Midnight at the Marlin Hotel, and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes is in the house. It isn't hip-hop night, however, in the aluminum-hued South Beach bar/lounge. The young and hip milling about have apparently come straight from an Urban Outfitters sale, the DJ spinning from the balcony above the dance floor is channeling the crowd's inner Euro-pop star with Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out," and no one will know Williams is here until he suddenly emerges from the hotel's notorious $8000-per-hour recording studio, South Beach Studios, and climbs into an Escalade parked outside.
No one came to the Marlin to hear hits from N.E.R.D. They're here to see the band that has now begun to tighten strings and twist dials with surgical precision for what DJ/promoter Chris Graham has dubbed Manic Mondays, one of the many Eighties/nu wave nights that have crept their way into the myriad bars and clubs on South Beach and across the causeway. The lead singer, Anthony Fashion, is clad in a black jacket with red pinstripes, black vest, and a haircut that would make Robert Smith proud, rendering the band's name, Fashionista, a fit as perfect as bassist MiG's mod white leather jacket.
At a time when bands that sound pretty and look even prettier are gracing the covers of music and fashion magazines, this self-proclaimed "dark pop" outfit is one of a scant few local groups in demand at Miami events riding the trend. But as the Fort Lauderdale quintet will tell you, they, along with groups such as Modernage, have been entertaining the boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend way before the Killers wandered out of Sin City and onto the cover of Spin magazine.
As he sits outside Fat Cat's, a Fort Lauderdale bar popular with the Abercrombie-clad frat boy set, Fashion, who is wearing a red-and-white star-patterned scarf and silver-and-black platform shoes, looks out of place. He's used to it, though, as he was always the shy, odd kid with a weird sartorial sense living in an area that boasts the Fishing Hall of Fame and a high WASP factor.
Fashion started Fashionista in 1999 with childhood friend Howard Melnick. Melnick is tall, combs most of his thick dark mop of hair to one side, and, tonight, covers up with a black Member's Only jacket. "It's a classic story, really," Fashion says of the union, "like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Morrissey and Johnny Marr, and Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler."
At the time, Melnick was playing guitar in industrial rock band Passive Aggression, and Fashion was singing in the shoegazer outfit Capsella. "Very druggy, droney, not a whole lot of vim and vigor," says Fashion of the latter. The duo recruited fellow Capsella member George Borghi, who sports thick black-framed glasses that make him look like a sharper, less-offensive version of Jack Osbourne, to play keyboards. "George and I started getting bent out of shape on Roxy Music and David Bowie and T-Rex," says Fashion. "Even my style of dress helped break that band up. They weren't in touch with their feminine side."
Neither was Broward County. "Music fans in Broward are mostly into either emo or hard rock," says Fashion. Which is why Fashionista -- which also includes bassist MiG ("He comes from a mod family," offers Fashion, "they're all in a Vespa club") and drummer Dylan Asher -- says its fan base is mostly in Miami.
Fashionista began playing shows at the Culture Room, Churchill's, and Shakespeare's Pub. Fashion remembers going to what would eventually turn into Poplife, which was created by Aramis Lorie, Ray and Paola Milian, and Barbara Basti and is now held on Saturday nights at I/O, a club owned by Lorie. "I remember when Poplife was at [the Mesa Fine Art Gallery] in the Gables. I would DJ and ten or fifteen people would show up," says Fashion.
And when DJ Josh Menendez started Blowup in 1996 (later changed to Revolver in 1999), he adds, it was held at the Hungry Sailor in Coconut Grove, a dive bar best known for its reggae and penny-beer nights. "Half the audience would be friends I packed in my car and drove down from Fort Lauderdale," Fashion recalls.
Now, according to Menendez himself, Revolver usually draws about 1200 patrons to its new home at the Pawn Shop in downtown Miami on Friday nights. This past December 17 he celebrated Revolver's fourth anniversary with a runway show featuring local designers and a performance by the Stills. Opening up for the postpunk Canadians were Fashionista, indie/glam rock fivesome Marqui Adora, and the Miami-based band Modernage.
While Fashionista identifies with glam rock -- during its performances, Fashion often thrusts hand on hip à la Mick Jagger or lights up a cigarette mid-set -- Modernage, formed in 2003, has perfected the moody, melancholy dance-pop akin to bands such as Joy Division and Elefant. Contrary to popular belief, the band was not named after the furniture store in Hialeah.
"A lot of people assume that, since it's a Miami thing," says lead singer Mario Giancarlo on a rainy Saturday night as he relaxes on a red couch, the only place to sit in a sparsely furnished apartment near downtown Miami. "I don't know why, but I wanted the first four letters to be öMode,' and then Modernage just kind of came out of that."
Adds guitarist Xavier Alexander, who is slouching next to Giancarlo in a cream-color newspaper-boy hat and is sporting a scruffy beard that does little to age him: "Then we found out that it comes from my favorite Joy Division song, öThese Days,' so it was perfect."
Once it had its name established, Modernage, which, in addition to Giancarlo and Alexander, includes keyboardist Juan Garcia, drummer Sean Perscky, and bassist Roberto Moriel, worked on finding a sound. "We started out playing darker, slower stuff," says Giancarlo, "but the first time we played Poplife, we had a slow song in the middle of our set, and it was kind of like öbeer break.' We practically cleared the room."
"That's when we realized that people in Miami aren't going to stand there and just listen to you," says Alexander. "Miami crowds want to dance."
Modernage's theory proved correct. After the group returned from playing two shows in New York and weeded out most of its ballads, crowds began to thicken and bookings started to roll in. On February 18, when Modernage opened for as-seen-on-The O.C. New York group the Walkmen during Soho Lounge's indie rock party Cinematic, they were surprised when the audience -- dressed in cropped blazers, wide metallic belts, and Hot Topic wrist cuffs -- stood shoulder-to-shoulder during their set.
"No one ever cares about the opening act," says Alexander. "That's when people usually start trickling in or go to get a drink, so we couldn't believe it when the house was already packed when we went onstage. People were dancing, some were even singing along."
Fashionista encountered a similar experience when its track "40 Seconds" became a favorite at Poplife. Girls sporting Pat Benetar haircuts and Molly Ringwald ankle-high boots and boys in skinny black ties and Chucks were dancing just as fervently to this synth-pop track as the Dandy Warhols' "Bohemian Like You" and Radiohead's "Idioteque."
"Tony had sent me a demo [of "40 Seconds"], so I played it, even though I hadn't taken much of a listen," recalls Poplife promoter Lorie, who is also a DJ. "I mixed it into another song, and everybody was dancing. I had done the same thing when a guy I knew, Daniel Kessler, who worked for Domino Records, sent me his band's demo, a song called öPDA.'" The band's name was Interpol.
When Poplife celebrated its five-year anniversary in June 2004, "40 Seconds" was chosen as the first track on a commemorative compilation CD, a "Poplife's greatest hits" of sorts titled Popaganda, which was handed out to guests that night. The only local band to be featured, Fashionista found themselves sitting at the cool kids' table with the likes of the Bravery, Franz Ferdinand, and Elefant. "Aramis is a god," says Melnick, bowing down symbolically with his hands in a prayer clasp. "We have nothing but love for him."
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The influx of copycat nights has ignited an undeniable tension and competition among Miami's events and venues. Thursdays at the District; Revolver at Pawn Shop Lounge on Fridays; Poplife at I/O on Saturdays; and Soho Lounge's assortment of indie rock nights -- Bulletproof on Wednesdays, Spider-Pussy on Thursdays, Cinematic on Fridays, and Kitchen Club on Saturdays -- all lie within three miles of each other. On South Beach, there's Mass at Jade on Sundays, the aforementioned Manic Mondays at the Marlin, and Off the Radar at Buck 15 on Wednesdays.
But both Fashionista and Modernage are simply happy to be playing on a regular basis for generous crowds. Perhaps these bands will be able to ride the fashion rock wave, however long it may last, and in five years find themselves, like Pharrell Williams, wandering out of South Beach Studios in the middle of the night.
"I thought we would have to leave," confesses Alexander about Modernage's chances of national success from a Miami base. "But I'm starting to think we can pull it off from here. I mean, the Killers did it from Las Vegas. Who comes from Las Vegas? Elvis?"
"Fat Elvis," Giancarlo corrects him as everyone laughs. Then he adds: "If someone comes to see us because their friend says, öYou'll like them, they sound like the Killers,' I'll take it. Then, once you're there, we'll show you we don't sound like the Killers -- we're better."