Music News

Learning Curves

Didja happen to notice those breasts on the cover of this issue? Many a local band would be far better off if they had a rack like that. Forget talent, drive, and ambition -- it's the milk pillows that matter.

OK, wee exaggeration.

Try this: An old and mostly true saying goes, for every band you hear on the radio, there are a thousand others struggling to get there. Which is why some bands do their best to be seen as well as heard. To that end, Fort Lauderdale pop-punk four-piece Shortstack has been letting it all hang out on stage in one incarnation or another since 2001. Over the past year, lead singer Vanessa Diaz -- she of the tempting twins -- has flaunted various body parts on the covers of several sensationalistic newspapers (besides this one), and the band has received ink from music press all over South Florida. There's all sorts of band-branded merch and a slick, well-produced video for the single "Azucar," available on the Shortstack website ( The group's even wrangled a promotional sponsorship by Jack Daniel's.

All this without an album on the shelves or a single on the airwaves. If nothing else, Shortstack knows the power of image -- perhaps a bit too well.

"It helps get guys interested in the band initially," guitarist Mike Cassini admits of the Diaz factor, "but at the same time, the minute there's a cute girl singing for you, she naturally becomes the main focus of the band and takes away from the music." Sex appeal certainly cuts both ways, but ultimately, in this industry, skin always wins. "It's easier to get shows booked when she's the one asking for the gig," Cassini says, "and we have gotten some extra attention because of it."

To her credit, Diaz isn't naive about her physical assets. "Do I use my sex appeal to get attention?" she asks, hopefully not seriously expecting an answer. "Sure I do. I'm only going to be young once. Honestly, I don't see myself as being this fucking hottie. I think the sex appeal comes from the freedom I feel on stage. I exude a passion that I can't in my everyday life. That can be perceived as sexy, and why we get a little bit of attention. Besides the miniskirt."

Mmm... miniskirt.

Ahem. So according to the Shortstack example, now that we've roped you in with the mams, you should stick around for the jams.

What started with Shortstack founder Michael Linder's overdriven punk rock has evolved into a whiplash stew of West Coast pop-punk attitude, femme-tastic vocal fireworks, a swift kick of guitar noise, pub-rocking chants, and ADD drums. It's all there on the band's debut, the self-titled album it's been working on for the past six months and is set to release this week.

"It definitely shows the growth of the band," Linder, Jewish tzit-tzit and eye liner-wearing bassist, says of the new album.

"It feels like we've been together longer than a year," drummer Herman Castro agrees quietly. "We've developed our collective musical instincts to the point that we can feel where we are, and where we want to go, musically, even through mistakes and improv."

Linder originally established Shortstack in Tallahassee in 2001 with an entirely different lineup, plying a more aggressive sound. After moving back to South Florida and rejecting two other girl singers, he was introduced to Diaz in 2003. Classically trained since her teens, 25-year-old Diaz has the stunning range of a Broadway diva and can go from balladeer to ball breaker in the hit of a high-hat. Much more than just a pretty face, she was exactly the complete package Linder was looking for.

"I always thought it would make sense to have a pretty voice [leading the band]," Linder says. "When I first started, a lot of my friends had gutter punk bands. I grew up on ska-punk and pop-punk. It's more fun and fit the cheesy kind of songs I wrote. Then I found Vanessa, and it all made sense."

Though she'd never sung with a band, Diaz had a clear idea of the direction she wanted Shortstack to go. Fortunately, her notions synched perfectly with Linder's.

"When I came in," she says, "I was like, 'This is what's going to happen: We need to write slower songs,' because the fast stuff wasn't doing the vocals any justice. So we've gone away from that and started doing some ballads, stuff where my vocals could actually be heard rather than spitting them out before I ran out of breath."

Cassini and Castro got on board in early '04 after the departure of the previous rhythm section. Cassini, a sometime standup comedian who typically favors heavier sounds than Shortstack's, bristles at some of the responsibilities of being in a working band.

"I hate practicing, and sometimes I feel a bit out of place at photo shoots," he says. "Maybe that's because at the first shoot with the band, the photographer had Michael and I take off our shirts and stand there like we were in a Calvin Klein ad. Talk about awkward."

That was before Cassini had played a single note for the band. Fortunately, he's not the type of guy to let psychological scars handicap him (and if they do, he'll joke about them). Like the other guys, he respects Diaz's entrepreneurial drive and has learned to cope with the different personalities and priorities within the group. "It's like dating three people at the same time," he says.

So it's not surprising that the album comes together like a pop-punk gang-bang, in the best possible way. Bouncing wildly between midtempo burners and hyperactive punk, it exhibits the maturity of a band growing more comfortable with its image and its sound.

"We got lucky and won Rag Fest," Cassini says of the local zine's battle of the bands, "so we got time at Ocean VU Studios [in Miami Beach]. That guy, [producer] Karl Heilbron, he's a total pro." Heilbron's professionalism made the recording process a serious lesson for a group more accustomed to the off-the-cuff casualness of performing live. "Everyone wants to do the best they can do," Linder starts, "because once it's on the CD, it's there forever," Cassini finishes.

So now that we've dissected the band, we can settle back into the obvious questions. Given the pop-punkish, girly-sing-songishness of Shortstack, is there any doubt of comparisons to No Doubt?

"It's true! It's true!" Cassini laughs. "We're a poppy group with a girl singer, so we do sound like No Doubt. And if you ask No Doubt about what they think about us, you know where you'd have to go to find them? To their huge friggin' mansions that they bought with the buttloads of money they made for sounding like that. If sounding anything like No Doubt will get me paid one day, then that's fine by me."

Forever dedicated to the music, Linder has a more sincere -- and frustrated -- response. "Who cares? They're a great band, and some of our influences might have drawn from them and the other million ska-punk bands of the '90s."

"I see the band sounding like a cross between Kelly Clarkson and Glassjaw," Cassini says. "I hope we can get as far from the No Doubt stigma as possible. And if that takes Vanessa sacrificing a live goat on stage, then that's just what we're gonna have to do."

Kookier stunts by lesser talents have been pulled in the name of image. And hell, as long as those sweater puppies come out to play...

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Juliett Rowe
Jonathan Zwickel