We're with the Band
It's about nine o'clock Saturday morning and the rain pounds down. Keith Schantz, manager of the Miami-based rock band Natural Causes, negotiates the cluttered alley behind the Stephen Talkhouse, parking in front of a half-dozen tattered derelicts huddled in a Dumpster shed. Schantz tries to get in the back door of the Talkhouse, but it's not happening, so we move to the front of the club, on Collins Avenue. Drew Holshouser, the Talkhouse's sound engineer, up all night working the board for a Little Charlie and the Nightcats performance, is asleep in a second-floor room.
On the sidewalk, Schantz finds a key bearing a Chrysler insignia. He throws it at Holshouser's window. After a few tosses, Holshouser appears and says he'll be right down to let us in. "He's gonna be hatin' me," Schantz says, shaking off rainwater like a dog, "but we have to get the piano stand. This is what it's about, being on the road. You gotta get shit done."
Never more so than now A crunch time, when contract offers with several record labels are pending. With the help of a Los Angeles entertainment attorney, Schantz isn't seeking a deal, he's seeking the right deal. "We want more opportunity to play, record, shoot videos, the chance to reach more people with the music. It's not about rock-star things. The things that come, we'll accept, but we all know it's the music that will take us wherever we go."
After retrieving the piano stand (a tubular frame that supports frontman Arlan Feiles's digital keyboard), we drive to a hotel on Collins to fetch Natural Causes guitarist Sean Edelson, who announces, "I've got 36 cents in my pocket." He climbs into the big white Rally STX van. "Are we going to pick up Joel at Mortuary Towers?"
That's the next stop -- Morton Towers -- where Keith's cousin, guitarist Joel Schantz, waits downstairs. He loads in his equipment and we head to the Bagel Factory. Keith Schantz, Edelson, and I go inside to buy a bag of carbohydrates. Bagelmaker Dave Stein serves up the order and, as we exit, says, "Hey Sean, have a good gig, man."
The skies are black and bleak as the van rolls onto NE 207th Street, a few miles east of Joe Robbie Stadium. The mean, crusty blues of Lightnin' Hopkins drizzles from the van's Delco. Arlan Feiles and the Causes's drummer, Jim Wall, share a house in this neighborhood with two other guys. Karen Friedman, keyboardist/vocalist/percussionist, is also waiting there for us; bassist Matt Coogan pulls up in his car right on time.
The van wasn't easy to come by; the Miami Beach boat show depleted the car-rental agencies' fleets, and Keith Schantz had to pull a favor to get it. Band members pack in guitars, drums, amplifiers, and it takes a while to figure a way to cram everything in and still accommodate eight people. "We're gonna have to leave you behind," Feiles tells me with a laugh. The dashboard clock reads 10:58 a.m. Time for Natural Causes to go to Gainesville. Time for a good gig.
That's how Joel Schantz persuaded Arlan Feiles (pronounced fie-lus) to come to Miami in the first place. The guitarist and the singer/songwriter met in Boston about five years ago, when both were attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Schantz was forced to come home to Miami after he'd been struck by a car in a near-fatal accident. He was hospitalized for months. Doctors put him back together like Frankenstein, replacing bones in his hip and legs with metal pins and rods. Before the accident, Feiles and Schantz had formed a band called the E-Z Walkers, which played the Boston club circuit. Now Schantz wanted Feiles to come to Miami. "Lots of gigs" was all he had to say.
In the back of the van, Matt Coogan is wearing headphones and shades, riding along in virtual nonreality. Sean Edelson is falling asleep. Jim Wall -- the tireless drummer who came to Miami from Cleveland with his old band, Ragamuffin Soldier -- is telling a joke about bass players. Ragamuffin, a reggae outfit that also featured Coogan and Edelson, died of natural causes -- or so goes the joke.
After Feiles came to town at the end of 1990, he and Schantz put together a new band, which included Frankie Trullenque on bass and a rotating cast of drummers. They played their first show -- as Arlan Feiles and Company -- at the defunct 32 Grand in Coconut Grove, a benefit that also featured Iko-Iko and Nil Lara's old band, K.R.U.
Fred Freeman soon took over bass, and the band, which rehearsed in Freeman's garage in Coral Gables, dubbed itself the Last Ride, and performed at Washington Square and other area nightspots. Nearly a year went by before Jim Wall came in as stickman. He hadn't yet left Ragamuffin Soldier, and played for both bands, sometimes on the same night when the two groups appeared together. A few more months passed and Edelson decided he wanted to rock and roll, defecting from the reggae group. Coogan also left Ragamuffin and, after a couple of other projects, replaced Freeman on bass. With the addition of Karen Friedman (who was in Blue Trixie and graduated from UM's music program), the Causes were born. It may have come at the expense of a very good reggae band, but feelings couldn't be too hard. Ragamuffin's former lead singer is one of Feiles's and Wall's roommates.
Today the band is six: Feiles out front on vocals and keyboard, Edelson and Schantz on guitars, Coogan on bass, Wall drumming, and Friedman adding keyboards, percussion, and vocal harmonies. The members range in age from 24 to 27.
In those early days, the band mixed Feiles's originals with a handful of covers, establishing themselves at the long-gone Island Club on South Beach, where once they were booked for three consecutive weekends, quite a coup at the time. "We had to play covers," Feiles recalls, "because we didn't have enough material then. I'd written about 35 songs that we'd do live. And I wrote about 100 bad ones." Today the Causes have 51 performance-ready tunes, 30 of which are recorded; 12 of those are available on the band's self-produced CD, Bomb in the Shelter. The others aren't available to anyone other than a few record company executives.
Natural Causes always sounds like Natural Causes (Feiles's voice is unmistakable, for one thing), but they jump around -- a light and tight combination of hooks here, a long, loping jam there. Imbued with a sense of the dramatic, Feiles often arranges his songs as tugs of war, with soft, sweeping introductions leading into the snap of drums and a hard guitar riff, the full band joining in and transforming the soothing into the raging without ever losing the melody. Tempos and dynamics vary from slow to fast, soft to hard, hushed to exploding, and within each song you can expect anything from jazz-inspired dissonance to Duane Allman-Dickey Betts guitar interplay to a hand drum pounded by Friedman. Following the essential formula of great rock bands, the Causes build lyric-based, guitar-driven melodies on the rhythm section's foundation.
Jim Wall has popped out the Lightnin' Hopkins tape and replaced it with vintage Ray Charles. For the first time I hear the connection. Critics (including me) have manufactured all sorts of comparisons -- the Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Band, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin. ("The Dead and Springsteen in the same sentence means there's either something really wrong or something right," jokes Joel Schantz.) But here in the van, crossing the border out of Broward, the rain clouds still hovering, it makes sense: Arlan Feiles is, at least in part, a rock-and-roll incarnation of Brother Ray (minus the corny studio production). The two share a rough and earthy vocal landscape -- it's blues, it's soul, it's rock and roll -- in which the phrasing of a word, the twist of a syllable can immolate your inner being. "Oh yeah, I heard Ray when I was like fifteen," Feiles recalls. "I was into him before I was into Dylan."
The other band members write, but Feiles and Joel Schantz agreed early on that the Causes would be built around Feiles's songs. On a pre-Causes demo tape recorded by Feiles and Joel Schantz, you can hear the songwriter's talent, but you can also hear how important are the other five members of the band. Schantz is forced to use guitar gimmickry, and Feiles's voice sounds youthful. "That was a few years ago," remarks manager Keith Schantz. To which Sean Edelson adds, "And a lot of Marlboros ago." The songs, though, are there; they just needed some kickass drum backing, dueling-guitar virtuosity, thumping bass, a little harmony, a keyboard fill, and maybe some percussion.
Lyrics skate gingerly between proselytizing (every song makes a point, has a message) and abstraction (many are wide open to interpretation). As poems these constructions don't really stand up. But they aren't poems, they're lyrics, and coupled with the Causes's arrangements and instrumental inventions, they realize their full potential. All Feiles will say is, "The rhythms are just there."
When they play these songs live -- which is often -- they always introduce the show the same way: "We're Natural Causes." In the van heading to Gainesville, Joel Schantz says he sometimes suggests modifying the intro, adding some comment to it. "Once Arlan almost did," the guitarist recalls. "He said, 'We're Natural Causes...,' and I thought he was going to add something. But he turned away from the mike and looked at me and said, 'and we're a bunch of fucking idiots.'" Feiles's narrow smile makes him look Asian, and his face radiates joy at such moments, but he suppresses it. He always seems to be trying hard not to be too happy for too long. He won't let go of this silly notion that the world is one seriously screwed-up place.
Even before he headed to Berklee, Arlan Feiles was a budding star in his native L.A., a boy with a single dedication: acting. He appeared in an episode of Night Court and had his scenes cut from the film Say Anything... and a movie about Patty Hearst. "I enjoyed it back then," Feiles says. "But the more I did, the more I disliked it. I got sick of speaking other people's words and not giving a shit what I was saying. It didn't seem so cool."
Feiles began playing piano at age four, taking classical lessons every afternoon. "No, I wasn't a prodigy," he allows. "When I was eight, I wasn't playing Chopin, or even a decent blues. I was interested and I enjoyed doing it. But I couldn't stand my teacher. He used to poke me in the wrist with a pencil -- you know, one of those types. So I quit lessons and gave piano a rest for about a year."
He attended an arts high school where, at age seventeen, he was recruited to appear on Star Search. "It was the last episode of the season," he says after much prodding. "I was in the juniors, so I went up against this little teeny girl about four years younger. It was hysterical. I just wanted to make some dough. I sang the cheesiest song, this tribute to my grandfather, who had just passed away. It was almost a love ballad, wimpy as hell, but I knew it was what they wanted to hear. I wiped out this little girl. As bad as I was back then, if I'd lost to her, it'd been a real bruiser."
At the beginning of the show's next season he was invited back, but because he'd turned eighteen, he was moved up to the adult competition. "I didn't want to go back, it was so humiliating, but you need money sometimes." He recalls competing against a leather-clad guy called Saint Don. "I asked him about his name, and he said it was because when he was a young boy in the choir, the director called him a little saint. Saint Don went out and acted like Michael Jackson, dancing around like a freak. I'm laughing backstage because I know I'm gonna lose to this guy. So this time I do a dismal ballad, much darker than the first time. I lose, and you're supposed to be polite, they tell you that. But while we're standing there, I busted up laughing. They had to cut tape." Though he was just a teenager, Feiles intentionally had made a savvy business move: By singing two original songs on national television, he assured himself a few fat royalty payments from reruns.
At age nine he returned to piano, eventually discovering Ray Charles, Elton John, and Billy Joel. He learned to play by listening to them, and he learned about rock and roll. From now on he would speak, or sing actually, his own words. "I know that seems a little self-serving," he says. "But it made more sense. That's when I gave up acting and went to Boston."
As we glide past Orlando, Keith Schantz points out where the Jammy Awards took place a few weeks before. The Causes drove up for that statewide event and came home with Best Rock Band honors. Their friends in Forget the Name won many more awards, including the big one, Entertainer of the Year, so maybe the Causes felt slighted. If so, they're not griping about it.
Feiles is talking to Keith Schantz about a record deal, something every musician wants but some aren't willing to sell their souls to obtain. Essentially the singer's question boils down to this: When? Schantz whispers to him that preliminary paperwork for one offer should arrive by Monday. Independently of the band, I happened to have learned that other labels are also looking to negotiate for the act.
During the journey to Gainesville, money is not mentioned, except in the most pragmatic terms. Keith Schantz explains to Feiles that this trip's budget includes about $90 for the van and insurance, the rental of three motel rooms, gas, and a $20 per diem for each band member. The debits add up quickly.
In 1993 the Causes played live 98 times, once every three or four days on average. In addition, Feiles performed a couple of dozen solo gigs -- for a stretch playing with a guitar in place of his piano at Granny Feelgood's on Lincoln Road to an audience of about seven (counting his dog). Feiles, Joel Schantz, and Edelson also teamed for several shows as an acoustic trio, allowing the guitarists to break out the mandolin that occasionally pops up in the full-band songs.
During the last year, the group enjoyed a sponsorship from a major beer brewer that brought them some cash, posters, and promotional materials. A national victory in last year's Tanqueray Rocks talent contest added $10,000 to their coffers, and the Causes are one of the most highly paid and consistently employed bands in Miami. Keith Schantz says the group is "totally self-sufficient," but hardly wealthy. Six members instead of the typical four increases the overhead expenses.
Still, with rare exceptions, the band's fee remains in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands. For some that means day jobs. Keith Schantz, for example, works as a facilitator for the Miami Coalition, a federally funded, privately run public-service organization. Edelson and Coogan dabble in their families' jewelry business, and Friedman works for a video company.
Feiles, Wall, and Joel Schantz manage to get by on what they earn from playing.
The members are six diverse personalities bonded by music, and Keith Schantz doesn't expect that to change as they prepare to enter the big time. "A label deal means enhanced production," he says. "I won't let the Causes flip; it's my job to keep them realistic. We'll be busier doing promotions, busier performing, traveling. It'll continue our growth." And if the band outgrows Keith Schantz's managerial skills? "There's a buyout clause in our contract," he notes, referring to his business relationship with the band. "And I would be open to a co-management deal with the right company. If I weren't their manager, I'd still be their biggest fan."
Schantz himself has a few fans, mainly among musicians, with whom he seems to have an easy rapport. But he isn't so popular among those at the business end of the music scene, and he barely associates with the other managers in town, the ones who represent several bands, not just one. If any ill will exists locally toward Natural Causes, some say, it is due to the way Schantz does business. "Maybe the success has gone to his head," says John Tovar, the prominent co-chief of TCA, which represents several groups. "They make a lot of demands now as far as bookings go, but they can't get arrested outside South Beach. He's a greedy little bastard and he treats everybody like they're better than everybody else. I won't work with him." Another local manager adds, "The bands tend to like Keith because he's a laid-back guy who talks to them about music. Musicians like to talk about music, not business. But the industry doesn't work that way."
It's 4:00 p.m. as we arrive at the outskirts of Gainesville. Feiles sees a sign by the road and points: "Look, the Museum of Natural Causes History!" It's actually the Museum of Natural History, where Keith Schantz worked washing old bones while he attended the University of Florida. His five years in Gator Country established friendships and connections that are paying back now. In fact this is the Causes's second trip to G-ville in two weeks, and it won't be their last.
Schantz checks us into the Gainesville Motor Lodge, where Feiles, Wall, and I will share a room because we smoke. Everyone has about an hour to chill before hauling everything over to Richenbacher's, a large club popular among Gainesville's relatively small number of original-rock followers. Except for a couple of staffers mopping the floor, the place is empty. But in a matter of moments, a stage set rises like an oasis, amplifiers are positioned, guitars wired in, the drum set bolted together. A deserted room quickly becomes a concert venue.
Keith Schantz and I begin a game of eight ball on one of the two pool tables, but we'll never finish it. The band plays three songs to check the sound, Schantz advising about the volume levels of various mikes. I walk up and take a look at Feiles's Roland RD-300s digital piano. Ten of the white keys are busted off, leaving holes and razor-sharp edges, most of the latter covered with masking tape so his fingers aren't torn to shreds. What happens, I ask, when he plays chords involving the missing keys? "I just play up here," he says, pointing to the tiny slivers between the black keys.
After soundcheck the band heads over to a health-food restaurant called Coney Island and sits down for the first decent meal of the day. When Feiles and Wall and I get back to our room, we realize the TV set has cable. "We go first class," Feiles declares somewhat sarcastically, "or we don't go at all!"
The winter Olympics prompt Jim Wall to wax nostalgic about being on the ice. In Cleveland he was a high school hockey player until the day an errant puck slammed into his ankle, shattering it and ending his athletic career -- sort of. Being a drummer in a rock and roll band, especially one that often plays for hours on end, is an athletic endeavor. Like other members of the band, Wall regularly sees a chiropractor. In the motel room before the show, he rotates his right arm in big circles, making pop-crunch noises.
Richenbacher's managers have asked the band to begin the show at 9:45 p.m., early by Miami standards. But in this college town it is illegal to serve alcohol after 2:00 a.m., so everything starts earlier and ends earlier. The Causes are scheduled to play three one-hour sets. That'll add up to 26 songs, many of them more than five minutes long. An hour and fifteen minutes before showtime, no one has any idea which 26 songs will be included. For this band, the hard part isn't coming up with enough songs, it's deciding which ones to leave out. "I'll write the setlist sometime before the show," Feiles says nonchalantly.
Feiles is stone-tired, flopped on the bed, when Karen Friedman bangs on the door, walks in, and hands him a pen and a piece of paper: "He says he wants you to write a setlist." There's no need to mention Keith Schantz's name.
At quarter till ten the club is still not crowded, but my old journalist friend Noel Nash is there. He now lives in Gainesville, and I'd called him from the motel to talk up the gig. Knowing his passion for Dylan, the Dead, Neil Young, and the Band, I figured he'd enjoy the Causes. He's brought along his brother, Jim.
Once the show begins, as a few more people straggle in, the music develops momentum -- the guitars wail and the bass growls and the drums pound, all of it flowing as naturally as a waterfall, washing over the audience with beauty and energy. One song in particular commands attention, and in its power threatens to overshadow the rest of the band's work. "In God's Country," a searing anthem decrying misery and injustice in this privileged land of ours, isn't on the Causes's CD, and they've been careful not to let it slip out in bootleg form. Too much exposure can sometimes be a bad thing.
They do play the song in live settings, and this night in Gainesville it is explosive. Dreams deferred, promises lost, outrageous inequality, racism A an ugly picture of America, and of religion in America: "That's my brother/Hanging in that tree out there/'Cause his color was a thing they could not bear/My eyes see just fine and I just don't get it/'Cause my brother's heart beats as strong as mine." If we should "keep the faith" because "God will surely light the way," then why is it "dark in our homes"? Go ahead and pray to Jesus. It won't help. "I don't want to live/In God's Country any more."
Richenbacher's isn't packed, but the crowd, including a few Miamians and some Gainesville musicians, reacts enthusiastically. My friends the Nash brothers are impressed. Jim Nash buys a copy of Bomb in the Shelter and after the show, the three of us head back to the motel room.
Soon Feiles and Jim Wall arrive. Edelson and Coogan ran out between sets and bought some beers they bring to this little postshow party. Vice Academy, a really cacky movie A "it's like porno without the sex scenes," Wall quips -- flickers on the TV set. Everyone is pretty exhausted at this point.
Three Gainesville locals pop in, full of praise for Feiles and the band, and full of suggestions. Natural Causes is a new discovery for one of them. "I know some people in Orlando," he says. "I might even be able to hook you up with Disney World." Feiles, now forced to sit on the floor of the crowded room, says little.
The new fan doesn't know what most of us in Miami do. How the Causes have already toured the nation, hitting five major cities courtesy of Tanqueray. How in the summer of '92 the band began jumping on opportunities to play Shuckers, Churchill's Hideaway, the Island Club, Uncle Sam's Music Cafe, the UM Rathskeller, the Brickell Tavern, and any place else that would have them. How they'd progressed to the point of being solicited by the biggest and best clubs in town. How just a week before, in fact, the Causes had played Saturday afternoon at the Miami Beach Festival of the Arts, then at Stephen Talkhouse that night, and then at the festival again, doing what they've always done: playing as much as possible. How their first press kit contained exactly two clippings totaling less than two paragraphs, and their latest is thick enough to use as a coffee table. How they're now in a position to sign a label deal just about anytime they want. Still, the Gainesville fan's new-found faith is fun to watch.
We leave the motel at 10:00 the next morning. The band sold seven CDs (ten bucks per) at the show, which they figure is a good number considering the size of the crowd. Richenbacher's has invited them back, promising a Friday and Saturday gig as soon as the band is ready to return. In fact, the band is already planning spring tours to Tampa, Orlando, Clearwater. A little regional domination.
It's been a long weekend, and after we drop off Feiles, Wall, Coogan, and Friedman at the house, Joel Schantz and Edelson make a few comments about the band's physical state. "Jeez," Schantz says at one point, "we look like we just came back from twenty cities in twenty days. We did one show and we all look like we've been on the road for weeks. Can you imagine what'll happen when we start to tour seriously?"
On this night the band will play Chili Pepper on South Beach. I have a feeling it's going to be a good gig. As we roll into his driveway, Keith Schantz is humming along with Tom Petty's lyric "the future is wide open," and I know he believes it. I believe it, too. It's 5:00 in the afternoon, clear as a bell, and the sun shines down.