By mid-1993, Phantasmorgasm had evolved into a remarkable band, capable of blending rap, rock, metal and practically anything else that wasn't nailed down into an utterly original whole. Which is why it seemed so inexplicable to many local-scene observers that on July 22 of last year at a low-key Skyline Cafe gig, the group shot its last wad. In fact, just about the only person who doesn't get misty talking about the act's demise is Big Mike, its bassist, lead singer and primary songwriter. "There wasn't really any hoopla about it," he says, "because Kenny and I knew we were coming right back."
Back, and better than ever. Big Mike and Phantasmorgasm drummer Kenny Ortiz form the core of a new band, Cactus Marco, that combines the passion and risk-taking of Phantasmorgasm with the contributions of one of Colorado's finer guitarists, Bob Tiernan. Still a member of the first-rate jazz/rock/whatever combo Windowpane, Tiernan has a unique playing style: seamless, smooth and blindingly fast, yet possessed of an intensity and feeling that's beyond all but a few guitar slingers. "I think a lot of people go about the guitar backwards," Tiernan says. "They practice scales first, and when they're playing, they try to stick them into places. But since I'm self-taught, I don't do that. I listen to what the music is saying and try to add to it--to find the right sound for the right place."
How much this approach diverges from the one used by Phantasmorgasm is a matter of some debate even among members of the band. "It's not really all that different," Big Mike insists. "It's just that Cactus Marco isn't as interested in being heavy as Phantas was. And we're trying to be a little more musical. Our emphasis is on good songs, just like it's always been."
Ortiz agrees, but says he feels that Cactus Marco's tunes are a more widely varied lot than those in the Phantasmorgasm catalog. "Mike really wears his influences on his sleeve a little more," he notes. "You can hear a lot of Lou Reed, John Lennon, things he didn't really get into with Phantas. And we've kind of backed off the funk, so it's a totally different vibe. I don't really think it's going to be accepted by the same crowd."
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If not, it won't be because Cactus Marco skimps either on effort or energy. Live, Tiernan spews out a blizzard of notes so spellbinding that they would smother most bands--but not this one. Ortiz, who plays on the largest drum kit this side of Mickey Hart, creates a thundering musical bed on which Big Mike bounces with raucous abandon. His bass lines are as elastic as his vocals are direct. He may not think much of his delivery--"What we do is probably closer to rap because I can't sing in a conventional sense," he says--but it gets his messages across. Numbers such as "Cease," "Dress" and "Tea," featured on what is thus far Marco's only available demo tape, are so emotionally bare and musically devastating that a number of area club owners are as frightened to book Big Mike's current band as they were to hire his previous one.
"We opened for the Jonez at one place, and after that, the club never wanted us back," Big Mike says about Phantasmorgasm. "They saw a bunch of people come in with baseball caps and they just freaked. It was actually a lot of fun, and however much of a facade it was, it felt a little dangerous."
Cactus Marco is not alone in having difficulty finding rooms in which to play, which is one of the reasons why Big Mike is splitting his creative efforts between his band and his record label, N.O.A. This grassroots operation has been fairly quiet of late, but its release schedule for the first half of 1994 is ambitious. March will see the appearance of the Cactus Marco debut, Velvet Denver, to be followed the next month by the latest cassette from Windowpane, entitled Illuminessence, and The Denver Collection, Volume One, a compilation filled with cuts from worthy area acts such as Hound, Grimace, the Steak Knife Brothers and Scroat Thrax, Ortiz's side project.
Big Mike is under no illusions that his project's suddenly going to turn the Colorado music community on its ear--as he says, "If there's one thing Denver teaches you, it's not to give a fuck." From his experiences with Phantasmorgasm, he knows that success is fine, but what's more important is expressing one's creativity as honestly as possible, without regard to how many others clasp the results to their bosoms.
"I feel sorry for bands that are going to die here unhappy, and for people who, if they don't get signed, are going to have an unfulfilling life," he adds. "We're just happy doing what we're doing, and if you don't like it, fine. We're going to keep doing it anyway.