Anywhere's Better than Here

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

On a warm Monday afternoon, the members of Miami's alternative rock foursome Muse are packing up for a road trip. They're bringing along more than their music equipment and a few changes of clothing, though. After all, their upcoming trek isn't just a two-week shuffle across the national nightclub circuit: Muse is relocating, leaving Miami and the club scene where they cut their teeth for one of two cities in Georgia -- either Atlanta or Athens, both respected music capitals with vibrant live-music scenes. Together both cities have produced a slew of major-league acts, from Athens' B-52s and R.E.M. to Atlanta's Black Crowes and TLC, nearly all of whom have remained based in their respective hometowns throughout their efforts to find a national audience. Muse has been thinking about moving for close to a year now, and with the success of their May 1995 self-released compact disc -- an eponymously titled set of melodic yet crunching guitar-heavy rock -- and the ink still drying on a recording contract they signed with an offshoot of Atlantic Records, they figure the time is right to call a new place home. Whether they settle in Atlanta or Athens, the assumption among the band members seems to be that either place will be better than Miami.

"We love the city in a way, but it's really hard for rock bands to make it when they're based in Miami," says Jose Pulido, Muse's comanager. "People here are more interested in going out dancing and not much into seeing live rock bands. It's just too hard." Muse drummer Brett Thorngren agrees: "Live music is a really low priority here for too many people. You can bust your ass to promote yourself, but this just isn't a rock town. Miami has more of a dancing and bar-hopping scene going, but Atlanta and Athens both have great [live-music] scenes happening, with tons of places to play and a lot of people who like to go out and hear bands."

Muse isn't the first band to feel the frustration of trying to scratch out a living in South Florida, nor are they the first to leave Miami for a more receptive music climate. Honky-tonkers the Mavericks lighted off to Nashville as soon as their 1990 album From Hell to Paradise (MCA) established their hit-making credentials. Forget the Name cofounder Rene Alvarez left town last fall to establish himself in New York City, where his new hard-edged group Sixo is drawing considerable crowds at Big Apple haunts, including the punk mecca CBGB's, the East Village institution the Pyramid, and the New Music Cafe, a hangout for college students. Tom Smith, the driving force behind the guerrilla noise group To Live and Shave in L.A., bid a disgusted farewell to Miami last December and set up shop in Chicago, where his avant-screech experiments have found an enthusiastic and receptive audience -- something that eluded him throughout his five years in Miami.

Although these artists are working in decidedly different and diverse spheres of the music industry A from the multiplatinum world of the Mavericks to Alvarez's genre-mixing patch of Latin-rock turf A the reasons they've all left Miami are basically the same: the dearth of live-music venues; the lack of support from both clubgoers and the media; and the isolation and impracticality of living at the southernmost tip of a southernmost state. It's not surprising, then, that as soon as an opportunity arises to leave Miami for a more musically conducive locale -- be it the catalyst of a record deal or simply the lure of a wider array of nightclubs -- musicians usually wave goodbye to this city with their belongings in tow.

"It happens a lot in Miami," notes Richard Ulloa, referring to the artist exodus. The owner of Yesterday & Today Records and one-half of RS Artist Management (which boasts clients such as Mary Karlzen and For Squirrels), Ulloa has seen countless musicians take off for more promising parts. Some leave out of frustration, he says, others out of necessity, such as the Mavericks, whose pre-MCA debut disc was released on Ulloa's local Y&T label. "A lack of places to play has definitely hurt us, and the less venues you have, the less chance you have of developing a really great music scene," Ulloa explains. "With the Mavericks, it was very practical for them to move to Nashville. There were no places here for them to play, and since all the networking in country music happens in Nashville, it was a smart move for them. And Miami's just so far away from everything. Even if you're based in Atlanta, you're still just a hop, skip, and jump from practically everywhere. If you're based in Washington, D.C., you're basically four hours from New York, Boston, Chicago. Being in Miami, though, it's not easy to make it unless you're touring all the time like [former Fort Lauderdale group] Marilyn Manson. But not everyone can tour for two years straight."

Churchill's Hideaway owner Dave Daniels also understands the strictures of touring from a Miami base and acknowledges the limitations that the city's geographic location imposes on bands from elsewhere. He took over the Little Haiti club in the late Seventies, and has been booking local and national bands there since the early Eighties; currently Churchill's features an eclectic array of area talent, from folkie songwriter Diane Ward to punk extremists Kreamy 'Lectric Santa. Daniels says there are more clubs in Miami now than when he opened Churchill's, and though he admits that Miami's live-music scene isn't that great, he believes it could be much worse. "The location hurts Miami in a way, because it's impossible for a group to have a reasonable calendar of gigs without traveling through the state," theorizes Daniels. "And when you consider it's about 500 miles from here to the top of the state, that just isn't good geography from a traveling point of view."

Atlantic Records country-folk artist Mary Karlzen has also tumbled to the realities of traveling from a Miami HQ, pointing out that she may relocate temporarily to Atlanta when her next tour begins. "If you're based here, you have to drive at least eight hours just to get out of the state," laments Karlzen, a Chicago native who's lived in Miami for the last eleven years and built a strong local following through countless gigs at now-defunct clubs such as the Stephen Talkhouse and Washington Square. "I'll always come back here and I'll always consider this home, but there is something great about a change of scenery."

And a change of scenery can be crucial to an artist's work, says Froilan Sosa, vocalist and guitarist for Nuclear Valdez, Latin-tinged rock veterans who stayed in Miami throughout their two-year stint with Epic Records in the late Eighties and early Nineties. "For some reason, when you get a recording contract, it makes you want to change your surroundings," Sosa admits. "It creates a healthy environment for change. You want to go to a new place to seek a different kind of inspiration and have some new and different things around that can stimulate you in ways you're not used to. That's why we did our first album [1989's I Am I] in Los Angeles -- for that freshness and the exposure to all of these new elements. But the second record [1991's Dream Another Dream] was recorded here, and I think it captures the essence of us recording in a place where our family and friends are. It has a more Latin feel to it, and that's because it was done here."

Sosa and his Caribbean-born bandmates have never thought of relocating to a different city, despite the adversities facing Miami musicians. And even though the band was released from its contract with Epic after their two albums failed to break them nationally, they see no reason to leave town. "We love Miami," Sosa exclaims, adding that the band is currently working at different studios in town on their next album, which they will shop to various labels. "We love the sun and the beaches and the Cuban coffee and the pastries. For us to relocate would just be wrong. There's just no point in it. The only real reason to relocate is to either be closer to the music business or to go to a place with a better live-music scene. But we need to stay close to our roots and the things that are a part of us. Miami is truly a melting pot of different cultures, and that's what we are, too. I could never see us living someplace like Los Angeles."

It's pushing midnight on a recent Tuesday night at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge, one of the few live-music venues on South Beach. Local singer, songwriter, and guitarist Nil Lara has just wrapped up his first set of the night, an informal performance that leaned heavily on tracks from his upcoming debut album for Metro Blue, a new subsidiary of the esteemed jazz label Blue Note. Lara and his three-piece band were working the kinks out of the new material in preparation for an upcoming tour that will take them along the East Coast and through the South, keeping them on the road until mid-February.

Although the Rose's gig was unannounced, the place was packed by the middle of the first set; Lara had called friends and fans over the previous weekend to let them know about the show. It was the kind of gesture that would be almost unthinkable for an artist newly arrived in a strange new city. Lara, though, is a Miami institution; his mix of traditional Cuban music and varied strains of rock, funk, and soul has made him arguably the most successful nightclub-level artist in the city, and he has established a rapport with his followers that can only be achieved through constant performing. They know his little personality quirks (performing barefoot, for instance), and he's comfortable enough with his audience to rearrange and reshape even his most revered older material. For instance, a song such as "How Was I to Know," a guitar-based rocker from his 1994 album My First Child, now emerges from the stage in a reworked version that builds from a slow, moody intro into something tense, emotional, and more dynamic. It's a relationship that keeps the material fresh and allows Lara to take certain risks and certain chances -- risks and chances his audience listens for.

"I've been here since I was sixteen and playing as long as I can remember," the Cuban-born Lara says after that Rose's show. "I've seen a lot of clubs come and go and seen a lot of musicians come and go. For studio musicians, there's definitely more work in New York, and maybe some people just get bored and want to try something different, be someplace different. But I've never given up on the city. You just have to center yourself and put your own effort into bringing people out to the clubs. And really, if you're doing original music, it shouldn't matter where you are or what your surroundings are. You could be living in the middle of the United States and still be happy doing what you're doing. I don't think this is such an easy town to make it in. It really takes a lot of work. But nothing's ever easy, is it?"

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."

Since he left town, Smith says his "dance card is full." In addition to a multitude of collaborative projects, Smith is preparing material to be released on New Zealand's Corpus Hermeticum label; doing mixing and mastering work for Audible Hiss, the New York label that will soon be releasing To Live and Shave's fourth CD, An Interview with the Mitchell Brothers; assembling a two-CD opus for Fifth Column Records to be titled The Wigmaker in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg; and planning a tour of Japan for later this year. "All I had to do is leave town and all this shit started happening," he says. "There's a great noise and no-wave scene in Chicago, and the culture here is great because it's so fucking nasty. You go into a bar and everyone there is ugly as shit, with dirt under their fingernails. And there's none of that in Miami. Every woman in Miami is gorgeous as hell and all the art sucks. Everybody's so beautiful they just want to listen to shit music every day and night."

Bill Orcutt, a friend of Smith's and one-third of Miami's noise collective Harry Pussy (which also includes Orcutt's wife Adris Hoyos on drums), comes across as considerably less abrasive when asked about the city's music scene. Although he knows that problems exist here, he has no interest in moving. "I'm happy with the job I'm doing now and the band isn't a big enough part of our lives to think about relocating somewhere else," notes Orcutt, who works as director of the Alliance for Media Arts on Miami Beach. "It's never been an issue. I guess if someone was into a more commercial kind of music venture, I could see why they'd want to leave, but [Harry Pussy] is nothing that could ever support us. It's just a fun thing to do, really."

Despite Orcutt's nonchalance, Harry Pussy's piercing barrage of feedback-laden guitars and crash-and-bash drums has attracted national and international attention in the postpunk underground. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore talked them up and played a Harry P. concert clip a couple of years back while hosting MTV's 120 Minutes; more recently Sonic Youth took the trio along for several dates on their national tour last fall. Harry Pussy has released several singles and one album on such respected indie labels as Blackjack, Audible Hiss, and Siltbreeze (the last of which expects to release both a new Harry Pussy album and a compilation of out-of-print tracks in the coming months).

Orcutt describes Miami as a city without a scene, which helps foster his band's willful anonymity (they hardly ever play locally) but can also kill good musical ideas. "In other cities, it seems like everybody's neatly cordoned off into their own separate scenes, whereas in Miami it's just a big mess, which is nice. I like the mess and the confusion. The downside of that is that nothing ever gets developed very far. People have ideas but they don't go anywhere. But this is a very young city, and there's a potential for things to happen here that maybe couldn't happen elsewhere."

For Miami musicians will loftier ambitions than Orcutt's, however, some questions linger: Will those things happen here, or will the potential instigators of those events leave town and make those things happen in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Atlanta? Or more to the point, will Miami ever become a place that musicians wouldn't want to leave? "That's a tough call," admits Ulloa. "I do think it will change, and I see places like Churchill's and Cheers being in the forefront of that change by continuing to develop young bands. That's where you'll find the future of the local scene. Some people will always believe that you have to move away to make it, but I disagree. If you're good and people are responding to what you're doing, the cream will always rise to the top and the word will get out, whether it's something Latin or country or alternative or whatever."

For Muse, though, the point is now moot. They're gone, eager to work in a city they believe will be more receptive to what they're doing. Still, you can hear a hint of reluctance in Brett Thorngren's voice when he discusses the move. As soon as you hear it, though, it vanishes, replaced by the cold, hard realities of Miami. "This isn't the easiest thing to do," he confesses. "We have family here and all our friends are here -- the people who helped us develop a following and get us to where we had to be. We'll miss being on the water. The ocean is very beautiful and uplifting and spiritual. We've had many nights where after gigs we'd just go to the beach and watch the sun come up. But this just isn't a rock-and-roll town. There's nothing for a musician in Miami to do who's into this stuff. We want to play at rock-and-roll clubs and hang out and meet people who are into the same things, but it's just not happening here. And that's really sad.

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