"We are not into biases or limitations," says Michael Roderick as he sits in a dimly lit studio at the 54th Street Music House in Hialeah. "There are no boundaries, there are no lines -- that is the full intention of music, of communication. The only thing that creates a barrier in life is language. People manage to get around that most of the time, so we feel it should be the same with music."
Following Roderick's logic, it is time to undo some biases and bust some boundaries. First off, Maria isn't a girl; it's a five-man band, composed of vocalist Roderick, guitarist Paul Molina, bassist Dan Feiszli, keyboardist Pete Wallace, and drummer Brendan Buckley. The band isn't named after a girlfriend or mother; its members decided to pick a culturally universal name whose spelling was not likely to get mangled in translation. Maria isn't a Latin rock band, either; the group plays rock music with widely ranging influences, styles, and sounds. "It's a problem when people ask us what we sound like," concedes Roderick. "We look at our watches and say, 'How much time to do you have?'"
Variety is the most evident quality of the band's self-titled EP, released independently in October: Each song sounds as if it is being performed by a different band. The opening track, "Wicked," starts with Roderick shouting a biblical passage like a televangelist (the segment was inspired by an actual broadcast by TV preacher Robert Tilton), then gives way to a dark, driving meditation on murder and madness. The next track, a lost-love ballad called "Heavy Head (Memory)," begins with a delicate strum, then builds to a wrenching climax. "Baby, You're a Star (Trippin' Out)" jams with a Seventies disco-funk groove without sounding retro, while the atmospheric "Year of the Snake (Driving)," which is based on a screenplay Roderick and Molina are working on, has an epic feel. Right in the middle of it all is "Bleed (Secret Name)," a straight-ahead rocker with a groove that won't quit. "We think there's a little something in there for everyone," says Roderick, "and the good thing is that it's not planned. It happened naturally."
Just how it all happened goes back a few years. The members of Maria didn't come together until January 1996, but primary songwriters Roderick and Molina, who have been friends for more than fifteen years, had long been working on many of the songs on the EP. The group's members offer an interesting contrast: New Jersey native Feiszli and the Virginia-reared Wallace are both studying jazz at the University of Miami; Buckley, also from New Jersey, is a UM alum and a popular local session player who has performed with a bevy of local bands, including Diane Ward, Sixo, and Raw B Jae. On the other hand, Miami natives Roderick and Molina are self-proclaimed "musical morons."
Roderick began his musical career as a drummer, but soon gave that up in favor of singing. Molina took up guitar in high school, and later studied under Joe Concepcion, a local songwriter the duo credits with teaching them everything they know about writing pop music. Roderick and Molina learned their favorite songs by ear, and went on to play around South Florida in a few Top 40 cover bands. Over the years they toiled in seclusion to improve their songwriting. "At first it was hard because we were trying to fit our songs into a certain style," explains Roderick. "For other people that works fine, but that was really handcuffing us. For us, styles are like tools. Some people can pick up a hacksaw and that's all they ever pick up. They can't build anything because they can't screw anything or hammer anything. We find that incredibly limiting. We dumped and reworked a lot of songs because we decided to let the lyrics and the melody and chords dictate what we do with a song."
Adds Molina: "At the time we knew more what we didn't want to sound like than what we did want to sound like. So we decided to just go with whatever comes out."
Molina and Roderick wrote all the songs on the disc with a third friend, Julio Alvarez, who left a previous incarnation of the band to pursue another career. Early versions of the songs were recorded in a makeshift studio in an efficiency behind Molina's house in Hialeah. The current band lineup came together when a friend introduced Roderick and Molina to Buckley, who recommended Feiszli, who in turn introduced them to Wallace. The band's first week together was spent in rehearsals, after which they promptly entered the studio to record the EP. "That came about during a spurt of creativity," explains Roderick. "Once we had all those songs, we decided they were strong and we could do something with them."
The musically trained Wallace and Feiszli say they find Roderick's and Molina's do-it-yourself approach to music refreshing. "They do things that so-called trained musicians wouldn't normally do," Wallace says. "They add an extra bar or a strange chord in ways that somebody else might not."
Each member of the band cites a range of disparate influences -- everyone from Duran Duran to Rush to the Rolling Stones -- but they all concur that Black Sabbath and Van Halen provided early inspiration, as did late Seventies/early Eighties pop and rock radio. The cinema also provides the band with inspiration -- in fact, many of the songs on the EP were created while Roderick and Molina lazed about in front of the television watching movies.
Maria is currently in the studio recording new material for a promotional EP due out in May. Songs slated for the disc include "What's Really in a Name," a driving rocker laced with distorted, Middle Eastern-flavored guitars that addresses the hypocrisy of Hollywood; "Tranquilized," a blazing declaration of independence that rides hard-rock chords over a galloping soca beat; and "Rainbows," a wicked, guitar-heavy number that explores, in Roderick's words, "the kind of extreme lust that makes you see things."
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Roderick and Molina say the presence of Feiszli, Wallace, and Buckley in the songwriting process has contributed to Maria's ever-changing sound, and has inspired them to integrate new elements -- African rhythms and rave music, for example -- into their traditional rock cocktail.
While Maria boned up on the basics in the studio and honed its sound in rehearsal, the band is strongest live, boasting an intensity not easily captured on disc. Visually they are engaging as well, with Roderick stomping about like a man possessed and his bandmates toiling intently at their instruments. Since their live debut in August, Maria has performed only sixteen electric shows, plus a handful of acoustic gigs, at local clubs such as Rose's, South Beach Pub, Cheers, Tobacco Road, Rezurrection Hall, and the Prop Room at the Theatre. Many of the songs on the debut EP have taken on a new life in the live set; they evolve the more the band plays them, and they might continue to mutate as the band plays some tour dates throughout the state and along the East Coast this summer.
In the meantime the members of Maria will keep writing and playing whatever their spirits move them to create. "We don't know how good it is, but we know we don't sound like any one musical entity out there," says Roderick. "We are human, and we get sick of doing the same things over again.