Four friends form a band, play consistently in their own back yard, record a disc independently, and sell several hundred copies, all the while building a strong following. Then they take the next step toward the big time and play the big city. Despite their ultra-tight, energetic performances, the dancing crowds never appear. Do they throw in the towel? Do they become embittered? Do they write a slew of angry songs, expressing their rage and angst? As far as Sense is concerned, it's just another reason to write more soul-stirring, booty-shaking music. "We're a new band to this area, so we know we're going to have to prove ourselves," declares vocalist Omar Sekhri, who together with guitarist Alex Zapatier, bassist Jason Rosner, and drummer Rick Kanner, is part of this Broward-based band.
The Sense sound is a textured amalgam of Seventies funk and soul, traditional Latin and Caribbean sounds, and contemporary hard rock -- like a funky Santana with some Living Colour thrown in (they do a version of "Black Magic Woman" at shows that totally smokes). These influences are expertly integrated into the fabric of their style, creating music that is true to the band's personal vision. "We're all inspired by a lot of music, which is the way it should be," explains Rosner. "Omar has been influenced -- and this is more of a subliminal thing -- by Latin and Indian music played around his house. Our drummer has a collection of African pop and religious music. Each one of us has listened to world beat, and that kind of music has a certain purpose. It's a very spiritual thing, and we try to have that come through in our music." The diverse influences contribute to the band's original style, adds Sekhri.
"We really came to Miami because we think our music can translate well to an ethnic audience, that the Latin and classic R&B vibe in our music will go over well here," says Sekhri. "If people who are into, say, Nil Lara would give us a chance, I think they'd really like what they hear."
Unfortunately, the band has found their brand of funk rock to be less than marketable right now. "People in the industry have their own designs and curriculum," says bassist Rosner. "Already, people have passed over us without giving us a chance. They've told us we don't sound enough like Pearl Jam. Right now they want the post-punk stuff, so they won't touch us. But we'll wait."
On-stage, Sense works beyond the realm of your garden-variety alterna-rockers. Sekhri is an intense frontman -- passionate and engaging, with a deep, gravelly voice that demands attention. An animated Rosner cuts deep bass grooves while Kanner lays down complex, world-beat rhythms. Zapatier plays guitar much like a cross between a young Carlos Santana and Red Hot Chili Peppers slinger Dave Navarro, with thick, viscously melodic notes combining with hard-hitting power chords. The quartet share songwriting chores, with Sekhri handling most of the words. His socially conscious lyrics offer primarily motivational messages and explore themes of self-respect and responsibility. "Everybody/Each and every day/Has to struggle like you in every way/Everybody somehow loses their mind/Pay attention/There's something you might find," he sings in "Inside." In "Mirror," he observes "Inspiration from the positive/Exposes you to the light."
"The lyrics just reflect what I feel, what has happened in my life, the way I see things," Sekhri says. "Much of the popular music these days is creating a generation of losers, because the singers are giving kids the wrong message. And so you have kids from nice neighborhoods and good families who sit around feeling sorry for themselves, believing for some reason that they've been dealt a bad hand. We're just trying to say that you have options." Rosner elaborates: "It's like the Taoist principle -- the wise man looks for solutions to problems, while the ignorant man looks for someone to blame."
But the band doesn't want to be branded a bunch of shiny, happy do-gooders. "We are not trying to preach to anybody," says Zapatier. "We're just talking about what's real to us. You can express yourself however you want, whether it's grotesque or sexually explicit, but there's a place where you have to draw the line and take responsibility. Everyone has had their share of bad knocks, but that's no reason to give up."
Sense's positive messages are documented on the group's self-produced debut CD, Even on Sundays, which was released in February and consists of nine tight and well-structured songs. The first three tunes -- "Mirror," "Cartoon Villain," "Inside" -- are standouts, but the album loses its focus on lesser tracks such as "Shallow" and "No One Can." Although it's a bit too polished and pales in comparison to the band's live sound, Even on Sundays nevertheless documents a facet of this group's far-reaching approach.
The disc was cut early in the band's career, though, and the music has evolved considerably since then. The songs are more powerful in their club sets, and some of them -- "Promise" in particular -- have practically been rewritten since they were originally recorded. Likewise, the band has curtailed their inclination toward on-stage improvisation. "Some of our earlier songs were a little crazy and self-indulgent, and a little hard to get into," admits Zapatier. "There were several ideas in each song, all linked together by long interludes, and now we're taking some of those parts and creating whole songs out of them, getting to the point as soon as we can."
This musical evolution started in mid-1993 when Rosner ran into Sekhri and Zapatier at the parking lot of Cafe Boom in Fort Lauderdale, listening to their demos in the car. Zapatier and Rosner had met almost seven years earlier, but hadn't worked together. "At the time I was looking for something a little more rhythmic than what I was involved with," says Rosner. Soon after, Rosner joined, bringing with him Kanner, a drummer both he and Zapatier had jammed with. "There was a lot of energy there," says Sekhri, "because we all knew each other, or knew of each other, and we were on the same musical track." At first the band jammed endlessly with a tape recorder rolling, then started to write songs together; within six months, they were playing at Broward nightspots such as Crash Club, Squeeze, Reunion Room, and the now-defunct Plus Five.
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"We found it hard to gather support there, because really there is no Fort Lauderdale scene," says Sekhri. "There are only a few places to play there, and they are very spread apart, so there isn't what you have on South Beach, where you can walk and there are two or three places where you can see live music. When I talk to Miami bands who say they want to play in Fort Lauderdale, I have to tell them not to waste their time -- to skip Fort Lauderdale and go to West Palm. The crowds there and in Jupiter are really hungry for live music. We opened for a band that drew 300, 400 people, and even though they had never seen us before and didn't know who we were, they were going nuts. We never had that kind of response in Fort Lauderdale."
Sense is currently looking for management while working on a tape of new songs. The band dismisses the idea of recording a new disc. "We'll continue to sell our old disc, but we've realized you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on a new demo in order to get interest. You can just record videos of shows or tapes that capture the raw sound." And as that live sound -- the band's strongest suit -- continues to develop and expand, Sense hopes popular interest in their style of music will too. "We just ask that people come check out a show," says Sekhri.
Well, that makes sense.
Sense performs every Thursday night at midnight at the South Beach Pub, 717 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-7821. Admission is free.