No Cotton Ear Candy
The members of the altrock trio Carnival Waste sit outside a local Starbucks, sipping coffee just before closing time. Cars rush by on darkened U.S. 1 as the musicians try to agree on the cover art for ... A Perfect Day, their forthcoming album. The South Florida band's frontman-keyboardist Robert J. Escandon has designed several options, each a variation of his illustration of a gray, robotlike machine tearing through colorful flowers against a blue sky. The 22-year-old hunches over his sketchbook and wrestles to hold down computer printouts of his mockups as gusts of wind from passing cars rustle the pages. Escandon is all mass: He stands six feet five inches with thick arms and wide shoulders. A small silver ring pierces his left eyebrow. He suggests that inside the jewel box, the artwork should look like lined notebook paper.
"Kind of like Pearl Jam's 10," offers bassist, guitarist, and drum programmer Arnaldo Gonzalez, who also is 22 years old. He wears glasses and a heavy pullover to protect his thin frame from the blustery night air.
"Aw, don't tell me that," Escandon winces, with a tinge of disgust in his voice. "I don't want to hear it," agrees 24-year-old Ashley Cortes, the group's keyboardist, shaking her short, blond-streaked burgundy hair.
The members of Carnival Waste are proud of their outsider, antipop stance. In fact the band is all about being less than mainstream. "If anything sounds like something from another band, we will not do it," Escandon says of the group's songwriting process. "The worst thing in the world is a rip-off band."
Comparing Carnival Waste's music to that of other bands is therefore a difficult task, but it often resembles the abstract alternatives of Blonde Redhead or His Name Is Alive. The band's songs shimmer with a dynamic sense of drama and fear yet maintain a playfulness through the members' love of the Casio keyboard, recalling the hyperactive darkness of Wall of Voodoo.
But Carnival Waste is not all about electronics. Aggressive guitar-fuzz moments speak to Escandon's appreciation of heavier rock such as Tool, Bush, and Mr. Bungle. He also admits to an affinity for soundtrack music, which surfaces during Carnival Waste's more dramatic moments: If Devo scored a spaghetti Western, it would probably sound like "Blood Beach" from the band's self-released debut CD, Delicato Truffa.
That record also includes "Surgical Tortoise," the band's homage to the Chicago postrock outfit Tortoise. Carnival Waste doesn't simply mimic the famed instrumental outfit but offers a crash course, with almost cartoonish brevity, in the band's unique elements: plaintive vibes, shimmering guitars, hyper polyrhythms, decorative percussion, airy organs, and driving bass lines. But Carnival Waste also has added its own touches: Escandon's wild vocal range, which varies from creepy whispers to breathy vocals (sung in Italian) to scat singing, and Gonzalez's supplemental shrieks and fierce lashes on his guitar.
There's a playfulness in "The New Style." Its languid, lush guitar strums turn into a perky bass line and bright, airy keyboard melody while Escandon robotically intones "ba-da-ba-ba-da" as the melodies layer up and bound along for another minute. Then "Rough Days Ahead" pounds a happy little ditty into submission with lead-weight guitar lines. Escandon starts singing in a nasally tenor as weirdly processed laughter hovers in the background and a percussive piano melody and quirky guitar line thud along. "I wish I had your life/I wish I was you," Escandon sings in a dreamy tenor. Then -- adopting an alternate personality -- he screams with throat-shredding abandon: "But you're fucking not!" A mournful sax solo by Escandon takes over, and then some buzzing electronic effects drench the melancholy moment until Gonzalez starts hitting those chunky guitar notes and Escandon lets rip a perky, squeaking solo on his keyboard.
Live, the group has a stage presence as dramatically perplexing as its music. At a recent show at Tobacco Road, Escandon took center stage behind a wall of keyboards, samplers, drum machines, and distortion pedals. He sweated profusely, his face reddened, his eyes turned to the sky, and his body shook as he twiddled knobs and his voice reached for a few screechingly high notes. The other members remained in the background. Gonzalez played bass in a set spot behind Escandon, stage right, with a clutter of effects pedals at his feet. Next to him stood Guillermo Azuarte, a friend of Gonzalez who occasionally adds guitar for the band during live performances. Stage left, Cortes was practically hidden behind her large Casio. You noticed she was there only after Escandon turned around to give her a thumbs-up between songs.
The genesis of Carnival Waste occurred while Escandon was studying at the University of Florida, following stints as a back-up musician in several experimental bands in Miami while still in high school. In Gainesville he met Cortes and asked her to tap into her dormant keyboard talents. In October 1999 the band officially formed when guitarist Vincent Faller and bassist Gonzalez joined. All except Faller returned to their original hometown of Miami last summer, when they graduated from UF.
The band had been playing in South Florida only three months when Juan Montoya of Disconnect and Carl Ferrari of Swivel Stick, two respected local altrock guitarists, caught Carnival Waste's live show and invited the group to perform with their respective bands. "I don't know what kind of music they're trying to do, but it's not like anything else that I've seen around here," Ferrari says. "They just seem to be following their own creative process. Nine times out of ten, when you see a band play, you can right away pick out who they're trying to sound like, which most of the time is a bad thing. It just seems to me [Carnival Waste is] original. They're doing something different."
It was that originality that also caught the interest of Tim King, president of Double Six Records, an independent label based in Spokane, Washington. "It wasn't the same thing you hear on the radio," King says. "I was very impressed. I get CDs from different people from all over the world, and usually it's just some guy in his basement playing on his computer, and the music scene is just flooded with things like that. It's really hard to find something good like Carnival Waste."
Escandon says he didn't start the band under the presumption of getting a recording contract. "Who's going to be interested? That's like an awkward fantasy -- just something you dream about."
Yet Carnival Waste was doing something that interested people. "We didn't know what we had until we got certain compliments about it," he says. "When we got the demo on CD, I just sent it out to tons of different indie labels. I was on a Mr. Bungle e-mail list, and I would just send them out to the people if they wanted it, and somehow this guy in Brazil got a copy of it, and he knew Tim King."
King called the band and invited it to contribute MP3 files on his Website to see how people would respond. People from around the world downloaded the files and asked about the band's next album often enough that he decided to make the band an offer. Carnival Waste recorded ... A Perfect Day from mid-December 2000 through last month at their homes with a computer King gave them as part of the record deal.
As band and label prepare the album for a late-April release, the musicians keep their perspectives. Gonzalez is quick to explain that Carnival Waste is not a vehicle they hope to ride to the top of the pop charts. "Unless popular music changes completely and makes a 180 degree turn from what it is, we'd never be mainstream," he says. "I never pursued music with the intent of becoming famous or getting signed. Delusions of grandeur? We have none of that."
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