On a recent Saturday night, the tiny space of Sweat Records in Miami's Little Haiti is filled with curious scene kids awaiting an avant-garde performance. At first, it's unclear if any of the local bands are going to be worth a damn, but there's an audible buzz that picks up once members of the Miami-based indie band Down Home Southernaires stroll into the building. They make their entrance in retro garb, with lead singer and keyboard player Jose Castello in a full suit and fedora. Soon after, the walls erupt with the unsurpassable personalities of four longtime friends who've been playing music together for more than a decade. It doesn't take long to notice the group's natural cohesion. The foursome rarely passes up an opportunity for sarcasm or high jinks, and they laugh every opportunity they get. But underneath all of their witty dialogue and ongoing giddiness lie serious songwriting, deft musicianship, and loads of confidence to explore whatever genre makes them happy.
Natives to Miami, of Peruvian, Cuban, and Trinidadian descent, Down Home Southernaires are a melting pot of cultures that they've learned to meld into one unique sound. None of the guys in the group remembers how the band came to fruition, as it was more a matter of circumstances. "There wasn't one particular person responsible for the start," Castello says. "Kris Pabon and I used to play metal together. Gradually, we got more embarrassed at that and started doing funnier stuff." It was also a bit of fate that brought them together, since those two attended South Miami High School, along with drummer Jorge Rubiera, while bassist Jarrett Hann was at nearby Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School. They played around with music in those days too, but none of them took it too seriously.
"All of us are self-trained, so we have similar vocabulary," Rubiera says. "We've been in awe of each others' creativity from the start. We once had a dark period when we took a job as a cover band. We were like a live karaoke band with people coming on stage and singing along. It was comical and challenging. That experience made us better musicians because we were doing things we weren't accustomed to."
Although their music influences are as varied as Elvis Costello and the Flaming Lips, they attribute much of their style and growth to a collective openness as avid listeners of various genres. They've also got other passions beyond music that help fuel their songwriting. Renaissance men to the core, their "backup plans," as they call them, include French cuisine, photography, film, and writing, all adding up to what you hear when you listen to their songs.
"Everything else we do inspires our music," Pabon says. "Our individual intentions vary so much, but we all know how to take from our surroundings."
Rubiera adds: "It balances us out. Each of us listen to a wide variety of music and do different things individually. The hodgepodge solidifies when we're a group."
Just four years ago, DHS was called Pygmy and had a decidedly more country twang to its sound. Band members acknowledge their humble beginnings and the fact that they broke up for a month and didn't speak for the duration of it but opt to skip past it. They're more eager to speak about their evolution as a band since those early days, and who can blame them? They've matured a lot musically over the past few years and discovered a sound heavy with soulful funk and pop sensibilities. Although it wasn't their intention, they are frequently dubbed as a jam band, most likely due to their style of genre fusion and musical experimentation — even though their last release, Negro en Bicicleta, was most inspired by ABBA.
"While we don't categorize ourselves as a jam band specifically, we don't shun the notion either," Pabon says. "We accept responsibility that our music is a hard mix to categorize."
Like old friends everywhere, they constantly rib one another. They joke about how they can irritate one another to no end, but it's all in good fun. "It's like a marriage," Rubiera says. "When you love someone so much, it's annoying."
Adds Castello: "It works because we're honest about the fact that we have so much history. We feel like different puzzle pieces, and we sort through our clashes."
Collectively, band members throw out random comments about Hann's never changing his guitar strings and how Castello has worn a three-piece suit since childhood. But ask them about their present songwriting versus past efforts and they get more serious. "We're better musicians now," Rubiera says. "We've changed the way we censor ourselves, and we're more defined. Jose used to be more uptight, filtering everything from food to music. Over the last couple years, he's changed. He's different... less confrontational."
"In addition, we're more liberated and open," Castello adds. "Fortunately, we don't know how to describe our writing. We haven't analyzed it, so there's no formula."
The progression of the group is perhaps best marked by listening to its albums. Start with the 2004 self-titled debut, a five-track country disc, and follow with a 2005 self-released tour album, comprised of mainly country and soul tracks. Their most accomplished album to date, last year's Negro en Bicicleta, focuses much more on a fun, pop-oriented formula. They're currently writing and recording a possible double album to be released this fall. They don't share much about it but promise that it will be "very sexy." More than anything, the band is eager to tour in support of its upcoming album. Apparently ready to get out of South Florida, they feel more appreciated in other places outside of their hometown.
"The crowd in Miami will go see a DJ rather than pay a few bucks to see live music," Hann states. "I'm not bashing the city. It's material... the most material I've ever witnessed."
"We don't have any fulfillment [here] at the time," Castello adds. "We're getting out of here."
If they really do leave, there's a good chance another music scene would welcome their eclectic nature with open arms. They're brilliant songwriters and talented musicians, and you can't help but laugh as Castello and Rubiera hit the occasional falsetto live when they perform. Combine that with their DIY attitude, as they're practically a four-man record label doing everything on their own, and they've got all the makings of a band on the rise. They've put in the hard work; what remains to be seen is if America will take notice.
"We want to gain ears," Hann says. "I want [more] people to start listening to our music. People are afraid to listen to new music, and we want to punch out their insecurities. We want there to be more comfort for people to let go."