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Blissed Out on Latin Rock

Marthin Chan, rhythm guitarist for Miami's Volumen Cero, sits in the driver's seat of his Dodge Caravan, parked in front of the Kendall townhouse where vocalist-bassist Luis Tamblay lives. With his left knee drawn up to his chest, Chan contemplates how his band -- himself, Tamblay, lead guitarist Christian Escuti, and drummer Albert Howard -- suddenly found itself signed to the New York City-based Grita! Records after only a short time performing as a Latin rock group. "We had only been singing in Spanish for one month," Chan says, alternately fidgeting with the torn hem of his jeans and tucking his hair behind one ear. "And then in late July [1997] we were asked to play this contest, Buscando Bandas [Searching for Bands], and we only had three songs."

"It was perfect timing," adds the thin, long-limbed Tamblay, taking a break from playing soccer in the street with his younger cousins, who have dropped by for a family celebration in honor of his 24th birthday. "I think that's the reason we got a break so soon. We didn't even have this gig planned," he explains, referring to the contest that took place at Power Studios in the Design District. "We were playing on Saturday at Rose's, and the manager from D'Facto, another local Latin rock band, saw us and called us Wednesday, asking us to play on Friday. It was a contest for Latin rock bands. We only had to play two songs, and we ended up winning -- and that got us to New York, where Grita! saw us."

Their win in the southeastern division of Buscando Bandas -- a nationwide contest sponsored by the Telemundo TV network and BMG Records, among others -- earned them that trip to New York's Le Poulet nightclub for the finals against four other Latin rock bands. Ramon "Ray" Garcia, business attorney and director of domestic and international marketing and sales for Grita!, attended that show. "All the other bands pretty much sucked, except for Volumen Cero, which was actually rocking," recalls Garcia. "They did this song called 'Monica's Pullman,' and I was like, 'Wow!'"

Garcia talked up Volumen Cero to his boss, Grita! president Jay Ziskrout, encouraging him to check out the band during a trip to Miami in August 1997 for the annual MIDEM conference. Ziskrout did just that, catching the group at South Beach Pub. He was sufficiently impressed to begin actively pursuing them to sign with his label. "Their president says to us, 'I want you guys,'" Tamblay remembers. "It was just perfect. I think the reason we took off in Spanish and not in English was just because we were at the right place at the right time."

That last comment refers to the fact that, for three years, from 1994 to 1997, Volumen Cero (meaning "Zero Volume") operated as Orgasmic Bliss, an English-language alternative-pop band. "One thing I want people to know is that we're not selling out," the 25-year-old Chan emphasizes, attempting to head off any potential criticism for the name change and for the switch from English to Spanish.

The embryo of Volumen Cero can be traced to 1993 when Tamblay, Escuti, and Howard, all from Chilean families, performed covers of their favorite Latin rock bands -- Los Prisioneros and Soda Stereo -- in Howard's garage. The Peruvian-born Chan later augmented their sound on rhythm guitar, bringing along his friend keyboardist Vincenzo Bove, who is part Venezuelan and part Italian. Each member contributed ideas for original songs, most of them written with English lyrics; given that all except Tamblay (who was born here) moved to the United States when they were in grade school, they felt more comfortable performing in English. In 1994, as Orgasmic Bliss, the quintet started playing the local club circuit, becoming regulars at Rose's and Groove Jet's the Church. The group was inspired primarily by the jangling guitar sound of alternative rock, with references to the Cure, New Order, and the Ocean Blue popping up in their songs. But the band didn't forget its origins, with a Latin rock cover occasionally appearing on its set list. Chan even participated in a Latin rock side project called Swallowed Rosaries.

In December 1996, after Orgasmic Bliss released a thirteen-track eponymous CD and worked on a second record that was never completed, Bove split for New Jersey to pursue a degree in music therapy. With the keyboardist's departure, the band moved its guitars to the fore. Chan began pushing his instrument, twisting the tuning pegs on the guitar head and pulling on the strings. The 25-year-old Escuti experimented more with textures and added a barrage of effects pedals to his arsenal. A more aggressive sound was born, influenced by the likes of Radiohead and Oasis. This newfound aggro forced Tamblay to sing more assertively, while Howard (also 25) attacked his drums in a more primal fashion. The guys also found themselves writing songs in Spanish. Then came the name change. "It's something that came natural," Chan points out. "We're very comfortable where we are."

Where they are is on the verge of releasing the eleven-track Andromeda, due in stores May 14. (Grita! has already issued a bargain-priced Latin rock sampler of its bands called Check Eet Out; it opens with two tracks from Andromeda.) This past January Volumen Cero clocked time at North Miami's Tapeworm Recording Studios and Miami-Dade Community College's Blue Smoke Studios with producer Richard Coleman, former guitarist for popular Argentine rockers Soda Stereo. (Coleman currently fronts and plays guitar for Los 7 Delfines.)

All four members contributed various melodies and lyrics. Escuti explains that the band looked to their life experiences for inspiration. "Every song has a lot of meaning to it," he says. "'Quince Anos' is about my cousin. He died when he fell off a cliff. He was just fifteen years old." The lyrics are Escuti's; Tamblay does the painful subject justice by providing a yearning vocal, while Chan rubs his guitar strings to create a grieving sound that recalls the cries of whales. "Automatico," the album's first single (for which the band has filmed a video), is another somber number. Tamblay wrote the lyrics in memory of his grandfather, who died when his family made the difficult decision to remove him from life support. The song builds from meditative strumming to ambling guitar licks to droning feedback, as Tamblay sings in a dreamy, pensive voice.

In addition to such melancholy tracks, Andromeda features some lighthearted pop. Chan's "Gigante" is a brash little number that recounts the phoniness of the South Beach "guest list" scene. The song's sprightly guitar lines recall the work of No Doubt. The album's title track, also written by Chan, riffs on a tale from Greek mythology -- Perseus's love for Andromeda -- which Chan uses to relate a modern-day search for the ultimate spiritual high. Musically, the song references several pop sources: Chan's soaring guitar lines borrow a bit from Radiohead's "Just," while Tamblay's echoing bass could fit comfortably on several Cure songs. The singer's falsetto cries, which close the song, give James's Tim Booth a run for his money.

Fans of Orgasmic Bliss might find it difficult to recognize much of Andromeda. "If they like it, they like it," shrugs drummer Howard, referring to their old English-language devotees. "If they don't, then too bad."

Duncan Ross, former host of The Underground show on WVUM-FM (90.5), thinks Volumen Cero will easily establish a solid audience in the Latin rock market. "I told those boys they should have done that [sung in Spanish] many years ago," he says with a laugh. "If you're half Latin and half American, you sort of want to prove you can do the American side. I think that's why they were going for the English-language Cure thing, but why bother doing it in English when there are so many other bands doing it in English? They are Latin, and they are a very good band. I think they're going to do really, really well now."

Volumen Cero performs with Puerto Rico's Sol D'Menta Thursday, April 16, at South Beach Pub, 717 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-7821. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. Admission is $5.

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