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Into the New With Vallejo

By Andy Langer

AUGUST 21, 2000:  "Drink more, it will sound better," Emilio Estefan Jr. told well-wishers every time he saw an empty cocktail glass at the pre-release celebration for Vallejo's Sony debut, Into the New. The mere fact that the legendary Latin music producer/impresario was holding the party in Austin, not in Miami, indicated Estefan was just joking. After all, when you're widely regarded as the prime architect of Latin pop and have been instrumental in putting your wife Gloria Estefan on the international map -- as well as the careers of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez -- you don't have to leave home unless you really, really want to.

"I had to be here," explained Estefan privately. "They're my first rock band and my first band from Texas. I couldn't be more proud or any more hopeful."

For Sony Music, partners in his Crescent Moon label imprint, that Estefan began expressing these and similar sentiments when he signed the band back in January has been nothing short of a call to action. In response, the southwest branch of Sony Music has made Vallejo priority one.

Even before the album's rollout, the label has already convinced nearly every genre-appropriate radio station in Texas and a four-state region to play the album's title track/ first single. In radiospeak, they've nearly "closed the grid." Add the fact that stations in major markets such as Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago have already committed to playing the song too, and last week's Lucky Lounge bash couldn't help being upbeat. In fact, it felt like a bar mitzvah and the payoff for just over 13 years of basement jams, empty clubs, dashed dreams, and a nasty Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

For starters, the party offered brothers A.J., Alejandro, and Omar Vallejo the opportunity to watch their mom take Estefan on a meet-and-greet tour of the extended Vallejo family. It was Mrs. Vallejo who, some five years ago, saw Estefan on television and told her sons she'd personally go to Miami and deliver the band's demos if she had to. Estefan eventually found Vallejo on his own, but now Mrs. Vallejo gets bragging rights. Then there were the invited guests -- a who's who of local clubowners, musicians, radio programmers, retailers, critics, and Yellow Rose dancers. Lots of Yellow Rose dancers. And why not? Second to perhaps only the Scabs, Vallejo is Austin's highest-profile party band, on- and off-stage.

"We're not out of control and we're not hurting anyone, but we like to drink, smoke, party, and hang out with beautiful women," says the group's frontman A.J. Vallejo. "We're happy. We live a certain lifestyle. And I'm well-aware there's people that want to slap that smile off our faces."

Although drummer Alejandro maintains no one has of yet been brave enough to say it to their faces, all three Vallejos recognize a certain segment of the Austin music community thinks they're laughable. They're a band other local bands love to hate -- and not just Dynamite Hack, who dissed them on their major-label debut Superfast with a bonus track called "No Vallejo."

Clearly, there are those unable to get past the long jams and underwritten songs of Vallejo's Steamboat days. Others begrudge them for acting too rock & roll too soon. Still more dismiss them as cock-rock revivalists, charging that they're too focused on their hair, leather pants, and the amount of fake breasts in their fan base to be much more than a funkier, more ethnic version of Motley Crüe.

"We draw well, so we're easy targets," says A.J., who probably saw members of all three camps eating and drinking off Vallejo's tab at the Lucky Lounge. "When we were coming up in Birmingham [Ala.], we were envious and suspicious of the bands that packed out the clubs. We thought they sucked, too. And I understand that, because they're always seeing us hanging out in titty bars and having a good time.

"But it also means when we're onstage trying to get a crowd to have a good time, we're not faking this. We're having fun. And we certainly can't worry about pleasing everyone."

Instead, they seem remarkably focused on pleasing Estefan. In the Miami Sound Machine producer, they see an experienced barometer of talent excited about the chance to bring them international recognition. Current plans call for Crescent Moon to follow the release of Into the New with a companion Spanish-language release early next year. In Vallejo, Estefan says he sees Latin music's next frontier: a band that can carry their guitars through the same doors Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony opened for other Latin acts with their charisma and choreography. Vallejo are contenders, he says, because they've got experience and a sense of identity.

"It says so much that they didn't anglicize their name," he states.

Most importantly, Estefan has found a band with its own sound. Say what you want about Vallejo's mix of rock, funk, and metal, but it's difficult to deny that it's not instantly recognizable on KLBJ.

"We want to take the Latin sound of Tito Puente and Santana and push it an extra step," Alejandro says. "We want to give it more power and energy."

This approach is actually more complex than it sounds. Guitarists Bruce Castleberry, Heath Clark, and A.J. anchor the rock side of the equation, while Omar on bass and percussionist Diego Simmons crank out Latin rhythms. The ultimate responsibility of fusing heavy guitars with a Latin beat, however, rests on the shoulders of Alejandro, who eschews familiar south-of-the-border rhythms for a classic rock beat.

"If I played Latin parts, the whole band would sound Latin," says Alejandro. "My job is to incorporate a rock beat that hopefully opens up the holes that wind up being the groove. Mix in a little Spanglish, it sounds like Vallejo."

As much as the development of their own sound, Estefan says he was equally impressed by Vallejo's live theatrics. While A.J. acknowledges that he and his brothers originally "studied" Ratt for onstage guidance, the cock-rock comparisons Vallejo draws come more from the high-flying, shirtless, throw-your-hands-in-the-air spirit of the band's live show rather than the music itself.

"People can diss it and call it cheesy, but let's see them get up there and do what we do," challenges A.J.. "There's a lot of movement, a lot of playing, and a lot of thinking. To get up there and make it look so natural is harder than people think. So what if we're into making faces and running around? We don't want to charge anybody $15 to stare at our boots. We're shooting for nothing short of a total entertainment package."

Had Vallejo stuck with their family's original concept for the band -- three brothers, three inexpensive trumpets -- it's unlikely phrases like "total entertainment package" or "The Yellow Rose" would have factored into their story.

Vallejo's saga begins after one fateful junior high summer in Birmingham, when virtually everyone came back to school 10 inches taller than the diminutive Vallejo brothers.

That early-Eighties autumn, all three Vallejos opted to end their sports careers and concentrate on the school's symphonic jazz band. When they decided to work up their own jazz trio around the house, they asked their father for instruments; Alejandro wanted drums, A.J. sought a saxophone, and Omar had his eye on a trumpet.

"Dad came back with three trumpets," laughs A.J. "Winds up he got a deal on 'em."

Alfredo Sr. may have gotten a bargain, but it was all part of a plan. If his sons were going to be interested in music, he thought, why not turn them into Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass? By all accounts, papa Vallejo was always something of a pragmatic dreamer; he was ambitious enough to own two restaurants and a Victorian party house in Wharton, Texas, where A.J. and Alejandro were born in 1969, and Omar followed 18 months later.

The elder Vallejo was also sharp enough to know when to cut his losses and start anew in Birmingham, as well as inform his sons that if they didn't like the trumpets, they could learn how to read music and buy their own instruments as soon as they were ready. They did just that, and by the time Alejandro bought his own drum kit and A.J. his first guitar, all that was left for young Omar was to play bass.

"It was easy to call rehearsal," A.J. remembers. "We'd get bored watching television and just go downstairs to jam."

Like every other early-Eighties garage band, the Vallejos spent much of their time learning Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones songs, later giving way to the alternative rock of the moment -- most notably early Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction. By 1985, the trio was playing neighborhood parties with a makeshift set list and ever-changing lineup. At one point, they even hired the high-school quarterback as their frontman.

"Initially, it made sense because we were trying to get chicks to come to our parties," A.J. says. "Once the girls started coming, we had to fire him. He sucked. He sounded like Huey Lewis, which was particularly bad because we were playing Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin songs."

A.J. eventually went from fill-in to full-time frontman, but not before they invited Castleberry, a guitarist in a rival cover band, to give it a try. He wasn't interested in singing, but wound up creating a job for himself as rhythm guitarist. By 1988, when Omar decided to skip college and bypass a music scholarship to the University of Alabama, Vallejo had a solid lineup and a solid circuit of frat parties to play; they learned enough Cult and Violent Femmes tunes to play three one-hour sets and earn as much as $1,400 a night.

While the money was good, the band itself wasn't quite there yet. They were a tight cover band, but only had a handful of "bathroom songs" -- original tunes A.J. says always preceded large chunks of the audience leaving to relieve themselves or refill their beers.

Had they had more originals, Birmingham was hardly the place to play them. The city only had two real showcase rooms for original local live music, and the Vallejos played them as regularly as they could for a take-home gross of $11 or so a man. Worse yet, they had to endure being introduced with the Alabama pronunciation of their name: "Valley-Jo." Even so, one of these empty gigs led to a chance meeting with Michael Panepento, a former production manager for Motown, who seemed eager to manage and produce Vallejo.

According to A.J., Panepento eventually assumed the role of father figure, to the point where his initial suggestion that Vallejo integrate Latin rhythms met with only mild skepticism. One reluctant afternoon of jamming later, Vallejo found itself a sound -- a sound they'd grown up with via their parents' record collection. Better yet, returning to their roots offered the boys a refuge from grunge.

"We saw Nirvana coming and loved it, but we also knew we'd get lost if we threw on flannel and tuned to D," says A.J. "And while people in Birmingham told us, 'I don't like that spic conga shit,' we knew that if people didn't like it in Alabama, at least it's ours. We knew we could always hone the sound and move it somewhere else."

By 1994, it became clear Vallejo wasn't going to cultivate an audience in Birmingham. The primary problem, says Omar, was rather an obvious one: How do you shop a Latin band from Alabama? With Sins, the band's first self-released CD, alienating much of their fan base with its Latin rhythms, Vallejo suspected they might go over better someplace with a greater concentration of Hispanics -- someplace like Orlando.

Just before the Vallejos, Castleberry, and original percussionist Michael Ramos firmed up plans to head to Florida, they got a call from their friend Kristal Stephens, who had recently moved from Birmingham to Austin. She asked A.J. to at least visit Austin before deciding on Orlando. He took her up on the offer and spent a week seeing local bands like the Ugly Americans, Mr. Rocket Baby, Soulhat, and Little Sister.

"It was like Disneyland," says A.J. "I was like, 'Wow, there were more than two clubs.' I remember sitting on the steps of Steamboat thinking we could do this."

A.J. headed back to Alabama and convinced the rest of the band Austin was a safer bet than Orlando. After a farewell 1995 New Year's Eve gig in Birmingham, they left for Austin with two months' rent in their pocket. The band was smart enough to get restaurant jobs that both fed them on the clock and supplied take-home food, but little else went smoothly.

Not only did the brothers have to learn how to get along with each other again, they also had to learn to live with Castleberry and Ramos. Worse still, the only gigs they were being offered were ticket nights, where bands are asked back based on how many friends they bring through the door. At the time, Vallejo didn't have any. After dropping off a copy of Sins at Steamboat, the club's Dave Cotton and Danny Crooks took a chance and offered the band a weekly Monday-night slot opening for Pariah. A year of Wednesdays followed, but the crowds didn't.

"We played to empty rooms for nearly two years," says Alejandro, who maintains it didn't get much better even after friends Sister 7, Storyville, and Breedlove offered them opening slots at the club. "We got used to Cotton saying, 'Hey, would you load out your shit a little faster? We're trying to get people through here.'"

Musically, A.J. says they found immersing themselves in Steamboat culture a blessing and curse. While they admit their penchant for 10-minute bass solos and 15-minute songs may have worn down what little crowds they had, Steamboat offered them an outlet to perfect their Latin-rock fusion; rather than noodle on blues-funk chords, they built jams from sambas, mambos, and other Latin rhythms.

"Since nobody was coming, we could basically write onstage," explains A.J. "And because we'd have to play two-hour sets, you can't help but become something of a jam band by necessity. I remember looking down at Breedlove's early set list and being amazed by seeing only eight songs. They were eight long songs."

Ultimately, it was South by Southwest that set Vallejo up for a breakthrough. Chicago's IMI Records, a tiny label with more ambition than money, stumbled upon the band at the Austin Rehearsal Complex during SXSW 1996. After very little negotiating, the band signed away significant publishing rights and agreed to make a low-budget album they'd release regionally.

"Our money was running out, and we wanted a record to sell," A.J. says. "It seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time."

IMI may not have had the muscle to push Vallejo's self-titled album toward national radio play, but the band got the next best thing: KLBJ's undivided attention. The local rock giant started playing "Boogieman" on its own and followed with "Just Another Day." Not only did the first 5,000 copies of the album sell out almost immediately, but people started coming to Vallejo shows -- in the neighborhood of 500-700 people per gig.

"We started drawing from the day of the record-release party on," pinpoints A.J. "I think it was pretty simple. People needed a CD they could bring home and familiarize themselves with. You can play for two hours and have people dig it, but CDs and KLBJ made them fans."

By January 1997, A.J. got a call from IMI alerting him to a new set of fans. The TVT label had been carefully monitoring Vallejo's regional radio statistics and was interested in re-releasing the album. The catch? The deal was already done. The band wasn't even included in so much as a conference call, relates A.J., let alone the paperwork.

"Our original contract with IMI allowed them to sign us over as a joint deal between IMI and TVT," he says. "And IMI had us convinced they were looking out for our best interests."

Although a Latin rock band was a curious signing for a label primarily known for its industrial output, TVT hired enough indie promoters to get Southern and Southeastern rock radio outlets to add "Just Another Day." While the song was far from a smash, it was still a good set-up for a second single. Or so it seemed, as infighting between TVT and IMI led the label to effectively shelve the album. As disappointing as TVT's decision was, however, Vallejo managed to sell over 50,000 copies of their debut and when offered the chance, agreed to record a follow-up for the label, 1998's Beautiful Life.

"We were looking for a more bombastic sound than what we got," A.J. says of their first stab at making the album. "We wanted to capture that Steamboat live sound everyone was digging, and while what we came out with may have been cool, it just didn't sound like us."

Making matters worse, both IMI and TVT said they didn't hear a hit. Nearly $400,000 after their initial recording allowance, TVT hired former Beastie Boys DJ Hurricane to remix the album's first single, "Snake in the Grass." The remix was adventurous, perhaps too much so; the band complained that they liked hip-hop, but they didn't care to play it. TVT went ahead anyway, and when they took the single to radio programmers for feedback, it was essentially dead on arrival.

"The rock radio stations we'd spent so much time concentrating on said, 'That's not rock. There's not a guitar on there.' They were right," A.J. says.

According to A.J., the partnership between IMI and TVT soured to the point where the latter eventually decided to cut its losses and not release Beautiful Life after all. If they could get themselves a high-profile tour, however, TVT promised, they'd reconsider.

"I know [they] thought we'd never find anything," A.J. says.

A.J. called in a pair of favors and landed two weeks opening for Seven Mary Three and two more weeks with Brother Cane. TVT kept its end of the bargain and released Beautiful Life, but it was too little too late -- the album never got significant radio play past KLBJ and sold less than 25,000 copies.

"Beautiful Life's failure very nearly broke up the band," reveals Alejandro. "It was the toughest setback we'd faced."

A.J. remembers the period even more grimly.

"It was humiliating," he says. "We were on the road, and, with no single and no records in stores, the crowds and radio programmers knew the buzz was dead. They could see it. We really had no choice but to swallow our pride and head home to Austin. It was really the only place we could count on doing well."

Taking account of Vallejo a little more than a year after the death of Beautiful Life, you'd have no idea how bad things got. Before a recent sound check at La Zona Rosa, A.J. notes how easily the band has adapted to being "an expensive jukebox." This particular gig is being financed by Vignette, the local high tech outpost that regularly books Austin's hottest bands for employee-only parties. Playing house band to the newly rich may not be glamorous, but it pays well.

Vallejo's local popularity has made them a hot property on the the corporate and private-gig circuit, and even if A.J. classifies these kinds of shows as "sell-out shit," he's not ungrateful. Such gigs allowed Vallejo the luxury to regroup and rethink after splitting with TVT. They also gave the band enough financial wiggle room to hire on extra guitarist Heath Clark (ex-Sunflower). Better yet, gigs like these helped pay their attorney's fees and allowed them to offer some financial incentive to former Jimmie Vaughan and Storyville manager Mark Proct -- now Vallejo's manager and the catalyst behind Vallejo's Crescent Moon deal.

As Proct looks on at the Vignette sound check, he's noticeably excited about how effortlessly the band has integrated material from Into the New into their set and how adding Clark has freed up A.J. to move around more. A few hours later, both Proct and an SRO crowd seem equally pleased by how genuine the show feels. This may be a "sell-out" gig, but Vallejo is playing as if they've sold out the show on their own.

Whether they're simply making it look easy or genuinely "on" isn't clear, but it's hard to imagine them this energetic and confident a year ago, when Vallejo Inc. had just declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Yes, bankruptcy. How's that for a twist on the old "Austin band loses major-label deal" story?

"To get free and clear of IMI and TVT, our lawyers presented us two options: Break up or declare bankruptcy," says A.J., estimating the band was in to IMI and TVT for nearly $700,000. "Chapter 7 made more sense than temporarily splitting or changing our name, but it was very secret, very embarrassing. I'm not ashamed now, but it's definitely proof of how far we bottomed out. Nothing humbles a man like bankruptcy."

Chapter 7 not only allowed Vallejo to sever ties with IMI and TVT, with the latter company taking it better than the first, it also meant the band was free to fire their manager and booking agent. With a clean slate, the band focused on raising funds by re-releasing Sins independently and planning for a new, self-released album. Even with their independence and an ambitious game plan, A.J. admits declaring bankruptcy still devastated the band.

"At the Lance Armstrong celebration last summer, we went onstage smiling," he says. "Nobody in Austin knew how miserable we really were."

Not only did the Armstrong party allow the band to pose for some classic backstage photos with Gov. George W. Bush that will probably come back and haunt both band and candidate, it also led to an invite to play a Miami private party for local lighting company High End Systems that Estefan would be attending. The timing couldn't have been better.

Proct had already been talking to Crescent Moon President John Doelp, and after Doelp and Co. flew in for Vallejo's final set at Steamboat's closing weekend, Estefan signed off at the High End show. Estefan's game plan for Vallejo was and is simple: to develop and market them as the Latin rock world's first arena-ready answer to bands like Pearl Jam and Aerosmith. He says he's encouraged that they're not a straight Latin act, but a Latin-flavored rock act instead.

"I think he's seen too many real Latin bands that try to just throw in a rock guitar and wind up sounding awkward," ventures A.J.

The first product of the Estefan/Vallejo marriage, Into the New, is neither awkward nor a remarkable step forward. While tunes like the title track and "Modern Day Slave" (featuring what could be a career-kickstarting cameo from local rapper MC Overlord) seem better focused and less forced than previous Vallejo efforts, the album breaks little in the way of new ground. Alejandro Vallejo says that's exactly the point.

"We don't deny that Vallejo relies heavily on a formula," he confesses. "We've been at this too long to turn around and try to sound like Korn. We think we have a distinct sound and we'll take it as far as we can until we think it's tired. Have we made the perfect record with this formula yet? I don't know. Should it sound like the other records? Yeah. I think the biggest mistake a band can make is to stray too far away or to forget their sound."

Then again, nobody's about to argue that Into the New's "sound" has much in common with the latest wave of radio-metal. That might ordinarily represent a setback, but Proct believes that not fighting the Korn and Limp Bizkit also-rans for radio space could actually fill a void; Vallejo is definitely less threatening than Papa Roach and Disturbed, but more driving than Matchbox 20 or Everclear.

While it remains to be seen if radio programmers embrace that theory en masse, it's just as likely that Vallejo's other major calling card, their bilingual approach, will be what really makes them stand out. Current plans for the Spanish album call for recutting vocals on as many as half the Into the New tracks and the addition of another half-dozen Spanish-only tunes. Vallejo presented that idea unsuccessfully to TVT just before Beautiful Life, but it makes a lot more sense now, given Latin pop's breakthrough and Estefan's unparalleled access to international markets.

"It works surprisingly well," A.J. says of the translations. "You can hear right away if the song or topic lends itself to Spanish interpretation. Love songs sound more passionate, but the harder or faster stuff tends to be a little more difficult. You can't stuff eight syllables where two used to be."

While some skeptics believe the Vallejo/ Estefan union is perhaps a little too good to be true, Proct says he genuinely believes this may be the tightest band-label fit he's seen in over two decades of management. With events like the Lucky Lounge party and the amount of pre-release radio promotion Sony has funded, it appears they're ready to spend money to make money.

"Our record is being set up with an amazing amount of attention and precision," the manager says. "Every available piece of ammunition is being utilized to set this record up. A lot of time, a band has to go out and spend a year beating the pavement to get the big wheel to turn at all. We're already getting a head start."

Everyone involved is hoping that early radio adds can create enough momentum for Vallejo to break on a national level. Texas alone can create radio and retail numbers that impact the national marketplace, while "Vallejo, International Crossover Superstars" would certainly silence the band's critics. It would also back up their pre-rock-star Yellow Rose runs and flamboyant stage show. Yet the band's Chapter 7 episode has actually left them reluctant to make any grand pronouncements of future stardom.

"We've been through so much crap we can't help but be excited," A.J. says. "But I've told Mark to filter out as much of the 'You're gonna be big' bullshit as possible. We don't need to hear that -- either it will happen or it won't.

"Either way, working with Emilio, having a good deal and a record we're proud of is kind of a fairy-tale ending," he concludes. "If we sell 50,000 records, that's more than we did last time. Anything more will be complete joy. The main thing is that everyone's healthy and everyone's having fun. After 10 years, that's enough right there."

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