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"Hialeah was here as a farming town before Miami got big," Ferny explains, peering through saucer-sized granny glasses. It's two weeks before departure, and everyone is gathered for an all-too-rare night of band bonding at the Shack North, Humbert's warehouse recording studio. "Hialeah had all these roads built and named a long time ago. But then Miami started growing, and all the roads started connecting." He draws a tiny street map on a scrap of paper. "So not every one but the main fairways are all given two, sometimes even three names. Like 12th Avenue is also Ludlum is also 67th. Then if you go all the way into Broward on that road, it becomes Flamingo. So you go, 'Why are they confusing us on purpose?' 42nd Avenue is Lejune, and it's also East Eighth Avenue in Hialeah. If you have a GPS, I don't even know what that shows up as. Mapquest doesn't work here, bro. Google doesn't work here."
Given the Bermuda Triangle effect Hialeah has on outsiders, it's a miracle anyone finds this place at all. One among countless, anonymous storage units, Shack North appears completely nondescript from outside. But step inside and you've entered a kinky Cubano Santeria museum of South Florida rock 'n' roll. The walls are collaged in concert posters, band stickers, motel room paintings, old photos, new photos, little altars to who knows what, Salvation Army salvage, plastic toys, inflatable thingies, and plenty of local memorabilia.
"That's the street sign from outside of Churchill's," Tony says. "A friend of ours took it while they were doing construction. When we came back to the studio one night, we found it leaning against the front door."
"These guys were signed a really long time ago," Rimsky says, jabbing at a CD sleeve from Nuclear Valdez.
"They were one of the first indie bands of the modern era," Tony offers.
"It was '88 or something when the album came out," Rimsky says. "They had this one song called 'Summer' that was their actual hit. I don't even know who they were signed to..."
"It was Epic," Tony says. "They went to Europe and toured with the Church."
"What happened to them?" Rimsky wonders. "They were actually around the same time Marilyn Manson was."
"There's the poster from when we opened for Ween at the Edge in '95," Tony says. "Ferny played clarinet with them that night."
He turns to the opposite wall. "That right there is a piece of wall from Washington Square," he says of a lunch-box-sized hunk of chipped plaster that abuts the low ceiling. "It was the last night they were open, and the bartender was going around the bar, pouring pitchers of beer down people's throats."
So everybody was hammered and started tearing apart the classic South Beach venue?
"Not everybody," he laughs. "Just us."
And that's just Shack North's hallway.
The main room is spacious, plush, well-decorated, and well-maintained, a far cry from the clammy storage units most local bands call studios. It's strung with Christmas lights that wind around a giant potted palm leaning beside a round, mirrored bandstand straight out of a Vegas lounge. Behind a large glass panel is the sound booth, generously stocked with a high-end Pro Tools setup, state-of-the-art microphones, and stacks of vintage keyboards. Tonight, the members of Rhett y Los Borrachos Empanadas, a 12-piece salsa band from Miami, are trickling in for a rehearsal.
"This is how we supplement our existence," says Rimsky, who, along with Ferny, usually mans the controls.
"As long as it pays for itself," Tony says. "We put out like 10 or 12 records last year, and that helps keep everything afloat."
Humbert rents the place out to local musicians almost seven nights a week. The going rate is about $40 an hour, a nice price considering the quality of the setup.
"It's kinda like a training ground for young bands," Caesar says. "It gives a degree of satisfaction to see 18-, 19-year-old kids come in and say, 'Hey, what's that you're listening to?' Then you hear them cut a demo or a song, and not to toot your own horn, but you hear the Humbert or the Flaming Lips or the Sloan influence all over it." A few late arrivals stream by the booth's open door into the studio. "We've been here a year, and this is what goes on every night."
"Two years, man," Tony says.
"No shit? Ah man, death is around the corner for me."
Caesar looking, speaking, and gesturing like Harvey Keitel doing a 40-year-old Cuban rock star is the senior citizen of Humbert. More than any of the guys, he's been around the South Florida music block, going back to the mid-'80s and Hammerhead, his hair metal band.
"We did the cock-rock thing all over Fort Lauderdale," he says. "I had a couple of pairs of spandex, some pink Chucks. I'd wear a little eyeliner... You know, standard issue." Caesar spent five years in L.A. with Hammerhead, gigging at the Whiskey a Go Go and the Roxy before packing it in and heading back to Florida. He's the only member of Humbert who's left his hometown.