"We can't have just anybody in here," warns multi-instrumentalist Ben Gmetro, surveying the shadowy Lakewood practice space-cum-studio that's home to four tight-knit bands, all of which share the same eight members. Piled high with amps and guitars, illuminated by white Christmas lights, and lined with Syd Barrett and Mercury Rev posters, the room is something of a psych-rock sanctuary -- and not everybody is welcome.
"When we bring somebody in, they're not just some guy joining a band, playing a part," explains Mike Cormier, frontman for the Volta Sound and percussionist for the Dreadful Yawns, two of the four bands that form the Davenport Collective. "When we invite somebody in, they've got to be able to hang, to just sit down here and be in it, be a part of it. It's not just 'Hey, bring your bass, here's your parts.' That's not what we're looking for."
Cormier and company are looking for open-minded musicians to contribute to the Davenport Collective's already impressive body of work. Along with the Volta Sound -- which won nationwide acclaim with 2002's My All American Girl, a joint release from hip L.A. labels Elephant Stone Records and Orange Sky -- the group includes the Dreadful Yawns (Gmetro's main band), New Planet Trampoline, and 9 Volt Haunted House. Davenport's musicians trade instruments and bands like wife-swappers in '60s suburbia -- which is also where their sound is centered. All four bands are steeped in permutations of '60s pop and rock, and all have developed followings in psychedelic rock circles, from Byrds fans to Spiritualized devotees.
The seeds for the Davenport Collective were sown in the late '90s by guitarist Matt Cassidy (leader of New Planet Trampoline and 9 Volt Haunted House), who was creating a compilation of area bands for his own Davenport record label. In his search for artists, he met Cormier and Gmetro, who had already launched early incarnations of the Volta Sound and the Dreadful Yawns, and the three began collaborating. The troupe was distinguished by its laissez-faire attitude toward band membership and instruments (Gmetro sings and plays guitar in the Yawns, bass in the Volta Sound, and organ in NPT. Everyone else is similarly prolific).
Since landing its Lakewood rehearsal space in 2000, the Davenport Collective has been on a roll. Gmetro's wonderful, blissed-out Yawns recently signed a deal with Chicago's Undertow Records, whose roster includes such notables as Jay Bennett and Varnaline. The band is sure to create national ripples with its lush folk, which mates the pop sensibilities of Simon & Garfunkel with the austere beauty of Smog.
"I'm pretty selective when deciding to take on new bands or release records," says Undertow manager Bob Andrews, adding that the Yawns won him over with their debut EP, "Pretend," which was self-released earlier this year. "It's familiar but original, pretty but ragged, homemade-sounding but still hi-fi. It has a timeless quality to it."
9 Volt Haunted House, Cassidy's ambient, esoteric electronica project, is also raising eyebrows, along with New Planet Trampoline, which is currently laying down its debut of kaleidoscopic garage rock.
"I really dig NPT," says Ben Vendetta, owner of Elephant Stone, home of the Out Crowd and Land of Nod. "It's the perfect hybrid of all the British '60s Freakbeat groups like the Pretty Things, early Pink Floyd, and the Fleur de Lys."
For all the benefits of a collective ("You start to listen to stuff more, you get more practice," says Cassidy. "It makes you a better musician, playing with that many different people"), there's also the challenge of juggling four different bands, all with ambitious schedules. The collective's core members focus on one group at a time -- Volta Sound toured last spring, the Yawns will hit the road this summer -- while bringing in outside musicians to help out in the studio, keeping things moving at all times.
"I want to get to the point where no matter who shows up, who's available, we can still play and have a good time," Cormier says with a grin. "I'm curious to see how long we can keep it going."
So are we.