Maria Is a Band

First came the name. “We actually had the name even before we dared to put a band together and play live,” says singer Michael Roderick about Maria, the rock group he founded with childhood pal Paul Molina. It may seem as if they're commemorating the Virgin Mary's Spanish nombre or the main character in West Side Story or someone's mother, girlfriend, or wife. The confusing name also may lead to the group being mistaken for mono-monikered female vocalists along the lines of Shakira, Soraya, Madonna, or Cher. But Maria the band, explains a relaxed Roderick as he inhales a plate of grilled chicken and white rice with his cohorts at a Lincoln Road restaurant, was inspired by a science-fiction flick. Back when MTV still played videos, Roderick and Molina saw Queen's “Under Pressure,” which featured a split-second shot of a robot's face. Amazed, the pair discovered the image had been lifted from German director Fritz Lang's 1926 classic, Metropolis.

The film's dual lead character, Maria, living in a future world populated by workers and thinkers, is a worker who is supposed to placate her people but whose evil alter ego ends up leading a revolt against the thinkers. “We just thought it was a great image,” Roderick explains. “Something very shocking yet in many ways touching.” Unbeknownst to Roderick and Molina, Maria the band, much like its local musical brethren, embodies the contradiction depicted in the movie, caught between the roles of worker and thinker. As toiling workers they're accomplished musicians who have produced a small body of recordings and deliver lively public performances. As visionary thinkers they have all sorts of ideas about what they'd like to accomplish next but are stuck in a sort of limbo, unable to take substantial steps toward attaining their goals until they secure management and label backing.

But for the members of Maria, that's just fine. They're in a good kind of limbo, one that's been a long time coming. From their beginnings in January 1996, they practiced in obscurity. “Paul and I were writing and messing around in the studio for years, learning,” Roderick recalls. “We chose to have those growing pains in private.” In the fall of that year, Maria came seemingly out of nowhere, bounding onto the stages of local clubs with a polished style and a cache of well-honed songs that caught many a local music critic off guard.

Back then the band consisted of frontman Roderick, guitarist Molina, drummer Brendan Buckley, keyboardist Pete Wallace, and bassist Dan Feiszli. The group released an eponymous EP in fall of 1997 and then put out a promotional album specially geared to radio, showcasing energetic tunes, sometimes dark and dense, punctuated by a metallic edge and sporting vigorous hooks. After a little more than a year, artistic differences interceded, and soon the keyboard player and rhythm section were out. Bandless for a few months, Roderick and Molina in late 1998 recruited drummer Joe Eshkenazi and bass player Dameon Maizler, both of acclaimed local Latin funksters Khadir, which was slowly dissolving. Aside from Maizler, who is trained as a classical guitarist and attended a music program at the University of Miami, none of the players has any formal musical schooling, but the raw talent blended easily nonetheless. “In the first twenty minutes of us playing together, we knew it was going to gel,” Eshkenazi marvels. “We all have the same focus, which is to get onstage and perform, not just play our songs.”

New-and-improved lineup notwithstanding, the showmen of Maria do not perform in public very often. But it's not because their day jobs get in the way. (Molina works for a painting contractor. Maizler is a massage therapist and personal trainer. Roderick and Eshkenazi work for a cable television channel.) It's a conscious choice. They prefer to spend their time rehearsing on a weekly basis, writing new tunes, and especially cultivating the things that, according to Roderick, used to make rock and roll unique, specifically “excitement,” both musically and visually.

“I'm disappointed sometimes when I go to a show for bands I like, and I've paid $30 or $40, and they come out dressed like they just overhauled a '78 Buick!” Roderick huffs. “We got into rock and roll because when we heard it, it seemed unreachable to us. It was almost like an audio movie. It was a complete and total mystery. We did not know why [a song] sounded like that, and how they came up with that, and how they did that. A lot of the mystery has been taken out of rock and roll.”

It's not all about looking good and being enigmatic, though. The band certainly is in touch with worldly things, such as hard work. Currently it's in the process of booking a few shows along the East Coast, attempting to lure the talents of well-connected producers, and trying to garner interest from prominent management companies and major record labels. “Not succeeding or not making a record that we want to make is not an option,” Eshkenazi declares firmly. “It will happen.” But realistically Maria is aware that there's a possibility it won't. “Oh, yes, could we deal with it?” Roderick asks. “I believe that we could, and then all that would be left would be what we started with, and that's the joy of the music. No matter how many people are in the room, no matter how we want to do it, the music still makes us happy.”