L.A.'s Boulevard of Dreams
For some bands, it's just not enough any more to play the local scene in an effort to draw the attention of the record industry. A strategy for success often includes a road trip or two in order to gain exposure beyond the state line. Before Marilyn Manson got signed, for instance, they took their music up and down the East Coast. Forget the Name also took the East Coast approach so that no one outside of Florida would, well, forget their name. Vandal is another band that has adopted the same principle, but applied it to the West Coast instead.
With three cars, a U-Haul piled high with equipment, and walkie-talkies in order to keep lines of communication open on the road, Vandal headed out to L.A. back in May of this year. The band spent four months playing a total of eighteen gigs in an effort to open the ears of previously inattentive industry reps. What they learned out there wasn't quite what they expected.
Singer Eric Knight, drummer Derek Cintron, bassist Sosio, and guitarists Richie Fitz and Tony Reeds make up this five-piece metal crusade. Before venturing to L.A., however, Vandal did succeed in generating a strong following here, but the scene, they felt, didn't leave them any room to grow. "There's an unwritten guideline every band is aware of which says that if you have a good following, they [label recruiters] will find you," said Cintron. "Two years ago, we were playing shows everywhere. But after a while, we decided we were doing too many gigs back-to-back," added Knight. Knight fits in the band's demanding schedule around his seven-year-old sales job at Spec's in the Westland Mall. "How can we expect to draw big crowds and, in turn, get the labels interested if we only have a few different rock clubs to play at? We wanted to space out our shows so that they were more like events." Instead, because of so few hard-rock venues, they oversaturated the market.
Another drawback for the band was the lack of response from labels. Knight was sending information and faxing out invitations to A&R reps for each of their Florida shows, but that didn't seem to make much difference.
After exhausting club outlets here in Florida, the band decided that summer vacation was the perfect time to plug into a different music scene. "We had three gigs booked before we left and a bunch of club numbers to call once we got out there," said Cintron.
They were not naive about their chances: they knew the stardust has settled over L.A. and it no longer has a reputation for being the place to cut a record deal. Still, it didn't take much to persuade the guys to give it a shot. All they needed to fuel up and head out was the donation of a loft from a friend and a few encouraging demo reviews from Kenny Kerner of the West Coast trade mag Music Connection. "When we were leaving Florida, we all kept saying to each other that this was crazy. We couldn't believe that we were really going through with this whole thing," said Knight.
In their own way, the band had a few brushes with fame during their trip. They lived with a friend two minutes away from the courthouse where the Rodney King decision was handed down, they periodically saw on the street such musicians as Paul Stanley of Kiss, and they ran into former Saigon Kick bassist Tom DeFile from Left for Dead, who actually managed to catch a couple of Vandal's shows. "We all had a great time, but the scene has definitely dried up," Citron said. Even so, they ended up learning more about themselves and the direction they were headed in. "I know that a big part of the reason that we haven't been signed yet is because our demos didn't reflect the full impact of the band live," said Knight. Cintron added, "Technically, our recorded music is fine, but when we went into the studio and recorded our parts separately, the aggressiveness was lost," said Cintron.
This revelation occurred while they were out in L.A. They were playing FM Station, a North Hollywood club when they met producer and engineer Toby Wright -- the man who might change their lives. Wright's credits include engineering work on Metallica's "Stone Cold Crazy" and their album ...And Justice for All. He has worked on the Alice in Chains songs on the Last Action Hero soundtrack, and, most recently, he finished producing and engineering the upcoming Alice in Chains four-song EP. He's no Don Was or Rick Rubin, but he has experience and some clout.
Vandal's involvement with Wright began when the producer was in the club talking about his work on the Alice project. Cintron overheard Wright's conversation and went up to him to tell him about Vandal. Wright gave Cintron a card, stayed to hear them play, and expressed enthusiasm about the band's performance.
"Their demos didn't quite capture the energy which they had on stage," Wright said last week. "I have an interest in producing some of their newer material and possibly some of their previous songs, depending on their quantity and quality. They have a unique style and most of the material shows an open, aggressive groove with a melodic structure on top."
Even though Wright was the first industry person to take the initiative in calling the band back, Vandal didn't jump up and dance in celebration. Instead, they asked fellow musicians about him and went into record stores to verify the projects that he claimed to work on. "We didn't want to get too excited at first, but once we found out who he is, we knew that we could get excited over the fact that we're going to have a great tape when he works with us," said Knight. Wright wants to come to Miami in November for a studio session with the band. It could be the turning point of their careers.
Vandal has surpassed the typical life expectancy of a local band because they have been together in various incarnations since 1986. Surprisingly, after completing the band's lineup in late 1989 with Cintron, they have managed to avoid a common practice of many other bands: breaking up. The band has had the same members since 1989, including founders Fitz and Reeds. "It's a pentagonal balance where equal importance is given to everyone," said Cintron. "We all make sacrifices. I can't tell you how many days of school I've missed," added Cintron, who is an advertising student at F.I.U.
The hard work has already won them solid credits: they have appeared on both Stryder Records's Unsigned compilations, won the 1991 Florida Jammy Award for Best Metal Band, and have been the focus of many stories in newspapers and magazines, including Billboard. But they aren't going to bask in any past glories. Whether or not the industry connection for which they've waited so long bears fruit in November, the band plans to put out a CD's worth of material no later than the middle of next year. And they're going to try another expedition to L.A.
"I don't want to be working for Spec's somewhere down the road and watch everybody else's album come out except our own," said Knight. "If it takes us a little longer than other bands, that's okay, because I don't want to get backed by a label that's going to put out one record that you won't be able to find in record stores and wind up just another statistic."
Vandal performs at the Plus Five Lounge, 5715 S University Dr, Davie, 434-1223, on October 16 at midnight. Admission costs $6 for 21 and over, and $8 for under 21.
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