Thursday, August 5, 2021

Live from The Pandamonium: Rock band Ojo de Rojo (+ their eco-friendly garden!)

While you read, play this for background music.


I make my grand entrance at The Pandamonium by accidentally blaring my car horn twice as I lean forward in the driver’s seat to grab my notebook from the floor in front of the passenger’s seat.


David Bitner(guitar, bass, drum kit, aux percussion, backing/co-lead vocals) is standing outside The Pandamonium in a well-worn tie-dye t-shirt and cargo shorts when I open the car door. “Howdy, howdy,” he says. I hope he thinks the honks were intentional, some kind of cool-kid greeting.


From the outside, The Pandamonium looks like your typical sleepy beach town cottage, except for the hurricane shutters, which Bitner left up after last hurricane season and painted with a mind-bending spiral design. When I step inside, I feel like I’m exploring the hideout of a secret society. Mandala tapestries and African art, illuminated by red and blue spotlights, hang on the walls over top of soundproofing materials. I follow Bitner through a winding path of percussion instruments, guitars, mics and other mysterious relics that I assume are implements in the making of music, until we reach the back of the house, where a synthesizer faces a sofa and ottoman. Compared to the rest of the house, the adjacent kitchen is startling in its normalness- normal fridge, normal lights, normal half-drunk iced coffee perspiring on the counter. The Pandamonium is neither suburban home nor cultish lair; situated right behind Bitner’s own house, it’s the practice space and recording studio for Ojo de Rojo, the Space Coast’s up-and-coming rock band.




I take the ottoman, Bitner the floor. Between Bitner and the synth, Anthony Darmana(percussion- mostly djembe, bongos, electronic, drum kit; bass; guitar) perches on a stool with a guitar balanced on his knees and a cap cocked on his head. Andy Stanfield(guitar, bass, vocals, lyrics), bearded and Hawaiian shirt-ed, leans back on the sofa. Tom Van Dyke(drum kit, bass) slips in from a smoke out back, grabs a can of beer from the fridge, pulls up a stool across from me.


It’s been a long time since I’ve covered music on The Blergh, but when Bitner reached out in May with the Youtube link to nine of Ojo de Rojo's original songs, I knew I had to reconnect with the local music scene. On this summer night, the musicians of Ojo kindly agreed to catch me up, starting with where I left off: Oranga Tanga, the funky music-makers I talked with back in April of 2018. The following year, two Oranga Tanga members stepped down to focus on other things. The three remaining members- Bitner, Darmana, and Van Dyke- and a new guitarist- Stanfield- were left to decide: keep Oranga Tanga going, or start something new?



Bitner: I didn’t want to stop playing. Apparently they didn’t want to stop playing.


Stanfield: We just started coming here and just jamming and playing and recording everything… Every song, to me, has its own personality, and that was how it evolved from these jam sessions. I don’t think any of us knew where it was headed. It was just, we wanted to keep playing.


The guys held onto Oranga Tanga’s authenticity and creativity, but between Van Dyke’s ska experience, Bitner’s South American influence (he was in Chile’s first punk band), and Darmana’s and Stanfield’s country roots, the music they dreamed up was all-new.


Darmana: The old one[band] is sort of like ska punk metal-based and the new incarnation still has a little bit of that. This incarnation is definitely more blues-rock-based. I would go so far as to say psychedelic blues-rock-based.


Stanfield: If you go back and listen to the Oranga Tanga stuff[lyrics], a lot of it was third person. They were vignettes about other stuff… A lot of mine is more first person. And I think that by its very nature might sometimes make it darker.


Not that Ojo’s music is dark in the sense of MCR or The Cure; listen to it for a good jam, not for a good cry. Still, the lyrics hint at emotional struggle or conflict.



Stanfield: For me, lyrically, one of the things that’s been- I don’t want to say a challenge, but something to think about, is, as I get older, how do you write lyrics that are meaningful? That aren’t just like, “baby, baby, baby?” …I don’t want fake shit, you know? If I was out there trying to act, you know, maybe I was singing about first love or something, at this point it would either be goofy or creepy, right? So, how do you continue to grow and write something that has a value to others and reflects your maturity- that’s not a country song?


While the lyrics arise from deep personal introspection, all the band members work together on the music. A song usually starts when someone thinks up a movement, a group of melodic structures.


Darmana: We’ll play it for each other, and then we’ll see what else we can throw in the soup and see what happens from there. Sometimes Andy will have lyrics or have a song that he wrote that he wants to reconstruct, so we take the bones of the chord progression, and we’ll show it to Dave, and then Tommy’ll come in with the drums, and I usually end up having the pleasure of adding sprinkles to the top, ‘cause all of the hard stuff’s already done. Most of the time, Andy’s got the bones, Dave’s got the muscles, Tom’s got the brains, and we make the body work from there.


Stanfield: Tom’s real good at orchestrating the different pieces, putting them together.


Van Dyke: Instead of just being the same, melodramatic throughout the entire song, I’d rather it have ups and downs… Instead of playing the ending four times, let’s do it three times, or two and a half times and stop in a weird spot, instead of just being normal with it.


And sometimes, songs are born from spontaneous jam session inspiration.



Bitner: Certain things that we’ve done, I never expected them to end up in songs. It’s only because I have some bizarre noisescape going out of my guitar, and it would inspire this guy[Andy] to run over there and grab his electric guitar and start playing with his ebow, or… I would say, “Hey, this is what I was doing when I was out in the car in the parking lot waiting for a friend that was buying a car, and I was using my voice to create sounds," and it creates this whole atmosphere.


Stanfield: Sometimes there are those magic moments, and it’s like, “Okay, let’s just try to recreate that if possible. It was so good.” So sometimes we really have to struggle and slowly polish it, and other times it sort of happens.


Santoma, for example-


Van Dyke: I started doodling on a bassline idea, and Andy was like, “That sounds cool,” and we ended up jamming on it for a while, and eventually it turned into Santoma.


Or Reflections-


Stanfield: Dave and I just came in after taking a break, and just played... It's probably our mellowest song.


As a musician, one of my toughest challenges is improvising. I manage about 30 seconds of original noodling, then retreat to variations on the I Shot the Sheriff riff. I asked these master jammers for their insight.


Stanfield: I spent years figuring out where the notes are, but now so much of it is almost just shutting my eyes and listening. A lot of times, if you’re trying to go off preexisting scales and stuff, and you’re watching, and you’re not listening, you may start hitting clonkers.


Darmana: It’s like flying a kite. The music, it’s the wind. So you’re the kite. If the wind starts to die down, you’re looking for a place to land. So everybody who’s playing, you start to see their eyes come up, and then you start to look at each other, like we’re gonna guide it and land it softly. Or, one of us will crash the ship.


Given the decades of musical experience between each of the members, he adds, a crash is unlikely.



Bitner’s especially excited about a recent addition to the band’s soundscapes: a brand-new synthesizer, with all the bells and whistles.


Bitner: I’ve learned to program it so that it’s ever changing over time, and then you never keep coming back to its original sound. So, if you’re holding down keys, that’s gonna keep on changing and you can keep on playing chords with the other fingers.


But before that-


BitnerThere was about a ninety five-year-old lady that used to live down the street and was downsizing… and she had heard music down here, so she walked down here and had this piece of cheese keyboard, you know? And in my head, it was like, I really didn’t want it, but I just said, “thank you,” and let her say her thing, and let her feel happy, and go home, and I came over here, and I just put it against the wall.


For several years the "piece of cheese" sat against the wall until one day Darmana set it up in the practice space and started playing with its programmed rhythms.


Darmana: I would go through this machine, and pick out ones that were cool and different, and then I would tweak the tempo up… We would come up with ideas based upon that new rhythm. Then we would abandon the keyboard rhythm and Tom would take over.


They squeezed every last drop from that old keyboard, until the keys stuck and broke and the sounds sounded tired.


Bitner: And so I finally bought a real synthesizer. And so that has been my obsession and new challenge for this year… It’s starting to push us where we didn’t go before.




In just a year and a half, Ojo de Rojo has written 25 original songs- enough for two or three albums. How does a band stay motivated when there’s a pandemic on and no shows to play? Three productive band habits stood out to me.


1. Record.


I stand up to admire the network of recording equipment Bitner points out around the room-


Bitner: We’re all hooked up to a mixer over there, so there’s the PA that’s set up and then we record it on the computer over here.


Stanfield: Everybody’s hearing the song differently, and we can always go back and if people are arguing about it, just listen and compare the two versions, and usually you can truly hear which one’s better.


2. Organize. 


When I ask how they remember all that original music, Bitner pulls a thick white binder from a shelf under the computer. He thumbs through the pages, revealing typed lyrics, tab, and musical notation with edits penciled here and there between the lines. The four newest, yet-unrecorded songs take the front of the book. From there, Ojo has alphabetized the pages by song title, from Anthem to Sunspots.


Bitner: This is the most organized we've ever been.


3. Vote.


Stanfield refers to it as the REM model, in which all band members vote on song details. If a vote doesn’t come in unanimous, the band keeps working until they reach a solution that satisfies every member. Voting is integral not just to songwriting but to all band matters, including the band name- 


Stanfield: We were one vote away from being the Superspreaders.


Darmana: We needed a consensus to have the name, so we had narrowed it down to five or six names where there were three votes. Only three votes, but one of us didn’t like it. So we had to have a name that everyone liked.


Darmana adds that it took nine months for the band to settle on Ojo de Rojo for its imagery (Darmana: Why is the eye red? Are they crying? Are these guys sad? Are they weird? Are they happy? …It’s intriguing in some ways, you know?) and its rhythm (Bitner: It’s grammatically incorrect in Spanish, but I like the name).


Soon, you can hear them live and in-person. They’re expecting to play at the Iron Oak Post on October 1st, 2021 and at the Space Coast Music Festival in November 2021.


Van Dyke: I like playing shows just for the fact that I think it makes the band tighter. It makes you hone your skill a little bit more to make it better down the road.


Darmana: He’s an exhibitionist. (Laughter) But aren’t we all? As entertainers, that’s what you do. Lay your soul on the line for people to judge it, and hopefully they like it, and I think we got a pretty good chance that people are gonna like it.


I have to agree.


Until their first live show, we can vibe to Ojo de Rojo's music on Youtube, Soundcloud, Instagram, and Facebook. All their music is great fun, but my favorites are Reflections and Focus on a Wave.


 


BONUS: Ojo de Rojo's Eco Florida Backyard!


After the interview, Bitner and Darmana walk me through the backyard. The first thing I notice are the long mounds, which Darmana explains are compost: rather than keep a compost bin like I do, Bitner layers his compost out in the yard. When the compost is ready, he can plant right on the mounds.





Pepper plants of various species and origin cling in vines along the fence. Adjacent to them tower great cacti. Bitner invites me to touch one of the vibrant pink cactus flowers- they’re not really that prickly. Several fruit trees shoot up in the center of the garden, including loquat, which I’ve never seen before. Herbs, more peppers, and a few plants I can’t identify enjoy the warm humidity of a petite greenhouse. 





From The Pandamonium garden we cross into Bitner’s own front yard, where, in his words, he has “allowed Florida to be Florida.” Flamboyant trees show off their flaming orange blossoms; succulents and citrus and what I think is sea lavender abound. Bitner is growing a veritable jungle in his yard without lifting a finger- just letting plants grow as they will. Besides offering beauty and shade, Bitner’s natural garden conserves water and other resources (soil, fertilizer etc), because a plant that can grow in the wild can thrive on rainfall and groundwater of the soil (or, in Florida's case, the sand) anywhere in its natural habitat.



Bitner's not the only Ojo musician with a green thumb. Stanfield shows me photos on his phone of his yard. "I’m going for the whole botanical garden. It’s just sidewalks and plants and benches and stuff," he explains. "I don’t wanna mow yards. I want to be cool, chill, in harmony with the environment as much as I can do it."


Hot tip for musician-gardeners: Bitner stabilizes a flimsy sapling or a leaning fencepost by bindng it to something sturdy with an old instrument cable. I was relieved to know that I’m not the only guitarist with a pile of used-up amp cables sitting around, and I love that they can be reused in this way!



Thank you, thank you, thank you to David, Andy, Anthony, and Tom of Ojo de Rojo for taking time out of their practice to talk with me and show me around. I genuinely enjoyed our conversations and I’m hyped to hear more Ojo in the future!


Peace,


Heather 



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