The first thing you notice is the gleaming and colorful clothing. Orange and silver vinyl, red leather, psychedelic swirls on thrift-store polyester. Then the hair. Dark curls, purple braids, and blond crimps. And when the punky, percussive music starts, it all swirls into motion, like a carnival ride or an acid trip. Melodic guitar strummings weave around dark and heavy bass lines, galloping drum beats, and buoyant conga rhythms. Clear, girlish voices stand out at times, blend in with the music at others. Then the flowers start flying and it's over all too soon. A typical set by Al's Not Well, if anything they do can be called typical.
As they sit in their Hialeah rehearsal studio, it becomes evident this two-woman, three-man band thrives on color. The room's walls are covered with brightly executed graffiti and a mural of an idyllic waterfall scene. A coffee table is littered with props-in-the-making: glitter-covered foam stars and globes, plus a silver toy spaceship outfitted with two colorful aliens. Relaxing in this den of psychedelia, singer-guitarist Joce, bassist Rick, percussionist Kala, background singer Bleu, and drummer Eddy (no last names, please) seem even younger than they are -- they could be teenage ravers instead of seasoned musicians in their mid-twenties. Jovial and joking, they grow serious when talk turns to their music and their band image.
"Initially, we were a really theatrical band," explains Rick. "The concept was that we had costumes for when we got on-stage, but after a while, those costumes become part of you."
However, image isn't everything, insists Joce, the band's primary songwriter and lyricist. "You can be a band with really cool music and not have any style," she notes, "or you can be a band that has all visuals, but really shitty music. We have both visuals and good music."
"People don't always remember what they hear, but they remember what they see," chimes in Bleu, who besides singing backup also serves as the band's stylist, designing their jewelry, accessories, and clothing. "They see us and they wonder what this band is about."
What Al's Not Well is about goes back to a series of coincidences that led to the formation of a tight, heavily percussive punk-pop band. Drummer Eddy was a member of the late-Eighties/early-Nineties dance band Erotic Exotic, while Kala was that same band's drum tech, and Bleu their back-up singer. Rick was in a death-metal band that rehearsed down the hall, and when Erotic Exotic needed a bassist, they called upon him to join. "Everyone thought I'd lost my mind," Rick remembers about the switch from death metal to Miami dance music. "My friends thought that was the strangest thing I could do, next to becoming a born-again Christian."
When Erotic Exotic disbanded in 1994, the band reformed under the name Liquid Sun, pursuing an entirely different musical direction -- alternative rock. But the band met with tragedy when, in December of last year, lead singer and songwriter Eric Tallman died of a heart attack.
"We didn't know what to do," remembers Kala. "It was the end of our lives." Rick, Kala, Bleu, and Eddy were left with a big empty space in their lives and in their band. Then former Erotic Exotic and Liquid Sun keyboardist Al ran into Joce at Churchill's Hideaway in January while she was playing with another band, its first and last gig. Al convinced Joce to meet with the remaining members of Liquid Sun, and after just one jam together, they asked her to join their band. Together, Rick, Kala, Bleu, Eddy, and Joce made their debut as Al's Not Well this past March at the Stephen Talkhouse. The band name is a tribute to the man who brought them together.
"As soon as we started playing with Joce, we knew," says Rick. "We listened to a tape of her songs, made our own interpretation of it, and she was like, 'Whoa!' We were looking for a real musician, a real artist, and didn't have to spend a lot time adjusting to each other." Adds Bleu: "When we found Joce, it made us want to go on." (Coincidentally, Joce and Bleu attended the same local elementary school, where Joce's mother was Bleu's teacher. And about three years ago, Rick and Joce met and considered joining the same band but never got around to doing it.)
Earlier this year, Al's Not Well recorded a four-song demo tape that includes the bopping "Dearest Friend," a psychedelic Beatles-esque ballad called "Something Good," the Middle Eastern-inspired "Chemical Imbalance," and the chunky "Bliss." Even though their sound is heavily percussive, with congas, chimes, and tambourines adding layers of texture to their already-tight rhythms, Joce's guitar playing -- which ranges from thick and crunchy grunge chords to hypermelodic plucking to thwacky strumming -- remains in the foreground. A technically adept player, she comes from a long line of guitarists: Her great-grandmother was a virtuoso classical guitarist; her grandfather played bossa nova; and her mother played jazz guitar. And she cites John Lennon, Robert Smith, and Kurt Cobain as musical influences.
As for the other members, Kala jokes that he moved to congas from a drum kit when Erotic Exotic's conga player decided to skip rehearsals, but fesses up that his father has played the congas since age six. Both Kala and Eddy cite KISS's Peter Criss as a big musical influence, as are alternative and heavy-metal drummers. Bleu began jamming on tambourine with Erotic Exotic's rhythm section, and Rick's bass background comes mainly from years of playing in metal bands.
On-stage, Al's Not Well's music radiates an energy of its own. The members attribute that vitality not only to their connection as musicians, but also to their connection to their fans, a growing legion of mostly younger clubgoers. "Overall we like to play in front of the younger kids. They give back so much more energy," says Rick. "They're not sitting there drinking their beers and trying to look cool. They're just trying to have fun, and the more fun they're having, the more fun we have."
The band is still surprised to see a crowd at their shows. "When we first played out, we only told our immediate friends, but that turned out to be about 40 people," Rick points out. From that 40, their audience has grown steadily over the last six months, partly owing to the support of WVUM-FM (90.5), which has added "Dearest Friend" to its playlist, and partly owing to fellow local bands such as Muse, which booked them to open or close their shows when Al's Not Well was still struggling to get gigs. "That's our favorite band to play with," Rick says. "They have a very similar vibe to what we have. They like us, we like them. We're both very family-oriented, very much into what a band really is. In some bands, the guys and girls just show up to rehearsal at a particular time and don't see each other until the next time. Al's Not Well is like a family; we practically live together."
The band has no immediate plans to record. They intend to concentrate instead on playing live and hope to tour outside of Florida. Because they've been together less than a year, the band remains hesitant about making any long-term plans.
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"Everything's happened so quickly," muses Kala. "We got popular really fast, while it takes some bands years to get as popular. We don't want to just jump on anything."
"We just want to play out every night," concludes Rick. "We'd much rather be in a van in the middle of Kentucky than stuck in our day jobs."
Al's Not Well performs Saturday, November 18, at Rose's Bar and Lounge, 754 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-0228. Showtime is 11:00 p.m. Admission is free.