What's in a name? In the case of Michael Colin, plenty. Colin, who also answers to Big Mike, is best known for his work with Phantasmorgasm, a group that made some of the most aggressive music heard in Denver during the late Eighties and early Nineties. But he's also performed with or recorded as Cactus Marco, the Acoustifuxx, Lo-Tek, Family of Noise and Soul Robot. And although he's currently fronting a band called Phantazmorgasm, there are more differences between it and the similar-sounding group that preceded it than a slightly altered spelling.
"Phantasmorgasm, at it's height, was more like a Rage Against the Machine kind of thing," Colin says. "I was really angry at the time. But looking back, I'm glad I don't feel that way anymore. A lot of people who followed us then feel alienated by me, because I'm not angry anymore and I supposedly lost my edge. But I think the whole point of being angry is to purge yourself of that anger so you can eventually be happy."
Appropriately, today's Phantazmorgasm is more likely to lay down a spontaneous collective groove, land a P-Funk mothership or drop a bit of hip-hop flavor than it is to explode into sonic hostility. Its formidable basic lineup--MC Bizzaro, drummer Ken Ortiz, Sanskrit saxophonist Brett Sexton, Good Vibes Quartet guitarist Bob Tiernan, and bassist/keyboardist Tom Sublett, who maintains membership in both Sanskrit and the Quartet--is equally adept at pumping out dance-oriented rhythms that bring listeners to their feet and trance-inducing explorations that will leave them glued to their chairs. Meanwhile, Colin, the act's main singer and songwriter, seems less agitated and more contemplative than ever.
This challenging mix has mystified some of Colin's fans. "People don't understand that we're playing non-linear music," he concedes. He's convinced, though, that the style is not as inaccessible as it seems at first blush: "At the core, I'm a pop musician. But to me, pop music is, in and of itself, not bound by any genres."
Neither is Colin, who grew up in a Hispanic neighborhood on Denver's north side. "Until eighth grade, I didn't know there was anything besides mariachi," he says before adding, as if cued by Lou Reed, "but rock and roll changed my life." With the mid-Eighties hip-hop wave pulsing in the background, Colin soon found himself enthralled by the Velvet Underground, the Beatles and David Bowie. He subsequently formed Phantasmorgasm in 1989, handling bass and vocal duties alongside drummer Ortiz and guitarist Toby Santistevan (both now with Tribhanga). According to Colin, "We played original music with no boundaries" that was inspired by Fishbone and Living Colour. "That's what was happening when we were teenagers in the underground. And as our musical tastes broadened, so did our music."
Phantasmorgasm broke a lot of ground in Denver, Colin believes. "We were the first funk-punk-metal band on the fucking scene here," he claims. "Guys who have played with me, who copped that style from me--like Chaos Theory--have gone on and made it bigger." Colin had the chance to do the same: Following the release of the 1992 Phantasmorgasm recording The Warrior 2000, a major label, EMI, offered to sign the band. Unfortunately, the contract had so many strings attached that the performers eventually turned it down. The band continued to play locally after that, but Colin eventually grew tired of the predictable negativity he saw in the genre, the scene and Phantasmorgasm itself. "The reason we had an audience is because we started to do what they wanted us to do," he says. "And that's when I started to freak out."
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In an effort to document this process, Colin is at work on Big Mike: Anger and Heartbreak, 1991-1997, a six-CD roundup that he plans to self-release in the near future. He's fond of much of the music he's been rediscovering of late and is pleased that Phantasmorgasm attracted such a sizable following, even though he feels that the group hit its peak of popularity "when we were the most boring." Just as important, the compilation gives him an excuse to file away what he calls his more "tedious" or "teenager" episodes in favor of work that fills him with pride. "I've got a little bit of ego," he admits. "I'd like to put it out and show these other cats who think that they're making records. You know, it's like, 'Please.'"
The first two volumes of Big Mike focus on the Phantasmorgasm years: Velvet Denver 1999, a rock opera, and The Warrior 2000, loaded with funk and hip-hop, have not lost any of their appeal with the passing years. The third disc--Rok Big Time, by the Acoustifuxx--is also impressive. The album runs the musical gamut, ranging from the stunning flamenco guitar and percussion-layering on "Plastic" to the Iggy Pop-meets-Violent Femmes adventure of "Trunk" and the hilarious "Beautiful House," about working at Casa Bonita.
Big Mike's fourth volume--Electronic Garage, credited to Lo-Tek--is a truly mind-altering pop-culture sound collage. Throughout it, disparate elements (tinny Euro-pop and The Simpsons, Caribbean party music and Pulp Fiction) smash together to form new and intriguing compounds that are astoundingly visual. For example, several picturesque interludes suggest Hal Hartley films. Even more adventurous is volume five: Fixed Bass, a glorious jam by Family of Noise, an eleven-person ensemble. Finally, volume six--Stop, by Soul Robot--is a previously unreleased, rock-centric opus whose thrash, roots, ballads and lullabies optimistically echo the Fall, Bob Dylan, Brian Eno and many other Colin influences.
The completion of the retrospective has taken much of Colin's time of late, but that doesn't mean he isn't still creating music in new configurations. When he's not performing with Phantazmorgasm, he's working on a one-man show during which he'll use only an acoustic guitar and a drum machine. He hopes that the audiences that see him live won't make the mistake of equating antics and histrionics with passion, noting, "I think the Tibetan monks are intense." Despite the title of his upcoming project, he says, "I'm through with anger and heartbreak.