When you think of the megagroups, you should think art. Not that their music always aspired to higher aesthetic grounds. But while most of the members of Pink Floyd were architecture students, the band's earliest and mightiest creative force was Syd Barrett, an art student. Keith Richards was studying art when he met an economics student named Mick Jagger. All four members of Talking Heads attended art school in Rhode Island before reshaping modern music. David Bowie was a commercial artist at an ad agency before he became Ziggy Stardust, John Lennon was known to scribble a doodle or two, and Ron Wood is an accomplished painter. Stu Sutcliffe was allowed to join an early version of the Beatles even though he couldn't play a lick of bass. He had just sold a painting for a large sum, and that provided a much-needed cash infusion.
Though not a megagroup -- yet -- Halo can be lumped into this fine-arts tradition. The band's frontman, Oscar Herrera, graduated from the University of Miami, where he studied graphic design, and currently works a day job as an advertising-art designer at the Miami Herald. He handles the duality easily, though he also admits that dividing time between the two creative worlds can be challenging. You won't find any art criticism here, but Herrera and his band certainly score high on the sonic front.
Halo, until recently known as Picasso Trigger, can be counted as the most diverse band this side of Rooster Head, though in a completely different way. Rooster Head jumps from genre to genre -- a country song here, a pure pop ditty there -- while Halo stays within a more singular framework. Except that the framework bends and twists and ranges from the speedy and edgy to deep-groove meandering to skittish danceables, often within one song. "What makes it interesting," says Herrera, "is the struggle between me and the other guys. If it was up to me, we'd stick to the Bowie, artsy side. But we compromise." Bassist Joe Dante puts it this way: "He gets in this Spanish horse mode, Oscar serenading some beauty with guitars. We come in and we want to be like Zep."
If there's any Halo song that Herrera's vision most shines through on, it's "The Hunting Ground," rich with Spanish guitar, shuffling Latin-based rhythms, a bolero-wearing breakdown of chants and percussion, and a funky cantina feel. You could get lost there forever. That's followed immediately on the band's new album, Picasso Trigger Is Dead, by "This Boy Is Sane," replete with sizzling electric-guitar leads. You need a pigeon-hole as wide as the Pacific to fit Halo into it.
Such lofty aspirations -- and, as the album proves, accomplishments -- can cause some trouble. When Herrera (who'd already made his mark with the mighty Sleep of Reason in the early Eighties) got together with bassist Dante and drummer Alex Hernandez in 1990, they bought a classified ad in New Times for a guitarist. "Our sound freaks out some people," Dante notes, "and I can't count how many auditions we held." Finally they found a guitarist, but he was soon deported. The next guitarist had to resign due to problems with hearing loss. The third didn't work out musically. The fourth was current member Alejandro Sanchez.
Together they create a churning blend of attitude and atmosphere, juicy harmonies, deft tempo shifts, chunky tones and textures. The Talking Heads comparison is especially handy -- polyrhythms are key, and that's often and traditionally a Latin thang. (David Byrne might not be Latin, but he's definitely a hard-core Latinofile.) "I'm definitely into the Latin rhythms," says Alex Hernandez, who contradicts that by saying his favored style is "no quarter given" rock. Either way, theirs is not the stuff of your typical samba party. "In places like Melbourne," Herrera says, "they see us as this exotic Latin live band." At the worst, this gets them decent gigs.
Bookings for Halo here in Miami don't always come so easily, perhaps partly because this whole Latin thang is about as relevant to the group's sound as Zep. Just one small part. "Our problem," Herrera says, "is that we're mismatched with just about every other band that might be booked to play with us. Except for F.O.C., the Bellefires, One, Black Janet, and Love Canal, there aren't really any bands we fit with in the live setting. We need unified, smart audiences."
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Sometimes it gets so bad the band strikes out at the entire Miami music scene: Dante: "We're playing our asses off -- not simply spitting fire out our asses. Miami..."
Dante: "Can we say that?"
Herrera: "We've considered dropping our pants, having go-go girls, performing fake fellatio.... There are more clubs, more bands, but the mentality's the same as ever."
Dante: "We just want to get some kind of reaction."
Hernandez: "Yeah, at least spit on us."
Maybe the new album will change some perceptions about Halo. From all evidence, though, it doesn't seem to matter much. The band is making some of the most inventive, interesting, and rewarding music around. They continue to shun putting on spandex, puffing their hair or admitting a new member who just sold a painting and has lots of money to burn. No matter where everyone else is, Halo's right where they should be. That's the real art of it.
HALO celebrates the release of its new album at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at Uncle Sam's Musicafe, 1141 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 532-0973. Free.