By Priya S.
The three o’clock shift is calling. But in his mind his hands are curling around his guitar’s neck, feeling the bite of the strings cut into the fleshy pads of his fingers. A pedal. An amp. Eduardo Ramirez does not want to be driving to the 3M’ Plant in Irvine, helping make dental molds and doing heavy lifting. He wants tomorrow to come, to be here already dammit, so the band, Fixate, can practice.
Practice Session One: Nov. 13th
Tommorow has arrived. It’s early Saturday morning on November 13th. Fixate practices in Ed’s garage on. It’s a cozy, cluttered place with several large Tikki Masks, and an old Underoath poster from Ed’s high school days on the wall. Pale morning light filters into his open garage and he is groggily tuning his guitar. The other band members—Ryan, Ken and Andy—are all fiddling with their respective instruments. While they set up, plugging guitars into pedals and amps, they are quiet. When the music starts playing it sounds schizophrenic and disjointed. There is no cohesion. Ryan stands in front of the microphone, his voice zipping up and down. Ken and Ed are twanging away their own separate melodies. And Andy beats on his drums. But the lack of cohesion doesn’t matter. They are just warming up after all. And then the cohesion comes:
Ed goes first. His fingers strike one note again and again, shrilly melodic, and then a pause ensues. It slows down to a hypnotic trickle of notes. Ryan lets loose a melodic howl that ripples up “sunk is the sound/dare to come up into sight –” the garage is full of drum-lit, guitar-drunk melody. They are craftsmen. Look at Andy, wedged behind his drum set oblivious the drafty room. His skinny arms hover and bam! They come down; a barrage of knocks and thumps on the drums, clangs on the cymbals. Their heads toss. And one by one, inevitably all their eyes close. Ken bends over his bass guitar, overcome by the intensity of his playing. Ed sways to the rhythm, a foot slamming on his pedal every now and then. His hands are mesmerizing. Spiders scurrying in a frenzy. But it wasn’t always that way. They weren’t always Fixate. Once they were just excitable kids with stacks of tickets to sell before they were allowed to play at the venues that booked them.
From left: Andy, Eduardo, Ken, Ryan
Fixate—like nearly every local band Irvine has produced—boasts musicians that grew into their craft from a young age. Ed and Ryan are 23 and 24, Andy is 21 and Ken is 20. They all share roots in Irvine, growing up in tan, handsome houses with garages, going to Irvine school district middle schools and high schools. And Blink 182 hugely inspired their love of music. Ed was 14 years old when he became obsessed with the band.
“I really like Blink because they are, like, the one band that really connected with a bunch of youth.” And its true. Blink 182’s pop-punk infiltrated most of America’s youth during the early to mid years of 2000. Their incredibly catchy, up-beat songs dealt with a variety of issues—girls, insecurities, swearwords, toilet humor—and captured the euphoria of being young and just plain stupid. Ed, sitting on the dilapidated love seat in the garage says as much. “I really just connected to them because of what they would write about. Just being young and stupid.” First Date—the Blink 182 song that perfectly sums up the angsty, giddy nervousness of teenage love—inspired Ed to try his hand at music.
“I just wanted to learn how to play my favorite songs,” he says. In 2001, at 14, his first guitar was an acoustic six-string Epiphone. He practiced and practiced. He doesn’t think of it as practicing. “ I would just play”, he says absentmindedly strumming on his guitar. Andy was practicing around this time too. He started small, on a practice pad.
“It was really crappy, but it was the first thing I learned on. It was an instant connection,” Andy says. His black snowboard pants swish as he walks around the garage. “I just wanted to learn all the songs I was listening to in middle school. It was a lot of pop punk—y’know…Blink 182, stuff like that. “
Ken, Fixate’s newest member, joined the band in 2008. “I made the decision drunk,” he says with his trademark impish grin. He does not regret deciding under the influence. “It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I get to play music with my friends. It can’t get any better than that.” His musical abilities flourished as his eleven-year-old self learned to play a Filipino mandolin called a bandurria. He emphasizes that this was at his mother’s insistence. “I was just playing Filipino folk tunes and learning traditional Filipino music and I eventually became a part of a music ensemble.” Ken’s love affair with performing music was further ignited through his unavoidable exposure to guitar and Blink 182.
In 2004 and as early as 2001, a musical renaissance among the Blink-crazed middle schoolers- and high-schoolers was occurring. In Venado Middle School, a few boys practiced their instruments too. Not together, not yet. That came later. Jacob Tilley, freshly arrived from England had a guitar. Sameer Gadhia. Brett Lienen. Andy Chabolla. All these kids attended Venado Middle School and practiced. Guitar. Bass. Drums. Piano. And all these kids ended up contributing significantly to Irvine’s local band scene playing together, playing apart.
Ed is a thoughtful person. He thinks before answering many questions. When asked about the change in the local band scene has undergone since the local band golden age in high school, he purses his lips in clear distaste.
“It was so good back then. In its prime. Now everyone just tries to be indie and sounds the same. Everything now is like, spacey and ethereal. Pretty noises. Everyone is trying to be indie, but they aren’t making music. Their just making pretty sounds. And everyone sounds the same. Aw, man!” he shakes his head and smiles sadly. “There were amaaazing bands in highschool”
The popularity of bands like Taking Back Sunday and Underoath meant that most of the aspiring musicians heavily imitated the sounds as Blink 182’s influence wore off. “Yeah, it was all emo/screamo/hardcore sounding.” Ken says, wedging himself besides Ed on the love seat and the two exchange grins. “Remember?” What they all miss is the genuine enthusiasm every band forming at the time saw. A network of budding musicians flared up in the high schools and they played the venues that opened up to them. Every band sounded unique, if similar to each other, they all recall. Most of the bands bristled with energy and performed energetically melodic songs with screaming. It was the invasion of girl-pants clad high school guitar players, drummers and singers, Ed recalls. “It was before they started making skinny jeans for guys”.
Battle of the Bands—an event organized by the City of Irvine’s Youth Action Team— became big occasions for these young boys. As high schoolers, the budding musicians often found out about performing opportunities from the YAT grainy yellow flyers and posters littered around their high schools grounds. Andy smiles reminiscing about high school band experiences. “When you’re starting, you don’t realize how music is as a business. A lot of people will take advantage of you. People will offer you shows and at the time you’re just really stoked to get any sort of show. And then they throw these things called presales at you”—Andy sneers, and He and Ed share a wry, knowing look at the word presales— “where they make you sell a minimum amount of tickets.”
“Anywhere between 300 to 800 dollars!” quips Ed, throwing his arms up. “Like, what the fuck!”
“Yeah. And you have to sell those before you play the show” Andy finishes. He reaches for the Macbook on Ed’s lap. “Shit. Those sucked.”
“Remember Crazy Horse? We had to sell, like, 80.” Ed says.
“No, it was like 60 tickets at 10 dollars each. And they don’t let you play if you don’t sell the minimum amount of tickets. “ Andy says. Thankfully the band members’ families were big supporters, turning out en masse to their shows. “Ed’s family made T-shirts for the Crazy Horse concert”.
In October of 2004 Andy and Ed met through Jacob Tilley. ”At a gay bar,” Ed jokes, flipping his hand to his side.
“Spotted him across the room,” Andy singsongs, fluttering his eyelashes. Jake, Ed and Andy along with another classmate formed their first band, ‘Anyone Else’. Before The Irvine Spectrum’s Old Navy was Old Navy, it was the trendy music club and restaurant, Crazy Horse.
In spite of not knowing Andy or Jake personally at the time, I knew of them. We went to the same high school. We were in the same grade. And everyone had been approached by one of the band members trying to sell their pre-sale tickets. I record that Crazy Horse performance in my sophomore diary perfectly summing up the early high school direction these bands were following:
Flashback: The Crazy Horse Concert diary excerpt dated November 14th, 2004
“Yesterday was the Crazy Horse Concert. Nihaar dropped me off late so I just missed Jake’s band. That was pretty much the sole reason for me coming. To see his band, judge my fellow Irvine-ians.
Omg. The next band that played. They were really good. The drummer was either a freshman or sophomore, but lordy! He made that band. He pounded on those drums so skillfully, and delightfully enthusiastically. He did the screamo parts. I don’t know why, but that was so HOT. Then he switched. He grabbed a guitar and got in the front of the stage, in front of the mic.
Dude. He was so petite. Crazy skinny. In tight, girl pants, with frilly pink briefs. (Nicole recognized them to be American Eagle, and this super tite (sic) long sleeve black shirt. DUDE. His hair was black and perfect! Perfect length (long) and waved. Omg. He did crazy screaming, and twanged away most excellently on his guitar. I told Nicole he looked like a bird on coke. He did. I think the judge said his name was Marcus.”
Fixate has come a long way since its band members high school days and its inception in 2007.
“What I like about Fixate is that I feel it’s catchy enough for the average person to listen to, but its very technical for those who know what’s going on in music. Whether it’s simple or complicated, I feel the music just works.” Andy says. There is a loud creak, and Ed’s baby niece suddenly toddles in to the garage. Ed hastily scoops her to him and sets her back in to the house.
Andy continues, “Uh. Anyway. It’s, uhm, what it should be. We didn’t leave parts to chance. We worked out every single part to exactly the way we want it. It’s just us. “ This effort has not gone unnoticed. The comments on their Myspace page suggest that their precision has really paid off. A friend by the username of ‘None None’ says “zOmg thanks for the adddddddddddddddddddddd you guys are really sIiIiiiiiiiiCkKk hope you come to my town soon
<3<3.“ Taka Shirawasa claims to “love the sound.”
Fixate’s simple Myspace music page describes their music thusly: “Melodies Flex with the intricacies of intertwining sonic bliss.” That ‘sonic bliss’ sounds remarkably similar to a more indie version of Taking Back Sunday, a favorite band of the members in 2004. “We all check in on the page from time to time. Ryan wrote the Bio” Ed says, gesturing towards Ryan’s retreating back. After a two-hour practice session, Ryan leaves saying “family stuff,” with an apologetic glance.
Their Myspace page is a simple affair, but even that boasts of a fierce strain of DIY so prevalent among today’s local bands. They recorded their EP last November and uploaded the songs to their Myspace. The band does not have a Facebook profile. There is a reliance here on a community of peers to support their efforts. Andy, who presides over the recording, has impressive equipment in his garage. He makes money on the side, recording bands in high school. The quality of songs is astonishing—they are clear and sound as professional as any you’d find on a legitimate studio recorded EP. “I used Logic Pro on Mac” says Andy. Logic Pro, a program designed for Mac, is program used for professional recording and the choice of many other recording garage-band locals.
All the members have been in multiple performing bands before Fixate and concurrent with Fixate. Ed recalls playing around 6 shows with Anyone Else, 10 shows with his 2008 summer band Stop Motion Stills and around 15 shows most recently with Strange Birds at venues including UCI, Detroit Bar, and even the House of Blues.
The unity that high school afforded bands has vanished as the musicians all enter the next stage after college. The convenience of living in closely related neighbor hoods and in even the same city has vanished. All the members of Fixate agree that the hardest thing about being in a band now is the scheduling in order to play shows. Andy explains, “With everyone’s lives changing so much—school, work, people moving and everything like that—it’s a lot harder to get people together and do the live aspect of music. Doing shows is a lot tougher now.” Fixate’s acquisition of Ken is directly linked to the bumpy changing of lives and situations band members undergo.
After losing the original bass player to college in San Diego and a experiencing few months of idleness, Ken wound up with the gig. But even with the current cast of Fixate living so closely together, their non-musical duties interfere with scheduling. Andy attends Cal State Fullerton and works at the Apple Store in Brea. Ed has horrific hours at the 3M’s Irvine Plant. Ryan is a chef. Ken attends Irvine Valley College, and also plays in Strange Birds. Practice has been pushed back twice in the last week.
Strange Birds is fronted by Brett and Aiden—fellow alumni of Irvine High School—whom endured the same Battle of the Bands growing pains as the others. Ed joined Strange Birds in April 2010, and quit October. Ken joined Strange Birds the same month. Both bands see each other every weekend and most weekdays. “We’re still cool” Ed says. “I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for me.” The Strange Birds are serious about their music—and it is seriously, seriously good. They appear on countless blogs. A friend who prefers to be unnamed credits Aiden for being a ruthlessly smart self-promoter. Their Facebook has 494 likes, details updates and locations about their upcoming shows, and links to favorable critiques and blog/magazine exposure.
Aiden and Brett, the front men of Strange Birds
The OC Weekly’s Paul Saitowitz describes Strange Birds as “Irvine’s melancholy, textured, wispy, indie shoegazer rock combo” and notes they “are still in search of an identity.” This identity search was one reason Ed left the band and devoted himself fulltime to Fixate. The evolving tone of most local bands attempting to master a more mellow, ‘pretty sounding’ indie style can rub Ed the wrong way.
“A Lot of bands want to be indie right now, so they all sound the same. One thing that made me laugh one time—this was one of the other reasons why I left strange birds— we were gonna play a show, and they were like, ‘you have to dress indie’ and I was like ‘what the fuck?!’ I was just gonna piss ‘em off and wear super cut off shorts and my captain E O sweater. Brett was all, ‘You have to dress indie, there’s gonna be a lot of people there and people have to like us” Ed protested. “But I’m not indie at all, I don’t really like that” and he’s like ‘naw dude, we’re all indie, all the kids are indie now a days, but I’m like, DUDE I LISTEN TO BOBBY BROWN. That’s pretty indie I guess.” His voice is withering. “I’m me. That’s it” Ed does like indie music. He loves Modest Mouse and Sigur Ros, but watching most of his peers change in order to cater to the ‘in’ style of music contrasts starkly with the genuine passion that he remembers from high school.
Fellow peers and supporters Jacob Tilley and Sameer Gadhia changed their band name from The Jakes to the appropriately more indie ‘Young the Giant. And their success has been phenomenal. They’ve toured with Minus the Bear, a popular indie band, opened for Kings of Leon and even had one of their songs play on an MTV episode of The Real World: Brooklyn and also on A& E’s The Beast. They were signed to Road Runner Records. Strange Birds unswerving dedication to getting their name out there and appealing to their audience in addition to their undeniable talent all seem to suggest that they too are on the road to the sort of success Young the Giant has garnered. The same friend says, “Strange Birds seems very much Aiden’s and Brett’s band. They are trying their hardest to get their name out. They seem more about carving a niche then making music.” He adds that in the Strange Birds, “Ed couldn’t blossom” because he wasn’t allowed to contribute creatively. When asked about Fixate’s dedication, the friend responded that Fixate is centered on a genuine love for music, “They have fun together making music.”
Ken has no problem fitting in—he dresses indie, in black toms, deep v-neck shirts and skinny jeans—though he admits that he finds more freedom in Fixate. “It is a little harder with them because you cant leave their genre when in fixate we have the ability to jump to any genre sound we feel like”
Fixate’s dynamic is free flowing and stoner-y. Drake’s low-pitched “ahs” and “ehs” flood the garage. The members of fixate all enjoy mainstream hip- hop and particularly enjoy Drake. “So sick, ” Ed shakes his head and drums his fingers against his leg to the beat. A joint is slowly making its rounds. Soon the garage is filled with smoke and resounding ‘hahahas’. The instruments lie abandoned as every relaxes on chairs and the lurid green love seat. Ed is all curly black hair and handsomely chiseled Spanish features; he wears a Ducks cap, his favorite Captain EO sweatshirt and cut-off denim shorts that sag limply against a concave butt. “Check em out” he says, sticking a foot out. He has on brand new turquoise Vans sneakers. He has a handsome face with defined, delicate Spanish features and a high-pitched giggle he emits often.
“Oh shit!” he squeals and then starts laughing. “Dude, remember when we bought those Iron Man sippy cups?” he gestures at his be-stickered Macbook. Ken and Andy peer at the screen and laugh along. “Oh!” Ed starts, and pulls up his Garage Band application on his Macbook.
“Check out this beat I made. What do you guys think? I’m so happy with it.”
They listen to the electro sounding, synthesized beat and all agree that it is “dope”. Within 15 minutes, Ed has his guitar back in hand and is showing them new ideas for potential new songs.
“I just think something like this…” he strums a few quavery notes, “and then like…I dunno, Andy you could—” They are all clustered together, testing new beats and melodies. Ken pretends to victory hump Andy when they finally figure out a hook to song.
Ed’s writing Eureka moments happen in the shower. “ I’ll have a melody in my head. I’ll just be thinking in my head of songs I started writing, and I’m just like thinking, and like, there’s been times when something so awesome pops into my head, and I’m like FUCK! And I’ll just get out of the shower and I’ll record. I’ll hum the melody if I have to, just so I wont lose it.” Andy’s pipe is making rounds. Ed decides this is a good time to bring up his fifth member idea again. He barely gets the words “fifth member” out before Andy stops him.
“No. No man. I just don’t think it would work. Didn’t we already talk about this?”
“I’m down, for like, whatever, ”Ken says. “I think it could be cool.” Ed fiddles with his cap before murmuring something about bigger sounds and finally performing. Andy looks agitated. It is understood that the band—started by Ryan and Andy—follows their direction and decisions. And both of them are against the idea. When Andy leaves, he and Ed—who are best friends—are civil enough to each other, but there is a slight frostiness to the way they say goodbye. No real eye contact and curtly worded ‘byes’.
Ed’s fingers drum madly against his thigh. The fifth member idea that Ed has is one he is passionate about. “I just want to push Fixate. I’m trying to push us to be better. I have all these visions for it, and I really want to reach them. But sometimes, like, Ryan and Andy hold it back”.
He stops and looks guiltily as Ken. Ed is as loyal as they come, and he is caught between voicing his frustrations and seeming disloyal to his friends. He shrugs and then goes on, his eyes glued to his knees. “They hold it back, because they are—like the only word I can really is lazy—and don’t really want to try it out because it seems kinda hard.”
“I’m down” Ken says for the second time. Ed laughs.
“I don’t think it’d be that hard. Ken’s always down, and I want to try it, even if it doesn’t work. I want to try it, but Andy would be like, “I don’t even want to waste my time,” when I suggested the idea, he was like, ‘why don’t you just do keys?” and I’m like, ‘coz I jut want to play guitar! “ Ed gets up and plugs his Epiphone Dot into an amp and strikes a cacophonic blend of chords. “I think I’m gonna figure out a way though. I was thinking of just getting together with Brandon and writing, Write something I’m trying to get Fixate to do and just show them and say, ‘this is what I want to do, but you guys don’t want to’. Hopefully that way they’ll be like, ‘ok, lets give this a try’. Especially for live, I just think it’ll sound really epic. I want it to be just large sounding and big. I want it to be filling to my like, music hunger. I know we can do it. we’re all really capable of doing it. I just need to push them.
Ed is the driving creative force in the band. “This is going to sound cocky, but all the songs we have I brought the idea for. What they do is what they do,” he says referring to the rest of his band members, “what I do is try to direct…which Ryan does too. All the songs on the album were started by me. Then they did their thing, and it sounded really better.” In October of last year, frustrated at the band’s lack of initiative Ed threatened to quit. “I was sick of not having anything. We only started recording because I stopped participating. ‘I’ll go when we start recording’, Ed had told them.
People have been clamoring for them to play a show—something they are yet to do. Andy and the rest of Fixate agree that they are not setting their sights on Young the Giant Success. “We have to play one show and have it be SUPER EPIC. At least one or it will be a waste. We love the music and a bunch of people keep asking us about it. Ed, Andy and Ryan concur. Andy insists, “life without music is not an option.”
Ed whispers, “we will play y’know.” And they will.