The Joy of Struggle
The musical dynamic of Ed Matus' Struggle was once described by a fan as "a train coming, then all of a sudden someone pours fudge on top of it." The Miami quartet -- comprising lead guitarist/songwriter Juan Montoya, singer/guitarist Scott Nixon, drummer Robert Lecusay, and recently acquired bassist LeRoy Talcott (who also plays in Nixon's acoustic side project, A Kite Is a Victim) -- specializes in complex, mostly instrumental songs, many of them five to eight minutes long, characterized by sometimes waltzing, sometimes dueling guitars, played with emotion and precision. EMS's hypnotic aural soundscapes have an almost cinematic quality -- driving, dreamy, atmospheric.
Roving imaginations are just as much an influence on EMS's members as their personal tastes in music, which range from Leonard Cohen and David Bowie to Codeine, Sonic Youth, and Dead Can Dance. "A lot of my ideas come from listening to European music and imagining being there," explains primary songwriter Montoya, as the band sits in a Kendall coffee shop. "If you play guitar in the dark, it's like you go into your own little fantasy world and you're creating your own soundtrack for it. I've always paid close attention to soundtracks, because they have the little things that set the mood of a movie. That's what I try to capture in the music -- those little things that shift everything in a different direction. I mean, what are we surrounded by here in Miami?" he continues. "I can't write a song and say, 'This was inspired by a night in traffic,' so I have to make up an imaginary world musically."
Nixon agrees: "One of the weird things about living in Miami is that it's so isolated from the rest of the country. You miss a lot of what's going on, so you're forced to be more creative. I think that shows in a lot of bands here that are incredibly inventive."
Of course, that doesn't mean Miamians live in cultural isolation. "The advantage we have is that a lot of European musicians come straight to Miami," Montoya adds. "I've heard a lot of Latin music, jazz, Indian and Japanese musicians, everything. There's a little bit of this and that in our music."
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That music, which can be heard on the band's self-titled 1995 debut CD and on a three-song, ten-inch vinyl release due out this week, sounds something like an amalgam of Rush and My Bloody Valentine, with some of Tool's abrasive, arty metal thrown in for good measure, and yet it doesn't sound exactly like any one of these. Montoya's intricate melodies flutter and flow over Nixon's steady churn; both guitars are distorted, then come into clear focus again, swirling, rising, and falling around each other. Nixon's vocals are sparse and gentle, occasionally getting lost in the band's thick, complex guitar work. The bass intertwines with the guitars rather than merely following behind them, and Lecusay's frenetic yet contemplative drumming doesn't so much anchor as punctuate the melodies. Tight, abrupt chord changes and disjointed, spontaneous timing lend the music an improvisational quality that has been likened to that of a seasoned jazz ensemble.
The members of Ed Matus' Struggle began making music after Montoya met Lecusay in 1991, when the drummer was playing in another band. Together they formed the short-lived Pontius Pilot, which broke up when Lecusay left town to attend New College in Sarasota. "I enjoyed playing with him so much that we stuck together," explains Montoya. "When he would come down for holidays, we started up Ed Matus' Struggle." He and Lecusay recruited bassist Carl Ferrari, who left EMS amicably after the band's tour last summer to play in the local band Swivel Stick (which, like EMS, records for the local Space Cadette label).
The band played its mostly instrumental first shows at Churchill's, without benefit of a name. The shows' promoter began billing the band as Juan Montoya's Experience, which prompted the taunts of their friend Ed Matus, singer and guitarist for Subliminal Criminal. In a combined act of retribution and tribute, the band named itself after the musician. "We were gonna change the last word of the name for every show, to Ed Matus' Odyssey and so on," says Montoya, "but 'Struggle' stuck."
Nixon joined in 1994, just as the band was completing its first CD. He had seen EMS play in Gainesville, where he was a member of the Basils. "I really liked them. It was one of those things where I thought, 'Man, it would be really cool to play in a band like that,'" says Nixon. He found out a few days later that the band was in need of a singer. "I didn't really sing -- I played guitar -- but Juan suggested we get together anyway and see what happens." With Nixon the band continued to play instrumentals, but soon his understated vocals began finding their way into the songs. "About 70 percent of our new songs have vocals, whereas before it was about 30 percent," Nixon estimates. "We've added more and more vocals as I've become more comfortable with singing. I didn't really want the responsibility of being a frontman; I couldn't do anything showy even if I wanted to. I don't have much range, but that's good in a way because it forces us to choose certain things that we wouldn't do otherwise."
Another factor that has led the band to do things differently is having a drummer who lives in another city. "People have asked why we don't get another drummer, since [Lecusay] lives in Sarasota and we don't get to play that often, but we've been playing together for so many years that we have a strong relationship," says Montoya. "I've been really lucky, because I've found talented players as well as good friends. People ask me how I end up finding these younger, unknown people to play with. Our drummer Robert was a Belen [Catholic high school] boy, and when I brought him into the music scene, everyone asked, 'Where'd you find this guy?' And I'd never seen Scott around before. I had to drag him out. LeRoy is the only member of the group who was in a lot of groups before this."
The band also considers itself lucky to be part of the Space Cadette family, which it joined shortly after the studio opened in 1994. "They've really helped a lot of bands, kicked them in the butt by working so hard themselves," Nixon says of Space Cadette founders Rafael and Alfredo Galvez. "Many of these bands just needed to be galvanized, so why not be galvanized by the Galvezes?" Space Cadette's first release, a compilation of various local bands, featured a song by EMS, and the band opted to release its first full-length, self-titled disc (recorded at Tapeworm Studios) through the studio's indie label in July 1995. Eleven months later EMS issued a song called "Hovering" on Entomological Discoveries with Sound and Vibration, a split single with the Atlanta sludge band Floor, which came out as a joint venture between Space Cadette and Gainesville's No Idea label.
The release was printed on white vinyl and packaged in an impressive handmade foldout cover featuring drawings of insects by Rafael Galvez. "Some people liked the packaging better than the music inside," Nixon admits, "but we sold out the first pressing, so we think it's done well." The song "Hovering" came out of a period of musical growth for EMS, with the use of several oddball instruments and African percussion. A six-week tour with Floor followed that release, after which Ferrari departed; Nixon took over bass duty for the band's local shows.
EMS's forthcoming release is a split release with Space Cadette and Boxcar, an indie label based in Melbourne. "I think the new material is more song-oriented," says Nixon. "It has more of everyone contributing, rather than just laying down parts. There's one song that I don't think would stand alone without the vocals, whereas on some of the earlier songs you could turn down the vocals or not have them at all and it would still be listenable."
In the past Montoya has shown off his ace guitar chops almost to the point of indulgence, but he exercises restraint on this new material, concentrating more on melodies than fretboard pyrotechnics. "Every day I hear something new in music, even if it's just listening to an album I first heard ten years ago," says Montoya (who also moonlights in the heavy-core band Cavity). "When you're older, you can appreciate the different parts more, and that helps you in your songwriting. And I'd rather be known as a good songwriter than a good guitarist. When you start out, you've got your guitar gods, but then you listen to the Beatles -- their music isn't supertechnical, but it's incredible." Nixon, who contributes all lyrics and vocal arrangements, echoes Montoya's sentiments: "The feeling and the inflection are more important than the speed and the precision. Sometimes it's all Juan's guitar, but if it's a song with a lot of vocals, sometimes they shape the music."
After tonight's show at Space Cadette, EMS will begin an extensive monthlong trek through the Midwest and up the East Coast. In addition, EMS has a couple of songs that will appear on a compilation being released by Philadelphia indie Tranquility Records. When Lecusay returns to town during his summer break, the band will enter the studio to lay down tracks for its next CD. "Right now we're breaking our backs," reflects Montoya of the band's hectic schedule and nightmarish geographical logistics. "But I think we're learning how to dance together."
Ed Matus' Struggle performs tonight (Thursday, June 5) at Space Cadette, 7339 SW 45th St, 261-7585, with Sift and Machete. Showtime is 9:00 p.m. Admission is $5.
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