By Kat Bein
By Shea Serrano
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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.
After graduating to proper rehearsal spaces, Knight (still no slouch as a businessman) finagled a deal to record at North Miami's world-renowned Criteria Recording Studios. Over a period of nine months Knight and his band recorded during downtime at the studio in exchange for a commitment to share profits with Criteria should a major label pick up the resulting album.
The final product isn't far removed from what Vandal had been doing years before. Near Life's ten cuts are characterized by crunching guitar lines, thunderous drum beats, and Knight's trademark full-voiced vibrato. The music almost never relents, offering one pounding anthem after another. The disc's lone quiet moment comes in "Just Can't Wait," a ballad backed by a spare piano melody. The songs use vocodor effects and guitar pedals to distort sounds, adding color to the bombast. The aptly named "Epic Proportions" even features an eerie synthesized string section that adds an ominous note to the already fearsome walls of guitars.
The Vandalesque sound should come as no surprise. Lead guitarist Valero often played with members of Vandal informally. Poole was also familiar with Knight's first band and had played in the same scene, with another hard-rock outfit called Nectar.
Although the process of recording Near Life Experience was grueling, it gave Knight the resolution he was looking for. "It was the turning point, I think, because I knew there was something tangible that you can feel, taste and touch," he says. "We were recording a record, so I knew it was going to the next step."
Knight shared production duties with Criteria staffer Keith Rose, who has engineered albums for Foreigner and Soul Asylum. Rose was able to send the final mix of Near Life to Arnie Acosta, in Los Angeles, who has mastered albums for U2 and Peter Frampton. "All the big names that we worked with and all the people involved helped me get more excited about it," Knight says. "It was an affirmation to me that I was heading in the right direction."
Today, the breakup of Vandal is more than three years old. But the loss still affects Knight. The title of his new album reflects the trauma that lead up to its recording. In fact, he is so haunted by what happened with Vandal that he prefers not to refer to his current bandmates under a collective name.
"He let us know that he was going to do that from the start and we said it was okay with us," Valero notes. "On this first album, he pretty much wrote all the music, and we just gave it a little more flavor, so he has the right."
Knight says the absence of a band name is an issue of self-protection, more than ego. "After putting so much effort into Vandal, I couldn't afford something like a band breakup happening again," he says. "So, hypothetically, if this band does break up, I know I'll be able to continue moving forward because it's going under my name."
These days, Knight's high-octane ambition seems fully recovered. He talks of signing a major label recording contract, and even someday managing his own subsidiary label. His current plans include a documentary video to supplement the new release. He's also making sure his bandmates share in the labor of his heavy publicity campaign.
After spending an evening sticking flyers on cars parked outside the Sunrise Musical Theater during a Mstley CrYe concert, Jwani views Knight's zeal for promotion with some perspective. "It's very draining when we're hitting these huge parking lots with thousands of cars in them," he says. "I get home a little grumpy. But at the same time I think, You know, it's going to pay off. I question myself sometimes, but, honestly, I don't let it get to me. If it doesn't happen, I'll just try something else."
As for Knight, he's still convinced that the road to prosperity is paved, at least in part, by zealous promotion. "Unfortunately when you're not signed to a major label, you've got to do all you can to get your name out there," he observes. "With this band, I'm being the manager as well as the singer and songwriter. That's just me. I'm just used to having a lot of things going on at once. Unfortunately I don't have anyone of merit knocking on my door saying, 'Hey, I'm willing to manage you.' I'm not going to settle for anything that isn't better than what I'm doing now, so, until somebody comes along that has the same mindset as I do, I'll continue doing it on my own."
Eric Knight and his band will be performing with the Starts, and Rezin Saturday, January 16, at The Button South, 100 Ansin Blvd, Hallandale, 954-454-3301. Doors open at 7:00 p.m.; cover charge is $5 in advance and $7 the day of the show.