The Elements of Style
Take four people from widely varying ethnic and personal backgrounds, put them in a potentially intense situation, then wait for the sparks to fly. It may sound like the formula for some "real life" MTV show or the premise of the next "Must-See TV" program, but it's actually the secret behind the musical mix of South Miami band Omar Stang. The quartet, which has been gigging regularly around Miami since early last year, boasts a diversity uncommon in young bands, who usually worry to excess about finding their own sound. The guys in Omar Stang don't bother: They fuse the rock, blues, funk, soul, Latin, and jazz elements of their musical backgrounds to create music that feels good to them. Not that they know what to call that music. "It's hard for me to say what kind of music we play," says bassist Mario Padron. "I wish we could hear our music from the audience's perspective so that we could define or classify what it is."
To break the Stang puzzle down to its individual pieces, vocalist/rhythm guitarist Eric Colville (formerly with the local blues band the Mad Hatters) comes from a roots-rock garage-band background, with an interest in the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and rockabilly. Guitarist Peter Parente and drummer/percussionist Fredrick "Bam-Bam" Scott (late of the local group Soul Station) are both University of Miami music school graduates with training in jazz and classical and time logged in various R&B groups. Finally, jazz-trained bassist Padron brings to the group the Latin musical tradition he absorbed while growing up in Miami.
"We are certainly not a band where everyone loves the Kinks," says Colville. "I think it gives us so many colors, gives us a strength. If all you put in a milk shake is vanilla, you're only going to get vanilla. With everyone pulling their own way, it strikes a balance. There's no way we can sound just like any one other band."
The band's musical eclecticism stems from the members' belief that different song ideas must be expressed with suitably different musical styles. Meaning that the bluesy rock groove of "X-Ray Glasses" (a humorously pervy song about seeing through superficiality, among other things) contrasts sharply with the melancholy Spanish-guitar flourishes and delicate arrangement of "Time Away." Meanwhile straight-ahead rockers like the funk-laced antiwar anthem "Old Enough to Die" and the alternative-edged "1000 Miles," an exploration of personal growth, delve into their subject matter with intelligent, if not exactly poetic, lyrics, while being carried along by intricate guitar work and a solid rhythm section.
"You can't sit down and write something because you think people will like that kind of song," says Colville of the group's approach to composition. "If the song means something to me, and it means something to everyone in the band, there's always the chance it'll mean something to someone outside of the band. I try to get to the bottom of what I really think about things. Sometimes I find out, 'That's not really what I think of this.' It's like an individual therapy session."
Not that the band members are heavy-handed or overly serious about their music. "We want to give people something for the head and for the body," Colville explains. "I think overall there has been a return to songwriting. That's important to us, but at the same time we don't want to be like the folkie girl with a guitar and some overwrought lyrics either."
Colville and Padron originated Omar Stang (named after a small street in South Miami near where they live) in late 1995, with Parente and Scott joining soon after. The band played their first gig the following February at Churchill's; in the year and a half since, they've performed at Tobacco Road, Stella Blue, Marsbar, Cheers, and Rose's, as well as on the bookstore circuit and for gallery night in Coral Gables.
From an initial list of seven songs, the band's repertoire has expanded greatly, and those first efforts have evolved over time and repeated playings. "You can't recognize some of the songs from when they were first written," says Colville of that evolution. "The music seems to represent the ideas better, and the band is just tighter as a whole." As the main lyricist, Colville usually contributes the song idea and basic melody, but these serve more as a springboard for the contributions of the other members. "Since everyone has a different musical background, the pieces just sort of fall in when we're writing," explains Parente. "Eric will come to us with the bare bones of a song, and after playing around with it a few times, we all go off and do our own little thing, then come back and say, 'Look at this.' It's a team effort. What I can't handle, I know someone else will get." Or as Scott sums it up: "Eric makes the fabric; we put on the buttons and hem it."
But with four different personalities, even the songwriting approach varies from member to member, says Padron. "The song is the most important thing to Eric, while Fred and I feel sometimes like we want to play something that just feels good." And occasionally Colville finds himself outnumbered: "I have very certain ideas of what I want to hear, and then these guys say, 'Let's try this.' The first time I say, 'No, no,' then after listening to it a few times, I say, 'That really is good.' I'm pulled out of my niche a little bit, and I think we end up with something everyone is happy with."
And Parente believes that the band's happiness is paramount. "It starts with us. If we like it, and we show that we like it, people can see we're having a good time and they'll have a good time. If it means something to them, that's great, because it already means something to us, and it reinforces that for us." Adds Scott: "We've had good nights and bad nights, a thousand people and one person, and it's hard as a performer to always fit that vibe and make it all electric. If people are just digging it, then you're gonna go that extra 100 percent. Regardless, you should do it anyway, even if people are just standing there in the front row like, 'Please me.'" Going that extra mile seems to be paying off for the group. "We've been getting some pretty good crowds, and we're starting to recognize faces of people who aren't our friends," says Padron. "It's great when you meet someone who is seeing you for the third or fourth time, and they came just to see you.
"We've also gotten a lot of support from other bands, and that's what it's all about -- not just going out there and playing, but to go out and see other bands and help them out," Padrón continues. "There are a few bands that will call us up, wanting to share a bill or just to congratulate us for a good show. This scene has its ups and downs, but there are some great bands out there, and it's exciting to be a part of that."
"After all the work we've put into this," adds Colville, "it's hard not to respect a band that can write some songs, get it together, and go out there and play and keep it together for a while."
Omar Stang will enter the studio next month to record their first CD, which they hope to release in the fall. "We wanted to wait a while, to get to know each other as a band, before recording an album," says Padron of the group's reluctance to dive immediately into a recording project. "We had to put a lot of thought into it, and we think our arrangements are a lot better now. A year ago we didn't really know each other, but we have gotten so close since then, and I think that really shows in the music. People come up to us after a show and they think we've been playing together for years. We all just really click, which is why the songwriting works the way it does." In addition, the band is planning to play throughout the state, beginning with some shows in Broward and Palm Beach counties with local funk-rock band Sense. "We also want to write and write and write," says Parente. "The more we write, the more we can record, and I'd like to keep that snowball rolling. And hopefully people will want to listen to it.
"This is the hardest time right now, when there's little money, little support other than the support we can give each other, and little faith, other than our own," Parente continues. "But we feel such a connection with each other, and I don't know if that happens every day. If this is the worst that it gets, then I'm happy, because it's been nothing but good."
Omar Stang performs Saturday, May 31, at Stella Blue, 1661 Meridian Ave, Miami Beach, 532-4478. Admission is $3. Showtime is 11:00 p.m.