Better Red Than Dead
Inside his small, two-story Hialeah townhouse, DC Astro sits in his gray-walled recording studio with bandmate Martha Arce. The duo, two thirds of the goth rock band Deep Red, are dressed in all black. Astro dons a T-shirt, jeans, and thick-soled shoes. Arce wears a small tank top and velvet pants with shiny, platform boots that reach the top of her calves. Astro has a pair of large, gold hoop earrings; Arce's left ear sports five small silver loop earrings and a dangling skull. Long, wavy, cranberry-color hair covers her other ear.
Astro and Arce may look every inch the dour goth rockers, but completely shedding their Cuban heritage is impossible. (Astro was born Dely Castro in Cuba, and Arce's mother is Cuban.) Today's beverage of choice, for instance, is café cubano, sipped from dainty cups. And then there's the weather. Rather than dark, foreboding skies, the sun shines brightly outside, and the trees stand bloated with green leaves. Astro's patio is overflowing with lush plants.
Most frustrating for Deep Red, rounded out by drummer/backup vocalist Mario Soto, has been the lack of musical kinship. The dominant soundtrack in this neck of the woods is good-time party music: a mélange of big, bouncy dance beats, Top 40 fluff, salsa, pop, hip-hop. In other words music suited to hedonistic revelry, not brooding self-reflection. It should come as no surprise that Deep Red is not exactly a household name in South Florida. "I think the main thing that we know now, that we did not know a few years ago, is how to target your audience," Astro says. "If I sent a tape of my stuff to Emilio Estefan, it would be a total waste of time, and if I sent a tape of my stuff to ZETA [WZTA-FM 94.9] they would be like, 'What the hell is this? Where are the guitars?'"
Elsewhere, however, the band enjoys considerable renown. Formed seven years ago by Astro and Arce, Deep Red caught its big break in 1996, when the tandem signed a deal to release their debut album. Candyland Records, a label run by the Hamburg-based, synth-pop band Project Pitchfork, put out The Awakening in September of that year and distributed the disc throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The album, which featured Astro's keyboard-driven compositions and Arce's passionate vocals, was available in the U.S. only as an import.
Although promotion was concentrated in Germany, Deep Red soon found airplay on radio stations from Canada to Hawaii. The twosome was included in various radio-station samplers, alongside some of the world's most famed synth-pop artists, including And One, Laibach, and Front Line Assembly. Before the release of The Awakening, international fans of goth music first began to take notice of Deep Red through compilations by Cleopatra Records, an indie label specializing in goth. The Los Angeles- based label included Deep Red on the prestigious four-disc volume The Goth Box and on a tribute CD to goth pioneers Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Deep Red is currently recording album number two, Darkwaters, with a release slated for February, on its own label, Osiris SoundWorks. Arce has stopped by Astro's studio on this bright December day to hear some rough mixes. The room is crammed with various samplers, synthesizer modules, and sound processors, plus two computers and two keyboards. The hardware is an indication of the elaborate process Astro uses to record. Today's work, for instance, includes the new song "Breath in the Mirror," which calls for a lead vocal, a "verse echo," a "verse high harmony," and, forebodingly enough, "God's voice."
As Astro is quick to note, four vocal tracks is about his minimum. The cut "I Live," from The Awakening, features ten. His instrumental production is equally intricate. Deep Red's songs float on ethereal waves of synthesized, multilayered melodies, propelled by powerful electronic rhythms. Arce's vocals swirl through Astro's misty sonic backdrops, rising into extended howls.
Astro cites influences as diverse as the pioneering German synth band Tangerine Dream and Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, whose horror movies of the '70s, especially Suspiria, have been a touchstone for directors such as Quentin Tarantino and other goth bands. Astro says he sometimes watches Argento's movies while composing or mixing songs. "I get more out of visual elements than music," he says. "If you're in the right mood, it creates some sort of atmosphere that makes it easier to create." Deep Red's name, in fact, is a translation of the title from Argento's 1975 movie Profondo Rosso. The opening cut on The Awakening, "Red," is built around a sample from the film's score.
The album was quickly hailed by goth aficionados. Project Pitchfork was so taken with the cut "I Live" that the group released its own remixed single of the song in Germany. Soon after that Project Pitchfork invited Deep Red to serve as the opening act on its Spring 1997 tour. "We found it kind of surprising to be asked to tour," Astro admits, breaking into bemused laughter. "We'd never played live before with this kind of setup." At the time Deep Red was just Astro on keyboards and singer Arce.
Astro knew he had to augment the band, so he decided to call up drummer Mario Soto. The 38-year-old Soto had collaborated musically with Astro since they were in their early teens. Their last project together was Element 104, a pop band that played around in the late '80s. Soto was happy to hop aboard. He says he was shocked to discover how well-known his old friend's band was in Germany. He recalls one night, in Leipzig, when he and his bandmates stopped into a McDonald's after a performance and found themselves swarmed by fans. "There was this guy who came up to us with a brand-new, black leather jacket and one of those silver-tipped pens," Soto says. "He gave me the pen and said, 'I want you to sign your name here and put "Deep Red from Miami."' He wanted me to sign this new leather jacket. I was like, 'Are you sure?'"
The adulation also took the founding members by surprise. "I was up on stage one night," Arce recalls, "and these guys were screaming, but I didn't know what they were saying. I thought they were saying mean things to me like 'Get off the stage!' or 'Go home!' and they were throwing things at me that looked like little bottle caps. I was just kind of dodging them. As I left the stage, I thought, 'Oh well, I guess they don't like me.' So then, after Pitchfork played, Peter Spilles [lead singer of Project Pitchfork] said, 'It was really weird because I noticed all these rings on the stage, and then I thought, They must be Martha's. But you didn't wear any rings on stage, did you?' And I said, 'No, but these guys were throwing things at me.' And he says, 'Oh, my God, they were yours. They were throwing rings at you.'"
The tour saw the band booked into fancy hotels, traveling in giant tour buses with its own roadies, and playing venues that accommodated between two and four thousand fans. Quite a contrast from their lives in South Florida.
Indeed Deep Red's popularity overseas continues to amaze both Arce and Castro. Taking a break from today's recording duties, Castro ducks a hand beneath the mixing board and pulls out a stack of papers, passing them to Arce. These are the latest batch of Deep Red fan e-mails and postings to goth-music discussion boards. One young fan, calling himself Deymon, writes: "I have found myself, the depressing, poetic and dark person I am. No one in the entire area is into Goth and probably never will be. But I can go it myself because this is me. The point I'm trying to convey is thanks for indirectly playing a role in my present self. I luv the person I am and you, I feel, have a part in it and I just wanted to say thank you." Another fan, in a small Polish town, writes simply, "You are my idol."
The band's European tour was no doubt a boost in popularity. But being in such close quarters for weeks on end proved costly to the band members in another way. While on tour a rift opened between Arce and the boys in the band. "I don't want to put all the blame on one person," Astro says. "If you got five people all in one room, sooner or later someone's going to find a way to get into a fight." When the band returned to South Florida, Arce was out.
To fill Arce's slot, Astro recruited Amy Baxter, former vocalist of the Broward-based rock group Black Janet. Deep Red recorded five songs with Baxter that would have been part of Darkwaters and performed a few local live shows, which included venues such as the Kitchen Club, then located in North Miami, and Fort Lauderdale's now-defunct Squeeze. Baxter preferred playing live to recording, which Astro favored, and the two soon parted ways. Another singer, Sarah Gleason, auditioned for the band and finished an album's worth of material with Astro and Soto, though she eventually left, citing concerns about having to go out on tour.
Astro and Soto began thinking about asking Arce back into the band, a plan they half-mockingly referred to as "the doomsday option." To their surprise she was willing to give Deep Red another go, even though she had started up another project, Distorted Reality, with a German musician. Putting Distorted Reality on hold, she rerecorded the Darkwaters vocals over a period of three months, and Astro started remixing and remastering the disc for the third time.
The band has received requests by DJs and club owners from across the globe to host a CD-release party for the new disc. Arce has taken charge of organizing the events. She says confirmed cities include Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Hamburg, Quebec City, London, and Barcelona, among others. So far Deep Red hasn't made plans for a CD-release party in South Florida. "We're probably going to do one somewhere around here," Arce says. "We haven't really talked to anybody. We don't really know where we can do it. Like Dely said, if we can actually play at the CD-release party, that's great. If not, I don't really give a shit, because there's a whole world out there. Just because we live here doesn't mean that we have to become popular here. Maybe Miami will never be a good place for Deep Red in that sense. And if it's not, well, then c'est la vie."
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