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A proper rock frontman is a center-stage, singular figure of idolatry, not just your average lead singer or guitarist. He must possess certain qualities, including — and most important — that he's hard to ignore.
A rocky family life and the attendant lack of ambition helps. So does a fierce intellectual streak coupled with a dislike of formal education and a willful naiveté about so-called grown-up life. A sense of style is a must. So are good looks, although not by conventional standards — that's too pop. A series of crap jobs is a nice finishing touch, adding fuel to a hunger that burns inside but isn't betrayed on the face. A real frontman is in control and seemingly impervious to temperature change, both internally and externally.
Mychael Ghost, the driving force behind rising local quartet Astari Nite, is one of the coolest guys around. (Yes, in true pre-rock-star fashion, he insists on both that spelling and the pseudonymous last name.) Whether swanning around the edge of a stage or lurking in the shadows of a club, the guy never seems to break a sweat. This is despite his trademark collection of fuck-the-weather jackets and scarves, and the knit caps that often collect his long, straight strands.
But Ghost, as I'll refer to him for simplicity's sake, can check a lot of those other must-haves off the list as well. And he knows it — another essential quality. Which is why he has big plans for Astari Nite and why he recently summoned me to the band's practice space in a strip of self-storage warehouses in Miami Gardens. It's in a confusing warren of identical narrow doors, many of them populated by other groups. Astari Nite's place must be entered through an Alice in Wonderland-style miniature door fashioned out of particleboard. Inside is a weird little jewel box, all sound-proofed and lofted, cooled by fans and kitted out with rugs, couches, and various bric-a-brac on the walls. The overall effect is that of a set from a Nineties "alternative" movie.
On a recent Wednesday night, Ghost holds court here, slowly nursing bottles of Stella. Astari Nite guitarist Albert Grey lounges with his chocolate lab puppy at his feet, occasionally glancing at a DVD playing silently on a TV set in a corner.
Ghost, it seems, has been studying his forebears. His tone is knowing but naive, sincere but edged with occasional sarcasm, sometimes highfalutin but also issued with a sense of irony. It seems he takes himself both seriously and not at all seriously. He says that 93 percent of his songs are based on personal experience, and that "Shakespeare is the man" as well as a major lyrical influence. Astari Nite's practice sessions, he says, last from 37 minutes to two and half hours in length. "Most of the time, I'm just scared," he faux-confesses at one point. Why be in a band, then? "Well, that's the cliché, isn't it?"
One thing he is definitely serious about, though, is his music — which is rather serious music indeed. In a city where the live band scene is usually dominated by heavy distortion, global fusion, or experimental laptop clicks, Astari Nite stands out as distinctly more glam and Anglophilic. Furthermore, the group boasts a dark, crystalline sheen — courtesy of The Cure, Joy Division, et al. — a sound missing even from the area's so-called dark alternative scene. Even rarer is the streak of Field Mice-esque, twee-mope jangle. A band proper for less than a year, Astari Nite is steadily gaining steam on the local circuit on the strength of chilly, tribal, thumping incantations with oh-so-cheerful titles such as "Beware the Angels" and "Capulet and Montague."
The fact that the band's sound gelled so closely to his initial vision surprises even Ghost. The members, you see, have divergent musical pedigrees. Drummer and cofounder Illa loves metal and plays in other ramshackle local acts with names such as the Crackwhore Sweethearts. Albert admits the only band he really liked in Ghost's initial Craigslist ad was the crunchy, bombastic British act Placebo. Bassist Rebecca, meanwhile, was once a well-regarded drum 'n' bass DJ named R. Furey; she took up her current instrument less than two years ago. Ghost had previously played in a band called Kazarina, which he describes as "dirty, sexy rock and roll." But he carried around a mental drawer full of melodies that had never seemed appropriate for that act.
By early September 2007, Ghost had barely assembled a band and proper songs. It was then he persuaded longtime friend and local promoter Notorious Nastie to book him as an opening act for Otto Von Schirach. "I wanted to see if we could get stuff together as a band," Ghost says. "These days you only really need four to six songs anyways. People get bored. They want to go to the bathroom and do drugs and dance around." The response, even from Von Schirach's unpredictable crowd, was overwhelmingly positive, Ghost and Albert recall happily.
With that bit of momentum, Ghost got it going. The band practices religiously Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. "Kurt Cobain said if you're not playing four to five times a week in a band, that you're not really trying to play at all," Ghost says. "So I'm trying to get it to at least four."
It's not the last time he'll mention Cobain. Ghost moved to Miami from his native Manhattan in search of his estranged, country-hopping father about 14 years ago — "three days before Cobain died." The rest of his list of idols includes the tragic (INXS's Michael Hutchence) as well as the arrogant and/or flamboyant — Oasis's Liam Gallagher, Prince, The Cure's Robert Smith, and his beloved Brian Molko of Placebo. Plus, interestingly, a local guy — Anthony Fashion, of the now-defunct Fashionista. "He was just really, really arrogant and dressed really cool," Ghost recalls, "and the words he put out there were so nice."
But as Astari Nite continues to penetrate the local scene, the bandmates are already looking beyond it, if in a haphazard way. They've tried to branch out through South Florida, up to Palm Beach County. But also, strangely, they recently played a one-off gig in Tempe, Arizona, where Ghost's best friend lives. "It was a test," Ghost says, "to see what it was like to fly somewhere together to play." Never mind that even superestablished national bands still travel by bus. Astari Nite will fly to New York in January to play a couple of one-offs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and is working on snagging an unofficial showcase slot at next year's SXSW. Closer to home, they're now beginning production on a video for their song "From Carving Lips" — oh, and they'll, you know, officially record some music, a four- or five-song EP slated for release after the new year.
Aiming big doesn't always make sense, it seems, but in rock and roll, making sense is not always the most important thing anyway. Having the right stuff, and knowing you have the right stuff, often are. Astari Nite is on the way to both.