A Good Band Is Hard to Find

Going up or coming down? Karen Feldner on the ladder of success

On stage at the Wallflower Gallery in downtown Miami, Karen Feldner strums a burgundy, hollow-body Gibson guitar while singing with the latest incarnation of her local altrock band, Trophy Wife. Behind the foursome Night of the Living Dead is being projected onto a movie screen. In a surreal, reaching way, the zombie flick coincides nicely with Trophy Wife's performance. In one scene from the movie, a wobbling blond woman navigates a dark hallway, nearly matching Feldner movement for movement. The two women teeter in unison. With her back to the screen, Feldner is oblivious to this odd little moment of synchronicity. No major deal. Lately there's been a flurry of activity in her life, and fortunately most of it has been more consequential than a few steps of unintentional stage choreography with a late-'60s zombie flick.

"Everything's happening at the same time," Feldner says, a few days after the Dead show. "I have a new band. The recording [for Trophy Wife's upcoming CD] is sounding great. We have a Website that's coming out." Feldner is sitting in Nexxt, a spotless coffee bar on Lincoln Road in South Beach, sipping from a cup of café latte. A resident of Hollywood, she declines to reveal her age, though she doesn't look a day past 28. When she speaks she edits herself, beginning as many as four sentences before settling on the one she wants. Twig-limbed and fair-skinned with long, wavy blond hair, she comes across as hyper-cheerful yet admits to being antisocial and loving dark clouds and rain.

No doubt much of the cheerfulness in Feldner's demeanor can be attributed to her new band. Though Trophy Wife has been through its share of lineup changes, Feldner feels that, with the recent acquisition of three new members, she finally has the band she's been waiting for. She fully appreciates her luck. Members moving or getting stolen away by other responsibilities often spells death for a band.

Feldner was fortunate. When her lead guitarist moved north to be with his girlfriend, in stepped Fernando Perdomo, the guitarist for the quirky, South Florida goof-rock act the Avenging Lawnmowers of Justice. Perdomo had been a faithful Trophy Wife follower for some time. "I was really into Karen's music," he says. "So when I found out that her interim guitarist was about to leave the band, I offered my help right away." Leery of formal auditions, Feldner decided simply to jam with Perdomo and see how it felt. He blew her away. By Feldner's estimate it took about three seconds to notice Perdomo's agility on the guitar and his flawless ear for music. She understood that not only had a new guitarist fallen into her lap but he was "a musical genius" to boot.

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Her new bass player is Debbie Duke, of the prominent local rock band Sixo. Duke replaces Feldner's husband, George, who left Trophy Wife because of other obligations, such as running the studio he owns. Since marriage and music often make for a precarious coupling, George's bowing out was probably not a bad decision. Just ask Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry.

Feldner invited Derrick Cintron, of the local hard rock outfit Humbert, to play drums for Trophy Wife after Feldner's previous drummer was called away by other obligations. Cintron, who punishes the skins in a style reminiscent of Animal from The Muppet Show, recalls how he came to be included in Trophy Wife. "I didn't know [Feldner], but she knew some of the other guys [in Humbert]. We ended up talking for a little bit, and she gave me a copy of her CD. I called her up and told her, 'Man, this is a monster CD.' I really loved it. About a year later, she's minus a drummer and, knowing that I'm also a drummer…"

Trophy Wife's new CD, projected for an October release, will feature this new lineup, the "best ever," according to Feldner. "This band has a much more exciting, raw sound than my last band…. I've always wanted to play with the best musicians I could get. I'm kind of a -- " she leans in and lowers her voice, embarrassed " -- a musician snob. I have very high standards."

Those standards were attained through formal training at the University of Miami, where Feldner received a degree in studio jazz. The enhancement of her talents and knowledge prompted Feldner to reassess her musical potential. As a result, in 1996 -- after three years of handling backup vocals and keyboard duties for Natural Causes, South Florida's most popular rock act at the time -- Feldner split. She simply wanted more. "Natural Causes began to bore me," she explains. "I'd started writing a few songs, and [Natural Causes' frontman-songwriter] Arlan [Feiles] wasn't into letting me sing them. That was the beginning of the end."

She continued writing songs. And though she'd never taken a lesson, she wrote her songs on the guitar. "I didn't even know how to hold a pick. But I knew that the kind of music I wanted to write was not going to be written on the keyboard." In need of accompanying musicians, she then did something she had never had the urge to do before: She put together her own rock 'n' roll band.

Trophy Wife played its first show in 1996 at Churchill's Hideaway in Miami. The band has been touring the Broward and Miami-Dade rock circuits ever since. This past July it made good on an opportunity to perform at the high-profile Zeta Fest in Hollywood. Feldner's song "I Believe," from Trophy Wife's self-released, self-titled debut CD, was included on Musician magazine's "Best Unsigned Bands of 1998" compilation. But it's another song, "Love & Hate," also from the debut CD, that may sound familiar. It's currently being used as background music for a series of new Burdines commercials. Not bad for someone who, only four years ago, had difficulty plugging in a guitar.

An unapologetic Trekkie, Karen has decided to call Trophy Wife's new CD Altered Borg Machine. The title was inspired by a race of half-human, half-machine beings who are recurring characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though Feldner describes the creatures at great length and in minute detail, it is probably enough to say that altered borgs are not happy, friendly beings. In fact, considering their desire to conquer the universe, they generally cause a lot of problems wherever they roam.

"Everything in life to me relates to Star Trek somehow," Feldner says. Let's get this straight: Everything in life relates to a TV program the premise of which involves explorers from Earth zipping through space and nearly losing their lives at the hands of every alien they encounter? "Well, that's how it is every day," Karen contends. "You have to deal with all the unexpected occurrences."

A tape of nine songs under consideration for Trophy Wife's sophomore CD does reveal a certain cosmic theme. Beginning with "In My Dream," Feldner sings over an appropriately drowsy guitar and backbeat, "I'm feeling like a flower, alive and green/My statue starts to crumble/I want to scream." And she does.

In the title track, "Altered Borg Machine," crunchy guitars growl beneath Karen's benevolent voice. Like much of Trophy Wife's repertoire, the song is a mixture of mean and sweet. "Again" rocks aggressively enough to make one wonder how a person so pleasant and intelligent could sound so angry. "Chemical Dependence," featuring appropriate subject matter, is one of those rare songs that manages to sound both languid and catchy. It ends eerily with Feldner emitting a long, trembling gasp. The unquestionable hit of the bunch -- despite its Trekkian lyrics -- is "Lucky Star." ("Your hands have unleashed a form incomplete/I wait instruction.") With its melodic verses, groovy chorus, and guitar reverberating as if underwater, "Lucky Star" is trippy music. It sticks.

It also happens to be the song Trophy Wife was performing as Feldner accidentally synchronized with the wobbly blond woman from the movie. When told of the coincidence, Feldner is ecstatic. She swears she's never seen Night of the Living Dead. The operators of the Wallflower Gallery had simply given her a choice of movies, and she chose the zombie classic because of its possibly morbid, sci-fi appeal. It just worked.

"Performing can really be a pleasurable experience that way," she says. "Even at rehearsal, it's a whole experience."

Talk turns to the future. Where would Feldner like to see Trophy Wife in, say, two to three years?

"Still playing… and making $25 a show instead of $15."

Say what?

She laughs, a just-joshing titter. "No, I have goals. Definitely. But they're so obvious, why even say what they are?"

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