The atmosphere is a little delirious at Volumen Cero's rehearsal space in Miami Beach. After ten years of holding together one rock outfit or another, the quartet can hardly stand to wait one more week for Luces (Lights), its major-label debut, to hit the street. To prepare for all the commotion that comes with dropping a big disc, the band is borrowing a friend's studio apartment just south of a convenience store on West Avenue. There are a pair of pink flamingos inside the doorway and a couple of strawberry Pop Tarts in the kitchenette. Two ratty Oriental rugs hang on one wall to keep the noise from the neighbors, mostly homeless guys milling around out front. Cheap carpet remnants shield the scratched hardwood floors from getting even more scratched up by the shift of amplifiers and the bounce of a brand-new set of Ludwig drums bought with record-label cash.
Not that the shiny cymbals betray any big-money deal. Drummer Fernando Sanchez, a long-suffering pedestrian, had to decide whether to buy a car or the drum set with his cut. He walked to tonight's rehearsal. The lanky Colombian immigrant who grew up here apparently hasn't made any big investment in wardrobe, either. Rather than Armani or Hugo Boss, he's wearing a T-shirt that reads Humbert, for the Hialeah band that schleps along the same local circuit that Volumen was playing as recently as last December, including a gig at the otherwise English-language indie night Revolver. So if the Warner Latin deal amounts to short money for the band members personally, at least there was a budget for recording and a video and some help with touring and promotion and distribution. For four guys who've been scraping together dollars to record independently, dragging their own asses from industry showcase to U.S. college town to South American rock festival, that all feels pretty good.
"We're seeing a very important part of our life developing," says Luis Tamblay, the lead singer who plowed his share into a bass and amplifier. "We're knocking on wood."
His long legs splayed over a chair in the middle of the room, hair scruffy around the ears, the second-generation Chilean American's disheveled good looks bear some resemblance to Mexican screen heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal. His look is cool and unkempt and since this is rock and roll, not Latin pop, there's no danger of the label asking him to clean up.
"Now we're major league," adds Cristian Escuti hopefully, "we know it's a different game."
The lead guitarist, who was born in Chile and raised in Miami, wears a wedding ring on one hand and a beaded Native American wristband on the other. He is shooting dirty looks at Marthin Chan, who is rocking back and forth on top of Escuti's amp, but the rhythm guitarist ignores him.
"We've heard a lot from our peers," the Peruvian American pipes in. "People who are a little further along, like La Ley, Aterciopelados."
Indeed in the makeshift world of Latin alternative music, where success in the United States is measured by the tens of thousands of units sold, being able to impress your peers is half the reward. Chan had the opportunity to get to know a number of the relatively big Latin rock acts, as well as the hard facts on how the business works, while he was employed a few years ago as a publicist at Warner Latin (then WEA Latina). Now it's his turn to show off.
"We've played in front of friends, like Café Tacuba," Chan says of earlier independent outings. "We sucked. I just sent [Tacuba's] Joselo an e-mail: 'You've gotta hear the album; we sound so much better.'"
It's a well-known fact that it is nearly impossible for a rock band to live off the skinny of this subtropical land. For all the industry might in town, Luces is just the second example of the Magic City's Latin labels making good for local rockeros. Less than a year after Madonna's Latin imprint unleashed Miami Springs' own Jorge Moreno (who is as much tropical crooner as singer-songwriter), the Warner Latin deal gives a shot to four sons of South American immigrants who grew up amid Kendall's strip malls and whose music has no discernible "Latin" element whatsoever other than the bilingual band's choice to write some of their songs in Spanish.
Volumen still hasn't quite made the mental transition from beleaguered local band to big-league major act. The four spend a good half-hour grousing about Miami's well-documented failings: small and stingy crowds, lousy sound systems, opportunistic promoters, brutal bouncers, a rock scene fragmented first into English and Spanish bands and then even smaller according to each band's national origin. Then all of a sudden they remember that their album is coming out.
"If you've got what it takes, there's no problem!" Chan declares, Miami for the moment living up to all her promises in his eyes. "You go to Churchill's and see the president of MTV watching bands! Where else does that happen! Our label is down the block! So is our publisher!"
Catching the excitement, Tamblay realizes that the band's management and production team also share an industry-town advantage. "We have management that knows the whole inside of the label," he notes of former Warner employees Becky Fajardo and Maribel Schumacher. Warner Chappell music publishing vice president Gustavo Menendez took on Luces as a producer, calling in local engineering whiz John Thomas and Crescent Moon's brilliant Sebastian Krys to mix the album. Tamblay marvels, "We looked to the side and everyone was there."
The only thing that irks anyone now is the frequent comparison of Volumen Cero to Eighties heroes the Cure.
"I just don't hear it," protests Escuti.
"Except for our song 'Love Dogs,'" deadpans Tamblay, rolling out the opening vamp to Cure favorite "Love Cats" on air keyboard.
Chan intervenes diplomatically. "[Producer] Gustavo is a big Eighties fan," he ventures, "maybe [the Cure sound] is in the effects."
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Indeed for these fans of Stereolab, Coldplay, Air, and Travis, the bright reworkings of Big Eighties sound is only one of the elements that went into Luces. Sanchez's punkster-fun drums offset Tamblay's petulant vocals and driving bass, while Chan scratches and bounces along and Escuti flirts with rock-god solo here, heavy-metal thrash there. Like so many Latin bands, Volumen Cero mixes and matches styles, only this time the trunk it draws from is filled with the traditions of rock and roll.
"Luces shows what we are," says Chan. "We're a rock band with two guitars and drums, a singer, and a couple of kick-ass background vocalists."
"For some reason, bands from Miami have a Miami sound, just like bands from L.A. have an L.A. sound," adds Tamblay. "This is the town we grew up in. We are going to represent Miami forever."