Trial by Strat

Justin Gracer seems none too satisfied, crouching alone on the outdoor stage of Piccadilly Garden's PopLife, packing up his guitar. As the crowd of hipster indie-rockers and wannabe Brit-poppers mills about the fountain and foliage, the vocalist/guitarist of the Miami-based alternative rock quartet Machete slips his sleek white Stratocaster into its guitar case. Though he sustains a wide, open-mouthed smile, he seems so frustrated with the performance that this might as well have been the band's final show. He bitches about the two-year delay of the group's debut CD and the low pay for bands at clubs. In between sentences he is still smiling. "It's just an expensive hobby when it comes to reality," says the 24-year old Gracer, a lanky, pink-skinned fellow with closely cropped blond hair.

Machete will endure, as it has for the past seven years. Despite the hassles of performing on the local circuit, it always reappears. Despite recording delays the band members hope to see their debut CD out soon. The local indie-rock label Spy-fi Records has supported them all the way through the recording process and is committed to releasing the disc by January.

If anything holds Machete together, it's the bandmates' strong friendship. Gracer, bassist Ben Carrillo, and guitarist Seth Berkey all learned guitar together when they were classmates in junior high. Onstage the trio of electric string players -- along with 25-year-old drummer Kris King, who has been a stable anchor for the group since the summer of 1998 -- connects in a manner that most bands never achieve, living up to the challenge of the angular songs they perform.

A particularly moving performance recently took place outdoors at A.D. "Doug" Barnes Park. Local fans of indie rock gathered for a picnic organized by Ed Artigas, co-owner of Spy-fi. A large brick barbecue grill was fired up under a wooden gazebo perched over a lake, while twentysomethings played kickball and threw Frisbees in the grass nearby. Across from the grill, band after band performed sincere sets of derivative altrock recalling dinosaurs such as Green Day and Velocity Girl. By the time Machete assumed its position, as the red of the sun shone through the branches, the stage had been set for something different. After all that predictable music, Machete's original blend of aggressive punk and adult MOR never sounded more interesting.

The band opened with "Tell It on the Mountain," a song by the New York skate-punk outfit Versus. Front and center, Gracer stood stiff and straight as he lashed at his guitar, bending backward on occasion to close his eyes, open his mouth wide, and scream lyrics. To his right Carrillo, a Peruvian with a wild black Afro and thick, black-rimmed glasses, looked down at his bass as he plucked out heavy notes. On Gracer's other side, Berkey, a diminutive musician with a thin beard, lightly and rapidly whipped out a rhythm from his guitar. In the back the long-limbed King put his whole body into his beats, nodding his thin head with every lick. The cover turned out to be the weakest song in the set; Machete's originals outshined an established band's work.

Machete's songs play with expectations, turning soft when you expect them to turn loud and slow when you expect them to speed up. A taste for the music is acquired only through familiarity, rewarding repeated listens. In "Lionel Goode" the band starts rough and tumble and then suddenly turns hushed as Gracer plucks a high-pitched melody and calmly sings "na-na-nas" reminiscent of elementary school playground taunts. With each refrain of the childish vocals, the song flirts with exploding, then hushes, until finally letting go. "Red Tomahawk" is full of changes, a testament to the rhythmic ability of King, who can switch time signatures with ease. "Independency" starts with a shy guitar rhythm and swells as King taps a crescendo from his cymbals. Then Carrillo adds a light, sliding bass line and Berkey adds another layer of lush guitar. The song breezily rides along, until Gracer stomps on a pedal that switches his guitar to a small megaphone attached to his amp, making his guitar sound as if it were coming from a drive-thru-restaurant speaker. The song swerves in a harsh, jagged direction, then as suddenly lightens up again. It's as if the Pixies have just butted heads with Hall and Oates.

Aptly enough, Machete began as a Pixies cover band. The group then consisted of Gracer, Carrillo, drummer Luis Garcia, and rotating second guitarists. They made their public debut on April 14, 1994, as part of a "battle of the bands" show at their alma mater, Sunset Senior High, when they were in eleventh grade. Over the next year or so, Machete only performed covers. The band members never considered writing their own music until inspiration struck Gracer in 1996. He was at an afternoon warehouse concert when he saw the local (now disbanded) progressive band Ed Matus' Struggle perform. Impressed with their original, mostly instrumental, alternative rock, Gracer thought, Fuck it; I can do this. That night he went home and wrote most of "Benefit of the Doubt," a song that still makes regular appearances in the Machete's set lists.

The band's break into the club and bar circuit came in 1997 at Rose's in Miami Beach. Machete had shown up for Wednesday's open-mike night. The club owners were so impressed, they asked the group to play regular monthly shows. It was most likely at this bar that Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra, owner of South Beach studios and a local punk/noise guru, saw Machete perform. "Rat Bastard invited us to make ourselves at home in his studio in South Beach, so we did," says Gracer.

The group recorded seven songs and burned them onto recordable CDs. "We only made like ten copies of them, and we just gave them to our parents," says Berkey with a snicker. Two songs actually did make it out to the public via Spy-fi Records. Machete's "Obstacle Course" and "3 H.P." made up one half of a split seven-inch with Sparkchamber, Artigas's band at the time. Released in 1997, this now out-of-print record remains Machete's only official release.

The following year Garcia parted with the band and King filled in. Soon after, recording for Machete's followup to the seven-inch began. "It's actually become a little ridiculous," King says about the recording delays, "but it's been a problem with time availability for the studio and for us, and we've had numerous problems with the DAT tapes breaking in the middle of mixing -- just a lot of fluky things that have set us back a little bit, and it's really hard when things like that happen, but luckily it's done and mailed away for mixing. It should be ready to show in about a month or so, depending on how quick we can get the artwork pieced together."

"I wouldn't bet money on it, to be honest with you," adds Gracer. "It seems like this album's been cursed. Every time the next step was going to happen, something takes us three steps backwards. I think the project was hexed."

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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.