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Halfway through a recent Milk Can set at the Stephen Talkhouse, lead singer and guitarist "The Milk Man" (a.k.a. former Natural Causes guitarist Joel Schantz) stepped to the microphone in an attempt to set the record straight for any audience members who might still be confused about his new project. "So now you go back and tell everybody that we're not kidding," he said, pausing ever so slightly. "Yeah, but we are."
With that the three-piece band A which also includes "Phil" (former Forget the Name frontman Rene Alvarez) on bass and "Robbie Surp" (former FtN drummer Derek Murphy) on drums A broke into "Glorious," a noisy, two-minute, feedback-driven take on the traditional adolescent anthem that begins "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school." But Milk Can's updated version delves into much darker territory, with references to crack cocaine and teenage lust punctuating the last line about meeting a teacher at the door with a .44 caliber gun.
By the end of the set, the band members had switched instruments several times. "Surp" stood at the mike with a guitar slung over his shoulder for the closing number, serenading the audience with a scathingly pornographic song about Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo while "The Milk Man" bashed the drums and "Phil" kept time on bass.
The audience seemed a little stunned. Milk Can is a stark contrast to Sixo, the band that was on stage previously, which mixes tasteful melodies, lazy hooks, and lyrics that are sensitive, insightful, and introspective. By the way, Sixo is composed of former Forget the Name frontman Rene Alvarez on bass and vocals, former FtN drummer Derek Murphy on drums, and "John Sixo" (a.k.a. former Natural Causes guitarist Joel Schantz) on guitar.
Don't be confused. Technically this is a story about two bands, Sixo and Milk Can, both of which will release new CDs this week. But in reality it's the story of three accomplished performers who've broken the bonds of their respective audiences' expectations, in the process creating something that's greater than the sum of its individual parts. At the same time, they're breathing life and energy into a music scene that seems all too often on the verge of becoming stagnant and predictable. To boot, they're having lots of fun.
A year ago Forget the Name and Natural Causes were, arguably, the two hottest acts on the local music scene. Top draws on the club circuit, both bands were among the handful that could fill the Talkhouse on a weekend night. Each had self-produced CD/cassette releases that sold well by South Florida standards and were getting airplay in other markets around the country. There were industry showcases and rumors of impending major-label deals. However, within the past three months, both bands split up.
"It's easy to get real comfortable and just go through the motions," Murphy says. "We just wasted a bunch of years not really thinking about what was going on." Alvarez agrees. "Forget the Name, towards the end, was very constricting," he adds. "I mean, people expected something of us, and it was very strong within the band to do what was expected." In Alvarez's case that meant adopting an intensely serious persona for an intensely serious rock band.
"Forget the Name wouldn't let me be anything but that person," he explains. "So you'd get up there and you'd be what Forget the Name was. The truth was, Forget the Name was created so long ago [in 1987] we were no longer that thing. It became a parody of that thing."
The seeds for the present Sixo-Milk Can configuration were planted during a casual conversation between Alvarez and Schantz almost a year ago. "He goes, 'Me and Derek, we're putting together a fake alternative band,'" recalls Schantz. "And I said, 'Yeah, me too. I'm trying to do the same thing.'" Notes Alvarez, "Both of our bands were very serious, and we wanted to do something counter to that."
The three musicians subsequently took to gathering once a week, wrote two or three songs each time they met, invented their Milk Can aliases, and began performing at Churchill's Hideaway. Back then it seemed like the ultimate inside joke A Alvarez had been named best male rock vocalist in New Times's 1993 "Best of Miami" issue, and yet as Milk Can's "Phil" he stood off to the side of the stage, struggling with the complexities of the bass guitar while Schantz sang lead on such songs as "Drain Fetish," "Drug Addict," and "Joe Dickhead Fuck Face."
But it's not a joke any more, even if Milk Can's songs and stage presentation still achieve the wholly laudable goal of making you smile while you're being entertained. The band's repertoire has grown to 30 songs, touching on a variety of styles and forms, from pure punk to Beach Boys-style pop, pared down to an average of two and a half minutes and featuring only the bare essentials. "The first few months they were the same twelve, fourteen songs, and people who saw us thought that's what we wanted to be," says Schantz, who writes the overwhelming majority of Milk Can's songs. "It's grown. Now it's becoming what I really wanted it to be."
What Schantz wanted, and what he has achieved with Milk Can, is a band that incorporates the fantasy and illusion of rock music. Hence the stage names. "All great rock and roll, there was something that was not...I don't want to say not real," says Schantz, searching for an explanation, "but there's always something...." "That's a little bigger than life," chimes in Alvarez. "Or stranger than life," Schantz finishes. "There's illusion, there's fantasy, there's art in a different sense than just honest music for what it is."
While Milk Can was in the embryonic stage, there was the obvious potential for strained relationships between the three members and their respective bandmates in Forget the Name and Natural Causes. "We just did it [Milk Can] for the fun," Alvarez points out. "Some felt threatened, and some liked it. I don't think it had anything to do with the end of Forget the Name." Adds Murphy: "We didn't think about it. That's the whole thing. We just kind of did it."
Even so, Alvarez says he and Murphy began writing music together during that period, "and we found that we were heading in a totally different direction than Forget the Name." Sixo was formed in the wake of FtN's demise a few months ago: Alvarez and Murphy went on a writing binge, cranking out eleven songs over the course of a month and a half, and then made plans to record an album as soon as possible. Schantz offered to play guitar and record the tracks in his home studio.
So now there are two different bands and two different CDs: Milk Can's Marblehead, OH is a raucous, glorious celebration of primal rock and roll; Sixo's epynonymous CD is more subdued, reflecting the natural maturation of Alvarez and Murphy as songwriters in their post-FtN careers. "We still write very serious songs," says Alvarez. "For Sixo I think all of the songs are pretty serious."
"We're diverse as it is, together and individually," observes Schantz, "so we're bringing a lot to the table, and it seems like each band has its focus with what we're bringing. With Sixo there is a little more serious and introverted-type songs. In Milk Can there's a fine line between...it's either funny or it's sadly dark. You can't really tell."
"That's a balance you could never find in any one band," says Murphy, jumping in. "For someone who likes to play a lot of different stuff, it's great."
There's an underlying method to the two-band madness. Milk Can and Sixo form the foundation for Bad Karma, a record label the three musicians incorporated to escape the eternal distraction of pursuing deals with other labels. To save on what they anticipate will be extensive recording costs (material for a second Milk Can LP has been written and a CD is planned for release early next year), Alvarez and Murphy financed the label's sixteen-track studio on Visa and MasterCard.
"I just think it's smarter to accomplish something on your own at first, and achieve your own income and get status where a distributor that deals with independent labels can take it to another level," says Schantz. "We're going to write great songs," insists Alvarez, "put them out [and] make the record company work so we won't have to worry about anything but making good songs and good records."
In fact, notes Murphy, Bad Karma is the real center of attention these days. "We're looking at it more like a record label than being in a band," he explains. "Instead of just playing a bunch and then finally putting out an album, we're going to put out albums and then play a bunch to support those albums."
The three musicians say fans and former bandmates from their pre-Sixo-Milk Can days are still a little bewildered. "People just shake our hands like, you know, our relatives died," says Schantz. According to Murphy, friends come up to him and tell him, "'It's okay, you guys have totally lost it, but it's okay.' But I feel we have a vision and we're doing something that we want to do. Everyone thinks we're nuts. They think we're totally fucking insane."
The Sixo-Milk Can release party takes place at 10:00 tonight (Thursday) at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs five dollars.