Down a row of dark warehouses off Biscayne Boulevard, a solitary pair of green floodlights illuminates the entrance to Alex Diaz's North Miami Beach apartment. Inside, Diaz, the founder of ethereal folk rockers Ho Chi Minh, has perched himself atop a monitor at the center of the cavernous warehouse space. His bedroom, overhead, is a mere ledge with a queen-size bed, television set, and desk. There is no shower or closet, and little in the way of furniture. Diaz, age 32, has lived in this monkish flat since 1990, bathing and stowing his clothes at his mother's apartment a few blocks away.
Under the soft glow of multitinted bulbs, Diaz is a collection of sharp, shadowy angles -- a pointed nose between pointed cheeks above a pointed chin. Extravagant black curls crown his head. A single ceiling fan circulates warm air, while an old CD player spins a quiet, groovy marimba solo. Decked out in a vintage tuxedo shirt and slacks, Diaz scissors his thin legs as he explains the genesis of his band's debut CD Motorama.
The album documents a turning point within Ho Chi Minh, not to mention Diaz himself. He has told the story privately by many means: through words, through paintings, and through a giant shrine hidden away in a nook of his warehouse. Motorama is his public statement.
Ho Chi Minh formed in the summer of 1988. Diaz played bass and sang angry-young-man lyrics in a trio that wore its Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen influences on its sleeve. The group adopted its curious handle after hearing the name in the Robin Williams flick Good Morning, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh just sounded funny to Diaz and his mates, guitarist Michael Perez and drummer Rob Budowsky. The band came to be characterized by its volatility, changing lineups with uncommon frequency. "We were young," Diaz says. "I wasn't firing people, but at that time I took things more seriously than I should have, and I guess it kind of rubbed some of the people I played with the wrong way. We got into a lot of fights."
Fueling the tension was a drug addiction that had dogged Diaz since junior high school. Diaz soon found himself alone, without friends or bandmates. "I was at a point in my life that the only hope I had was music," he says. "But everything else, my whole attitude, was just awful. I was wasting my life away, doing a lot of drugs -- smoking, acid, whatever. I was just so fried on everything that I came to a breaking point."
It was at this nadir, in 1992, that a dream captured his imagination. His languorous voice picks up pace as he remembers: "One night I was here, in my studio, and I felt like I wasn't alone. When I felt this, I remembered that the night before I had a dream, and then I remembered the dream. The dream was that the Lord Jesus Christ came out of the sky, came out of the moon, came straight down, through the roof of my warehouse, and looked at me, and I looked at Him. His face was just as bright as the sun, and ever since then, everything changed, and the next day I started praying. I started crying. My whole life began to change. Gradually, day by day."
Not only did Diaz's vision give him a new perspective on life, it reshaped Diaz's songwriting style. As a sober musician with a clear head, he began to experiment with new tunings, pushing the limits of his scuffed, black Yamaha acoustic guitar. "I was inspired to start writing in different tunings, like a lower D, and making up chords in those tunings. In a way I had to totally relearn how to play guitar because I changed the tunings," he explains. "I wanted to do something new musically."
On top of the new tunings, Diaz fattened his sound by shoving a microphone into his guitar's sound hole, lending his music a resonating quality, as if he were a solitary figure playing inside a desolate, gutted church. His unique style of play lends an even greater fullness to his sound.
Watching him perform live, it's impossible not to notice his sweeping guitar strokes. He hits the strings in a flash of articulation, spinning catchy hooks out of the higher strings while steadily pounding out a bass line on the deeper ones.
Diaz has also added spontaneity to his lyrics. Ever since his vision, he says, he has freed his thoughts, allowed the words to come to him. "Almost every song has a phrase or a line that was given to me by my inner source, not me," he says. "A lot of those lines were things I heard in my head, and, at that moment, I'm there singing it. It's sort of like automatic writing."
Even the name of his band, so casually chosen a decade ago, has assumed a deeper meaning. While reading up on Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader who ruled North Vietnam during the Fifties and Sixties, the songwriter latched on to the name's literal translation: He Who Enlightens. "In reality, we're more true to what the word means than most people think," Diaz says. "Once I learned what it meant, I was enlightened. I think the message is exactly that. The meanings of the songs, the hidden truths within the songs, all reflect that spirit of God within each and every one of us, whether you tap into it or realize that it's there at all. These songs were all infused by everything that had happened to me. I put everything that I had into those songs because that's all I had."
On a more concrete level, Diaz needed a band to play with. He credits the birth of Motorama to his introduction to Bobby MacIntyre, a drummer/ percussionist/ vocalist. MacIntyre was hosting one of his regular open-mike jam sessions at the late, lamented Stephen Talkhouse on South Beach and expressed interest in collaborating with Diaz after watching him play a couple of years ago.
Diaz, by now a guitar-slinging songwriter, performed that night in much the same way he does today. He took the stage alone, hunched over his guitar and practically laying his head in its nape. While he sang in a hushed voice, the guitar seemed to spin a protective shell around him with its huge sound. MacIntyre was so impressed by the music that he offered Diaz his services. "It was just him and his acoustic, and I was mesmerized by the songs," MacIntyre recalls. "I'd wake up in the mornings singing them, so after a couple of weeks I started learning them with him." (MacIntyre now lives in Chicago, where he hosts a songwriters' night at the House of Blues, but he still visits Diaz and performs with him on tour.)
When it came time to record the album, MacIntyre introduced Diaz to bassist Shane Soloski, with whom MacIntyre played in the band Jodi and the Rodeo. Though Motorama was completed in 1995, the album wasn't released until last month.
Diaz spent two long years passing out a cassette of the final master to local entertainment managers and promoters, hoping someone would put up the money to release the album on CD. Though some showed interest, no deals were finalized. "I did the waiting game," Diaz says. "I kept hearing the promises and things I should do and the things I shouldn't do. It got to the point where I got tired of waiting. I realized how many people in the industry are just full of it. It was time to move on with the thing."
Drawing from his own savings and those of his brother, Diaz self-released the eleven-cut collection on CD, not changing a note from its earlier cassette version. He now hopes to pursue his musical aims without a major-label contract and is currently finishing plans to create an independent label, Left Out Recordings. He is distributing Motorama to various independent record stores nationally and to local outlets such as Spec's, Borders, Blue Note Records, and Uncle Sam's. The CD is also sold through the Internet, where Diaz has focused most of his marketing. Both Music Exoterica (www.xme.com) and Joe's Grill (www.joesgrill.com) carry the disc.
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Local sound engineer Luciano "Looch" Delgado recorded Motorama with Ho Chi Minh at his South Beach recording facilities called the Studio. He thinks Ho Chi Minh's music is better off as an independent release. "I don't know if his stuff would be accessible enough for the majors," Delgado notes. "He's totally fertile ground for an indie label because that's where you can take the chances. Most people like to listen to musicians that they can relate to something else. The more it sounds like some other band they like, the more they like it. His stuff is just very him. If you know him, then you know that he is his music. He's always searching for originality and the development of his limitations. To me that's what originality is. Some musicians are so versatile, but then you hear their original shit it sounds like everything else. Alex is a real visionary. I still listen to that record. It's almost religious to me because I hear the pain."
Diaz says he's happy if just one person hears the music and understands. Though he has played venues ranging from CBGB's to Chicago's House of Blues, Diaz's most memorable live performance came this past May at Churchill's Hideaway with only two people looking on, while soundman Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra dozed at the board.
"There was a Dominican guy and this other black guy, and they were intently listening to my show," Diaz recalls. "After I played, we sat down, had a beer, and talked, and the Dominican guy ran out to his car, came running back with a copy of The Celestine Prophecy and says, 'Man! The third principal -- beauty -- that's you, man. That's your music.' And he told me something I will never forget. He said, 'You don't own this. This music is so natural it is ours.' And I said, 'You know, I never heard anybody say that, but, you know, there's nothing more true than that.'"
The Ho Chi Minh CD-release party will be Thursday, October 30, at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave, 374-1198. The show starts at 10:00 p.m. Admission is free.