Artists and musicians, even those regarded by most as unorthodox, sometimes choose to do things by the book. But if the South Beach-based band Muse were sticking to the book, it would be a tome from the lost city of Atlantis or the wreckage of some UFO from far, far away.
Muse's way: Rising above alternative-club underground status by booking themselves onto national shows while recording their own CD with a couple of big-name producers. Beyond the pragmatic, there lies a mystical quality to the band -- a cool vibe, so to speak -- that is apparent in the music and lyrics, in the way the members finish each other's sentences, even in the red moon that hangs in the sky on the night of this interview.
The vibe is manifested in a melodic rhapsody of guitars with an underlying crunch, swirled with danceable rhythms, lilting keyboards, and a voice...well, it's safe to say there aren't many singers with voices like front man Paul Isaac, a vocal hermaphrodite who can go from the sweet coo of a prepubescent girl to the growl of an angry young man -- often not just in the same song, but in the same verse. Isaac's dreamily poetic and personal lyrics explore beauty and love -- not eros so much as philia -- as well as the joy and alienation that come with being "different."
The group's recently released self-titled, self-produced disc -- put out on the band's own Velocity Records label and mixed by producer Eric "E.T." Thorngren (Squeeze, Talking Heads, the Eurythmics, and PiL) and sound engineer Rob Seifert (Porno for Pyros, Jane's Addiction, and others) -- boasts a sound quality and packaging that can compete with most major-label releases. More importantly, it contains a number of original, intricately arranged songs.
The opening tune, "Faces," delivers an extremely catchy melody with a vibrant rhythm line. "Luster" starts off with a carnival-like rock theme, then melts into the dreamy "Karyanne." The current radio favorite "Sublime" indicates the musical direction the band is headed in, with its guitar-heavy opening and chorus. The closing track, "In the Middle of a Dream," has the makings of an alterna-anthem, the way the cranberries' "Linger" had a legion of listeners swaying along. There is even a beautifully arranged number called "Venus," (after the planet of love, of course).
The eight songs on the CD were recorded live in two days during September and October, with no overdubs, some songs nailed on the first take. Thorngren (drummer Brett Thorngren's father) and Seifert offered to mix whatever the band recorded at no charge, as a favor.
"When I heard a rehearsal tape Brett sent me, it knocked me over," says Eric Thorngren, who has recently worked with Live on a live recording and with a Los Angeles band called Baby Lemonade. "These guys are very good musicians; they have creative songs and a quality of lyric that has great potential. You can use the right equipment to get the right sound, but you can't make the songs and can't make the performance. If they sounded like other alternative bands, it wouldn't be so impressive, but they definitely have their own thing."
Muse began doing their own thing in early 1992, when Isaac placed an ad in New Times seeking fellow musicians. He and guitarist Gerson (just "Gerson"), who had played in one other band for seven years and spent the past six years writing songs, hit it off during their first phone conversation and started penning tunes together almost immediately. The union produced a distinctive songwriting team, one that has always concentrated more on the visceral impact of lyrics and sounds than on technical playing.
"We wanted the same things; we were very similar," says the pixie-haired, pale-skinned Isaac. "We both hate the way society has made the world, so our focus has always been removed from the material world. We've always been on a different plain, one that's more real than just what we see."
Soon after, Paul's brother, Ari Eisenstein, joined as keyboardist, followed by original drummer Andy Dana. After scouring the local scene for a bassist and coming up empty-handed, Gerson contacted Breeze Grimaldi, a guitarist he had worked with. (Grimaldi performed on the CD, but has since departed the band; Eisenstein has taken up bass duty.)
During the ensuing eight months, Muse performed at several South Beach clubs A some now departed A that rarely showcased local artists, such as the Spot, the Loft, Bash, Rebar, Velvet, Chili Pepper, and Mickey's. They soon developed a cult following among the artsy South Beach crowd, not usually noted for following the local rock scene.
"They played alternative clubs, which is really smart, because if you try getting an alternative crowd by going through the local scene, you aren't going to get where you want to go," says blondish and lanky Brett Thorngren, who joined the band a little more than a year ago. "The kids who go to the clubs, who listen to the old Jane's Addiction and Cure stuff, are the ones who are going to understand what we do."
While later achieving a sort of local crossover success by appealing to mainstream rock audiences, Muse also brought a different crowd to rock establishments like the Stephen Talkhouse, where the band played the club's only eighteen-and-over show with up-and-coming New Orleans singer-songwriter James Hall (formerly of Mary My Hope) this past winter.
"Even after we broke into the scene our shows were populated by club people," recalls Isaac. "It was a different approach to how most local bands do it, and it's what a lot of local bands are doing now."
After the departure of their original drummer, the remaining members of Muse immediately went to work writing new material, spending the next seven months performing with fill-ins. Meanwhile, Thorngren started calling manager Jose Pulido and showing up at the band's shows.
"It was very hard for us [to find a drummer] because we were looking for a certain vibe," says Isaac. "Before each show we'd have to teach a new drummer all the songs. That's why it took us so long to give him a chance." Muse thought they'd never find a drummer in Miami, and Thorngren thought he'd never find a band.
Then fate stepped in. A drummer scheduled to play a show with them canceled. Pulido was cleaning his apartment and Thorngren's number just popped out of nowhere. When they finally hooked up, Thorngren learned the band's songs in one weekend and, they say, impressed the hell out of them. They cemented the deal by taking him to see Forrest Gump.
"I had gone through hell in other bands, kept stumbling into situations where nobody really cared about anybody, so I couldn't believe these guys were for real," Thorngren says.
Wary of overexposure, Muse has always played only about a show per month. The band has also taken the reins in terms of organizing shows, as when they put together a concert featuring Muse as headliner and three of the area's most promising acts -- Sixo, Diane Ward, and Orgasmic Bliss -- at the Cameo Theater.
"They would like to play every night if they could, and if we lived in a place like Atlanta, we could, traveling to different places [in the region]," says Pulido, who seems more like a band member than a manager. "In Miami you can't do that. We want each show to have a different vibe, to let people take something different away with them each time."
Guitarist Gerson adds: "It doesn't matter what band it is, if they play out every week, people are going to get tired of it. If you tour and only play someplace once a year, then it's exciting."
"It hasn't been on purpose, but we've always been underground," says Isaac. "We've never gotten recognized for anything, and we were totally ignored by everyone on the scene. We've got lots of friends here, but we've always done things so differently."
Among those friends the band considers themselves lucky to count are singer-songwriters Diane Ward (Isaac sang on Ward's Band-Aidesque single, "The Gift") and Matt Sabatella, and rockers Nuclear Valdez.
And, Isaac adds, fans have always supported them.
"In our shows, the crowd is very important; we send them energy and we need their energy to come back," says Isaac. "When you're on stage, that's the moment when you're most alive, and you feel everything times a million."
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Isaac has been recovering from a back injury, and with the departure of their former bassist, keyboardist Ari Eisenstein has been learning to play his new position. "I really see us as a band now," muses Isaac. "It's not just the songs A they were always good A but now I think whatever we play sounds amazing, as long as we play it together."
Muse's next show is planned for July 15 at the Cameo, where fans can look forward to seeing a new and improved Muse, featuring heavier, crunchier guitars, a tightened rhythm section, and restructured versions of old songs.
The band also looks forward to touring, writing new songs, and recording again with Eric Thorngren, who says he can't wait to visit South Florida to work with the band on another album, preferably for a major-label release.
"I don't know what's coming out of Florida, but it seems like this is one band that should, son or not my son," the famed producer says. Of course, Dad has high compliments for his offspring and the band he plays in: "Brett has a lot of fire; I'm happy for him because it's hard to find such talented people to play with. And Paul's voice is so good because it's vulnerable and gets the story across. They have the same vision, and the way they are going, their potential is going to be realized.