Music News

In Their Element

"Our style of music is called garage punk," says Michael Daboll, lead singer and guitarist for Denver's Element 79--and he's glad to elaborate. After all, Daboll and his brethren (bassist Mike Gilligan and drummer Jeff Learman, supplemented by Dancin' Boy Wade Morse, "the only male go-go dancer in a five-state region") see themselves as musical missionaries. And they'd like nothing more than to bring more garage-punk fanciers into the fold.

"We're very influenced by a lot of really obscure teen Sixties bands," Daboll explains, "such as the 13th Floor Elevators and the Chocolate Watch Band." (The latter was a San Jose-based act whose singer now lives in Boulder.) At one time, there were thousands of outfits like these performing around the country, but Daboll points out that few of the players were full-time musicians. "They all put out a couple good songs, and then they did 'Hey, Joe' and 'Gloria' the rest of the time," he reports. "You've got to dig through that stuff, but there's some really great music mixed in with it. So that's kind of where we're coming from."

In this tradition, Element 79, which takes its name from a Sixties-era science-fiction novel, creates a sound that rides the rip curl between rockabilly and the pure pop associated with the Monkees and a host of rougher, scruffier contemporaries. The group got its start in Fort Collins, when Gilligan and Daboll discovered their mutual musical interests while attending a Colorado State University painting class. "At that time, I wasn't even a musician," Gilligan confesses. "But, like, Michael and his little brother were starting up a band, so he said, 'Hey, we have a bass--you should come thump that thing.'"

When his sibling failed to work out as a drummer, Daboll didn't call it quits; in fact, he and Gilligan spent nearly a year searching for a replacement before settling on Learman, a local acquaintance. "It was hard to find somebody who would play raw," Daboll explains, adding that most of the musicians they auditioned revealed their inappropriateness almost immediately. "Their drum kits were just gigantic. And a lot of them liked to get into those Deep Purple, fourteen-minute drum solo things."

By contrast, Daboll asserts, "I'm more excited by how you can put three chords together than, like, trying to play 5,000 notes. That's kind of the theme of the band." Gilligan concurs: "Anything more than three chords is excessive."

Likewise, songs over two minutes and thirty seconds are generally considered a no-no with these guys. As for the subject matter addressed by Element 79, Daboll insists that it boils down to "girls, cars and girls--with maybe a little beer-drinking thrown in there, too." Following these rules may seem like a snap, but it's apparently harder than it appears; Gilligan worries aloud that the band isn't meeting its car-song quota.

The ingredients that make up the group's typical set list include a handful of relatively unknown covers (such as Murphy and the Mob's "Born Loser") and a growing number of compositions penned by Element 79's members. And if these originals tend to sound alike, it's probably because they're meant to. Except for a couple of drum breaks that sound suspiciously like the opening lick to "Wipe Out," Element 79's body of work offers virtually no tonal or sonic variations that might distract listeners from the band's relentless beat. As a frontman, Daboll punctuates the bass-heavy mix with semi-articulate, occasionally rhythmic vocal shrieks. Meanwhile, the waves of open-E chords he lays down with his classic Rickenbacker guitar are thick enough to drown in.

Professionally speaking, the two-year-old group is just starting to get its sea legs. A four-song EP entitled My Love has recently been released on a German imprint, Screaming Apple. And early this summer, Element 79 put out a seven-inch single--"Agent 38," backed with the aforementioned "Born Loser"--on its own label, 360 Twist Records. The fledgling company has also gotten into the promotions business; it was the driving force behind Treble Fest! '96, a gathering of the garage-punk tribe staged earlier this month at the Raven in Denver. The extravaganza drew near-capacity crowds, with some audience members traveling from as far away as Massachusetts and Washington to witness such acts as Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats, the Swingin' Neckbreakers and Denver's own Boss 302.

The success of this event has Daboll eager to face the future. "The local music scene here is just great," he asserts in true impresario fashion. "It's really blossoming"--thanks in part, he feels, to an abundance of homegrown talent and supportive clubs like Seven South and the Lion's Lair.

So can this Mile High momentum propel Element 79 to national stardom? Better not design those souvenir lunchboxes just yet. While the group's short-range plans include more recordings and a possible fall tour, Daboll insists, "We're not trying to conquer the world or anything. But it's fun.

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John Jesitus