Out of Focus on the Old Cheers Days: "That Was our Life Back Then"
Out of Focus came together like many high school punk bands do -- the product of idle ambition and idealistic teenage gumption. Formed in late 1994, and operating until 1997, the group's earliest roots can be traced back to a short-lived Killian High outfit called Forehead, a hodgepodge of future South Florida punk scene stalwarts which served as an early incarnation of what would become Caught Inside. The group split up when Sean Fernandez and Andy Malchiodi came to a mutual agreement resulting in Fernandez leaving with Forehead guitarist John Moore to start Out of Focus.
"We were actually best friends growing up and realized shortly that we couldn't be in a band together because we both kind of wanted to be frontmen," says Fernandez. "So he [Malchiodi] started getting guys together for Caught Inside, and me and John started getting people together for Out of Focus, vowing to each other that we would always help one another out and get each other shows. So we played a lot of shows together."
Comprised of vocalist Fernandez, guitarist/singer Moore, guitarist Bill Tuttle, bassist Trey Hammond and drummer Mike Nacinmeinto, the band derived its early sound from such groups as No Use for a Name, NOFX, Lagwagon, Millencolin, Strung Out, and Operation Ivy, whose "Knowledge" it often covered to close out sets. Out of Focus began practicing at Hammond's house located in Westchester, but after a year, the guys' schedules became bunched up with work commitments and the band moved over to Space Cadet Records for convenience, convening a minimum of four times a week, practicing and recording a five-song EP on cassette that they sold out of their trunk.
Moore turned out to be a natural promoter. A year younger than the rest of the band as a result of starting school early, he had an eager enthusiasm that left an impression on anyone he met, and he was always looking for like-minded people to include in their music.
"John was the mouth of the band," says Fernandez. "He's a very outgoing person and pretty much has always been able to talk to anybody. I've known John since I was seven-years-old; we went to church together and grew up together and he's always been that bratty kid that, you know, wouldn't shut up. As he got older, it really helped him and the band out a lot, him meeting people and getting the word out there, passing flyers out, just things like that."
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Fernandez's earliest recollection of witnessing John's unique acumen for enterprise was during a show at a NOFX show at The Edge in Fort Lauderdale during Out of Focus' early days. Moore managed to get himself an audience with Fat Mike, introducing himself as "John from Out of Focus," and giving Mike a handful of stickers and flyers. Soon after, it seemed that everyone in the local scene at the time -- whether or not they had even heard Out of Focus play -- had heard of the band, to some degree, as a result of Moore's persistent promotional efforts.
"We played with a few bands -- I'm not going to mention names -- but, you know, they were better than us at the time and they were selective with their flyering -- who they wanted at their shows and who they thought were privileged enough to be at their shows," says Moore. "I thought everybody was allowed at my shows, that it would be a privilege to have them at my shows and not the other way around. 'Hey, I'm John from Out of Focus, here's a flyer, come to our show'; we wanted to be that neighborhood friendly connection, and maybe we weren't the tightest band in the world at the time, but we were young kids, we had a good time with it, and that's basically what we were looking to do. We just pretty much relied on hitting the pavement, and that's what took us from here to West Palm, you know?"
The band played nearly all of the venues open to them at the time, from the Zipperhead Room to Churchills, and from the Button South to Roses on the Beach. Their favorite place to play -- and the venue they are to this day most synonymous with -- was Cheers. Located on SW 17th Avenue in Miami, Cheers was the all ages epicenter of the mid-'90s punk scene and Out of Focus were right in the midst of it all, becoming such regular participants that the late owner Gaye Levine employed both Fernandez and Moore for a multitude of odd jobs including, but not limited to, collecting money at the door, barbacking, bouncing and tech work.
"Cheers was our place," says Fernandez. "I mean, if you lived in Miami and were into the punk rock scene, or hardcore or ska or whatever you were into, Cheers was really the place to be in the Kendall, Coconut Grove and Gables area. It got to the point where we had free reign to play whenever we wanted to with whoever we wanted simply because we were local guys and we got along with everyone and the owner. Big names would come to town like Lagwagon and Face to Face... We played with No Use for a Name, which was the biggest show we ever had at the time. We just wanted to be there, to be in that scene, for every show, good or bad. That was our life back then."
By 1997, however, tears in the band's fabric began to show. Guitarist Bill Tuttle's departure from the band had it operating as a four piece for a short while (he most recently played in Madmartigan), drummer Mike Nacinmeinto began to regularly opt out of practice (he later left to join the Navy), and bassist Trey Hammond was spreading himself too thin, playing in several bands including Foolproof, which became his main gig.
"It just seemed like me and John were the only two people really into it," says Fernandez. "We tried to hold some sort of musical thing together, but it didn't really work out, not on my end at least."
He, Moore and Hammond tried to start a new project together, A Few Good Men, with Against All Authority drummer Sidney Goldberger, but nothing came of it. After graduating from Killian in 1998, Fernandez attended Johnson and Wales culinary school in North Miami. Upon completion, he enlisted in the Army in September 2000 for eight years. When the September 11th attacks occurred a year later, he was deployed to Iraq. When he got out, he moved to Fort Myers for a while, playing locally here and there ("Nothing big," he says), just to do something while pursuing his culinary career. He has since moved out to North Carolina, at first to open a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse -- for which he served as executive chef -- and currently to work at a restaurant called Avenue M. He rents a small house in Asheville, where he lives with his girlfriend and his dog.
After all this time, however, he still feels the urge to play now and then.
"I would do anything to be in a band again, even if it was for a couple days a week and not even playing shows," he says. "For me, music was my dream for a really long time."
John Moore barely skipped a beat after the fallout of Out of Focus and the subsequent failed side project with Fernandez, first with a ska outfit called Los Anti-fuzz (or "the Anti-fuzz"), a band comprised of half the members of the Peckers and Jacques Laroche, who sang for the band. They played locally for a short stint, sharing the stage with the Skatalites, among other acts. When they broke up, he departed for North Carolina to start a musical project with an avant-garde poet and made a stopover in Boston before returning to the unofficial capital of Florida, where he started the quintet, Underpaid, with Tuttle on guitar, John Vale (who more recently fronted the Furious Dudes) on vocals, Bryan Keller on bass and Joel Suarez, who'd played alongside Out of Focus in Endo and Level 9. They did a few mini Florida tours before parting ways.
After that, he kept things rolling, founding Kill Lejune, which morphed into his current band, Hit Play! The band -- consisting of Moore and Raf Solo on guitars, Gaston de la Vega on bass, Rich Robinson on drums and Danny Gonzalez on vocals -- is currently finishing up a 13-song LP and having it mastered at the legendary Blasting Room in Fort Collins, CO, under the expert care of punk rock legend Bill Stevenson and ace producer Jason Livermore.
"We're paying for it, dude," he says. "It ain't cheap, but those guys are honest, they're cool. Lagwagon, NOFX, those bands -- those are the people they trust, and I wouldn't trust anyone else to do my LP. We're not millionaires; we have what we have and it takes six to eight grand to put out an LP and make it sound good, and we're doing things right this time."
Now married with a three-year-old son, Moore works as a restaurant manager by day, splitting his free time between his family, his music and his rejuvenated love for graffiti art, operating under the name Komik28. Hit Play! will be playing Art Basel this year.
"It's always been a passion as far as music and art," he says. "Art right now, it's just taking precedent in my life. It's neat to see it all come full circle, bridging the gap. Now that I'm a father and I can kind of direct my child, I have all these tools that I don't know that I would have had had I not gone down all these roads."
And how about "John from Out of Focus?" Does anyone still call him that?
"I still get that once in a blue, I really do," he laughs. "It's a little embarrassing, but at the end of the day, it's still a good thing. People remember, and I like that. You know the older crowd... I ran into Ed Matus and he was like, 'Hey, it's John from Out of Focus,' and I was like, 'Wow...' At the end of the day, I just have to laugh it up and say, 'I'm Johnny Underpaid now.'"
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