By Ashley Zimmerman
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It's a humid Thursday night in Miami, and half the members of the alternative pop project the New Graduates are lounging at the patio bar of Tobacco Road. Singer Todd Oenbrink, age 25, looking like a stick drawing personified (round head perched atop a tall, slender body; long limbs), sits in a white plastic chair at a white plastic table. Next to him is drummer Steve Copeletti, 28, who, like Oenbrink, wears a plain black T-shirt but has a little more meat on his bones.
The air hangs heavy below the giant trees that surround the famed establishment's outdoor bar. On a typical Thursday, the boys would be upstairs, running through a sweaty set of what Oenbrink calls "jangly pop," a sound replete with brooding melodies and shimmery guitars. But tonight they're happy to quaff beers and talk about the band's origins. It's a topic that renders Oenbrink and his mates positively giddy (a mood perhaps aided by the beers).
Ironically Oenbrink was on the brink of retiring from music before joining the Grads. "I hadn't done anything musical for eight or nine months. Then Steve called me up and asked me if I wanted to try it, even though I didn't want to be in a band," Oenbrink says, in a rush of words. "I knew he was a cool guy. He was into some cool bands, so I thought I'd go out with them and jam and see what happens. We wrote three songs that night and have been playing them ever since."
Adds Copeletti, with a playful grin: "We were kissing and stuff. It was nice."
Homoerotic teasing is just part of the package for the New Graduates, who are clearly delighted to have found each other. The quartet, which includes guitarist Earl Coraluzzo, age 27, and bass player Tom Hammond, 26, has a debut disc slated for a March release on the indie label Spy-Fi Records.
Oenbrink's past experience in the world of rock was not quite so sanguine. He had previously filled the lead vocalist position in the Fort Lauderdale altrock outfit the Miles, a group defined by fuzzy guitars, airy synthesizers, and electronic beats. Over a period of five years, the quintet became a staple in the South Florida scene, even hiring a manager who handled queries from major labels. The Miles released two successful EPs and a seven-inch single -- recordings that proved popular enough to chart in the College Music Journal, which tracks bands based on college-radio airplay. Despite the group's success, Oenbrink says the members lost energy and parted ways.
After half a decade chasing pop fame, Oenbrink had his doubts about joining another band. But if Oenbrink was feeling sapped, Copeletti had energy to spare. He had found some success as the drummer of Whirlaway, a band based in Pompano Beach that has resurrected the droning, guitar-drenched sound of bands such as Ride and My Bloody Valentine. Copeletti says the main catalyst for launching the New Graduates was a desire to play more. "I love my other band, but I don't get to play every night," he says. "I like to play every night."
Copeletti told Oenbrink that he, along with Coraluzzo and Hammond, hoped to start a band with a mopey, layered sound, along the lines of Red House Painters or Low. The four convened at Ridenour Studios in Fort Lauderdale in the summer of 1988. The chemistry was immediate. "We used some of the same songs we had been working on [with another singer] and sped them up quite a bit," Hammond recalls. "We didn't know if it was going to go anywhere, but before we knew it, we had three or four songs that we were really happy with."
The band built up a repertoire over the next few weeks and in October held their debut performance at the now-defunct Hungry Sailor in Coconut Grove. The band hit the stage in a whirl of personalities. Coraluzzo wore shorts and manipulated his effect pedals with bare feet. Oenbrink writhed and twisted his lanky body around an overextended microphone stand. Hammond drubbed out the low end on a bass tucked into his armpit. And Copeletti played the perky rhythms of the songs with his thick-framed glasses bouncing along to the beat. What spilled out of the amplifiers was a charming pop sound that immediately impressed Ed Artigas, the Miami-based musician who booked the show.
Artigas also runs Spy-Fi Records, an indie label that had released an EP for Copeletti's other project, Whirlaway. He quickly made a deal with the New Grads to release their debut. "I like their music," Artigas says. "I already have a working relationship with Steve, and I believe in Steve and the things Steve does, and I think all the guys in the band are swell."
Both live and on disc, the band's music boasts a dreamy, incandescent sound. "Hide" showcases a guitar line that sounds like a softly murmuring cascade, recalling the sound of the Sundays. "Rainiest Day" has an ironic melancholy inspired by the Smiths. Oenbrink sings about going out on "the rainiest day" in a quavering monotone, as the melody jolts along on Coraluzzo's perky guitar riff. Lyrically Oenbrink concentrates on relationships -- and how much they hurt. "You're pushing off again/Your distance brings me down," he sings on "Everything." A soft wave of guitar strumming reminiscent of the Ocean Blue accompanies him, and these waves -- provided by Coraluzzo -- swell into echoing layers. "I thought I told you now/I want to be your everything," Oenbrink wails in an anguished tenor.