Painting the Town Rad

Summiting the Rickenbacker Causeway on a bicycle at sunset offers a startling take on Miami. Whitewashed skyline juts like an artificial reef from Biscayne Bay, which stretches far below and southward into endless Atlantic. Cars whiz by indifferently. From the peak of the causeway's towering hump, two scruffy cyclists take the downslope like they own it.

The city assumes a hyperreality when viewed via velo, simultaneously exposed and detached. This is the city of Awesome New Republic, would-be heroes of Miami's emerging rock and roll fantasy.

Maybe the name says it all with these guys: Awesome New Republic, the young duo rallying a local subculture. Maybe Michael John Hancock's call-of-the-wild serenade and B. Rob E. Robertson's sophisticated keyboard acrobatics can persuade Pop America to stop relying on Miami merely for beaches and bling. Maybe our indie proletariat can unfurl the ANR flag, rise up, and "Kill South Beach dead/Drop out of magnet school/Sign up for special ed." The manifesto is right there, Track 5 on the band's full-length debut, ANR So Far.

Or maybe Awesome New Republic is just joy-riding.

"A song like 'Kill South Beach Dead,'" says Hancock, "there's a lot of meaning behind it, but it's also a joke. It's just phrases that don't have anything to do with each other. Or using a catch phrase like postcrunk," which the duo does occasionally to describe its dance-mad brand of spazz-jazz and DayGlo-pop. "It's not making fun, and it's not being ironic, but it's just being affected by the whole thing."

The whole thing is, of course, the slick, gleaming Miami of the Video Music Awards. All of which is far from the sleepy South Miami bedroom community where Robertson and Hancock live, relying on two wheels to get around and two instruments to create their music. When you're this talented, it's not a bad idea to impose some limitations and reign in the scope of your art. Even if just a little.

"One of these days we'll probably feel differently," says Robertson, "but for now it's working for us to just show up with the drums, my two keyboards, my effects, and my amplifiers. And our voices."

It wasn't always so minimal for ANR. The band began as a five-piece in 2002, each of its members students at the University of Miami, sporting wacko stage names like Denny Denny Breakfast and RCL Destroyer. As their bandmates graduated and moved away, Robertson, a UM-trained pianist from Rhode Island; and Maryland-born Hancock, who was playing guitar at the time, kept making music together. By summer of 2004, they had distilled into the current version of ANR, with Robertson adding customized digital effects to his keyboards and Hancock switching to drums and vocals.

Even as a duo, much of the shifty sound and tilted artfulness of the original quintet remains. At various times the pair has donned ponchos, fake beards, fake blood, sweatpants, and face paint, since, as Hancock puts it: "People don't come to the show with their eyes sewn shut." But the stage theatrics have also evolved as ANR honed its identity over the past year.

"That kind of stuff is great, but it can get in the way of making music," Hancock says. "We're not gonna move away from art. But it's almost like the sweatpants are the same as Interpol wearing their suits every night. Or Kiss." Playing galleries, house parties, and other offbeat venues has also lent a twinkle of eccentricity that the band doesn't want to be identified with. "I don't really think of us as a Poplife kind of band," Hancock says, referring to the long-standing Miami scenester pageant. "I'd like us to be more of a jam band. Not like Phish or anything, but it would be nice to have a more diverse crowd of all kinds of music listeners, as opposed to just the hipsters. Dressing up as a weird shaman before you go up onstage definitely isolates what you're doing to, like, 'Oh, you're an arty band.'"

Truth is, the music designates them as an arty band as much as the face paint does, and that's not a bad thing. Check out the gorgeous radio-ready electro-pop of "Wheels, No Engine" from ANR So Far. Influential KCRW-FM DJ Nic Harcourt has spun the album's epic first single on his Morning Becomes Eclectic radio show and live on BBC Radio 1. Here Hancock's voice is at once tender, powerful, and immediate — his harmony with Robertson's swooning keys rendering an unforgettable classic.

Thematically, Hancock injects ANR's slinky funk with kaleidoscopic, far-flung imagery, some pseudopolitical, some deeply personal, some both at once. "Going 2 Bed with N Korea" follows up the line "We fucked the sheets right off of the bed" with "By now the water's gone/By now the wind has blown in/These ill beats drop the bomb/Jong-Il's beat drops the bomb in." Bicycles are a metaphor for relationships; Kylie Minogue becomes a warrior queen; bedroom come-ons elevate into poetry; postmillennium tension looms; self-reference is rife.

"Everything is just a mishmash of nothing being excluded," Hancock says of his lyrics. "We're definitely not like, 'Okay, our band sings about booze, chicks, and motorcycles. Go!' And we're also not like, 'We sing about important sociopolitical issues and we only play fundraising events for third-party politics.' I think it's more characteristic of growing up in this generation, being inundated with everything all at once — videogames, your president, porn, artwork, movies, music, your neighborhood. It all becomes your whole experience."

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Jonathan Zwickel