Power Plays

From South Florida to the big time with the traveling circus

Plenty of artists know in their hearts that the driving force in their lives is musical expression. What they don't always know is how to get the music industry A and thereby the masses A to sit up and take notice.

Three states, a half-dozen band-name changes, two record companies, and two personnel switches later, Alex Mitchell, the voice behind the bluesy, shades-of-grunge rock band Circus of Power thinks he might have a clue. "We've gone through a lot of changes," Mitchell says. "This time around we went all the way through the album with a general vibe. It isn't just song by song and it isn't sterile."

That the band's sound becomes different is partly attributable to two lineup changes. Marc Frappier replaced bassist Zowie and Victor Indrizzo (of Redd Kross fame) succeeded drummer Ryan Maher. Mitchell says Zowie simply drifted in a disparate musical direction. The drummer switch was a different story. "One of the hardest things to do was to tell our old drummer that it just wasn't working," Mitchell says. "He was a straight-ahead rock drummer and we wanted someone capable of playing different kinds of music. It really broke my heart."

Such things are bound to happen when a band has been a part of the national scene since 1987. And their age is equally important when the inescapable specter of Seattleness comes up. Make no mistake, Circus of Power is no Nirvana/grunge wanna-be outfit. Aside from seniority, the Circus boasts songs that are intelligible A you don't need a secret decoder ring to figure out what it is they're saying. And this group actually does have something to say.

There are plenty of examples on their new slab, Magic & Madness. "Outta My Head" reflects the background to which these tracks were written A a background of earthquakes and riots. And tunes such as "Poison Girl" and "Shine" received some of their substance courtesy of Mitchell's younger brother, Grant. "I got him to start writing when he was twelve," Mitchell says of his sibling. "By the time he was seventeen, he was writing brilliant short stories and poems. I was going through my stuff and decided to throw some of his poetry into the lyrics. He's the wildest and most passionate guy I know."

Also contributing to the new album is Alice in Chains' gut-wrenching guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Mitchell explains that Cantrell was busy finishing up Dirt in an L.A. studio at the same time the Circus began working on their new record. "Jerry came by," he says, "and I asked him if he had any songs he wasn't using, so he gave me a cassette of his music. He had a great riff so I wrote with him." Cantrell ended up providing a cameo appearance on the first single, "Heaven and Hell," not only adding guitar but singing some as well.

Ian Astbury of the Cult also guested, on the cut "Shine." "These guys being on the album is like two accidents that were meant to be," Mitchell says. "Three-fourths of the record was done when I met Ian and his wife. We started talking about everything from music to the latest books we'd read, and we found out that we connected."

The colorful history that led to these heady days began in South Florida. In the early Eighties, Mitchell and Circus guitarist Gary Sunshine could be found playing on Hollywood Beach at a club called Tight Squeeze, now a T-shirt shop. Sunshine was in a popular Broward group called Screaming Sneakers and Mitchell was fronting the Throbs. "They were part of an explosion of early punk and original music," says Leslie Wimmer, owner of Open Books & Records in North Miami since October of 1979. She still has a Throbs tour pin and a copy of Screaming Sneakers' Marching Orders EP. "I remember how Alex stood out even back then," she says. "He fashioned himself after Jim Morrison, the way he was so intense on stage. He just has that commanding presence."

Mitchell and Sunshine each moved to New York soon after. Mitchell formed Black Anthem, which became Anthem, releasing a seven-inch single. When that Black Sabbath-meets-Bad Brains group folded, Mitchell and Sunshine hooked up with guitarist Ricky Beck Mahler and the Circus of Power opened its tent.

After two albums and two EPs, C.O.P. left RCA and signed to Columbia. "Last year RCA was in total disarray," says Mitchell. "It was a chaotic scene. Then Columbia liked us and found out we were available."

It's been happiness all around since, with the band hosting MTV's Headbangers' Ball, touring with Faith No More, Danzig, and the Ramones, and filming a video for "Mama Tequila," shot in the California desert at night. "It didn't feel forced," Mitchell says of the unusual setting. "We were out there playing in the sand." If it wasn't forced, it was, like most things associated with Circus of Power, in the words of Alex Mitchell, "strange and real."

Circus of Power performs after 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Thursday) at Button South, 100 Ansin Blvd., Hallandale, 454-0001. Admission costs $8.

 
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