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12/1/2005

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LOVE YOUR NEIGHBORS
Funbalaya brings indie-rock incest to Orlando

 

Playing music ranging from spastic alien electronica to puppet-fronted, accordion-based pop isn't a way to court mainstream success. But for a coalition of Orlando-area bands known as Funbalaya, success isn't defined by that metric anyway; it's more about the joy of collaboration. By that standard this vast and fluid group of friends is thriving, and it's producing a brand of indie rock and visual art that's awkwardly endearing and quite atypical.

"Orlando sometimes gets a bad name for music, but it's neat that our connectedness means that we can be loud enough to be heard," says Lane Barrington, a member of Funbalaya acts The Band of the Name and Ocean Floor. "It's hard for a single band to branch out, but it's easier to connect since we're all fighting for the same thing."

Who, exactly, belongs to this collective? You need a flowchart to figure that out; even "members" aren't quite sure. In fact, the makeup of Funbalaya is so diffuse and complex, Matt Kamm of Dodger (definitely a member) created a flowchart detailing the genealogy of the collective. When The Band of the Name was on tour in March, it brought along copies to pass out to its audience.

So who's on that flowchart? Lots of Orlando bands, including Gestalt, Fall Apart Machine, Timbers Shivered, Sean Moore, Glamour Patch, Watch Me Disappear, What's Yr Damage?, Doris Delay, Pardon My Carbon, Machinedrum, Yip-Yip, The Punching Contest, Band Marino, H8 and Unicornicopia.

And it gets even more complex than that, as many musicians in these bands also play in other bands, thus increasing the circumference of the ever-widening circle that is Funbalaya. Don't forget to include the coalition's visual artists, who work designing and promoting each other's posters and cover art.

The roots are deep, Kamm says. "Some people became friends through playing together, and some just because we've known each others' families since bobbing for apples at age 3."

AN INDIE-ROCK GENESIS

However, its origin is a little more detailed. Cory Gilbert and Jeff Johnson of the slinky, lounge-y electronic pop act Gestalt had a band called Song of Mercury that lasted from 1999 to 2001. When that band dissolved, Gilbert and Johnson went to see the jazzy pop act Ocean Floor. "We were so impressed by Lane [Barrington] that we asked him to play for us in our new band Gestalt, with the agreement that we would support him in the Ocean Floor," Johnson says. "From my perspective, this is how the musical family tree that is Funbalaya was planted."

At the time, Gestalt recorded and practiced at a house in Winter Park. Friends began to mingle, and soon they started calling themselves "Funbalaya," a name credited to Phil Hammil of the Ocean Floor. Considering the friends were all causing joyful shenanigans together, "Funbalaya" seemed appropriate. Before long, the name extended beyond the house to refer to a community of musicians, artists and friends.

"Those Funbalaya kids are wild," says Chris Coochie of Post Records. "They're always having a neat party with a kiddie pool or handmade clothes or neat artwork for sale. J.T. [Almon, of Timbers Shivered] knows all kinds of crazy stuff about plants. Matt [Kamm] is a great pal too. We always have great times when he dresses up in a beard and talks nonsense."

Johnson asked Almon to play keys for Gestalt. Six months later, Almon and Barrington formed the thrashing, sometimes-overly-complicated-but-always-beautiful group The Band of the Name and the schizophrenic nü-jazz act Timbers Shivered. Members of Gestalt started an e-mail list of upcoming shows, which slowly morphed into the Funbalaya newsletter, every issue of which comes with a disclaimer asking for forgiveness from forgotten bands because it's so hard to keep track of everybody.

And everybody is in everybody else's projects, it seems. Johnson is also involved with the indie-Americana rock trio D Street, and he's working on a solo project, DJ D003Y D3C1MAL. Onstage, Johnson usually invites someone from Funbalaya to join him for a quiet, lounge-y set. He also remixes Funbalaya songs.

It gets complicated with the '60s pop-loving members of Dodger, too. Kamm and Sean Moore play with The Heathens; Moore is producing and playing with Barrington in the Ocean Floor; Kamm plays with the Ocean Floor as well as with Mumpsy. Barrington appears on Dodger's new record. With help from Moore, Miguel Miranda is Fall Apart Machine. Phil McCombs played bass with Timbers Shivered, which also included John Thomas from The Band of the Name. McCombs and Miranda both played with Unicornicopia. The Band of the Name's Barrington is currently working on the new Ocean Floor record as a solo record and Dodger's experimental electronic project. He is also helping on the new Gestalt record. And he's working with Moore on his jazz project.

See why you need a flowchart to figure this stuff out?

Electronic act Yip-Yip, whose spectacle of hazmat suits and pitch-shifted voices is a sight to behold, joined the collective about a year ago. The duo, consisting of Brian Esser and Jason Temple, did some of their first shows with What's Yr Damage?, forming a kinship with them over their similar sounds. Yip-Yip also used to go bowling with members of Band Marino and The Band of the Name. Travis Stewart, of Machinedrum, lives with Yip-Yip.

For a while, Esser wanted to leave Orlando, a town not always accepting of his band's music. Once Yip-Yip joined forces with the rest of the axis, he changed his mind. Now, when he plays in other cities, Esser brags about the Funbalaya scene.

Stewart's Machinedrum is its own frightening force. The insanely popular electronic act has been on tour, making stops in Belgium and Japan. Of course, Stewart had Barrington and Moore involved in recording. In addition, Stewart and Yip-Yip have remixed tunes by The Band of the Name.

Two years ago, Stewart's plans involved finishing school and moving to New York. Then he saw a Band of the Name performance, met Kamm, went to the Funbalaya house, moved in with Yip-Yip and played with Unicornicopia. He changed his mind about leaving Orlando. He subsequently formed the industrial duo H8 with Natalie Weiss of Unicornicopia. However, Weiss eventually moved to New York and the collaboration became cumbersome. H8 is now on hiatus until Stewart and Weiss have time to dedicate to the project.

THE DIASPORA

As the Funbalaya bands grew more popular and their members played together more often, they wanted to put more emphasis on the collective. This past summer, Almon headed the production and release of a Funbalaya sampler. "So many people wanted to put out a compilation, but nothing was getting done," Almon says. He chose 21 bands from the coalition, then added a few others, including Temporally, Dance the Bridge and The Last of Us. With help from members of Doris Delay, Dodger, Band Marino and others, Almon made about 650 copies of the disc; Kamm designed the artwork. Funbalaya bands gave out copies of the disc at shows, on tour and at local CD stores.

Sometimes Funbalaya unites as a single mammoth act, usually called the Swomee Swans. Membership in that band, says Stewart, is defined as "anyone who shows up." The Swomee Swans are more theatrical than musical, though, as are some of the subsets of Funbalaya. At 2004's Fringe Festival, members of Dodger joined Weiss to put on the play Unicornicopia – A Metamorphosis, a show that included puppets and dance. Stewart produced the sound and developed the music.

Later that year, most of the collective banded together to participate in The Afterlife, another play written by Weiss. The Afterlife, which included The Band of the Name and the Swomee Swans, featured Barrington being shot dead by the rest of the band because he couldn't play the drums.

"The show ended with me rocking out on drums as a ghost and then seeking bloody revenge on them," Barrington says.

The Afterlife begins where another play, Life and Death, left off. In that production, the Swomee Swans play celestial beings who go to a school in the afterlife. They are joined by The Band of the Name and they all put on a third-grade play, which Barrington characterizes as "the ultimate in Swomee nonsense, with fantastic balloon costumes, a giant jellyfish over the crowd and a Band of the Name-as-monster new live set sandwiched inside."

Unicornicopia originally consisted of Weiss and members of Dodger. Nowadays it's Weiss' solo act in New York. Weiss is still writing and performing, and she's working on a new album. "Even though I'm in New York, I still consider myself part of the Funbalaya group," she says.

Back home, Almon wants to expand Funbalaya as well. While his major focus is The Band of the Name, he's also involved with Timbers Shivered, Glamour Patch and Total Pony Proposal. He's also begun a record label called Grandma Party. "It's a forum to release records primarily," he says, "but it's also a place to show off people's clothes, crafts and other non-band-related creations."

Still in its primary stages, the label will put out releases on tape and CD-R. Right now, Grandma Party is releasing Timbers Shivered and Fall Apart Machine's records. Almon is throwing Grandma Party's kickoff Dec. 3 at Stardust Video & Coffee: a bazaar with 25 vendors selling crafts, topiaries and music. Almon says he loves the idea of promoting and building the musical community and hopes the label will get more people involved.

"I grew up here," Almon says, "and I want this to be a place where people can support each other and feel like they belong to something, maybe even own a bit of it."

Even though Funbalaya is now thriving, Barrington admits the future is uncertain. Gestalt's demise (the drummer moved to California) also affected Timbers Shivered, and further relocations will alter future lineups. Nevertheless, Funbalaya members are sure that whatever happens, enough people are involved for the collective to continue. "In my view," says Gestalt's Johnson, "collaboratives like Funbalaya represent the future of the Orlando music scene."

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