By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
Six years ago, when the band known as Ed Matus' Struggle settled on its curious moniker, the whole thing felt like a joke. "There's a lot of cheesy names out there," notes guitarist Juan Montoya. "So we just named ourselves after someone we knew." The real Ed Matus, another Miami-area musician, found the homage funny -- at first. By now, though, he's grown understandably tired of being asked the question, "What's your struggle?"
As it turns out, the joke also has worn thin for Montoya and his mates. The struggle, however, remains. In fact, talk to the members of this sturdy quartet, and they'll tell you the struggle has just begun. After years of eking an existence in the bars and recording studios of Broward and Miami-Dade, the band is determined to take its act -- a mesmerizing blend of swirling guitars and plaintive romanticism -- to the next level.
There's no reason it shouldn't succeed. The group -- which performs in Fort Lauderdale Saturday -- has a sound like nothing South Florida has previously produced; in fact it sometimes sounds barely terrestrial. "For me the most important thing is creating a mood. You can hit one note and make it sound like it's coming from another world," muses Montoya, his hand leaving an imaginary vapor trail in the air.
Principal songwriter Montoya crafts that drama with the help of singer-bassist Scott Nixon, rhythm guitarist Steve Brooks, and drummer Robert Lecusay. By strict definition EMS plays emo-rock, an ethereal, melodic strain of music characterized by shoe gazers such as My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Pale Saints, and Slowdive. But Montoya's intergalactic guitar explorations give the band an extra dimension.
"I love things that you can't really make out too well," Montoya explains. "That sound is great because it leaves so much to the imagination. It's not the common electric guitar sound that's just CRUNCH. Instead it sounds like it's coming from the other side of the world. It flies by, hovers, and leaves you in awe, wondering what happened. That's what I try to do with our music."
The compact, Colombian-born Montoya is unflappably polite and easygoing, with a beaming grin and a warmth that is disarming. But his awkward charm and aw-shucks attitude disappears once the band starts playing. Seemingly possessed, lost in the flow, he coaxes out notes that soar past the ionosphere.
The lanky Nixon is equally affable in person. But he's painfully self-conscious in front of the microphone. "It's not a good occupation for someone who's not very confident," he admits. But his gentle vocalizations -- think the downtrodden appeal of Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek -- lend the band its dreamlike beauty. The balance between Montoya's flash and sizzle and Nixon's shyness is so fragile, each song threatens to crumble. Montoya's nimble-finger riffage sneaks up on Nixon's soft tenor, threatens to overtake it, then backs away.
In the wrong hands, Montoya's flamboyant freak-outs would be a liability, obscuring the frail, melodic substructure of the songs. Often he's but a solo away from turning the whole affair into a Steve Vai wankfest. But just as it seems the music might fall victim to such excess, Montoya's sense of restraint kicks in, and magically the vocal/guitar interplay pushes and pulls the melodies back into shape. Fingers flying, Montoya scribbles on the guitar's neck, striving for "the physically impossible -- to play what the human hand can't do. I play with a pick, but I build textures by using all my fingers to make the notes sound fuller, without so much attack. If you just strum with your thumb, the notes pour and flow."
Montoya picked up the guitar at age 12 after seeing an uncle play bossa nova tunes on an old acoustic. During junior high he moved to an electric instrument and began lessons at school. "The teacher wanted us to play certain things," he says. "But I heard other things that kept my interest." Those outside influences included early superheroes like Kiss, but Montoya's tastes evolved to embrace pop, progressive rock, punk, world beat, and the noise of John Zorn and Sonic Youth. In 1994 he and his friend Robert Lecusay were performing in various local rock projects and decided to form a band together. In need of a vocalist, the two enlisted Scott Nixon, who was playing guitar with the Miami outfit the Basils.
"I've never considered myself a singer," Nixon quietly explains. "I'm a singer out of necessity. I thought they wanted me to play guitar -- that's what they told me. The first time I ever went over to Juan's house, I felt like I'd been swindled into going there."
Words came slowly to Nixon and he remains, to this day, a reticent frontman. But eventually his melancholy vocals and Montoya's searing fretwork -- underscored by Lecusay's precision timekeeping -- meshed. A succession of bass players came and went.
After a self-titled debut disc, released in 1995 on local imprint Space Cadette, Lecusay left to attend college in Sarasota. Shows became less frequent, and the band's recorded output diminished to a trickle of singles. A more recent track, "Distance," was featured on Deep Elm Records' Emo Diaries 4: An Ocean of Doubt compilation. The band's Website, www.emsdistance.com, contains sound files, a biography, and news updates. Infrequent but well-received performances throughout the state have kept EMS afloat.