It was just before Christmas when Mike Marchant, one of Denver's most celebrated songwriters, found out he has cancer. "Being told you have cancer — I will never, ever forget what that feels like, because it's terrifying," he says.
After seeing a doctor for what he assumed was an infection, Marchant underwent a biopsy, and that's when his diagnosis was confirmed. "I immediately told all of my friends and family, of course," he remembers. "I'm a private person, but I don't feel that was something I had to be private about. I told my friends it wasn't a secret, so they could tell whoever they want.
Mike Marchant Benefit Series, featuring Safe Boating Is No Accident, Pink Hawks, Champagne Charlie, Loving Things and more, 8 p.m. Friday, April 12, and Saturday, April 13, 3 Kings Tavern, 60 South Broadway, and hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $6-$20 (two nights, two venues), 303-777-7352.
"I really don't mind talking to people about it, because it's therapeutic," he goes on. "It wasn't something I wanted to keep secret, so I posted it on Facebook and said it was treatable, even when it'll be a heavy deal for the moment. Then all of these people started mobilizing and made something happen to help me out with the money. It's been amazing. It's been overwhelming."
The Denver music scene is known for its heartfelt generosity. When one of its own is in need, folks are quick to band together and offer a helping hand. So when word spread that Marchant was in need of some assistance, countless people stepped up.
Naturally, that went a long way toward lifting his spirits. Even though he's been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, one of the most curable kinds of cancer, it was still quite unnerving for the musician. "You still have to do chemo and radiation," he notes. "For a while, I got really down about it because they don't know the cause, and part of me wanted to know the cause. You know, to have something to blame it on, like, oh, you've had too many cigarettes, or you've had too many beers and your liver has turned. My life has turned around in so many ways I never would have imagined."
Although technically Marchant is a transplant, he's been here long enough that he might as well be a native. The songwriter was born in St. Louis but moved to Denver around age eight, when his father, who works in medical imaging, took a new job. After a short stint in Englewood, the Marchant family moved to a house in Littleton, where Mike's parents still live.
Marchant has been a fan of music all his life, but his earliest creative endeavors were ones in which he and his brother made up games and built haunted houses and mazes in the basement of their house in St. Louis, where the oppressive heat of Missouri summers made playing outside during the day prohibitive.
The hermetic nature of Marchant's nascent creative development seems to have informed his vivid songwriting, which itself comes out of a kind of private, imaginative world of making the most of the simple elements at hand. His family was musical, and his parents were always singing, but Marchant figures it was around the beginning of middle school that he started to develop his own taste in music, beginning with the Beach Boys.
"I was listening to this greatest-hits compilation, but it was the evil side of the Beach Boys," Marchant confesses. "I mean, like, 'Kokomo.' Those are beloved songs, obviously, but what I love of the Beach Boys now is completely different. It was a greatest-hits, so it probably had 'Good Vibrations' and some of those big, epic songs that we love. A lot of it was surfin' and girls, cheeseball stuff, but I still loved it."
Around the same time, Marchant also became fixated on a handful of other releases, like Beck's Odelay album and Weezer's self-titled debut. There were about six things that he liked back then, and he listened to them endlessly. Around the age of fourteen, Marchant got more into punk rock and pop punk, and from playing on friends' guitars, he realized how easy it was to play songs by bands like NOFX, Dead Kennedys and Millencolin.
"Once you take some band and learn twenty of their songs, you see how songs are built," says Marchant about his early songwriting exercises. "Even if you're not aware that you're giving yourself a lesson, you start to see trends and patterns, even when you're not looking for them. I think I figured out at least pop structures and stuff by inadvertently learning NOFX songs on guitar. Everyone has their own way they learn things, especially self-taught people, I think. When you go back and see how they wound up writing songs, it can say a lot about the music they make now."
At some point, Marchant became taken with the music being made by more technical guitar players like Joe Satriani and his ilk. That kept his attention for a few years, until he realized that although the music was complex and technically proficient, it was generally lacking great songwriting. And then he met one of the most influential figures in his life. "I met Cory Brown at seventeen," Marchant recalls. "He introduced me to a whole new world of music, everything I like now. We started playing music together with Cory Costello of I Know You Rider, and Ben Martin sometimes. We would get together and do Air covers. We recorded a cover of 'Dirty Trip,' from the Virgin Suicides album.
"That was when I started to learn, because Cory was so good," Marchant adds. "He basically introduced me to electronic and psychedelic music that I was maybe aware of but didn't know, like Warp Records stuff, like Aphex Twin and Autechre. Part of it was maybe just the idea of patient music listening — listening to things that challenge you that maybe you don't like right away, because those often end up being your favorite records. As much as he was saying, 'Here's this band,' he was also saying, 'Here's a different way to listen to music. This might not be sugar in your ears right away, but listen through the whole thing, and do it again, and the second time you'll get something out of it you didn't the first time.'"
Brown and Marchant played in an unnamed band for a time but never played out, and Brown ended up joining Manos with Crawford Philleo, Ben Martin and others. He also ended up in Constellations with Zack Brown and Mark Shusterman. During that time, Marchant recorded songs on his Tascam four-track but didn't think he was a songwriter whose music was worthy of releasing. Then he showed the demos to Davey Hart, whose enthusiasm for the material resulted in the formation of the psych-pop band Widowers.
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With that band, which also included Cory Brown, Zack Brown, Hart and Shusterman, Marchant found an outlet for his songwriting that quickly caught the attention of Westword music editor Dave Herrera, who contacted the band based on two songs posted on MySpace. Marchant assumed it was a friend joking with him.
It was no joke. Widowers quickly became one of the most popular bands in the Denver underground, but because of the life demands of its members, Widowers ended up taking an extended hiatus. Marchant became a guitarist in Andy Hamilton's band Houses, which allowed him to focus on having fun just playing in someone else's project rather than contending with the pressure of writing music and fronting a band. Still, he continued to write his own music, and because of its simplicity, he assumed no one would find it interesting. Turns out he was wrong, and he ended up putting together the Outer Space Party Unit, the outfit he was fronting before his cancer diagnosis.
Over the years, Marchant has become a revered figure who's garnered reams of praise, both for his songwriting and for being one of the most engaging local performers. So when he revealed his ailment to the community, people seemed to come out of the proverbial woodwork. Strangers, friends and peers all came together in unexpected numbers with offers of help. It was a parade of goodwill ambassadors that included comedian Gary Burden, Jim Norris of 3 Kings Tavern (himself a benefactor of the scene's kindness after being hospitalized and facing mounting medical bills from a spider bite), and Virgil Dickerson of Suburban Home Records. Marchant is, understandably, taken aback and grateful for this groundswell of support.
"Knowing all those people are in your corner is fucking huge," he concludes. "And it helps me to kick it and be done with it. It makes me want to pass it on to someone else. But I know I will be done with this and ready to help other people out, too. Hopefully, in the meantime, people can be inspired and see someone who has cancer and is in treatment and can still make records and do shows."