Victim Mentality

A Kite Is a Victim takes the slow road

"Someone, somewhere said something about tragedy being an opportunity," insists Ulysses Perez, drummer for Miami trio A Kite Is a Victim. It's not that the band's downbeat, melancholy songs take listeners down a suicidal spiral or that its members lead particularly dismal lives. But the group actually thrives on living on the edge, skating to the brink of disaster, and emerging stronger.

A February 1999 tour that took the band from South Florida to the wintry Northeast is a case in point. Supporting its first album, Home, an immaculate collection of brokenhearted love songs with minor-chord acoustic arrangements and delicate, precise playing, the trio (singer-guitarist Al Galvez, bassist Henry Rajan, and Perez) had developed a small following in New York City. An opportunity to perform at CBGB's, Galvez relates, was too good to pass up.

"It was snowing, and we had no heater in the car," he says. "We all got hypothermia. The tension got to me. I was under a lot of stress, and I wasn't sleeping much. I just got really sick -- I had a really high fever. By the time we got to Boston, I was drinking everything I could get my hands on. And Nyquil."

A Kite Is a Victim perfects the 100-yard stare
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A Kite Is a Victim perfects the 100-yard stare

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"His eyes were rolling back in his head," remembers the slight, goateed Perez. "I thought, Any minute now, he's going to go into convulsions."

Galvez smiles. "I kept saying, "Keep on! I'm all right!'"

"Then he'd pass out again," notes bald, bearded, bespectacled Rajan.

"When we got to New York, we thought it was going to be terrible," Galvez says. "It was full of people prepared to see us. I couldn't get out of the van; they had to carry me out. I couldn't breathe; my lungs were filling with fluid. I couldn't get enough air. They said, "Let's just cancel the show and get you to a hospital.' But I said, "People are here to see us! We can't disappoint 'em!' The soundman was a big A Kite Is a Victim fan, and he had been waiting to meet us, and he got all these people to come see us. So I thought, We're not going to fuck this up.

"I got up on stage, and I swear I strummed twice and started blacking out. I couldn't get anything out, I didn't have any strength. I told the soundman just to crank it, and I'll just whisper. So we played this whole show, just barely there, and people must have been like, This is so cool!I was out of my mind, I was so fucked up. It must have been such a surreal experience for people -- the look on their faces…"

All three members concur: It was their best show ever.

Today Galvez is swarmed with small tragedies: His car has just been totaled by a pack of reckless teenagers. Offered a beer, he suddenly remembers he's on penicillin for a nasty toothache, then details another near-fatal experience the last time he mixed antibiotics with alcohol. But the animated 26-year-old beams with optimism at what lies ahead -- unlike his hero Nick Drake, he's not about to wait for depression, death, and Volkswagen commercials to immortalize him. He's doing it now, for himself.

To date, the band's most striking achievement is the self-produced Home, released in 1998. The slow-paced epic is marked by soft, blurry touches -- Galvez's 12-string arpeggios and breathy vocals, Perez's delicate brush strokes on cymbals, Rajan's fluid fretless bass. Galvez's voice seems to sneak around a corner, softly narrating the confessional tales. Occasionally, when the emotional stakes are raised, it reaches toward an agonized Jeff Buckley falsetto.

"Message Me Never Again," the album's first and best track, glows like a fireplace in a stone cottage, fighting against the cold and damp. With clear antecedents like Drake and Red House Painters, the softly plucked, flamenco-esque guitar and spare piano frame the lyrics: "They came, took away your boy in dreams/Is it fair for me to claim my liberty?"

As striking as the open-diary directness is the meticulous production -- each note rings out pure and clean, Galvez's voice is multitracked in places to gorgeous effect, rendered with attention to detail. "Garden Boat," for instance, is as delicate and complex as a chandelier.

When Galvez sings, in a resigned whisper, "Time's the lonely ship that'll take this pain away/And it will sail trying to forget until it fades/How I wished for your garden boat to stay," it unmasks a forlorn emptiness. Rajan's bass swells beneath the song's gentle waves as a mournful piano slowly ambles along in the background, just a few notes poking through the stillness. It's hard to listen to it without a hard swallow.

Romanticism abounds on Home. The Peruvian-born Galvez softly delivers the tender, torchy "Dulces Tristezas (Sweet Sorrow)" in hushed Spanish. Against these morose melodies, Galvez hunches over his acoustic 12-string because it's simply too unwieldy to play standing up. "This band really developed out of a practical sense of thinking," he adds.

To be fair, part of what keeps the band interesting is putting ornament over practicality. Home (available at www.akiteisavictim.com) arrives in a cardboard slipcover case decorated with a bird feather, ink, watercolors, and a cutout window. Inside is a painstakingly crafted 32-page booklet with lyrics, illustrations, and photos. "It takes an hour to do each one," says Galvez. "I tore each page; I glued the feathers. It's giving people a full experience. CDs are such a step down from vinyl."

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