Hialeah is home to many a rickety warehouse. Most of the buildings contain gritty auto- and electronic-repair facilities, small machine shops, and the odd wholesale business. But one particular structure, a flat-roofed row of industrial-use units about two or three potholed and gravelly side streets west of the Palmetto Expressway, hides one of the county's most precious musical jewels.
The space is fondly referred to by its lessees as "the Shack." And now, in the waning hours of a hot August night, the five musicians who frequent the Shack up to five nights every week test their instruments' volumes, check their mikes, and crash into song. They've done so on local stages only a half-dozen times since solidifying a lineup three months earlier. They will do so more often after the October release of a self-financed, initially self-released CD. And if Miami doesn't seem to care, they will attempt to find their fortune elsewhere. They shouldn't have to search too hard.
The group is called Humbert, and Humbert is far and away one of South Florida's best and most promising bands. Not surprisingly, it is built from the remnants of another of South Florida's best bands, the now-defunct I Don't Know. That group -- a novelty act in many eyes -- was undeniably weird, exceptionally talented, and very popular, both in Miami and in far away locales such as Daytona, Tampa, and Savannah. The quirky quartet, fronted by an accordion player, freely borrowed stylistic elements from the scores of musicals (e.g., Fiddler on the Roof) and performed songs that, when not spoofing philosophers or the plight of hopeful sperm cells, twisted nursery rhymes into comic pornography.
"I Don't Know had a humorous side," agrees drummer Izo Besares. "But we were dead serious about what we were doing. We were trying to do something that, in retrospect, was almost impossible. But we were 100 percent dead serious. And after a while we said, 'Okay, let's explore this other side of songwriting that we really want to work on.'"
"When I Don't Know finally called it quits," continues lead guitarist Ferny Coipel, "we had all our press kits. We had just finished a five-song demo of all new stuff. And we had them in our little envelopes, all addressed and ready to mail out. But before we mailed them, we told ourselves that, in the best-case scenario, the best thing that would happen to us would be that some label would pick it up, and we'd have to do this for the next five years. And we asked ourselves, 'Is that what we really, really want?' And it wasn't what we wanted. We just weren't 100 percent happy with that. So some of us -- Mark [accordionist Mark Ruiz], specifically -- said, 'Well, I'm not going to be able to start up with something new.' The rest of us stuck together and continued with what was going to make us happy."
After Ruiz departed, the remaining members of I Don't Know -- Coipel, Besares, and bassist Tony Landa -- happily decided to move forward musically. Over the next year the trio would radically change musical direction, writing songs that leaned more toward pop than peculiar. By July 1997 they had recruited guitarist (and former Waifs drummer) Rimsky Pons, who also became, for a while at least, the group's lead singer.
"They needed a lead vocalist and a second guitar player," Pons recalls. "I didn't think I fit the vocalist bill, because most of the tunes were written by Ferny and Izo, and Izo has a really specific way of singing melodies. When you write songs, you custom-tailor your melodies to your voice, and I can't hit a lot of Izo's notes. Plus I don't have the presence. But I really love playing guitar and doing back-up vocals. We decided that it wouldn't work and started looking for another singer."
"We went through a really fucked-up time," adds Besares. "We tried all kinds of shit. We even got a drummer for two days and I came up to the front. That just didn't work. We wanted somebody to fill that spot. We still wanted to sing, maybe one or two songs each, but we knew we wanted somebody to do most of the singing."
"We wanted a singer -- a frontman," explains Landa. "That's what we went out to find. The four of us were playing, and we decided we were wasting our time going into a studio. We didn't know what to do. We were ready to record, but we thought, 'If we record, what are we going to do when we find a singer?'"
In the meantime local artist Derek Cintron -- a singer, guitarist, and drummer lauded for his 1995 release Mantra -- was looking for a drummer to sit in with his oft-changing assortment of hired hands. Cintron had been booked on a January bill sponsored by radio station ZETA (WZTA-FM 94.9) and couldn't find a drummer to play the show. He asked Besares, whom he had known since high school, to fill in on the gig. Besares accepted; after performing with Cintron the drummer excitedly told the other members of Humbert that he might be their man. By early May they had persuaded Cintron to check out a couple of Humbert rehearsals, sing a few songs, and consider joining the band. The five clicked, and Cintron, who had been writing for the followup to Mantra, set his own work aside.
The long-time solo artist and the four musicians in Humbert found common ground in their love for the seminal rock and roll of the Sixties and Seventies. The influences of groups such as Cheap Trick, the Beatles, Badfinger, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Electric Light Orchestra, the Beach Boys, and Supertramp had, in their eyes, been largely abandoned by most artists in the Nineties. The quintet believed it was time for a return to those groups' superior brand of musicality. "A lot of what's lacking in rock these days," suggests Cintron, "is classic songwriting, the pop songwriting sensibilities that were there when rock began. That's missing now. This band brings a little bit of that back. A lot of that back, actually."
He's not exaggerating. A rough mix of Humbert's upcoming debut, to be humorously titled Humbert (so the CD spine reads "Humbert Humbert"), simply oozes with old-school classicism, updated by a very capable and devoted team of multi-instrumentalist writers and performers. Big chords and even bigger harmonies support near-perfect melodies. Clever key changes and subtly advanced arrangements that elude most songwriters are all over Humbert's material. On the advance cassette, the crackly sound of an old vinyl record, lead vocals that sound as if Cintron had laid them down by phone, and a softly strummed acoustic guitar expertly set up the crashing, insistent chorus of "Everything's Okay." It's an immense, majestic piece of pop art, quite possibly one of the best songs ever born of local talent. Then there's "If It Mattered," with lead vocals on the verses by guitarist Coipel, another gorgeous tune with a great melody, rich harmonies, and a big chorus. And "Killing Lorie," with its appealing "She's an infectious girl" hook and closing layered-vocal sequencing, is yet another remarkably memorable tune.
The group mixes profoundly beautiful balladry and up-tempo rockers with equal finesse, but one of the most unforgettable tunes -- performed live only with the help of a rather melancholy recorded keyboard track (both Besares and Coipel are more-than-competent keyboardists; Coipel recorded the track) -- is perhaps their most bittersweet. On "Bring Back the Day," a haunting power ballad built around a churchy organ and a gently arpeggiated, tremolo-laden guitar, Besares and Cintron share vocal duties. The song is one of the most elegant and appealing local-band compositions any clubgoer will hear this year.
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That is, if anyone shows up to see this true gem of a band at any of Miami's sadly underattended rock clubs. It's the old "If a tree falls" adage taken to its ultimate, ridiculous extreme: If talent such as this goes unnoticed, is it really all that much talent? Wake up, Miami.
"It seems like people don't really pay attention any more," comments bassist Landa. "If you go to a big show, probably like 40 percent of the people are just moshing. They're not really paying attention. They don't sit down to watch a band live."
Call it attention deficit disorder. But from the viewpoint of the members of Humbert, who won't hesitate to take their show on the road after the album release, someone, somewhere, still appreciates well-crafted songs. "If you keep writing music and melodies that are real," declares Coipel, "the bottom line is that there are still going to be people who will listen to it.