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Down a row of dark warehouses off Biscayne Boulevard, a solitary pair of green floodlights illuminates the entrance to Alex Diaz's North Miami Beach apartment. Inside, Diaz, the founder of ethereal folk rockers Ho Chi Minh, has perched himself atop a monitor at the center of the cavernous warehouse space. His bedroom, overhead, is a mere ledge with a queen-size bed, television set, and desk. There is no shower or closet, and little in the way of furniture. Diaz, age 32, has lived in this monkish flat since 1990, bathing and stowing his clothes at his mother's apartment a few blocks away.
Under the soft glow of multitinted bulbs, Diaz is a collection of sharp, shadowy angles -- a pointed nose between pointed cheeks above a pointed chin. Extravagant black curls crown his head. A single ceiling fan circulates warm air, while an old CD player spins a quiet, groovy marimba solo. Decked out in a vintage tuxedo shirt and slacks, Diaz scissors his thin legs as he explains the genesis of his band's debut CD Motorama.
The album documents a turning point within Ho Chi Minh, not to mention Diaz himself. He has told the story privately by many means: through words, through paintings, and through a giant shrine hidden away in a nook of his warehouse. Motorama is his public statement.
Ho Chi Minh formed in the summer of 1988. Diaz played bass and sang angry-young-man lyrics in a trio that wore its Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen influences on its sleeve. The group adopted its curious handle after hearing the name in the Robin Williams flick Good Morning, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh just sounded funny to Diaz and his mates, guitarist Michael Perez and drummer Rob Budowsky. The band came to be characterized by its volatility, changing lineups with uncommon frequency. "We were young," Diaz says. "I wasn't firing people, but at that time I took things more seriously than I should have, and I guess it kind of rubbed some of the people I played with the wrong way. We got into a lot of fights."
Fueling the tension was a drug addiction that had dogged Diaz since junior high school. Diaz soon found himself alone, without friends or bandmates. "I was at a point in my life that the only hope I had was music," he says. "But everything else, my whole attitude, was just awful. I was wasting my life away, doing a lot of drugs -- smoking, acid, whatever. I was just so fried on everything that I came to a breaking point."
It was at this nadir, in 1992, that a dream captured his imagination. His languorous voice picks up pace as he remembers: "One night I was here, in my studio, and I felt like I wasn't alone. When I felt this, I remembered that the night before I had a dream, and then I remembered the dream. The dream was that the Lord Jesus Christ came out of the sky, came out of the moon, came straight down, through the roof of my warehouse, and looked at me, and I looked at Him. His face was just as bright as the sun, and ever since then, everything changed, and the next day I started praying. I started crying. My whole life began to change. Gradually, day by day."
Not only did Diaz's vision give him a new perspective on life, it reshaped Diaz's songwriting style. As a sober musician with a clear head, he began to experiment with new tunings, pushing the limits of his scuffed, black Yamaha acoustic guitar. "I was inspired to start writing in different tunings, like a lower D, and making up chords in those tunings. In a way I had to totally relearn how to play guitar because I changed the tunings," he explains. "I wanted to do something new musically."
On top of the new tunings, Diaz fattened his sound by shoving a microphone into his guitar's sound hole, lending his music a resonating quality, as if he were a solitary figure playing inside a desolate, gutted church. His unique style of play lends an even greater fullness to his sound.
Watching him perform live, it's impossible not to notice his sweeping guitar strokes. He hits the strings in a flash of articulation, spinning catchy hooks out of the higher strings while steadily pounding out a bass line on the deeper ones.
Diaz has also added spontaneity to his lyrics. Ever since his vision, he says, he has freed his thoughts, allowed the words to come to him. "Almost every song has a phrase or a line that was given to me by my inner source, not me," he says. "A lot of those lines were things I heard in my head, and, at that moment, I'm there singing it. It's sort of like automatic writing."
Even the name of his band, so casually chosen a decade ago, has assumed a deeper meaning. While reading up on Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader who ruled North Vietnam during the Fifties and Sixties, the songwriter latched on to the name's literal translation: He Who Enlightens. "In reality, we're more true to what the word means than most people think," Diaz says. "Once I learned what it meant, I was enlightened. I think the message is exactly that. The meanings of the songs, the hidden truths within the songs, all reflect that spirit of God within each and every one of us, whether you tap into it or realize that it's there at all. These songs were all infused by everything that had happened to me. I put everything that I had into those songs because that's all I had."