Attack of the Apes
"We are proud to be a Miami band," says drummer Toto González after taking part in a round of spoken dreams, wishes, and resolutions for the new season with his band, Sóniko. The Latin altrock quartet is about to celebrate its third anniversary in February; as a graduation party of sorts, it will be heading out to the West Coast next month with confirmed dates and in-store appearances in Hollywood, Anaheim, and Long Beach. Its plan doesn't include relocating to California, however, as so many local musicians aspire to do. Sóniko www.soniko.net wants to be successful here, and then eventually reach the rest of the U.S.
"Our biggest dream is to make it in this country," says 28-year-old González in response to a question loaded with pure nostalgia: As emigrated South Americans, do they want to go back there to play in front of their old friends? Yeah, they do, but not today. "Can you imagine the guys we went to school with seeing us onstage and wondering how we got there?" laughs 26-year-old guitarist Javier Guell. The guitarist, along with friends González and 23-year-old singer Alex Izaguirre, is originally from Venezuela. Peruvian bassist Jorge García, who is 25, completed the lineup on February 2001, just as the band was about to begin its second rehearsal.
All four have spent at least a decade in Miami: González and Guell came here after high school, while García and Izaguirre arrived with their families at ages twelve and thirteen, respectively. None of them was escaping political turmoil, as many of their Latin American colleagues have done over the past few years, eager to find any kind of work possible. That gave the four some time to develop their sound together after playing in a few early, less successful bands. "We have learned from our past experiences, and those mistakes are now helping us to clear the road for Sóniko," says González, who was in a band called D'Facto at the time his two Venezuelan friends played in Extravagaria. In fact these bands opened up for the Spanish pop-rock group Hombres G at La Covacha before both acts imploded in August 2000.
Though Sóniko takes up much of their time, the quartet has other interests. García, who played in a band called Vía 1 before joining the group, recently earned an associate's degree at Miami Dade College. He's mulling over a career as a sound engineer, but says he's "undecided." While in Extravagaria, Izaguirre finished high school at G.H. Braddock in Kendall. Now he is in the middle of his graphic design studies at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, following his friend Toto's lead.
González graduated in 1997 as a graphic designer from the International Fine Arts College and has done work for Spanish-language magazines like Estática, Boom!, and Eres. His strict father, a Venezuelan businessman who mostly supplies wood to big companies, never really understood what González wanted to do "with a bunch of little [drawings]," jokes the latter. But at least he understood that his son was not going to follow in his footsteps. "I lied to him. I said I was going to study business management," confesses González. The drummer handles Sóniko's marketing and public relations; organizes and DJs at Noches de Fabrika, a Latin-themed party night at La Covacha; and is the Webmaster for Fabrika's site, www.fabrika.info, which provides tour dates, music files, and news about Latin rock bands.
Guell, who didn't lie to his family, graduated with a degree in industrial engineering last year from Florida International University. He's still waiting for his work permit "to begin looking for one of those jobs," he says. The guitarist laughs when asked what parallels he finds between playing in a rock band and being an industrial engineer. He says he's good at both, but adds, "That doesn't mean that I like the career as much as I like music. You can call it plan B!"
Sóniko's history can be split into a plan A and a plan B. When the band began recording Spanish altrock songs that were inspired by Seattle grunge, Brit-pop, and Eighties and Nineties rock en español acts like Soda Stereo, Robi Rosa, Fito Páez, and Hombres G, it sought to create a package that would impress Miami's Latin music industry. Part of its plan worked: Thanks to energy, determination, and money well invested, as well as some extra help in the final mixes from Shakira's engineer Marcelo Añez -- who got a Grammy for his work with the Colombian diva's MTV Unplugged -- the band completed a solid debut, Kombustión. Unfortunately none of the major labels, decimated by an industry-wide sales slump, offered the band a recording contract.
So Sóniko turned to plan B. It released Kombustión last September under Fabrika Music, an independent label owned by González, with Miami-based MY Music Records taking care of its nationwide distribution. MY Music Records is on the verge of getting the album, initially released in Miami, distributed in other Latin-friendly U.S. cities. In the meantime, Sóniko's video for its first single, "Los Muebles del Planeta de los Simios" ("Furniture of the Planet of the Apes"), is in heavy rotation on MTV Español, which has opened a lot of doors. Directed by yet another Venezuelan, Danny Perez -- an old friend of González who works for A Band Apart, an L.A.-based production company that counts among its clients directors Quentin Tarantino and John Woo -- it shows the band in various animal costumes, none of which, funnily enough, is an ape. An "imaginary trip inspired by childhood figures" such as a raccoon, a donkey, a chicken, and a dog, the low-budget clip won Sóniko the network's "buzzworthy" status and helped it pick up some extra gigs, press interviews, and airplay on music channels like Urban Latino TV and HTV.
Things are starting to fall into place for Sóniko after two years of dirty work with little compensation. "Don't get me wrong, it's not that we've made it or anything," says Guell. "We're pretty much in the same place, but at the same time we can see that this band is doing things seriously, and that we've progressed a lot musically."
When asked what the highlight of their brief career together has been, all of the group members say it was opening for Venezuelan funk band Los Amigos Invisibles in front of 1500 people at La Covacha last September. Izaguirre confesses to a serious case of the shakes before going onstage that night, overwhelmed by a crowd ten times bigger than Sóniko's normal audience. The others laugh at Izaguirre, remembering when bodyguards were needed to get rid of an overly passionate male fan, and, minutes later, to almost surgically separate an obsessed female who was trying to kiss Izaguirre a hundred times. "At some point we had like three different mosh pit areas spinning in front of our eyes, and it was unbelievable," gushes González. "I said, 'We don't have that many friends to create such a situation! They must really like our music!'"
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