Courting Controversy

They play incredibly wonderful music that crosses over genre boundaries, and they play it with an incredibly infectious fervor. The drummer, tambourine in hand, wades out into the crowd, leading an impromptu sing-along. The people respond by joining in. Isn't this supposed to be Miami? Isn't that guy with the tattoos all over his arms supposed to be pissed at this band of somewhat geeky-looking twentysomethings dressed up kinda nice and proper, playing songs that could be from a long-lost album by the Band? Not in this case. Kristopher Pabon (lefty guitar), José Castello (vocals and keyboards), Jorge Rubiera (vocals and drums), Max Johnston (vocals and guitars), and Jarrett Hann (bass) have evolved into the Down Home Southernaires, who play a distinctly Miamified brand of country/soul with an absolute passion and fervor that surprises even the most jaded scenesters. They are part of a continuum of music that stemmed from middle school circa 1996 and encompassed local bands Sik, Lasso the Moon, and Pygmy. The last had the most notoriety, and the Southernaires are basically the same lineup, minus one Edward Edames.

Castello, trim and always properly dressed, and Johnston, scruffy-bearded with a bulging waistline, had been playing together in small settings since that time. Rubiera, tall with a shock of unruly curls sprouting from his head, knew the two of them as well.

"I forgot that I knew Max. Every time I would meet him at a show ... I would always say, 'Nice to meet you,' because I would forget," remembers Rubiera. He also knew Pabon, the diminutive left-handed guitar player, from a photography class they had attended together at South Miami Senior High School. "We started playing music together, and [Castello] brought in Max, and I knew Edames. We were playing in a band called Sik that was like Tool-type metal, and I knew I wanted to play music; that's why I got José ... I invited him in," reflects Pabon. They knew Hann from Lasso the Moon, and he and Rubiera eventually joined the project in 2001. At the time, they were seventeen years old, except Hann, who was sixteen. The band would come to be known as Pygmy, and it garnered a reputation for musically confrontational shows. The songs were challenging, with tightly composed sections and intricate parts. The last album was at one point to be titled Niggers. "It was about defusing people.... If it jars you emotionally, then get over it.... It's just a word; get over it. But it never happened that way," says Rubiera. "The thing with Pygmy was to take a musical idea as far as we could. We would spend hours on four bars."

After four years of touring, recording, three albums, two EPs, and endless house parties, the bandmates found themselves at a turning point in the summer of 2004.

They were exhausted, done and finished. Castello was studying literature at the New School in New York City; Rubiera was studying video at a school in Kansas. Johnston's house, which had been their rehearsal space, burned down.

"There was a lot of depression ... a lot of 'I don't need you,'" recalls Pabon. "[During practice] we were running an extension cord and a lamp out of a generator in Max's burned-down house, and it felt like home."

When Castello was home from school in the summer of 2004, an invitation arrived to play a show at a house party. Pabon remembers, "We got an e-mail from this kid that he needed a band for this show and he said he thought he could count on us." They had been working on a few songs just for fun. "[Castello] had these songs; he always had [songs]. He wrote 85 percent of the early stuff," says Pabon. So they went to the show as the Down Home Darkie Southernaires. The name came from an album Castello had dug up. "He found an album called Down Home by the Jackson Southernaires, and he took it all apart and added Darkie," explains Rubiera. "We were in a hating-Pygmy mode when the Southernaires started. The mentality was different: just focus on songs ... be a lot more tasteful about it," says Pabon. The promoter was worried because, aside from the band's never playing a show or even considering itself a band at this point, there was a rumor that a song contained the word nigger. Despite the concerns, the show went off famously and the band received an unexpected reaction from the attendees. "We were playing live without José, even though the songs were his," recalls Pabon. Before Castello left, they hastily recorded a five-song demo at John Nunez's Southern Noise Studios, accidentally deleting some tracks in the process.

Rubiera was sick of school and hated the Midwest, so he returned to Miami to work and play, which eventually resulted in a five-song recording that became the Southernaires' first self-titled release. They followed it up with a tour in early 2005. More recording, writing, rehearsing, and touring was on the horizon.

Having had vast experience touring for their old projects, the band members geared up to record and hit the road again. In the summer of 2005 they, along with Nunez's friend Dan Escauriza, hastily recorded their second effort at Miami Dade College facilities. Pabon explains, "We recorded those ten songs live, almost in one take. The next day was mixing, and the next day we took it to the pressing plant.... We were slimy all the time."

Fall 2006 finds the Southernaires remarkably intact, with Castello having graduated and all members living in Miami, except for Johnston, whose family moved to Mims in Brevard County, and who returns weekly for rehearsals and gigs. With Escauriza they re-entered the studio and spent a great deal of time getting the correct sounds they wanted, instead of rushing through the process as they had the past two times. "Dan is brilliant. Every instrument on this album is gorgeous. We used a $200,000 grand piano and real Fender Rhodes," gushes Rubiera. The recording is finished and is currently being mixed. The new album features duets with WVUM-FM DJ Katrina Mena, who guests on the track "Pa's Reform School Baptist Hymnal Choir," and chanteuse Anna Perlmutter, formerly of Stone Soup and Stitchcraft, who shines on a version of "Secret Pain."

The band already has new material ready to go. "We have been listening to a lot of tropicália," explains Hann.

"What we are writing now sounds like Abba. It's dance music," adds Castello.

"We have worked so hard at this point I would rather be nailed to a cross. If we don't make it, I would rather die," says Rubiera.