Ark Life's drummer Ben Desoto keeps time on the steering wheel as he drives his bandmates on U.S. 36 from Denver toward Boulder. In the back of the white Ford E-350, Anna Morsett , Lindsay Giles and Natalie Tate huddle around Jesse Elliott and his acoustic guitar, warming up their voices with "Proud of Me Out There, Mama."
As a view of Boulder's Flatirons fill the windshield, Elliott sings, "If it means over mountains dragging deserts to the river." But, seeing the slabs of rock jutting from behind the city skyline he points and shouts, "look at those mountains," and finishes the lyric, "then I'm moving again."
Since forming in early 2013, the Denver band has traveled in this van to 150 shows. As it has refined its sound along the way, Ark Life has collected little mementos and musical influences from the people and cities where it has performed.
A piece of driftwood picked up from Big Sur hangs from the rearview mirror. A feather from Long Beach is tucked between the windshield and the dashboard.
"I think we've done a good job of making this home in a way," Morsett, Ark Life bassist and vocalist, says, gesturing to a shoe rack hanging in the back and a broom in the corner.
After a few years of being on the road full time, Elliott (Ark Life's chief songwriter and frontman) took a break from his successful rock band These United States, which had toured internationally and played Lollapalooza and Glastonbury music festivals. While passing through Denver in December of 2012 he decided it was the type of place to get into a routine — a coffee shop to go to every day, an address, a community.
"I was ready to stay off the road," Elliott said.
But that break from touring didn't last long.
"Basically (Giles) and I had people over every night playing music in the basement of (Denver art gallery) Leon," Elliott said. "Once we stumbled upon this particular combination of five people we were like 'Whoa, this is really fun.' I guess it was within two months of me being here that we said this is too much fun just for us, let's try to go play some shows."
Ark Life took off from Denver on Aug. 5 for shows No. 151-167. It's a tour that started with a Second Story Garage recording session at Boulder's Daily Camera and winds through the Pacific Northwest and down the West Coast. They'll be back home for the Aug. 23 release party at the Park House for their debut album, "The Dream of You & Me."
The album, which will be released on Aug. 19 on Denver indie label Greater Than Collective, is full of inspiration from points on a map of the U.S., telling stories from Denver, the West Coast, New Orleans, Missouri, the Hudson River to name a few. The 10 tracks maintain the spirit of the road, with wide open soundscapes and traveling Western rock singalongs urged on by vocals from Morsett, Giles, Elliott and Tate.
This sound is a product of how Ark Life approached those first few months together, the band members say, when they focused on performing live rather than recording.
"It's just so fun to play these songs live — there's so much energy," said Morsett, who, after touring full time, ended up in Denver two months on the heels of Elliott. She has played in These United States and the Still Tide. "It feels like it needs to be live."
And for the recorded product, the band managed to transfer the live energy in the studio.
"It was the most 'live' album I've ever been a part of," Elliott said. "Because we played it live so much, it just worked well together."
Signing to the Denver indie label Greater than Collective — a fan of the band since early on — to release the debut came about as casually as the formation of the band.
"We weren't really sure what to do with the record," Desoto said. "The thought of shopping it around seemed unpleasant."
The friend connections continued, though, as the band announced in early August that it's also signing to Misra Records, a national indie label that's now co-owned by a loose collective of Denver musicians. Misra also works with Sub Pop Records to license music to TV, films and ads.
Looking past the album release, Elliott said the band will stay on the road through November, then take a break.
But with this group of people comfortable on the road, will they stay in Denver long?
"We're staying put," Elliott said. "We're totally happy with what's going on. I'm trying to find a better way to fall into a balanced life. Denver's a place we all love calling home."
Matt Miller: 303-954-1785, email@example.com
ARK LIFE, "THE DREAM OF YOU & ME" The Denver Western-rock band releases its debut album — full of open spaces and group vocals — on Aug. 19. Album release party Aug. 23 at the Park House. $10-$30, facebook.com/arklifemusic/events