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The Box is a cramped art gallery located in a jumble of warehouses off the Palmetto Expressway in South Miami. Jorge Elbrecht and Justin Gracer, the progressive pop duo known as J.E. & Justin G., are waiting here, as patiently as they can, for a bigger crowd. Their scheduled 9:00 p.m. start time comes and goes, and they mingle with fans.
Mounted with masking tape on the stark white walls that surround them are photos of teenagers passed out on couches, rolling joints, making out. Maimed teddy bears, leaking stuffing, sit crookedly on top of amps. The scene is an apt reflection of J.E. and Justin G.'s music, which laces the sweetness of teenage pop with the bitterness of indie rock.
Soon enough a decent crowd has gathered and Gracer and Elbrecht make their way toward the makeshift stage, gingerly stepping over cables and amps as the lights are dimmed. Gracer, a slender, buzz-cut twenty-year-old, straps on an acoustic guitar and stands behind an old Orla organ topped with a newfangled drum machine. Elbrecht, a long-legged nineteen-year-old with a tuft of beard, hefts his purple Fender electric from a tangle of wires on the floor.
Performances like this are precious to the two because they get to play together only every few months. Elbrecht, who moved to New York to study fine arts this fall, made sure to schedule the show during his Thanksgiving vacation.
Elbrecht and Gracer have been collaborating for a year now, and they self-released the disc 15 Most Requested Songs in September. Their Box performance offers a sampling of the wide-ranging fare found on the album. With their layered guitars and muted rhythms, the Gracer-penned "Tsaturday Morning" and "German Shepherd" have an edgy, low-fi feel. On "Tsaturday Morning" Gracer sings strained vocals about the indie-rock aesthetic ("I smoke another bowl/I am overdone/ Put it on the four-track now/I am lost"). "German Shepherd" features the harmonic melding of both vocalists singing oohs and aahs against the driving chords of twin acoustic guitars.
In contrast, the synthesized moans and rumba beats of Elbrecht's "Forget Your Kiss," led by his booming vocals, pay homage to the processed pop of Eighties party bands such as Information Society. Then there's a bubble-gum ditty like "Insecure," which Elbrecht sings in an affected British accent and which sounds as if it were lifted from a John Hughes movie soundtrack. Gracer's "U05" is an instrumental fueled by the rapid-fire sonic elements of electronica, as is the collaborative effort "Hassle Me."
Make no mistake: J.E. & Justin G. are not afraid to hop genres. In fact, a voracious appetite for variety is the foundation of their partnership. "I get so much fulfillment from different kinds of music that I can't limit myself to one thing," Elbrecht says. "It's just good for originality. I think that originality comes from a mix of different things. You like something from this genre and something from that genre, and all these things come together and become what you are. If you're only getting something from one source, like heavy metal, then you're just going to be a heavy metal musician. Or you can be into a whole bunch of things and make music that sounds like Brazilian/Power 96/ heavy metal."
15 Most Requested Songs is available at local independent stores such as Blue Note, Uncle Sam's, and Yesterday & Today, but Elbrecht and Gracer have yet to send the album to any record companies. They are focusing instead on building a base of fans in South Florida and selling discs at local performances.
Complicating matters considerably are the pair's other musical responsibilities: Both are frontmen for other groups. Gracer formed the melodic rock band Machete eighteen months ago; Elbrecht fronts Dynamo Plaza, a band of Miami-to-New York transplants that mines a similar indie-rock vein.
Elbrecht and Gracer met two years ago during a show at the now-defunct club Cheers. "Jorge was wearing an 'Air Miami' T-shirt, and we got to talking about that group," Gracer recalls. Both, it turns out, were huge fans of the obscure Virginia-based outfit. Specifically, they admired Air Miami's use of bouncing guitar lines and old drum machines.
Their mutual passion for drum machines convinced the young frontmen to join forces. When discussing their devotion, Gracer and Elbrecht relate nearly identical accounts of teenage years spent recording one-man demos in their bedrooms. "In eleventh grade, going to Ransom Everglades, I was writing stuff on my tape recorder," Elbrecht says. "I'd record a rhythm using presets on a Casio keyboard and play a little guitar solo over it, and then I found an affordable way to do that kind of stuff with a four-track. Justin was the first person I met who was doing that, besides me. There's also sounds you can make with drum machines that you can't make with an acoustic drum kit, like 808 bass sounds."
Adds Gracer: "The 808 is very Latin and very bassy but still very poppy and melodic. I remember thinking to myself how that sound hit big in New York in the late Eighties, but it came out of Miami." He recalls the late Eighties, when the 808 freestyle sound permeated pop radio, with reverence. "I would actually dedicate love songs to my girlfriends on Power 96," he says. "I remember going to the Dade County Youth Fair and listening to all the Power 96 music they played while you were waiting in line to get on a ride, or skating to that music at Hot Wheels. Actually my song 'Power 96' used to be called 'Tragedy at Hot Wheels.' It's about catching your girlfriend skating with another guy."
Local musician and recording engineer Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra, who has himself dabbled with many of the electronic sounds that J.E. and Justin G. employ, believes the two have forged that rarest of rock animals: a unique sound. "They might be using the tools of the Eighties," Falestra says, "but the result is definitely not Eighties. It comes across real soft and melodic, but, between the beats and the guitar parts, it's very aggressively done."
Ultimately J.E. & Justin G. would like to sign a contract with a major label. Elbrecht is confident that will happen. If Beck can win a Grammy for Odelay, he reasons, then J.E. & Justin G. can get signed based on the strength of 15 Most Requested Songs. "A lot of cool stuff can be made, and it can sell and make industry people happy," he says.
Falestra, though, has his doubts about the wisdom of going the major-label route. "Music and the music business are two different worlds," he observes. "The minute these guys start mixing them, they risk compromising their music. They're on a very fine line. Right now they could very easily go Donny and Marie, or do something really, really brilliant. So far they've handled it pretty brilliantly, but it depends on who starts waving money in their face and what they do about it."
For all his bravado, Elbrecht says he shares Falestra's concerns. "The thing I'm really scared of is if the money starts rolling in," he says. "A lot of people's music is good when they're striving for some sort of deal, and then, when they get the deal, their music turns crappy. There's so much bad stuff out there, like so much commercial-radio-MTV-horrible stuff. I can't help but think what we're doing is better than that, because we're passionate about it, because we love what we're doing. Those musicians don't love what they're doing. They're playing the same three chords and singing the same stupid lyrics just because it sells."
Gracer nods. "What's scary too is that the kids are still buying the stuff."
"That's where the song 'Make Me Make You' comes from," Elbrecht notes. "I try to make this melody that's appealing, but when you read the lyrics you find that it's this psychopathic monologue about cutting people up." The whole song, he says, is a satire about accepting a pop tune as merely a catchy guitar lick and ignoring the lyrics.
Hoping to inject some levity into the discussion, Gracer quips: "I just want to be popular and get accepted by these dumb kids." His partner cracks up. "That's what's great about pop music: Everybody falls for it.