Rene Alvarez is having fun. Honest. Granted, it might not be obvious when you see the brooding songwriter playing at local clubs, banging out songs of intense frustration and instability with his group Sixo, creating a ragged kind of rock and roll noise that squalls and hollers in the middle ground between traditional singer/songwriter craftwork and post-punk exorcism. The farthest thing from a flamboyant showman or a hip-swinging spotlight muncher, Alvarez nonetheless cuts a striking figure in performance -- his eyes clenched tight, his right hand coming down hard on the strings of his sunburst Rickenbacker, his rough voice howling out lines about pulling flowers from his grave or hauling around a cross made for two, and introducing songs with an offhand "This is called 'Kill Me.'" Nevertheless, Alvarez insists with an enthusiasm that validates the unlikely statement, yes indeed, he's having a good time.
"For a long time I took music so seriously, to the point that I wasn't having fun any more," Alvarez explains on an early Tuesday evening from a table at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge in South Beach. "But I've learned that it has to be fun first, before everything else. I want to laugh a bit now. With all the rest of my bands, it's always been a 'Warrior on Top of a Mountain' type of thing, but Sixo is more powerful in a sense because you can laugh. It's serious music that doesn't take itself so seriously."
The energy Alvarez carries into this serious music stems in part from this latest incarnation of Sixo, which he re-formed a few months ago following his return home from New York City. The 29-year-old singer/songwriter -- ex-frontman for the highly touted Miami quartet Forget the Name -- moved to Manhattan in March 1995 in search of a "different pace and a different climate." Sharing an apartment with a friend of a friend and working a day job as a film production assistant, Alvarez put a band together and gigged at the New Music Cafe and CBGB's as well as doing solo acoustic shows around town. Between live dates and full-time work, Alvarez was writing at a furious pace, cranking out about 30 songs during his stay in the Big Apple. "As odd as it may sound, there aren't so many distractions in New York," he says of the creative burst. "It's easy to be alone there."
Not so easy, though, to find musicians willing to drop their jobs for the low pay and rigorous grind of touring the U.S. club circuit, something Alvarez decided he was ready to pursue. So this past July he moved back to Miami; after a few phone calls to friends, Alvarez rounded up bassist Debbie Duke, guitarist Adam Zimmon, and drummer Arie Schantz. The quartet has been playing up to twelve nights a month, including a string of Sunday-evening shows at Rose's and regular gigs at Churchill's Hideaway and South Beach Pub.
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Comparing the current Sixo with the one he formed in 1994 after the dissolution of Forget the Name, Alvarez says this new version is a more democratic aggregation. "I wanted to create a total band experience. I've never liked the idea of there being something like a Rene Alvarez Experience. I gave them each a tape with just me and my guitar on it so they could learn the songs, and whatever they've played has sounded fine. I've never told any of them what to play. I like being a part of a project. I've never been a very good dictator."
In its original form Sixo was a collaborative effort between Alvarez, drummer Derek Murphy, and guitarist Joel Schantz (Arie's older brother). The group's eponymous debut album, released on their Bad Karma imprint in late 1994, was the result of a home-taping experiment, with Alvarez -- flush with the opportunity to shed his previous band's skin -- recording songs as quickly as he wrote them. That spontaneity added a raw-nerve quality to Alvarez's already edgy songs, best defined in titles like "Kill Me" and the soul-baring melancholy of "Far and Wide," "Hey," and "Letter to Melinda." That spontaneity, Alvarez reflects, also made for some blown notes and ramshackle arrangements, all of which were caught on tape.
"We were learning the songs while we were learning how to record them, so there's a lot of mistakes on it," Alvarez says of the Sixo debut. "But when I hear them now, I like them. I think it's the first time I've been able to listen to something I've done and smile. That's where I learned to not take music so seriously. I just wanted to put out something like that, and I hoped that somebody else would want to listen to it and get it." The album was added to the playlists of about 120 radio stations across the country and made it into the rotation of about fifteen stations that report to the College Music Journal's influential charts. At home, though, Alvarez says the reception was less warm.
"In Miami the reaction to it was pretty bad," he admits. "But it didn't bother me. It was a whole different thing from what I had been doing. I had been playing in one band for six or seven years, and when people listen to you that long they have a picture of you. And when you change that picture and you don't give them enough time to adapt to it, usually there will be rejection involved. Forget the Name was very metal, very gothic and dark, and for the time I was playing that stuff, I liked it. I listen to it now and I'm like" -- he cringes and puts his hands over his eyes -- "Oh my God. Sixo is dark too, but it's a different attitude of playing."
If Alvarez has dropped the arch gothic melodrama of Forget the Name, his new work is still plenty dark. On Rescue, a new EP recorded prior to the reformation of Sixo, Alvarez continues his exploration of bedroom politics and psychological warfare, staring cynically at the throbbing heart of love, longing, and lust and wondering why things work the way they do.
Although linked thematically to the morose concepts found on Sixo, Rescue -- recorded with Derek Murphy and bassist Matt Sabatella -- is a post card from love's frontlines, scribbled with ruminations on the struggle to sustain relationships through adulthood. On "Caroline," a desperate plea to a vexing lover set to a pulsating acoustic guitar figure, Alvarez sings, "Everyone lies/Please believe me/Dead or alive/You will need me." "Cakes and Kisses" follows the exploits of Love and Misery, a pair "strong enough to beat up Superman" but who choose instead to batter each other black and blue. "This Is the Time," arguably the showpiece of the six-song set, takes a look at the commanding presence of maturity and the pointlessness of squandering time and potential, using a taut, simple riff to underscore lines like "This life is over and another one is just coming around." Alvarez's pessimism imbues both "Never Good, Always Bad" (as in, "Love is ...") and "Shit," in which he confesses "I've got a gun to my head/Hoping you'll just come and pull the trigger." He serves up that last word almost with a resigned laugh, the way you might offer a punch line to a joke everyone already knows.
"I have a very harsh line on what life is and it's not necessarily very pretty. But I like it," Alvarez says of his hard-boiled songwriting slant, philosophizing on the source of his ideas. "My songs are mostly about one's personal doubt and vulnerability. I enjoy life for what it is, but the hard part of it is realizing that maybe we're not meant to be happy -- maybe happiness shouldn't be such a goal, maybe it isn't all it's cracked up to be. If I was happy for more than a week I would probably get bored. It's a real world we live in, with real death and real pain, and that's what makes it so good and makes happiness so valued. I like that struggle between the real world and happiness. Even if it's meaningless, I think it's good. It makes life interesting and gives me something to wake up for every day."
Sixo performs Sunday, November 3, at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge, 754 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-0228. Showtime is midnight. Admission is free. The band's CD release party is November 9 at Cheers, 2490 SW 17th Ave, 857-0041.
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