By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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After almost two years in hiding, Eric Knight, ex-leader of Vandal, has returned with a solo CD and a new backup band. Fans of Vandal's pop-tinged hard-rock sound should enjoy Near Life Experience. Knight himself is simply happy to have released the disc. Not long ago he figured his days as a headbanger were over.
Knight joined Vandal two years after guitarist Richie Fitz founded the band, in 1984, and spent nine years as the group's frontman. The outfit began humbly enough, playing high school gigs with a rotating cast of members, and indulging in Eighties-style metal: long hair, bare chests, pounding drums, flailing guitar solos, and Knight's trademark guttural vocals. Testosterone, in other words, and plenty of it.
By 1990 the band had a permanent lineup (guitarist Tony Medina, bassist Sosio Christofaro, and drummer Derek Cintron joined Knight and Fitz) and an enviable position on the South Florida club circuit. Live shows regularly attracted crowds of 300 or more. "We were drawing as huge as Marilyn Manson used to draw," Cintron says. Starting in 1991 record labels began to take an interest in the band. Cintron says representatives from Atlantic, Polygram, MCA, and Virgin flew down to Miami to watch the band perform. But no deals were ever finalized.
Undaunted, the band relocated to Los Angeles in 1993. Toby Wright, producer of Alice in Chains, Kiss, and Slayer, expressed interest in recording a demo with the band. Before that could happen, though, Vandal ran out of money and had to return to Miami. Tired of waiting for record deals that never quite materialized, the quintet recorded an album on its own. Julian Day, released in 1994, was Vandal's first official disc (the group had previously released only cassette demos with Xeroxed inlay cards, which they sold at shows and through the mail).
Knight and company celebrated with a release party at Miami's Hard Rock Cafe. In early 1995 Vandal signed a licensing deal with the Japanese-based label Alfa Records. This allowed the group to release its debut in Japan, and led to an invitation to tour that country. Knight viewed this as a huge step toward securing a major label deal, because Alfa is distributed by EMI. It was at this auspicious point, however, that Cintron and Fitz confronted Knight about the direction Vandal was taking.
"The band had become less about the music and more about how to promote and make the band seem bigger than life," Cintron says. "The other guys in the band, more so than myself, were getting real tired of it -- to the point they didn't want to show up to photo shoots anymore. They didn't want to do anything. They were saying, 'My God, this is lame. This is not why I got in a band.'"
Although all of the bandmates collaborated on writing Vandal's music, it was Knight who held the reins on the band's business matters, and he had no intention of backing down when it came to his elaborate promotional plans. More than three years later, he remains firm in his belief that his efforts at publicity were key to the band's success. "If it wouldn't have been for the effort and the work that I put into it, the band wouldn't have been where it was," he insists.
But the dissolution of the band in the summer of 1995 devastated Knight, plunging him into a depression that kept him as far away from the music scene as possible. He spent his time working as a buyer's assistant at Specs Music's corporate office and channel-surfing the TV at his parent's house in Miami, where he lived.
He refused to answer questions about the band's demise, ignoring phone calls until they stopped. "It was a lot harder for me to take because I was more involved with every aspect of the band," Knight recalls. "I was handling all the business. I felt we had come so far, and just to have it all come to a stop was hard."
So hard, in fact, that he scrapped plans to launch a solo career with some music he had already written. He adds, "I thought I was going to be able to go it on my own, and it just didn't happen. Then the depression hit. I just shut myself out." For eighteen months Knight didn't so much as pick up a guitar. But he found it impossible to purge music from his life.
"When you're a musician you have it in your blood and it just doesn't go out of your system," he says. "I decided I had to put a band together, and that slowly took me out of everything. It was still a bitter pill to swallow, just knowing that I had all this stuff going on with the other band, and that I basically had to start over again."
Knight kept the pressure low at the beginning, inviting lead guitarist Rick Valero and bassist David Poole to practice material in his bedroom. A drummer, Jwani, joined the group after a short audition. He and Knight clicked immediately; they shared a taste for classic rock, as well as contemporary bands with a heavy sound, including Tool and Korn.