Choir Joy

It's been a long and winding Drive for these inside outsiders
Leonard likes 'em. And how many local bands can say that?
For Drive Choir -- of whom the Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts, Jr., once wrote, "they certainly sounded good" -- praise is not unusual. For a critic at this city's only newspaper (or whatever) to catch on is atypical, and that's defining when it comes to the Choir. The only thing typical about them is the atypical.

Take, for example, the old parochial debate. Should a Miami band stick it out in Sweat City, banging the club circuit and releasing a done-it-ourselves tape, or is relocation to a more major hub the right route? That one has been hacked out plenty, but Drive Choir chooses "none of the above." Guitarist Johnny Voltage and bassist Carl Carvajal were born in Miami. Drummer Jeff Fritz is from the Midwest. He came to Miami in 1986 and made his mark with local bands Bootleg and Dashboard Saints. Meanwhile, Voltage and Carvajal were looking, without success, for a drummer. They moved north, renewing their search in Boston. In April of 1991 they phoned Fritz's family's home in North Miami and were informed that the drummer was up north trying to put together a band. The three hooked up in Boston.

They became a trio -- then known as Medicine Man -- hopped in a blue Nova and headed back here. Since then they've dropped the Medicine Man tag -- several other bands had already claimed the moniker, they explain -- and have become Drive Choir, a three-part-harmony based "melodic punk" outfit working the SoFla circuit. Or at least working around it. "We're working our way in from the outside," Fritz says. "If we can't penetrate the circles, fine. That's not an end all."

In fact it's barely slowed them down, although, as Fritz says, "It's easy to be pissed off continuously. It's easy to lash out at a few snakes." But the Choir boys bite their tongues and stick to their business. "We want more people to hear our music," Johnny Voltage explains. "For them to get off their pedestals. Go to Churchill's."

Pretension. Cliques. Politics and head games. The watchwords of the local rock world. And Drive Choir ain't havin' that. "We've met all these assholes," Voltage says. "If you're cool with us, we're cool with you. We'll try anything once, and if it's cool, fine. If not, go to hell. There's too much of this clique stuff."

The band's best take on their self-imposed pariah status comes in one of the songs on their new demo, a sarcastic little beauty called "King of the World." More urgent than retro-New Wave, more melodic than spitfire punk, the tune bops happily and bashes heartily those among us who think standing on a pedestal and baring their asses -- so the masses can kiss them -- is what it's all about. Macho poseurs and ego trippers take note. Or, better yet, take a lesson.

The churning rage captured in "King" and other tracks is not the sole source of magical output when it comes to the Choir. One niche they have found is benefit concerts. When called, they respond, and fans get a chance to check 'em out, sometimes in an acoustic configuration. Listening to their first album, last year's Tilt, and their new material would never cause one to infer that these noisy cats could strike a chord without electric amplification. But as any critic A okay, one critic A will tell you, seeing Drive Choir unplugged (with Fritz standup drumming, thereby emphasizing his vocal contributions visually) is a triple treat.

That fact should not, however, damn the Choir's success at their true calling A smoking punk-pop marked by excellent songwriting and more sound than a trio should be able to create. For example, Carvajal's bass in the impossibly infectious "La La La" is fatter than Paula Abdul and Oprah put together. That is the result of part studio trickery and part excellent musicianship. Like most of Choir's stuff.

Voltage runs a Rickenbacker through a Gibson amp (which adds its own distortion) to create his fuller-than-full (and often raging) guitar sound, and the band isn't afraid to break it down with a riff, stop and start, shift gears, whatever it takes to keep the action happening. That approach shines brightest in the rattling "Close Your Eyes," an absolute blowout jam that disses MTV. "When you close your eyes with MTV on," Voltage explains, "you can hear how lame some of these songs are." Who needs a video when the music speaks this loudly?

The band's new seven-inch vinyl 45 will feature two songs from their five-track demo ("Close Your Eyes" b/w "La La La") and will be released sometime in the next few weeks. The big disappointment is that the band can't afford to release all five. One doesn't envy them the task of choosing -- they're all keepers. The high quality of the musicianship should not be a surprise, considering the members' backgrounds. Voltage was one of those "musically inclined" kids who picked up clarinet and piano in high school, before turning to guitar and hooking up with Carvajal, who also became rock-obsessed around the age of sixteen. "Listening to the bass in the Who and Earth, Wind and Fire," Carvajal recalls, "got me into it. I met Johnny and we started writing together." Fritz began drumming as a small child, and eventually played in jazz, symphony, and marching ensembles in high school, including the Drum Corps International's Star of Indiana, before attending Indiana University. "After two years of 'Bach is God' at college," Fritz says, "I was ready to rock out." Drive Choir certainly provides that opportunity.

Still, they remain outcasts, in a way. Fritz dismisses the importance of Miami-scene cliques, and then, in the next breath, mutters about how frustrating it is to be denied chances to play live because of local-music politics. So not only are they outsiders battling their way through the national spotlight labyrinth, they're further hindered by their refusal to clique up and ply the inside of the clannish local scene. Good for them.

Nonetheless, it's easy to sympathize with their predicament. During an interview many weeks ago in a conference room in the downtown building where New Times is headquartered, the trio was playing rough mixes of new songs on a boom box. Something evil appeared in the doorway A a matronly woman from another office demanding something to the effect of "turn that shit down!" Typical.

Drive Choir performs on Saturday at Churchill's Hideaway, 5501 NE 2nd Ave., 757-1807. Admission costs $3.


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