Someone somewhere said something about tragedy being an opportunity, remarks Ulysses Perez, drummer for Miami trio A Kite Is a Victim. It's not that the band's melancholy songs take listeners on a suicidal spiral or that its members lead particularly dismal lives. But the group actually thrives on living on the edge, skating to the brink of disaster, and emerging stronger.
A February 1999 tour that took the band from South Florida to the wintry Northeast is a case in point. Supporting its first album, Home, an immaculate collection of brokenhearted love songs with minor-chord acoustic arrangements and delicate, precise playing, the trio (singer/guitarist Al Galvez, bassist Henry Rajan, and Perez) had developed a small following in New York City. An opportunity to perform at CBGB, Galvez relates, was too good to pass up.
It was snowing, and we had no heater in the car, he recalls. We all got hypothermia. The tension got to me. I was under a lot of stress and I wasn't sleeping much. I just got really sick; I had a really high fever. By the time we got to Boston, I was drinking everything I could get my hands on. And NyQuil.
His eyes were rolling back in his head, remembers the slight, goateed Perez. I thought, Any minute now, he's going to go into convulsions.
Galvez smiles. I kept saying, Keep on! I'm all right!'
Then he'd pass out again, notes bearded, bespectacled Rajan.
When we got to New York, we thought it was going to be terrible, Galvez says. It was full of people prepared to see us. I couldn't get out of the van -- they had to carry me out. I couldn't breathe; my lungs were filling with fluid. I couldn't get enough air. They said, Let's just cancel the show and get you to a hospital.' But I said, People are here to see us! We can't disappoint 'em!' The sound man was a big A Kite Is a Victim fan, and he had been waiting to meet us, and he got all these people to come see us. So I thought, We're not going to fuck this up.
I got up onstage, and I swear I strummed twice and started blacking out, Galvez continues. I couldn't get anything out; I didn't have any strength. I told the sound man just to crank it, and I'll just whisper. So we played this whole show just barely there, and people must have been like, This is so cool!' I was out of my mind; I was so fucked up. It must have been such a surreal experience for people -- the look on their faces ...
All three members concur -- it was their best show ever. Today Galvez is swarmed with small tragedies: His car has just been totaled by a pack of reckless teenagers. Offered a beer, he suddenly remembers he's on penicillin for a nasty toothache, then details a near-fatal experience the last time he mixed antibiotics with alcohol. But the animated 26-year-old beams with optimism at what lies ahead. Unlike his hero, Nick Drake, he's not about to wait for depression, death, and Volkswagen commercials to immortalize him. He's doing it now, for himself.
To date the band's most striking achievement is the self-produced Home, released in 1998. The slow-paced epic is marked by soft, blurry touches: Galvez's twelve-string arpeggios and breathy vocals, Perez's delicate brush strokes on cymbals, Rajan's fluid fretless bass. Galvez's voice seems to sneak around a corner, softly narrating the confessional tales. Occasionally when the emotional stakes are raised, it reaches toward an agonized Jeff Buckley falsetto.
Message Me Never Again, the album's first and best track, glows like a fireplace in a stone cottage, fighting against the cold and damp. With clear antecedents like Drake and Red House Painters, the softly plucked, flamencoesque guitar and spare piano frame the lyrics: They came, took away your boy in dreams/Is it fair for me to claim my liberty?
As striking as the open-diary directness is the meticulous production. Each note rings out pure and clean; Galvez's voice is multitracked in places to gorgeous effect, rendered with attention to detail. Garden Boat, for instance, is as delicate and complex as a chandelier.
When Galvez sings, in a resigned whisper, Time's the lonely ship that'll take this pain away/And it will sail trying to forget until it fades/How I wished for your garden boat to stay, it unmasks a forlorn emptiness. Rajan's bass swells beneath the song's gentle waves as a mournful piano slowly ambles along in the background, just a few notes poking through the stillness. It's hard to listen to it without swallowing hard.
Romanticism abounds on Home. The Peruvian-born Galvez softly delivers the tender, torchy Dulces Tristezas (Sweet Sorrow) in hushed Spanish. Against these morose melodies, Galvez hunches over his acoustic twelve-string because it's simply too unwieldy to play standing up. This band really developed out of a practical sense of thinking, he says.
To be fair, part of what keeps the band interesting is putting ornament over practicality. Home (available at www.akiteisavictim.com) arrives in a cardboard slipcover case decorated with a feather, ink, watercolors, and a cutout window. Inside is a painstakingly crafted 32-page booklet with lyrics, illustrations, and photos. It takes an hour to do each one, says Galvez. I tore each page; I glued the feathers. It's giving people a full experience. CDs are such a step down from vinyl.
Much of the music on Home was written by Galvez during a mid-Nineties stint in San Francisco. Relocating back to Florida, he began a project called the Al Galvez Band, which later became A Kite Is a Victim. (The name is taken from a Leonard Cohen poem.) In 1996 he also started the Miami-based Space Cadette label and recording studio with his brother Rafael. As the band's original incarnation began to dissolve during the recording of Home in 1998, Perez, now 34 years old, and Rajan, now 25, were brought onboard halfway through and are now the permanent touring and recording members.
The two years since their arrival have been spent mostly on the road, up and down the East Coast, identifying pockets of support and working them hard. Guerrilla tactics, deadpans Perez, naming Athens, Boston, and New York as important turf to till. A Kite Is a Victim, despite a fragile sound, proves industrious when it comes to self-promotion. The band will even stop in at a restaurant and play a show for free, just to do it. Then the next time around, we'll organize it ahead of time and actually get paid, Galvez relates.
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Galvez acknowledges that the group's predilection for playing seated, dressed in black, in quiet coffeehouses, can be off-putting to club owners. A couple of times people have told me: You're not loud enough. We don't want to book you. We're a bar, and I don't want to put people to sleep.' I tell 'em: Listen, you can keep the money if the people don't have a good time.' They'll say, Okay, all right.' The band recently employed this very tactic -- successfully -- at a Tampa venue.
They said, Not only do you get your money, but we want you back next month,' Perez notes with pride. Galvez and company are laboring over the second A Kite Is a Victim album, (working title Strange Delight), which is still several months from being released. It is again a showcase for Galvez's strikingly honest songs, but slightly more aggressive yet unobtrusive bits of electric guitar and synthesizer have been woven into the fabric. Upping the ante again with the packaging, Galvez is busy constructing a pop-up insert booklet with small sliding stubs. I'm always challenged to not do the easy thing, he explains.
Which is why he's made A Kite Is a Victim his full-time love affair, devoting all his energy to its success. Your health goes to hell for a year or two, he admits. Your personal and social life goes to shit, and before you know it, you're this working hermit. I work seven days a week.
It's not so much about tragedy, Galvez concludes. We're definitely survivalists. We're Vikings on a mission and we've got to complete the mission somehow.