Photo by Rachel Perez
Via Satellite are huge in Japan. Well, they were over a decade ago. Sure, a lot of bands say that, but really, they were.
“There were cardboard cutouts of us,” says guitarist and co-vocalist Drew Andrews, recalling a Japanese tour the indie-rock experimentalists did after the release of their 2005 album, Cities are Temples. “It was really wild.”
Sadly, the band would not tour Japan again or anywhere else for that matter. Just as the trio seemed to be hitting a creative peak with Cities, they fizzled out shortly after the release of the album. There were no Spinal Tap-type blowouts or regrettable words exchanged, and while guitarist, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Scott Mercado looks back at the group’s disbandment as “definitely a sad moment,” the three remained friends and always talked about making music together again even after drummer Tim Reece moved to Denver six years ago.
“Over the years, we would hang out and we’d drink a little and just have fun,” recalls Andrews. “Just the three of us and then we’d go, ‘Lets do it, let’s do a record!’”
But over the years, Reece says that “life just took over and we would kind of forget about it.” The members stayed musically active over those years with Bit Maps (Andrews), Manuok (Mercado) and Limber Wolf (Reece), but the bonds they forged while they were together remained despite the time and distance.
“Of all the projects I’ve ever been involved in, Via Satellite has always been the one that’s closest to my heart,” Reece says.
“It’s rare to find collaborative partners like that,” Andrews adds. “Ones that last and stand the test of time. So many bands tear through members and tear through lineups and stuff, but we never had that.”
Life continued to get in the way of them collaborating again, but then in August of 2016, Reece went to the hospital after suffering from incessant pain. He thought it was from working long hours at a music school. It turned out to be a rare form of stage IV cancer called adenocarcinoma. Because the cancer had progressed so fast, the prognosis was dire, with doctors pessimistic that Reece would live much longer. He almost immediately began chemotherapy and has been doing it every two weeks since September.
“It was a real motivating factor for this project,” says Reece. “I’ve always had the mindset that our time is limited on this earth. So I’ve always wanted to take advantage of it while I can. Make as much music as possible, make as much art as possible and spend time with friends and family. The cancer diagnosis just brought that home even more.”
He called Andrews and Mercado almost immediately after his diagnosis to tell them, essentially, that the time had come to make a new record.
“To date, I’ve never had anyone in my life that’s close to me that’s had to face that,” Andrews says. “So hearing it from your best friend, someone who has been like a compass to me, that was pretty rough.”
Rather than starting over from scratch, the three ended up revisiting older material including a live session recorded in between their second album, ¡Traffico! (2002) and Cities are Temples. Called the “Kübler-Ross Sessions,” the demos were named after the famous theory about, appropriately, the five stages of grief. Andrews likes to point out that the recording process started a day after Trump’s inauguration.
“It’s certainly worth pointing out that during the Bush era, we were a political band,” says Andrews. “Then we just vacated music for the Obama era.”
But in a sense, Via Satellite has always been a band of the times. Just never, it seems, the right times. It’s hard not to speculate as to why they never got big despite knowing people who were (both Andrews and Reece played in The Album Leaf for a a spell) and touring regularly. Maybe it has to do with the fact that when they did receive major label attention from Interscope and American, they were told to pick a particular sound and stick with it, to which the band, according to Andrews, told the companies to “fuck off.”
A much more likely scenario is that Via Satellite were just an extremely talented three-piece who weren’t afraid to take chances with their music, and who just happened to come along at a curious and transitory time for the music industry. Social media was not yet developed and iTunes and music streaming services were still in their infancy. Meanwhile, the once mighty corporate record companies were in a death spiral thanks to charging ridiculous amounts for CDs, which resulted in most consumers illegally downloading music.
With all of that going on, it’s understandable that Via Satellite, a band with an unclassifiable and ever-changing sonic palette, would simply find themselves being that beloved local band that should have been huge.
“I think we occupied a very unique time,” says Andrews. “I just know that at the time we were part of building something; a genre of music that just didn’t have a home. We never fit into one specific genre.”
Now, the group is planning on a May release for what will be their fourth album. All the members hope there will be a possible record release show, but Mercado maintains that they’re taking a “wait and see” approach especially considering Reece’s health. However, just before this story went to press, Andrews texted us to say that Reece recently went in for a checkup and the results were, in his words, “miraculous.” Though not in remission, the cancer is “under a greater state of control.”
So while it’s safe to say they won’t be doing a reunion tour of Japan anytime soon, they’re also not ruling it out either. For now, Mercado says he’s just happy to be playing with his friends again.
“You know, we always have kind of sad lyrics or sad songs, but there was always an element of hope in our music,” Mercado says. “What we’re doing now is really no different. We’re facing adversity and it’s really no different. We’re the same, the same people facing the same uphill battle.”