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A Real Corker

Jose Flores, Corky's southpaw singer-guitarist and Freddie Prinze Jr. look-alike, sizes up the rabid pack of 100 twentysomethings inhabiting Churchill's in Miami's Little Haiti on a steamy Friday night. "Tonight someone asked us what our mission was," Flores announces. The audience lets out a deafening roar, obscuring his explanation. As devotees of the cult of Corky, they know what's coming. Anticipating drummer Juan Rotolo's rapid-fire beat, the crowd leaps into the air and screams along: "They say we're just having fun/But somehow, Corky gets shit done." Suddenly Corky shifts into overdrive and takes everyone for a genre-bending ride on the massive ascending chorus of "Mission," too catchy to be punk rock yet far too throttling to be called anything else: "Here we go!/We're on a mission!"

Corky's mission was conceived in January 1996 when Flores, then 16 years old, invited acquaintance Danny "Tapioca" Palacios to see his teenybopper punk band Pin Kai play Churchill's. Soon the two were spending every free weekend blasting out two-minute, three-chord montes on their six-strings.

When Pin Kai broke up in 1997, Flores was recruited by the Miami grind-core band Disney Violence. Flores's power-pop guitar style was a poor match for that group's tech-metal approach. Frustrated with being a lost punk in a hard-rock desert, Flores asked then-Disney Violence drummer Rotolo to jam with him and Palacios, who had recently switched instruments: "One night I went over to Jose's house, and he showed me one of the songs, and I realized I couldn't play guitar for shit," Palacios recalls. "So I bought a bass the next day." With the lineup solidified and grind-core growing old, Rotolo left Disney Violence to devote himself to the new project.

By April 1998 Flores, Rotolo, and Palacios had enough material to book a show but still were without a name. "We were at practice one night, throwing around bad band names on purpose," Rotolo recalls. "I asked, "Why don't we name the band "Corky" after the kid with Down syndrome on Life Goes On?' So Jose books our first show and hands me a flier with Corky on it. I said, "Jose, I was joking!'" Too late -- the flier had already been distributed, and the name stuck.

Corky's first show, at a Kendall warehouse called the Outlet, was an exercise in futility. "We sucked!" Flores chuckles. "Juan didn't remember any of the songs, and I was playing a righty guitar strung lefty, so all the strings kept going out of tune."

With their cork popped, the band went back to the drawing board in search of more-satisfying results. "All of our songs were really sloppy and fast, basically two minutes of noise," Rotolo remembers. "Then Jose came up with a song called "IOU' that changed everything." The Paul Weller-inspired harmonies of "IOU" led Corky away from straight-ahead Ramones punk to a sound of its own. In search of harder rock, Rotolo cajoled fellow native Argentinean Gus Gonzalez to play lead guitar. Gonzalez wasn't very impressed with the band's sloppily recorded demo, Rotolo says with a smirk, "but he admitted he liked a lick here and there and decided to give it a shot."

Gonzalez's Stones-influenced licks immediately jump-started the band. "He took over," Flores affirms. "Even though I'm still the primary songwriter, what he does on guitar colors the songs enough that they end up being just as much his as mine."

Corky emerged from its cocoon two summers ago to play Wednesday nights at the Miami Beach pool hall Brandt's Break. The regular gig (extremely rare for a non-cover band in South Florida) allowed the foursome to hone its chops and slowly build an audience in a low-pressure situation. After three months the management at Brandt's Break finally figured out that most of Corky's fans were not of legal drinking age and booted the lot. Because all-age halls didn't exist in that neck of the woods, Corky took another sabbatical. In January 2000 the band began sharing a warehouse rehearsal space with Lookout! recording artists the Crumbs. "The Crumbs were always one of my favorite bands growing up," Flores states, "so when we weren't practicing, I'd watch them play." Corky began regularly performing with the Crumbs and thus in front of large crowds. That October both Corky and the Crumbs opened for the Argentinean-American punk band Fun People at Churchill's. "That's where it started to turn around for us," Flores beams. "For the first time, we played in front of a capacity crowd -- and they ate it up."

The Crumbs liked what they heard as well, asking Flores to replace their departing bassist. Within a month Flores was in a van on an East Coast tour. The three-week sojourn proved both educational and exhilarating for him, and he returned home ready for double duty. In the bassist's absence, a new venue had sprung up for Corky: Club 5922 in South Miami. One demo later the band became a regular performer at 5922, joining a tightly knit circle of acts that includes the Knockouts, Lose the Rookie, and the Numbskullz. "It's cool to play in a nice area for a change," notes Rotolo. "People aren't afraid to come out." The club's creative bookkeeping has led Corky to dub 5922 "our favorite charity."

In the months that followed, the band ventured north to Ray's Downtown Blues in West Palm Beach, where Flores's then-girlfriend passed out on-stage during Corky's set and later threw up in his dad's car. From there the rockers plundered FU*BAR in Fort Lauderdale and virtually every other South Florida joint with a stage and a microphone. "We're not in a position to turn down any shows," Flores admits. "Call us, and we'll play your living room."

This past April the punkers reached several milestones. In true Spinal Tap fashion, Corky's first road gig took place at the University of South Florida's annual block party in Tampa. "It was bizarre," Flores recalls. "They had dunking booths and elephant-ear stands. Frat boys were gawking at us like we were from another planet. We felt like Corky the Punk-Rock Freak Show."

Despite the carnival atmosphere, Corky's members learned an important lesson: "We wanted to see if we could stand each other for more than 24 hours," Rotolo states. "Since I didn't kill any of them, despite how weird our show was, I know now that we can survive a tour."

Back home Corky caught the attention of concert promoter Grant Hall, who immediately became a fan of the group's unique approach and booked a string of shows for the band. "They're good guys," he declares, "and it comes out in their music. They're not here to rip the joint apart. They are all about having fun and playing good music. It's very refreshing with all the wannabe tough guys out there."

As the punkers record a new batch of songs, Corky's mission is taking on a new urgency. "I don't want a day job," Rotolo insists. "I want to play music for a living. If there are any labels out there who want us, let them know: We have a price."

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Tom Bowker

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