On Human Suit, songwriter Chad “Chadzilla” Johnson speaks out against celebrity worship, violence, conformity and competition, all things he’s witnessed over his long career playing music in hundreds of bands across the state, including Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and Polytoxic. “I’ve been a professional musician for a long time as a sideman. You kind of do what you’re told and play for the benefit of the band,” says Johnson. “After decades of that, I thought, ‘Who am I as a musician? What do I have to say to the world through my music?’”
That sideman mentality was the inspiration for the band’s name, Anonymonkey, because that’s how Johnson says he often felt playing in past bands — an anonymous monkey filling the drum chair rather than having a vision of his own. When he realized he needed to do something that reflected his own personality, he swapped drums for bass and vocals, then recruited Ryan “Feegs” Feigl to play guitar and a former music student of his, Sean “Barf” Bartholomew, to play drums.
“My favorite song right now on the album is called ‘Clowns.’ It’s basically about how the clowns are everywhere,” says Johnson. “Now, I’m not afraid of the clowns with the red noses and the wigs and the frowns. I’m afraid of the clowns that are going to Buffalo and shooting ten Black people in a supermarket. Those are the clowns I’m afraid of. Because those clowns, those are the guys that are in human suits.”
In addition to the album’s reflections on the psychosis of American politics, Johnson sees Human Suit as a metaphor for how society conditions people to put on uniforms, both literally and figuratively. “I teach little kids how to play drums, and I realize that even in pre-K, kids are not really encouraged to be themselves,” he says. “It’s kind of a factory system that we got going on here in probably all of humanity, but definitely in the United States.”
In the song “He Throw Ball Good,” Johnson speaks to the literal suits that we wear — in this instance, football jerseys that are physical representations of other people’s lives. “I call myself a recovering football fan, because I realized years and years ago how it’s weird that a lot of people are wearing someone else’s name on their back,” says Johnson. “I remember one time I saw a guy at the DMV sitting outside with a Carmelo Anthony jersey on, and he’s sitting there smoking a cigarette, and I was like, ‘Carmelo, I didn’t know you smoked cigarettes!’”
Johnson notes that the need for people to vicariously live through famous strangers extends to music, as well, whether it’s the fans worshiping the artists or the artists worshiping themselves. “I put out a solo album in 2008 in which I wrote a song called ‘Idol Worship,’ because one of my former students was the first fifteen-year-old to make it to Hollywood on American Idol,” recalls Johnson. “[The experience] changed her as a human being in ways that were kind of a bummer. I just felt bad for her, because she was such a sweet human being, such a great, amazing creative person. And then to just see her kind of go into that system and see how it changed her. … She was only fifteen, and, oh, man, that just broke my heart.”
The denigration of art to give way to social status is something that Johnson has witnessed more than once while playing in hundreds of bands around Colorado over the course of the past few decades. “I was in this band called Polytoxic, where we were one of the first kind of real Denver jam bands. We started the Last Waltz, which is still selling out the Ogden and the Fillmore,” he says. “Then in 2016, I just kind of stopped, because I was always there for the music, and that scene was more about the party.”
While most Denver bands rave about the city’s burgeoning music scene, Johnson is more skeptical. He says that in his experience, bands such as Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Polytoxic, DeVotchKa, Wovenhand and even their fans often appeared unaware that other bands and scenes existed outside their own. And if they were aware, he says, they would see others either as competition or cultural enemies.
“One night I was playing with the Auto Club, and we were getting ready to play New Year’s Eve at the Bluebird,” he recalls. “We were across the street at [the Goosetown Tavern], and these guys were talking about how the Yonder Mountain String Band was playing the Fillmore, and this one guy who was coming to our show was like, ‘I fucking hate hippies, man, fucking can’t stand hippies!’ And while I think that it’s maybe because the psychobilly rockabilly crowd of the Auto Club wouldn’t necessarily go see a Yonder Mountain String Band show, I think people are trained to not like certain bands. The deathcore, hardcore and metalcore scenes wouldn’t be caught dead at each other’s shows, even though there are minute differences between those bands.”
Even in the jam band scene, where Johnson admits there is some camaraderie, sees intense competition. For example, he notes, “I played with, like, eight different bands at one point, and we would all be competing with each other for the same small group of fans. And even though we’d see each other three nights of the week gigging together, we weren’t like, ‘Hey, man, I’m not going to book a gig on this night, because I see that your band is playing, and I want to make sure that our fans go see your band.’’’
Johnson believes these “human suit” aspects are the reason that Denver has a hard time breaking local talent. “I kept hearing, year after year after decade after decade, ‘Denver’s just about to break. We’re just right around the corner, right on the precipice.’ Dude, it’s 2022 — it’s not gonna happen,” says Johnson.
He likes the advice that multi-instrumentalist Cloudchord gave to an aspiring artist looking to make it locally. “I remember seeing a tweet that somebody asked him, ‘Hey, Cloudchord, how do you make it in the music industry?’” Johnson says. “And his only response was, ‘Get out of Denver.’’’
Human Suit can be streamed on all platforms. Anonymonkey plays at 7 p.m. Friday, May 27, at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street; tickets are $20.