Struggling with Greatness
Six years ago, when the band known as Ed Matus' Struggle (EMS) settled on its curious moniker, the whole thing felt like a joke. "There's a lot of cheesy names out there," notes guitarist Juan Montoya. "So we just named ourselves after someone we knew." The real Ed Matus, another Miami-area musician, found the homage funny -- at first. By now, though, he's grown understandably tired of being asked the question, "What's your struggle?"
As it turns out, the joke also has worn thin for Montoya and his mates.
The struggle, however, remains. Talk to the members of this sturdy quartet and they'll tell you the struggle has just begun. After years of eking out an existence in the bars and recording studios of Broward and Miami-Dade, the band is determined to take its act, a mesmerizing blend of swirling guitars and plaintive romanticism, to the next level. There's no reason they shouldn't succeed; the group has a sound like nothing South Florida has produced. In fact sometimes it barely sounds terrestrial. "For me the most important thing is creating a mood. You can hit one note and make it sound like it's coming from another world," muses Montoya, his hand leaving an imaginary trail in the air. Principal songwriter Montoya crafts that drama with the help of singer/bassist Scott Nixon, rhythm guitarist Steve Brooks, and drummer Robert Lecusay. By strict definition EMS plays emo-rock, an ethereal, melodic strain of music characterized by shoegazers such as My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Pale Saints, and Slowdive. But Montoya's intergalactic guitar explorations give the band an extra dimension.
"I love things that you can't really make out too well," Montoya explains. "That sound is great because it leaves so much to the imagination. It's not the common electric guitar sound that's just crunch. Instead it sounds like it's coming from the other side of the world. It flies by, hovers, and leaves you in awe, wondering what happened. That's what I try to do with our music."
The compact, Colombia-born Montoya is unflappably polite and easygoing, with a wide grin and a warmth that is disarming. But his awkward charm and aw-shucks attitude disappears once the band starts playing. As if possessed, lost in the flow, he coaxes out notes that soar past the ionosphere.
The lanky Nixon is equally affable in person, but he's painfully self-conscious in front of the microphone. "It's not a good occupation for someone who's not very confident," he admits. But it's his gentle vocalizations -- think of the downtrodden appeal of Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek -- that lend the band its dreamlike beauty. The balance between Montoya's flash and sizzle and Nixon's shyness is so fragile, each song is in danger of crumbling. Montoya's nimble-finger riffage sneaks up on Nixon's soft tenor, threatens to overtake it, then backs away.
In the wrong hands Montoya's flamboyant freakouts would be a liability, obscuring the frail, melodic substructure of the songs. Often he's but a solo away from turning the whole affair into a Steve Vai wank fest. But just as it seems the music might fall victim to excess, Montoya's sense of restraint and the vocal/guitar interplay magically push and pull the melodies back into shape. Fingers flying, Montoya scribbles on the guitar's neck, striving for what he describes as "the physically impossible: to play what the human hand can't do. I play with a pick, but I build textures by using all my fingers to make the notes sound fuller, without so much attack. If you just strum with your thumb, the notes pour and flow."
Montoya picked up the guitar at age twelve after hearing an uncle play bossa nova tunes on an old acoustic. During junior high he moved to an electric instrument and began taking lessons at school. "The teacher wanted us to play certain things," he says. "But I heard other things that kept my interest." These outside influences included early superheroes like Kiss, but Montoya's tastes eventually evolved to embrace pop, progressive rock, punk, world beat, and the noise of John Zorn and Sonic Youth. In 1994 he and his friend Robert Lecusay were performing in various local rock projects and decided to form a band. In need of a vocalist, the two enlisted Scott Nixon, who was a guitarist with the Miami outfit the Basils.
"I've never considered myself a singer," Nixon quietly explains. "I'm a singer out of necessity. I thought they wanted me to play guitar; that's what they told me. The first time I ever went over to Juan's house, I felt like I'd been swindled into going there." Words came slowly to Nixon and he remains, to this day, a reticent frontman. But eventually his melancholy vocals and Montoya's searing fretwork, underscored by Lecusay's precision timekeeping, meshed. A succession of bass players followed.
After a self-titled debut disc released in 1995 on local imprint Space Cadette, Lecusay left to attend college in Sarasota. Shows became less frequent, and the band's recorded output diminished to a trickle of singles. A more recent track, "Distance," was featured on Deep Elm Records' Emo Diaries 4: An Ocean of Doubt compilation. The band's Website, www.emsdistance.com, contains sound files, a biography, and news updates. Infrequent but well-received performances throughout the state have kept EMS afloat.
The sheer physical distance and lack of momentum would have permanently sidelined most bands, but EMS stuck it out, an impressive task for a guitar group in an area under strict dance-music lockdown. "We've been around for more than five years," says Nixon. "That's a damn long time by South Florida standards."
With bass players joining and leaving the band with alarming regularity, Nixon solved the problem by putting down his six-string and learning the bass himself. His mellifluous contributions on the instrument are now seamlessly interwoven into the band's tapestry. "It always seemed like me and Juan and Robert never flaked out, and the fourth guy was always screwing things up," he says. "So I figured if I was playing bass, even if the fourth guy flaked out, we could still play." The band remained a three piece until a few months ago when Brooks was added. "That's made it more stable," Nixon notes. "Not that Steve's dispensable...."
Lecusay recently graduated school with a degree in cognitive science, and Nixon just returned from a work-related stint in Orlando; now the members of EMS (all in their mid-to-late twenties) live within a fifteen-mile radius of each other for the first time in years. Nixon has an apartment in Weston, while the rest reside in the Miami area. A warehouse in suburban Davie serves as the group's practice space, and the band is gearing up to record a new album later this summer. "Now that we're getting to hang out again together, we're developing our friendships and our music," says Montoya with a broad smile. "New revelations."
In the interim Ed Matus' Struggle is using a five-song EP (available at shows) as a calling card. After opening with a rhythmic crackle of static, the aforementioned "Distance" tumbles gracefully as Montoya and Lecusay cartwheel through chord changes behind Nixon's pleasingly low-impact voice. An instrumental titled "Ren K Myenam" lets Montoya fully indulge his avant-jazz skronk. The choppy, angular "Hovering" nervously frames lyrical fragments such as "The feeling leaves my limbs and I cave in," while the softly chiming "I'll Walk Over" flows with pleasant vocal harmonies. "Bottomfeeder" finds Nixon battling pounding tom-toms and Montoya's wall of noise with dour declarations: "I've never felt the confidence to look you in the eye."
According to Nixon, whose songs are often tinted with an outpouring of guilt or grief, EMS's emo name tag is well deserved. After the band opened a show for the progressive postrock trio Trans Am late last year, one of its members felt moved enough by a tune (the yet-unrecorded "Hialeah") to approach Nixon afterward for clarification. "He could tell it was emotional and draining," says Nixon. "So he asked who it was about. It's about the same thing all of the songs are about." He sighs. "Which is an ex-girlfriend. So it's the same old story over and over again in different ways."
EMS played with the emotions of the crowd at a recent show at the Warehouse Cafe in Kendall, without the benefit of words. Leading with a new, untitled instrumental, the band didn't perform the song so much as pulverize it. Montoya, the pintsize fireball, scraped from his guitar a swooning rush of notes, which Lecusay punctuated with sharp, deliberate cymbal crashes. Eyes closed, Nixon attempted to drop anchor with his loping, elliptical bass as Brooks rushed in to replenish the frontline with heavy melodies. Huddled together, heads down, the quartet appeared hard at work. Like mercury poured atop a glass table, the sound broke into rivulets, thinned and thickened, expanded and contracted. Suddenly with a burst of volume, the amorphous mass took shape again: deafening, entrancing, ferocious.
Praise Nixon for his part in this fascinating conflict, and he scowls: "I don't see it like that at all. I still see much of what we do as almost failing. We make it work, but it feels like we're fighting each other in a way." Stalemate never sounded better.
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