Meet the New Republicans
Summiting the Rickenbacher Causeway on a bicycle at sunset offers a startling take on Miami. The whitewashed skyline juts like an artificial reef out of Biscayne Bay, which stretches far below and southward into endless Atlantic. Cars whiz by indifferently, and the warm evening air is palpable with sound and movement and color. From the peak of the causeway´s towering hump, a pair of scruffy cyclists take the downslope like they own it.
The city assumes a hyperreality when you´re on a bike, simultaneously exposed and detached. This is the city of Awesome New Republic, would-be heroes of Miami´s emerging rock ´n´ roll fantasy.
Maybe the name says it all with these guys: Awesome New Republic, the young, iconoclastic duo rallying a local subculture that until recently was dispersed like the 12 tribes. Maybe Michael-John Hancock´s call-of-the-wild serenade and Brian Robertson´s sophisticated keyboard acrobatics can persuade Pop America to stop relying on Miami merely for bitches, beaches, and bling. Maybe our indie proletariat can unfurl the ANR flag, rise up, and ¨kill South Beach dead/drop out of magnet school/sign up for special ed.¨ The manifesto is right there, track six on the band´s full-length debut, ANR So Far.
Or maybe Awesome New Republic is just joyriding.
¨A song like Kill South Beach Dead,´¨ Hancock says, ¨there´s a lot of meaning behind it, but it´s also a joke. It´s just phrases that don´t have anything to do with each other. Or using a catch phrase like post-crunk´¨ which the duo does occasionally to describe its dance-mad brand of durrty spazz-jazz and Day Glo freak-pop. ¨It´s not making fun, and it´s not being ironic, but it´s just being affected by the whole thing.¨
The whole thing is, of course, the slick, gleaming Miami of the VMAs, the WMC, and the tourism council. All of which is far from the sleepy South Miami bedroom community where Robertson and Hancock live, relying on two wheels to get around and two instruments to create their music. When you´re this talented, it´s not a bad idea to impose some limitations and reign in the scope of your art. Even if just a little.
¨One of these days, we´ll probably feel differently,¨ Robertson says, ¨but for now, it´s working for us to just show up with the drums, my two keyboards, my effects, and my amplifiers. And our voices.¨
It wasn´t always so minimal for ANR. The band began as a five-piece in 2002, each of its members students at University of Miami and sporting wacko stage names like Denny Denny Breakfast and RCL Destroyer. As their bandmates graduated and moved away, Robertson, a UM-trained pianist from Rhode Island, and Maryland-born Hancock, who played guitar at the time, kept making music together. By summer of 2004, they had distilled into the current version of ANR, with Robertson adding customized digital effects to his keyboards and Hancock switching to drums and vocals.
Even as a duo, much of the quizzically shifty sound and tilted artfulness of the original quintet remains. At various times, the pair has donned ponchos, fake beards, fake blood, sweatpants, and face paint, since, as Hancock puts it, ¨people don´t come to the show with their eyes sewn shut.¨ But the stage theatrics have also evolved as ANR honed its identity over the past year.
¨That kind of stuff is great, but it can get in the way of making music,¨ Hancock says. ¨We´re not gonna move away from art. But it´s almost like the sweatpants are the same as Interpol wearing their suits every night. Or Kiss.¨ Playing galleries, house parties, and other offbeat venues has also lent a twinkle of eccentricity that the band doesn´t want to be pinned to. ¨I don´t really think of us as a Poplife kind of band,¨ Hancock says, referring to the longstanding Miami scenester pageant. ¨I´d like us to be more of a jamband. Not like Phish or anything, but it would be nice to have a more diverse crowd of all kinds of music listeners, as opposed to just the hipsters. Dressing up as a weird shaman before you go up onstage definitely isolates what you´re doing to, like, Oh, you´re an arty band. ´¨
Truth is, the music designates them as an arty band as much as the face paint, and that´s not a bad thing. Check the gorgeous, radio-ready electro-pop of ¨Wheels, No Engine¨ from ANR So Far: Influential L.A. DJ Nic Harcourt has spun the album´s epic first single on his Morning Becomes Eclectic radio show and BBC Radio 1. Here, Hancock´s voice is at once tender, powerful, and immediate, his harmony with Robertson´s swooning keys rendering an unforgettable classic. Then flip on ¨Japanese Subtitles¨ from All Party Talks, the band´s translucent blue vinyl-only EP. The song´s Steely Dan-on-Afro-IDM glitch-funk is the twisted result of some 160 digital tracks braided into a tense, delicate ballad. Both tracks and both releases swell with the volatile creativity and wide-eyed ambition of truly visionary music.
Thematically, Hancock injects ANR´s slinky funk with kaleidoscopic, far-flung imagery, some pseudo-political, some deeply personal, some both at once. ¨Going 2 Bed with N Korea¨ follows up the line ¨We fucked the sheets right off of the bed¨ with ¨By now, the water´s gone/By now, the wind has blown in/These ill beats drop the bomb/Jong-Il´s beat drop the bomb in.¨ Bicycles are a metaphor for relationships, Kylie Minogue becomes a warrior queen, bedroom come-ons elevate into poetry, post-millennium tension looms, self-reference is rife. If this is what the New Republic looks like, then you better believe it´s awesome.
¨Everything is just a mishmash of nothing being excluded,¨ Hancock says of his lyrics. ¨We´re definitely not like, OK, our band sings about booze, chicks, and motorcycles. Go!´ And were also not like, We sing about important sociopolitical issues and we only play fundraising events for third-party politics.´ I think it´s more characteristic of growing up in this generation, being inundated with everything all at once video games, your president, porn, artwork, movies, music, your neighborhood. It all becomes your whole experience.¨
And maybe there´s no place more saturated with that experience than the superconsumptive, pop-culture crucible of South Florida. Maybe there´s no other locale from which ANR could bike-ride into a cool-hand coup.
¨If they weren´t taking in all of those things, they would just be another generic band from Miami,¨ says Lauren Reskin, owner of Sweat Records, Miami´s premiere indie record shop, and of Sutro Records, the label that´s released both ANR albums. ¨I knew from opening the store that there was this untapped group of people that was greater than anyone recognized. Because of the geography of South Florida, a lot of music lovers don´t come into contact with one another unless it´s at a show. That´s why we thought Miami would be a great place to do what we´re doing, because of the vast amount of room to do it. Just by virtue of being down here, it´s something special.¨
Believe it: South Florida needs ANR far more than any overhyped celebrity cameo or soulless awards show. Though that´s exactly what everyone´s come to expect from the Magic City.
¨Everyone who actually makes the music here is used to being the last person in line at the cafeteria who gets to eat lunch,¨ Hancock says. ¨And that´s good. That´s what keeps you going. Everybody else can get greedy. Regardless of what people say, Miami still doesn´t have anything going for it yet. There´s still a lot that needs to happen for it to have its own unique youth culture. Kids have to start incorporating all these elements of the city into what they´re doing. There´s all these other kinds of music that I don´t see anyone incorporating into their bands Latin, hip-hop, reggaeton. No city in America has that, and this city could. But as of now, it´s trying to imitate something that´s already happened somewhere else. Hopefully as a stepping-off point to the next level.
¨U2 made that album Pop at South Beach Studios a few years ago,¨ he continues. ¨You listen to that and it´s more reflective of Miami in its lyrics and sound than most local records that have come out over the past decade. And it´s fucking U2. Surely we can do better than that, people.¨
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