Slim Cessna does about 75 dates a year on the road as the leader of the Denver-based band Slim Cessna's Auto Club, but when it's time to come home, he pulls his '96 Camry into Pittsburgh.
The frontman, who leads the veteran goth-country band like a mad preacher, decided to settle here with his family nine years ago when he was visiting the city and picked up a real estate tabloid that listed local housing prices.
"My wife is a painter and I'm a musician, so it's not easy," he says. "We were in Rhode Island for three years after Denver, and we just kind of kept getting priced out. We were also looking for a place to raise our kids the way we wanted to, in a city that had things to offer them that other cities you have to have a lot of money to do those things. My kids both went to CAPA High School and that's one of the reasons we moved here," he said about the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown.
His daughter Amelia, an oboe major, finished CAPA and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. His son George is now a junior studying film at the Maryland Institute of College of Art. He also follows in his father's footsteps, performing in the Baltimore band The Sterling Sisters, which plays a similar type of bizarro Americana.
Tonight, The Sterling Sisters will open for Slim Cessna's Auto Club at the New Hazlett Theater, as part of a tour celebrating the Denver band's 20th anniversary.
It might not be well-known here, but there is/was such a thing as "the Denver Sound," perpetrated by the Auto Club and the now-defunct 16 Horsepower. Mr. Cessna played with 16 Horsepower's David Eugene Edwards in an '80s band called Blood Flower that once stopped at the Electric Banana.
"We've all influenced each other to a certain extent," Mr. Cessna says. "I know Dave through church-related teenage activities. We were the church kids that liked punk rock and we became friends. There's a lot of people who came together through all of that. We know [Jay] Munly [Cessna's singing sidekick in the Auto Club] through the same scene."
Both the Auto Club and 16 Horsepower employed religious imagery and gospel influences along with a certain fire and brimstone in their stage show. Mr. Edwards' grandfather was a traveling Nazarene preacher, and Mr. Cessna's dad is a retired preacher, who now runs an orphanage in Kenya.
"I suppose it's a part of who I am and how I'm raised, and I think it accounts for the biblical content in the words," he says. "I don't know that it's anything preachy. It's more questions, I think, for us and, at times, anger. I didn't choose to have this in my life, and I'm not complaining about it. I love the way I was raised and I love my parents, and they were wonderful, but sometimes I would like to not have to think about any it."
In 2000, the Auto Club was signed to the Alternative Tentacles label by founder Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, who referred to the Auto Club as "the country band that plays the bar at the end of the world." Last year, it released its seventh proper studio album, "Unentitled," on the label.
When it comes time to tour, Mr. Cessna and bassist Lord Dwight Pentacost "fly into Denver a day or two early to run over a few things, and oftentimes we'll record a bit," he says. "It gives us more of a sense of urgency -- you know, everything has to count. And then it's nice, because I can come home for a month or two and not have to be with any of them," he jokes. "They're all my best friends, but we can have our two things."
They play to crowds of up to 500 in Denver for their annual New Year's Eve shows. Obviously, it's a fraction of that when the Auto Club plays an infrequent show in a town like Pittsburgh (but it did sell out Club Cafe last time).
"We're a more difficult band than others for people to understand," he says with a laugh.
Mr. Cessna hasn't remained totally quiet when his boys aren't around. He's played a few shows at Gooski's with a solo band that included his son. Now, he's happy to see George doing his own thing, even if it is similar in style.
"He's kind of ripping me off a little bit," he says with laugh. "I feel like I raised him properly to understand what good music is. He's taking some of the things I feel he's learned from me and growing up with the Auto Club and doing something completely his own, adding his own voice to that. And then he has Scout [Pare-Phillips], who sings with him, and adds this surprising element that will catch you off guard the first time you hear it. They're creating something different and unique and beautiful but familiar at the same time."
That's about the way George sees it, too.
"I grew up listening to my father's records, and he's the one who first taught me how to play anything in the first place," he says. "I'm still heavily influenced by other music, ranging from Hank Williams to The Gun Club, but I could never deny that what I play with The Sterling Sisters would sound like it does without my connection to my father."
He's opened for the Auto Club in the past, and says "The first time we played with them here in Baltimore it was scary as hell for me, seeing as most of the people who go to a show are very familiar with my father and his music and it puts a lot of pressure on me being his son.
"I played my first show in Denver opening for Munly's band (Munly and the Lupercalians) earlier this summer, and I almost threw up on stage I was so nervous. People there knew my father, and I felt like I had a certain expectation to live up to. At this point now, however, I'm more interested in finding something of my own."
He adds one comment that might be surprising coming from a 20-year-old: "I will never be better than my father at what he does -- this I'm sure of."
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.