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The musical dynamic of Ed Matus' Struggle was once described by a fan as "a train coming, then all of a sudden someone pours fudge on top of it." The Miami quartet -- comprising lead guitarist/songwriter Juan Montoya, singer/guitarist Scott Nixon, drummer Robert Lecusay, and recently acquired bassist LeRoy Talcott (who also plays in Nixon's acoustic side project, A Kite Is a Victim) -- specializes in complex, mostly instrumental songs, many of them five to eight minutes long, characterized by sometimes waltzing, sometimes dueling guitars, played with emotion and precision. EMS's hypnotic aural soundscapes have an almost cinematic quality -- driving, dreamy, atmospheric.
Roving imaginations are just as much an influence on EMS's members as their personal tastes in music, which range from Leonard Cohen and David Bowie to Codeine, Sonic Youth, and Dead Can Dance. "A lot of my ideas come from listening to European music and imagining being there," explains primary songwriter Montoya, as the band sits in a Kendall coffee shop. "If you play guitar in the dark, it's like you go into your own little fantasy world and you're creating your own soundtrack for it. I've always paid close attention to soundtracks, because they have the little things that set the mood of a movie. That's what I try to capture in the music -- those little things that shift everything in a different direction. I mean, what are we surrounded by here in Miami?" he continues. "I can't write a song and say, 'This was inspired by a night in traffic,' so I have to make up an imaginary world musically."
Nixon agrees: "One of the weird things about living in Miami is that it's so isolated from the rest of the country. You miss a lot of what's going on, so you're forced to be more creative. I think that shows in a lot of bands here that are incredibly inventive."
Of course, that doesn't mean Miamians live in cultural isolation. "The advantage we have is that a lot of European musicians come straight to Miami," Montoya adds. "I've heard a lot of Latin music, jazz, Indian and Japanese musicians, everything. There's a little bit of this and that in our music."
That music, which can be heard on the band's self-titled 1995 debut CD and on a three-song, ten-inch vinyl release due out this week, sounds something like an amalgam of Rush and My Bloody Valentine, with some of Tool's abrasive, arty metal thrown in for good measure, and yet it doesn't sound exactly like any one of these. Montoya's intricate melodies flutter and flow over Nixon's steady churn; both guitars are distorted, then come into clear focus again, swirling, rising, and falling around each other. Nixon's vocals are sparse and gentle, occasionally getting lost in the band's thick, complex guitar work. The bass intertwines with the guitars rather than merely following behind them, and Lecusay's frenetic yet contemplative drumming doesn't so much anchor as punctuate the melodies. Tight, abrupt chord changes and disjointed, spontaneous timing lend the music an improvisational quality that has been likened to that of a seasoned jazz ensemble.
The members of Ed Matus' Struggle began making music after Montoya met Lecusay in 1991, when the drummer was playing in another band. Together they formed the short-lived Pontius Pilot, which broke up when Lecusay left town to attend New College in Sarasota. "I enjoyed playing with him so much that we stuck together," explains Montoya. "When he would come down for holidays, we started up Ed Matus' Struggle." He and Lecusay recruited bassist Carl Ferrari, who left EMS amicably after the band's tour last summer to play in the local band Swivel Stick (which, like EMS, records for the local Space Cadette label).
The band played its mostly instrumental first shows at Churchill's, without benefit of a name. The shows' promoter began billing the band as Juan Montoya's Experience, which prompted the taunts of their friend Ed Matus, singer and guitarist for Subliminal Criminal. In a combined act of retribution and tribute, the band named itself after the musician. "We were gonna change the last word of the name for every show, to Ed Matus' Odyssey and so on," says Montoya, "but 'Struggle' stuck."
Nixon joined in 1994, just as the band was completing its first CD. He had seen EMS play in Gainesville, where he was a member of the Basils. "I really liked them. It was one of those things where I thought, 'Man, it would be really cool to play in a band like that,'" says Nixon. He found out a few days later that the band was in need of a singer. "I didn't really sing -- I played guitar -- but Juan suggested we get together anyway and see what happens." With Nixon the band continued to play instrumentals, but soon his understated vocals began finding their way into the songs. "About 70 percent of our new songs have vocals, whereas before it was about 30 percent," Nixon estimates. "We've added more and more vocals as I've become more comfortable with singing. I didn't really want the responsibility of being a frontman; I couldn't do anything showy even if I wanted to. I don't have much range, but that's good in a way because it forces us to choose certain things that we wouldn't do otherwise."