Striding across the polished marble floors of the lobby of the posh Hotel Inter-Continental in downtown Miami, miles vocalist Tod Oenbrink sticks out like a sore thumb. Tall and lanky, decked out in a flannel shirt and long cutoffs, with a shock of platinum-blond hair and fingernails painted electric blue, the singer isn't hard to pick out among the hotel's usual flock of tourists and businesspeople. Despite a glowing smile, he admits to being worried. "Randy's going to get lost," he mumbles. It seems that miles guitarist Randy Paul isn't good with directions.
After a few minutes, bassist Mike Milford and keyboardist Mike Reardon join Oenbrink and collapse around a table in the lobby. Both come off as easygoing boys next door and offer witty commentary regarding the tardy and navigationally challenged Paul and miles drummer Joe Shockley, who they're guessing is also lost with Paul. Forty-five minutes later, the thin, dark-haired, barrette-wearing Paul and the sturdy, curly-locked Shockley finally make their way through the hotel lobby. Sure enough, Paul had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Miami Beach.
The band has had a similarly circuitous route to its current style. The Sunrise quintet is among the finest local purveyors of smart Brit-pop, as typified by current acts such as Oasis and Blur, as well as by seminal Eighties groups like the Cure and the Smiths. The miles' recently self-issued, self-produced compact disc Pancake Jubilee (Pooch Records) is the work of a young band adhering to the sonic conventions of Eighties new wave: Dominant bass lines carry the tunes while the guitars work hypermelodic riffs; detached vocals float atop rapid beats; and washes of synthesizers permeate the entire mix, recalling the early work of Euro-popsters such as -- Flock of Seagulls and Human League.
But the miles are no retro group. Their churning guitar lines, layers of feedback, and sampled sound bites place them firmly in the Nineties, as do the slightly overwrought lyrics of Oenbrink, who claims he is less concerned with what he says than how he says it. "I've got lyrics about Emmitt Otter and Mr. Kotter," he says. "I don't really sit there and write lyrics." Nevertheless, Pancake contains Oenbrink's rants against everything from media manipulation ("television") to the secret thoughts of a serial killer ("decent lad").
And yet members admit that their early songs shamelessly reveal the influence of their early idols -- particularly R.E.M. and the Smiths -- but they believe they have since learned how to work that influence into something more personal. "We knew what we wanted to sound like, but it wasn't coming out," Milford confesses. "We would try things and they would come out strained, and after two shows we'd drop it. But now it's getting better and better." Oenbrink elaborates: "When you're in a new band, you all have ideas of how you want things to sound. At first I wanted to sound like somebody, Randy wanted to sound like somebody, Mike wanted to sound like somebody, and [former drummer] Dan [Carson] wanted to sound like somebody. But then we realized we wanted to sound like ourselves."
Over the last few months the band has been writing stripped-down songs that rely on a heavier guitar and drum sound, marking an evolution beyond the tentative cuts on Pancake, which were written more than a year ago. "Before, it was scrambled pop; now it's defined pop," says Reardon of the new material. Paul agrees: "The CD is like a snapshot taken just as the whole thing was about to change. What we're doing now is more melodic, a lot like what we used to do way back in the beginning. We've returned to a more pop thing after trying to do so many other things."
"Way back in the beginning," as Paul puts it, would be late 1992, when the lower-case-obsessed miles formed. Primary songwriter Paul met Oenbrink at the Merry-Go-Round store in Sunrise, where Oenbrink worked. Paul, Milford, and drummer Daniel Carson were looking for a vocalist and asked Oenbrink to audition. Keyboardist Reardon rounded out the original lineup when he joined in mid-1994. Then last fall Carson left the band after Pancake was recorded, replaced by Shockley, former drummer with the bands Bob and Jack Off Jill.
Before Pancake was issued last fall, the miles had released two cassette-only EPs: the miles, in December 1993; and golden green, from March 1994. Two of Pancake's six tracks are re-recorded versions of songs from those first two tapes: "i 4 an eye" (from the miles) and "television" (from golden green), tunes that in their original forms received heavy airplay on Miami's WVUM-FM (90.5) and WKPX-FM (88.5) in Broward. Following their initial release, the miles landed gigs at Broward nightclubs such as the Edge and Squeeze, and received a South Florida Rock Award nomination in 1993 for "Best New Band."
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Although their music has veered in several directions, the miles have managed to maintain a sizable audience on the Fort Lauderdale club scene, composed mostly of 16- to 21-year-olds. "We don't play enough all-ages shows for our taste, because if we did I think we'd have a much bigger fan base than we do now," notes Milford. "None of the kids come to the show, because they're underage, so they just buy your shirts and your CDs, but you never get to see them. When we do all-ages shows, it's usually a really good crowd, because it's the kids who jump around and get all excited, not the 30-year-old guy sitting at the bar with his sixteen-ounce."
Milford believes one of the band's biggest challenges is to expand its audience here in South Florida, where they feel a bit out of step with the rest of the scene. "There are no other bands around here that are even vaguely in our style or fit into what we're doing," he points out. "When we play with a band that has nothing to do with what we're doing, the kids won't go because there's only one band they can appreciate. And in the last year the only [Brit-pop] band that's come down here is Elastica. The rest stop in Atlanta, maybe Orlando or Tampa, if they're lucky. Oasis was going to play down here and they canceled, so there goes that. If national acts can't really become known down here, a local band can forget about it.
"The scene down here is very commercial," Milford continues, "and there are too many different types of bands, whereas in someplace like Atlanta, it's easier to fit in and find a crowd. At one point we felt confident enough to think we could be the band to be the next big thing to come out of the area. But without the support of the public, the clubs, and the media, that won't happen."
The miles perform on Friday, March 8, at Cheers, 2490 SW 17th Ave; 857-0041. Showtime is 9:00. Admission is $5. The band also performs on Saturday, March 9, at the Back Room at South Beach Pub, 717 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-PUB1. Showtime is 9:30. Admission is $3.