Off the Beaten Utrec

Miami's rock and roll scene has evolved to such a level that pride of purpose - or is it self-consciousness? - assumes more importance than it should. There are so many strikingly original bands, so many passionate stylists, so much variety that the national scene is a flat bore in comparison, which is fine, but the offshoot is that scenesters scoff at local acts that don't go out of their way to be out of the ordinary: Oh, them, they're just another Broward metal band. Oh, them, they're so commercial. Oh, them, they're.... Oh, bullshit.

Utrec might be the most normal band currently plodding through the South Florida rock morass. And that's what makes them so weird. They've been written off too often as "pop rockers" -as if rock music should avoid popularity at all costs. "From reading the papers," says bassist Rich Kwiat, "I guess we're stuck with `pop rockers.' But that denotes insincerity. Our music comes from the heart. It's accessible, but it's not that we set out to make it marketable."

There aren't edges to Utrec's sound so much as there are rounded curves. The emphasis is clearly and heavily on melody, the wall of sound - as tall and thick as any - keeps each element in its musical place, sacrificing woolliness for harmonic logic. "Where Are You Now," a three-year-old tune that's among dozens of originals not available to the public, begins as a droopy but intriguing ballad before giving way to an all-out jam. After the tempo shift, guitars scream wildly and keyboards raise hell, but the mix never reaches the noise-for-its-own-sake of heavy metal, nor does it invoke punk's cacophonous sensibility, remaining, like much of Utrec's material, a controlled burn.

If it takes a certain confidence and courage to play music that pushes the limits, or soars beyond them, an argument could be made that those virtues are also required to deliver the unabashed pop melody of "Daydream," another Utrec track from 1988. A slice of pop pie, "Daydream" sounds like it could have been written by a very young Neil Diamond or Boyce-Hart for a very young Stevie Wonder or the severely underrated Monkees. Confection does sometimes taste good.

The masterful musicality of the songs on Utrec demo tapes, and the rich variety of same, evolved from the quintet's work as a cover band. Exactly six years ago Utrec began coming together in Gainesville, where four members were studying at the University of Florida. When one member left for studies in Holland, the others recruited George Noriega to sing and play guitars. He and Rich Kwiat had been friends since they were twelve years old. Rich had already worked in another band with his older brother, keyboardist Andy Kwiat. Bobby Gomez is lead guitarist, Eddie Mejia the drummer.

They blew away a frat party one night, then began playing more party gigs, and finally became a house band specializing in keg emptiers like "Shout" and other Sixties material. "One song we wrote, `One to One,' made us realize we had something," Andy Kwiat recalls of the group's move into originals. "We began tossing around the idea of going to L.A. But eventually we came back to South Florida because of the scene, and our family was here."

Before returning home from Gainesville, they were sponsored by a major promoter to travel around playing covers. "In 1986 there was very little demand in South Florida for original music," says Rich Kwiat. "When I heard about the first Miami Rocks, I said, `Wow, there's other bands.'" Sticking with the cover circuit was tempting. "We made more money as a cover band five years ago," Andy Kwiat says, "than we make now."

Although Rich Kwiat insists Utrec is made up more of songwriters than musicians, their complex but smooth sound belies that claim. Keyboardist Andy Kwiat began playing piano in high school and Rich, who says he always emulated his older brother, became a singer for a group made up of junior-high students. He played in bands through high school, and at one point was called on to take over for a departing bass player. "Take up bass," he said at the time. "But I'm too old. I'm seventeen!"

George Noriega started playing guitar in tenth grade after seeing the Beatles' Shea Stadium concert on public television. "I said, `Wow,' got myself an acoustic, and taught myself how to play. I also sang along to the radio, and one day it just clicked." The Kwiat brothers and Noriega are the band's main songwriters, and all three sing.

Lead guitarist Bobby Gomez also started playing in middle school. "I screwed around with it, and then played in garage bands throughout school. When I went to Gainesville, I hooked up with [the other Utrec members]. My first year up there we were already playing."

The strong backgrounds of those four are redoubled by drummer Eddie Mejia. His grandfather, Sergio, was a famous musician in Ecuador, and when Eddie was a child he would bang spoons and forks along with anything. After moving to New York, his father scrimped and saved enough to buy him a set of bongos. By age seven, his dad had gathered enough to buy a trap set and pay for lessons. He entered competitions and continued honing his craft until age fourteen, when the family went back to Ecuador. "Then I really started playing," Mejia says. By sixteen he was working in studios. "I was the only drummer in Ecuador that could read music," he remembers. "Because of that I was one of the highest paid musicians in the country. But I reached a point where I couldn't do any more there, so I came here, went to Gainesville, played in some garage bands." He joined Utrec after answering a classified ad in UF's student newspaper.

After conquering Gator country and relocating to South Florida, Utrec has resorted to none of the drastic tactics favored by other top local bands. No silly gimmicks, no self-released albums, no change in their approach. "We've always been anti-gimmick, because the music should stand on its own," Andy Kwiat says. "An album is just too expensive at this point. Plus we've been hoping to do it through a label. The Mavericks' success with their own project is making us reconsider. As for our approach, the longer we're together, the more resistant to change we are."

That's not to say they haven't done everything reasonable to grab the gold. They've received air play on Y-100 and WSHE, as opposed to the more common local-rock outlets WVUM and WKPX. They've opened for the Outfield, Winger, Alias, Jeffrey Osborne, the Guess Who. They even gave Star Search a shot, losing by audience vote after a tie on the first show of last season. Last year they were selected for Miami Rocks, Too! They sang the National Anthem at the first Miami Dolphins exhibition game of this season.

With that background, more than 40 original tunes, appearances in all the clubs, and a handful of winning demo tapes, Utrec has built a strong following, but remains unsigned. This might be one of those exceptional cases where a band just has to get out of Miami to get the recognition it deserves.

"We just played the Lone Star in New York," Mejia says, "and it went real good. The outcome was that people in New York said we should play up there, rather than have [A&R scouts] come down here. One gig wasn't enough to get a buzz going around town. So they said come up and do a dozen gigs. Just set a month when you want to come." Utrec is aiming at this January for the trip north, resorting to some cover-band gigs to raise funds for the trip. "Nothing against Miami, it has a great scene," says Andy Kwiat. "It's just too easy up there to get seen. You call an A&R guy and he can be at the show in fifteen minutes. But we want to stay in South Florida. We grew up here."

If they get signed, the scenesters can be expected to cloak their envy and jealousy by denouncing Utrec as sellout compromisers. "What they say and what a record company says - they can come up with any reason," Gomez says. "They'll label you whatever they want to label you. But we write from the heart. We're not phonies, we're not faking that crap just to get a record deal - we don't have a record deal. Calling us pop rockers doesn't bother me, I don't think much of it. As long as they say we're a good pop band."

Rich Kwiat offers a possible solution to all the misunderstanding. "Call us art rock. That's better than pop rock, isn't it? But rather than that, I wish they'd come see us play, and don't call it anything.

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Greg Baker