sandman, a ballet produced in collaboration with contemporary ballet company Wonderbound, described as an “epic, newfangled Western [that] chronicles the journey of characters ripped from the lyrics of GasPops frontman, Clay Rose.” What has that experience been like for you?
It’s been enormously validating as an artist. I never took music lessons, I never went to music school; I was self-taught, and I was a punk rocker. I never thought that class of people would ever be able to find or relate to my music. To have somebody of [Wonderbound artistic director and choreographer] Garrett Ammon’s caliber of artistry see value in what I do and translate it to the ballet made me feel like, “Oh, maybe there is something worthwhile to what I do…” I always thought I had a very niche audience that understands what I’m trying to do. I never thought that would include a ballet audience. So to see it translated to that demographic of people, it’s made my world expand a lot.
Your bio says that you had a “disjointed childhood, straddled between the Rocky Mountains and the backwoods of Tennessee.” What’s the most glaring difference between these two regions, and how do you think that “disjointed” experience has shaped the person you are today?
The thing that separates them is, at the root, diversity. Down South, there’s a lot of diversity in race, culture, and wealth. And in the Boulder area where I grew up, it’s kind of all the same. It’s all white people, it’s all rich people, and everybody thinks the same. It’s really easy to say that you’re a liberal and not racist when you’re surrounded by nothing but rich, white people. It’s another thing to put those values to the test when you’re surrounded by a smorgasbord of wealth and race and culture. So there’s a lot of tension down South. When you’re surrounded by that kind of diversity, you can either put your money where your mouth is as a liberal, and if you do that, then you kind of have to be on the front lines fighting for truth and justice. Or, you can just double down on your ignorance and keep your bubble intact, which is really hard down South. It’s fairly easy to keep your bubble intact out here, but in order to keep your bubble intact down South, you have to really staunchly dig your heels into ignorance.
I’ve always been an idealist, and as a kid, I didn’t think about the complexities. I just saw what was wrong and thought it would be pretty easy for people to give that up, if only they had me to show them the way. The more that that happened, the more I tried to shine a light in the darkness, and the more I got shut down doing that, the angrier I became. And pretty soon, it was unclear if I was looking for peace or war.
Let’s talk about the rest of the GasPops. How would you describe each of your bandmates?
Guitarist Donny Ambory’s a madman. He’s a mountain of talent. I’ve never heard anybody play the telecaster so adeptly with so many different styles in his tool bag. He’s kind of a savant because he’s unparalleled in his guitar playing, but he’ll get lost in a parking lot.
Bassist Bradley “Bad Brad” Morse is like Mr. Rogers in his commitment to sincerity and his open heart, and he’s always the last one to leave the venue because he’ll be standing there talking to the usher or the security guard or whoever’s left. Not just talking to them, but really listening to them. He’s so curious about everyone. And he’s always concerned about where other people are at, emotionally and otherwise. Onstage, he’s listening to all the subtleties, the spaces in between notes, and he can really lock in with [drummer] Kevin Matthews in a way that most players couldn’t because they would be too busy listening to what they were playing.
Drummer Kevin Matthews is a human metronome. I’ve never played with a drummer who has better time than Kevin, and it’s taken me a long time to get to know him and to get to trust him because I was so used to playing with punk drummers who are just as frenetic and bipolar as I am. They would just move with me on all my huge tempo swings, to the point where I started thinking, “I must have perfect time, because I’m so locked in with this drummer.” So when Kevin came aboard I was like, “That’s not how the time goes.” It took me a long time to trust his time, and since I started doing that, it’s made me 500 times the player I was because I’m having to learn how to have dynamics within a rigid tempo, and that’s a whole other kind of talent that I never even knew existed. I didn’t know you could change the dynamic without changing tempo. So Kevin has really pushed me to evolve as a musician.
Keyboardist and organist Scott Coulter and I have been friends since the first day of first grade. So I’ve known him a really, really long time. He was tearing up Scott Joplin in the third grade. Scott was born an old man. He’s been, like, 70 years old since I met him. We’re, in a lot of ways, total opposites. He’s never had an affinity for drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, and I’ve almost died from all of those things. He’s got such a clear sense of right and wrong, and it’s never faded. It’s actually gotten stronger for him. He’s willing to lay his life down for justice. I used to have that, before I had kids, and once I had kids, I was like, “Man, whatever it takes to keep these kids alive and protect them.” And so my universe got way more personal. For him, it’s not personal. It’s about humanity at large, and so it’s nice to have that moral compass reintroduced into the band, and that kind of fearlessness. It reminds me of parts of myself that I’ve closeted since I was a kid.
GasPops recently played a show at Sundown at Granada in Dallas, Texas, with the members dressed in drag. What was the thought process behind that decision?
Our keyboardist Scott Coulter is a social activist. He’s a youth minister in the Episcopalian church, and so he follows social issues very closely. He informed me that Texas was trying to [pass a bill to ban lascivious drag shows performed in front of minors]. So we went down there and played a show in drag.
It was terrifying for me. When I went to high school in Tennessee, I would wear eyeliner and nail polish and sometimes lipstick, and sometimes I would wear long skirts instead of pants, and combat boots, and that whole style. I got physically beaten almost on a daily basis all through high school for my choice of clothes and my choice of fashion. I hate to say it, but I think the bastards finally won, because I changed my style and I stopped getting beat up, and I never really gave it much thought after that. But there was some serious PTSD when I was considering putting on a dress and makeup and going into the belly of the beast to play a show. I was really freaked out about it. Then we got there, and I started putting on the costume, I put on the makeup, and I went into the bathroom and looked at myself, and I was like, “Holy shit. I’m hot!” And it was the first time since I was 15 that I felt that way, that I felt attractive in my body. I’m not gay. I’m not bi. I don’t want to have a sex-change operation, but I definitely feel more attractive in drag than I do normally. There was kind of a surge of confidence and revitalization of my whole punk rock spirit from when I was a teenager. And as soon as I saw myself in the mirror, I didn’t give a fuck what anybody thought. And I was like, “I’m going go rock this show.” And we did!
There was this old fan of mine that had moved down to Dallas five years ago, this older lady, and she brought her husband to the show, who looked like Sam Elliott. He doesn’t know who we are or what we’re doing, but he’s here to make sure his wife has a good time. And some Proud Boys are yelling at us for the first few songs, and she leans over to him and goes, “I can’t hear the words over these guys yellin’.” So he gets up and walks over to these Proud Boys, and he’s like, “Hey, fellas. My wife came a long way to enjoy this show. She can’t hear it with your yellin’. So you got two choices: You can shut the fuck up, or I can drag you out of here by your ears.” So they left, and then the rest of the show was awesome.
At the end of the show, the manager came up to us, and he was like, “Hey guys, I just want to say, that was really brave, what you did. I’ve been living down here with my husband for 10 years, and it’s been really hard. We’ve had to live in the closet, both of us. And it’s just so liberating to see you guys, who don’t really have a dog in the fight, come down here and let it all hang out like that. It means a lot to us.” That was what made the whole thing worth it. So we’re waiting to see what happens with this bill, but if it does get passed, we’re going to be down in Texas doing drag shows a lot.