Anywhere's Better than Here

How can Miami ever develop a decent music scene when its best bands keep leaving town?

That depends on who you ask. For Rene Alvarez, leaving Miami for New York City was an easy decision. After the dissolution of his band Forget the Name -- a wildly popular local group from the early Nineties that played regularly at Washington Square and the Talkhouse -- he played around town for about a year with his group Sixo. But Alvarez realized the city's live-music clubs were dwindling. "The Miami scene has been trickling out, and I have no idea why," Alvarez states during a recent visit here. "It started deteriorating over the last two years. A lot of bands that at one time were drawing between 100 and 300 people were seeing their audiences peter away until they were drawing like 50 or 60 people. Forget the Name thought about moving to New York many times, but it was a tough thing to decide because we were doing really well here. But now there just aren't many clubs here that do original music, so there's really no reason to stay. In New York, though, on any given night of the week you can go to a club with live music and it'll be mobbed. Just packed with people."

Like many other area musicians, Alvarez traces the demise of the local music scene to the redevelopment of South Beach. Once the home of several nightclubs that provided venues for the city's young players, South Beach is now a tangle of DJ-driven dance pits, swanky hotels, and ultrahip eateries. The area is thriving, but for artists such as Alvarez, South Beach is a shell of its former self. "Once the Beach became a trendy place, that was it," he says matter-of-factly. "The bigger the Beach grew, the smaller the music scene became. I remember when the place was just a slum and it was like living in a great little village, like a real community. Now it's become a playground, like Disneyworld or something -- very superficial. It's just horrifying what it's become."

Alvarez's sentiments are echoed by recent Island Records signee Arlan Feiles (who performs under the name of Arlan), a native of Los Angeles and a former member of the popular and now-deceased local rock group Natural Causes. Feiles has developed a love-hate relationship with the city since he arrived here five years ago. "Except for Rose's, the Beach is just depleted of any live-music venues," he complains. "And what does that mean? It means tourism is good. That's it. It's like visiting Acapulco now. It's not like normal America. There's a strong tourism mentality here, but there's no youth culture, there's no sense of having a music community here or a sense of belonging. There isn't a group of people you can identify with. There are people here who are trying to nurture a music scene, but the audiences just aren't there. They aren't going out to hear live music."

Nevertheless, Feiles doesn't see any reason to leave just yet. Just back from Los Angeles, where he put the finishing touches on his Island debut (scheduled for release this spring), he debuted his new Pearl Jam-ish quartet last month during a show at Cheers, a cozy SW Seventeenth Avenue nightspot that -- along with Churchill's Hideaway and a few other places -- is helping to fill some gaps in the city's live-music scene. "We're going to be heading out on a tour for the next couple of months and we're going to be gone months at a time for a while, so there's no reason to go anywhere," Feiles points out. "And I have a good situation here: I've got a house, my dog's got a big yard to play in, we've got a place to rehearse, and my neighbors are nice. Besides, if I'm going to be out on the road for eight months, it's not like I'm living anywhere really."

For Tom Smith, being in Miami isn't even living. The hilarious and caustically outspoken front man for the abrasive white-noise group To Live and Shave in L.A. has released a slew of records and CDs on a variety of domestic and European independent labels and has shocked and befuddled locals at clubs such as Churchill's and Fort Lauderdale's Squeeze and the Edge with a blistering brand of polyrhythmic cacophony comparable locally only to the work of Miami's Harry Pussy (the only band in the city for which Smith expresses any fondness). Frustrated both personally and professionally with nearly every aspect of the city, Smith left town late last year to settle in Chicago, where he is working with a host of collaborators, including members of the Japanese punk-extremist band the Boredoms and like-minded experimentalists affiliated with Bulb Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan (the indie home of Couch, Quintron, Math, and Duotone, among others).

"What's wrong with Miami?" Smith responds indignantly by phone from Chicago. "What's right about Miami? People there are just not aware of what's happening around the world. There's no music coming down there from anywhere else. They have the worst radio stations in America. There are no decent record stores except maybe [North Miami's] Blue Note Records. All the bands down there either sound like the Pixies or they're doing that tired-ass Replacements shit. I just got sick of it, having to deal with a bunch of fucking losers who have no clue about anything. There's no point in even dissing these poor idiots. I just got sick of beating my head against a wall. We couldn't even get shows anywhere. It got to a point where I could've slapped a female cop with my dick and not gotten arrested in Miami."

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