Song of South Florida
There's a certain poetry to the phrase. "Ass Cobra."
A two-car caravan is halfway through the 1,300 mile trip from Hialeah, Florida, "City of Progress," to Austin, Texas, "Live Music Capital of the World." The vehicles contain the members of Humbert, a pop-rock band named with a louche nod to Vladimir Nabokov's hyperintellectual pedophile. Some of these six guys four in the band and two along for support have known one another for a decade, from their first garage bands to a zillion gigs around South Florida. It's 3 a.m., eight hours into the drive, and their speech has broken down into a ridiculous code of inside jokes and shorthand slang. They hurtle through the darkness of rural Alabama, sleepy, punchy, and a little drunk.
Which explains "Ass Cobra."
"It's the name of a Turbonegro album," says Rimsky Pons, guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist for Humbert. "They're this Scandinavian metal band." He smiles like a grade-school class clown. "We just think it sounds funny. And who doesn't like Scandinavian metal?"
It's the kind of raunchy humor and the kind of absurd, sincere question that makes Humbert Humbert. It's also a question that will prove surprisingly relevant a couple of days from now.
It's a hell of a trip, and thankfully, after arriving on Tuesday, the fellas have a couple of days to regroup before the madness begins in earnest. They journeyed all the way here for South by Southwest, America's premier music-industry confab, a four-day bonanza of 1,200 bands crammed into 60 venues across this central Texas college town. By Friday afternoon, they're scoping out the bustling corner of Red River Road and Sixth Street, downtown Austin's main drag. With a couple of close friends in tow, Humbert has shifted into overdrive to promote tomorrow night's showcase gig.
"Humbert, 9 p.m. Saturday!" Rimsky coos, snapping into action. He waves a Humbert flier before a stream of red-eyed hipsters crossing the street. "Free CD! There's a free balloon too. Thank you." He couldn't be more polite. The lead girl accepts the handful flier, CD, and flaccid balloon. Like stoned sheep in Chuck Taylors, the rest of her crew each does as well. "It always happens like that," Rimsky grins. "First person takes one, they all will." He turns and lays his earnest con on the next pack of passersby, who without a glance walk on.
"Deep down inside, I'm saying 'fuck you and die,'" he says. "We've handed out so many CDs that you start to guess at the personalities of these people. I'm not judging, but you see a guy in a tight blue blazer with ironed hair and you start to wonder." Ogling the throng of tattooed punks, buttoned-down execs, hooded hip-hoppers, horn-rimmed music geeks, and a thousand in-betweeners flooding the street, he shakes his head. "Everyone just wants to get laid, I guess."
Closer to the bustle at the intersection is Ferny Coipel, the band's dreadlocked and cardiganed polymath (singer, songwriter, keys man, guitarist, clarinetist). He takes a different approach with the fliers, going hit-and-run style like an affably manic grandpa.
Drum major Caesar Lavin shrugs, leaning against a parked cargo van, hands in his pockets. "I don't do fliers," he says. "If I cut my hands, I can't play drums or drink beer. You should see our schedule here we wake up in the morning with Ferny cracking the whip: 'Fliers! Press kits!'"
Bassist Tony Landa is currently across the Colorado River in South Austin interviewing one of the band's heroes, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. Leo Valencia and Dave Llanos, friends from Hialeah, are casually talking shit about the hipster parade and baiting cute indie-rock chicks with CDs and fliers.
Three days in Austin and thousands of fliers have flown. "I'm just saying, after handing out 3,000 balloons, if nobody shows up, I'm gonna jump off one of these fuckin' roofs," Rimsky says. "I don't know how it works here."
The balloons were supposed to be helium-filled, floating eye candy tethered to Humbert's freshly pressed The Floating Legion of Joy EP. There are 3,000 of them, to go with the 3,000 CDs. That plan had to be rethought after the stiff Texas breeze turned the balloons into a floating tangle of stress. But that doesn't matter, because these six guys seven, once friend and filmmaker Franco Parente arrives later comprise an unstoppable promotional machine, and they have other, grander plans for spreading the word of Humbert all over South by Southwest.
An hour later, Leo, Tony, and Ferny get their first feedback while scarfing down slices inside a Sixth Street pizza restaurant.
"Hume-bert!" The guys crack up at the DJ's mispronunciation, almost choking on cheese. "Oh shit! Come on, bro! How do you fuck up Humbert?" It's a gaffe, yeah, but broadcast over the radio, it sounds like pure gold.
Austin doesn't know it, but no band could be more Hialeah than Humbert. Each of the four Cuban-American band members was born and raised in the north Dade suburb, a product of its melting-pot maze of strip malls, housing developments, highway overpasses, and industrial corridors. "All roads lead to Hialeah" was the town motto in the 1930s. Today, it's far truer than the founding fathers could have predicted.
"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.
"I've lived in Broward since I got back from L.A.," he says. "The people in Hialeah aren't so bad, but the system's bananas. It's like living in Cuba. But fuck it I'm old. I'm old enough that next month, we'll do a 'Help Caesar with Colon Cancer' fundraiser."
"People would pay out the ass, bro," Ferny says.
Music erupts in the practice room, a languid salsa soundtrack to the well-oiled bullshit session going on inside the control booth. All of Humbert is here, relaxing, drinking beer, welcoming friends, goosing one another with a constant flow of barbs. From years of together time on the road, before gigs, after gigs, partying, playing Humbert has elevated rudimentary hanging out into a form of grand entertainment.
A watercolor sun is setting over Austin, and the city's resident bat population about 1.5 million pours into dusk from its home under the Congress Avenue Bridge. A few blocks over, on Sixth, hipsters swarm with similar density. Police have closed the street to vehicular traffic, transforming downtown into a relatively safe haven for debauching.
For all the hundreds of revelers on the street, thousands more are inside, and lines begin to form in front of venues lined door to door to door the Parish, the Drink, Buffalo Billiards, Friends, Emo's, Exodus, Eternal. Most folks here are eager to catch the buzz band that will be the talk of SXSW, the one the bloggers blog about on their BlackBerries before the last note sounds. Others are eager to be that band.
There's a commotion in the street, and out of nowhere bounds Blowfly, the masked-and-caped filth flinger who's taken 30 years to rise out of Miami's R&B scene and into the indie underground. Followed by a film crew and sequined retinue, he struts down the street and vanishes into the crowd.
Humbert arrives with a different kind of fanfare. Seven strong now that Franco's here, the band is pushing what looks like a balloon-clad breakfast cart down the middle of Sixth. On the bottom shelf sits a whisper-quiet generator that powers a large PA speaker. The PA plays the song "Hugo" from Humbert's 2004 album, Plant the Trees Closer Together. On the top of the cart, a DVD projector plugged into the generator blasts the "Hugo" video, which Franco directed, onto any flat surface parked cargo vans, building façades, pieces of cardboard.
"I dunno who can take credit, because Ferny and I both came up with the idea," Franco says.
"You're really responsible because you shot the video," Ferny counters.
"We've stopped like five times tonight," Leo says.
"And every time, it's been like this, people just fuckin' stoked," Dave says.
Between streetlights, where it's darkest, Franco stops the cart. Rimsky and Caesar stand ten feet in front and hold up two two-by-three pieces of foamcore the movie screen. Franco fires up the DVD, and the summery sound of "Hugo" fills the crowded street as the video hits the screen. Sure enough, the perpetually flowing human torrent slows, and within seconds, a dozen people stand transfixed. The song ends, the crowd cheers, and Franco starts the video up again.
Last night, the operation was shut down by Austin police. City law allows projections but bans broadcasting in public at more than 75 decibels without a permit. The cops weren't rude, but they weren't friendly either. "You know you're not in Miami when a cop shows up on horseback," Leo laughs.
"So this morning, I went down to City Hall to talk to the woman about what it would take to get permits and stuff," Franco says. "It was nothing! I brought CDs and press kits, and they were totally stoked."
The video a stylish, one-camera, low-budget affair that recalls the weirdo early days of MTV plays several times on a loop. Ferny circles the crowd, passing out fliers to every enthralled bystander.
"They win the sheer inventiveness award," says one, an indie-label rep from Philly named Jim Moran. "I've been coming to South by Southwest since 1995, and it's three times the size it was then. The question for any band is, how do you cut through all the noise? This," he says, gesturing at the video and the handful of magnetized viewers, "is fucking brilliant."
Hours later, after several laps of Sixth Street and Austin's 2 a.m. last call, the boys score their biggest coup yet outside La Zona Rosa. The Arctic Monkeys this year's buzziest buzz band finish their set, and the mobile projection unit is besieged with hundreds of drunken, ecstatic fans. Franco plays the video over and over. People are grabbing for CDs faster than the band (minus Rimsky, who's drunk and passed out in the minivan) can hand them out.
"Oh my God, this is fuckin' beautiful, bro!" Ferny roars to no one in particular.
At this point, pretty much everyone in Austin including the pop critics of the Boston Globe and the Village Voice, an A&R guy from Hollywood Records, a film crew from Hong Kong TV, and Wayne Coyne has seen the video. They've all loved it and told the band as much.
Humbert is on many lips. The guerrilla tactics are working.
"I've known Humbert a long time. Eight to ten years ago, they played their very first gig here at Churchill's," says Michael Toms, co-owner of the Miami rock mecca. "As did Marilyn Manson. And the Mavericks." The band was a three-piece then, with Ferny, Tony, and drummer Izo Besares. Rimsky came onboard in '97; Caesar joined after Izo's bum shoulder and unwavering dedication gave out in '03. Says Toms, "I'm tremendously supportive of whatever they're trying to do."
His sentiment is echoed by the more than 20 bands at the Humbert fundraiser on March 4, nine days before the band's departure for Austin. Fort Lauderdale garage rockers the Remnants give props from the stage, as does Leo's band, Humbert's Hialeah brethren the Brand. After his set, Leo can't help but gush about the Humbert mystique.
"There's something magical about how they do things and they way they are as musicians and people and friends," he says. "It's completely natural, and that's where the magic happens. Some bands have to try really hard. These guys don't try at all."
Almost by default, Humbert ends up playing a mentor role for younger, less experienced bands. "I mean, I'm 24 years old, you know?" Leo says. "Those guys, they have some age, some knowledge. They were playing shows when I was in middle school in Miami. That alone counts for a lot. Like, damn, these guys are almost 15 years older than me, but it doesn't come up, because that's how youthful they are."
The night goes on, and Tony begins tallying the door, all of which will go toward gas and hotel bills in Austin. Roughly $1,300 a great haul. Outside, the twee-rockers in Miami's Baby Calendar take a few minutes to join the admiration. Like them, few people in this close-knit scene realize that Humbert's trip to Austin is actually its second. Tony and Ferny were there in 1994 as part of the band I Don't Know. Since then, Tony has applied to South by Southwest every year with no luck. You have to wonder if there's any professional jealousy among Humbert's peers now that 12 years and 12 rejections later, the band has the green light.
"When you know that someone deserves something so much, you have to be happy for them," Baby Calendar keyboardist Jackie Biver says. "If it was some sucky band, you might get a little jealous. But you just can't for Humbert."
Austin's mild weather broke late Friday night, so Saturday morning, the band awakes at the Ramada to a damp, chilly day and promptly goes back to bed. Most of the afternoon parties invite-only soirees sponsored by record labels, publicity agencies, music magazines, and other self-appointed bastions of taste-making have been called off due to rain. Thankfully, only a few hundred fliers and a handful of CDs are left after last night's melee. No whip-cracking today; the afternoon is spent resting, eating, and visiting Austin's famed Waterloo Records.
By 6 p.m., the band arrives at the Blender Balcony at the Ritz for load-in. The place sits on the corner of Sixth and San Jacinto, SXSW ground zero. A good-sized hall sponsored by the popular music magazine, Blender Bar's door is obvious from the street, but the Balcony is reached via a narrow, undesignated stairway hidden off to the side of the main entrance.
Upstairs, things are no less confusing. There's no stage, a wall of speakers is stacked on one side of the room, and there are six tiered, box-seat areas. It's a weird layout.
Although nobody in the band seems outwardly nervous, they're not exactly calm either. After the hours on the street, the thousands of miles, the thousands of fliers, and the success of the video, no one's really sure how the night is going to go.
"Either I leave here drunk and depressed because there's only six people here," Caesar announces, "or I leave drunk and ecstatic because everybody shows up."
"A lot of people might not know this is the Blender Balcony," Tony says. "I missed it when I was loading gear in."
"It's easy to miss. Why don't we make a sign for outside that says 'Humbert, 9 p.m. '?" Ferny suggests.
With two hours left before the gig, the band goes into full-on action mode. Tony, Franco, Dave, and Leo head outside to dish out the last of the fliers. Rimsky gets to work making signs indicating the stairway. Ferny and Caesar check out the backline equipment, the amps and drum kit they're borrowing from the band playing before them.
They're diffusing nervous energy. A distinct, powerful ambivalence settles in, strong feelings pulling in opposite directions. This could be the biggest gig Humbert has ever played, the gig that attracts all the right people, that soars into the heavens, that guarantees a record deal. Or it could be just another gig.
"There's the hype of South by Southwest," Rimsky says, "but really it's the same as playing Churchill's or Tobacco Road. We totally busted our asses, and even if nothing comes of it, we had a great time. Tony told me the same thing the other night. If nothing happens, he just wants to have stories to tell his kids."
"I visited this place twice last night," Ferny says, "and both times, there were maybe 20 people. I don't know if it was the bands or the room, but it was kinda empty. I can't tell you if there's more riding on this gig, but I do know we wrote a set list. It wasn't computer-generated or anything, but wow. We know what's next."
Outside, Rimsky insists he's not moping. "There's a difference between mopey and cynical," he says. Franco gives him a coaster-sized sticker of a bug-eyed, cartoon cobra. This elicits a reluctant smile. While Dave runs off to grab a CD for the Irishman who's head of Island Records Australia, Rimsky hangs back, detached.
"He was just asking about a club down the street. I'm not gonna jump around like a monkey for some Irish guy from Australia," he says. "Like I'm sure they're looking to sign Weezer from Florida."
Dave seems irked at Rimsky's lassitude. "Dude, the reason for this trip is to get Humbert signed."
"The reason for this trip is to get Humbert noticed," Franco corrects.
"It's like Triple-A for musicians," Rimsky says. "You're just trying to get to the majors. After a while, you kind of figure out how it works or you don't. So many bands just don't get it. I think I'm over it I forgot we were even playing today."
It's a quarter till 9, and upstairs, the room empties after the early band's set. Humbert takes its place and begins plugging in and tuning up. The crowd is sparse, but the South Florida contingent is strong: Leo and Dave, New Times contributors Dominic Sirianni and Jamie Laughlin, Mike Toms from Churchill's, Jay Flanzbaum from Boca-based website OnLineGigs.com.
At five past 9, Tony steps to the microphone: "We're Humbert, and we're from Florida."
"But we're not Republicans," Ferny adds.
The opening chords of "Hugo" explode from Ferny's Farfisa organ. After all the waiting, all the stress and anxiety, there's nothing but shamelessly unbridled joy in the song. Rimsky rears back on his teal Hagstrom guitar, face orgasmic toward the lights. Caesar hammers like a viking on his drum kit. The band injects all its mixed emotions into the music. By the song's end, there are close to a hundred people stacked along the tiers and crammed in front of the stage. The applause is raucous.
"This is a lot more people than we thought would be here," Ferny confesses to the microphone. Bounding into its second song, the band looks relieved, even inspired. The guys play with passion and confidence, just like at every one of their hundreds of gigs at the Poor House and Churchill's. They launch into "Get Well Card," crescendoing with a massive psyche-rock chorus: "Please don't forget the universe."
"The soundman's not doing them any fuckin' favors," Toms says. True, the sound sucks. The room is awkward. But a couple of photographers hover in front of the stage, a few journos take notes in the back of the room, and there are label guys drinking Lone Stars at the bar.
By 9:30, half the room has left. There are other showcases happening at this very moment with bigger bands than Humbert. If the band members notice, they don't show it. They've already scored their victory. "Do we have time for one more?" Ferny asks into the darkness. A half hour into the set, and it seems they're wishing it was over. But like Ferny said, there's a set list. They know what's gonna happen. They tear into "Ladybug and the Beetle" and wrap it up with an ecstatic flourish.
"We played this next song at South by Southwest in 1994, me and this guy," Tony thumbs toward Ferny. They spring into the offbeat, Middle Eastern dervish blowout "Vuscalli," stretch it out to savor the moment, and then it's all over. The band can't walk offstage because there isn't one. Instead, they just mingle into the remaining crowd for exasperated, elated hugs and high-fives. Grinning but distracted, they load out quickly for the next band, nobody really saying much of anything to anyone.
Sixth Street, Saturday, 11 p.m. Ferny and Tony are at Antone's watching Rob Pollard of indie giant Guided by Voices. Caesar, Rimsky, Dave, Franco, and Leo head to Emo's for the Hellacopters, a well-loved Swedish boogaloo metal band. It's not Turbonegro, but it is Scandinavian. And that's not too far from actual ass cobra.
The fellas are happy enough to just hang no more fliering, no more hustle and have a genuinely good time. Around 2 a.m., the whole crew rendezvous outside of Emo's, everyone sufficiently drunk to gently heckle hipsters with bad haircuts and ironic Iron Maiden T-shirts. There is an unspoken air of success, but modesty and pragmatism curtail any gloating. In a few hours, everyone will be passed out back at the Ramada. By 5 p.m. tomorrow, they'll be on the road, headed east out of Austin on Highway 10. By 5 p.m. Monday, they'll be back home in Hialeah.
The Sunday after SXSW, Humbert plays to a happy crowd at Dada in Delray Beach. The band is added to a bill at Churchill's the following Tuesday. Local fans are glad to have them back. Humbert is glad to be back, mostly. But Austin set the wheels in motion and the ambition one notch higher.
"We like to put out music to inspire and to heal," Ferny says later in the week, talking on his cell phone as he heads into Plantation to pick up Humbert's new tour van. "Well, the South by Southwest experience and the feedback from it is reciprocating in a healing and inspiring way to us too. It's like pow! rubberbanded right back in our faces."
As in: Talks with a few publicity agencies to start handling the band. A pair of New York shows in mid-May, including CBGB, and one in the works in Boston. Plans to have five full releases ready to go by August. Several hundred new friends on Humbert's MySpace page.
"You see a direct result of what you've done," Ferny says. "By the time we got back, there was stuff already there waiting to get started on."
"We're outsiders trying to hook up with other outsiders that could possibly fund Humbert later on," Rimsky says. "I guess in that sense, SXSW is important; if somebody does want to sign us or someone does wanna represent us, that gives us a little more of a shelf life. We've been doing this for a long, long time, and I don't know how much longer it can last. It's not like we're a weekend bar band that likes to do covers. We try our damnedest to write good songs and get them out there. I mean, we only have limited resources."
"It's always gonna suck, coming back to reality," Tony says. "It's a perfect little world there, you know? Not having to think what my agenda's going to be for the day, not running around from place to place, I miss that. It's crazy, but I miss that. I just like the idea of not knowing what's gonna happen today. I don't know who I'm going to run into. It's just a great experience. But I guess you can't do that for more than a week or you'll go nuts."
"I felt like I was 20 years old again," Caesar says. He's in a van too on his way north on 95 for his job as a sound tech. "I haven't done that much guerrilla marketing since I was in California, handing out fliers on the strip. This weekend made me realize I haven't lost my passion for music. You tend to lose it; it's like the same old girlfriend if you really don't love her.
"The business has changed a lot in 20 years," he continues. "When I moved to California, I thought you gotta be in L.A. with the rockers or you gotta be in New York or you gotta be in Seattle during grunge. Glenn Frey from the Eagles said something like if your band is good enough and if you have something to offer, then the industry will find you no matter where you're at. And I always believed that. I think if you've got something to offer, eventually word will get out and they'll find you."
Even in Hialeah?
"Hell," Caesar says, "wouldn't that be something?"
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