Radio is repetition. And since repetition breeds familiarity, and familiarity puts asses in seats, radio is also everything to an up-and-coming band. This is one of the few constants of the music business, and Vallejo, an Austin-based Latin-rock outfit, is now in the enviable position of finding out virtually every night just how true that constant is.
From 91X in San Diego to The Point in St. Louis, alternative rock radio has embraced "Just Another Day," the lead track from Vallejo's self-titled TVT Records debut. And as such, Vallejo is beginning to do brisk national touring business -- although not surprisingly, the most immediate radio-driven aspect of their story has been just how quickly its Texas following has grown.
"You can certainly feel it when you're playing in front of 20 people Wednesday and 500 Saturday," says drummer Alejandro Vallejo on the impact of the radio play. "It's been really dramatic."
As it has for many other acts, radio play has reached out to the folks who dial-jump and buy records, but perhaps only go out on weekends. They are the dream demographic, and "Just Another Day" has brought them out to see Vallejo in droves. Of course, not just any airplay is enough to attract the audiences; last year, Vallejo was getting some radio time courtesy of its self-titled release on Chicago's IMI Records, a tiny label that had stumbled upon the band at a rehearsal complex during 1995's South by Southwest Music Conference. But IMI was too small to push the broadcast exposure very far; now, the radio play is being driven by a team of influential indie radio promoters hired by industrial giants TVT, who carefully monitored Vallejo's regional radio statistics and IMI sales figures before its January decision to rerelease Vallejo.
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Ironically enough, the major labels and national radio outlets found Vallejo before much of Texas did. The band now admits the frustration of preaching to the converted, the handful of fans who would show up in the fervent, if minority, belief that Vallejo was more tomorrow's Santana than yesterday's Bang Tango. Without even a hometown Austin draw to use for word of mouth, the crowds at regional pre-radio trips to Houston, San Antonio and Dallas weren't much better.
In truth, part of Vallejo's problem stemmed from the fact that it was mostly just a hard rock party band -- full of long jams built upon mildly funky grooves and spacy percussion. Until recently, the most interesting part of Vallejo's act wasn't its material, but the obvious chemistry and potential of its three-brother core, A.J. Vallejo on vocals and guitar, drummer Alejandro and younger brother Omar on bass.
So how did Vallejo become such a commercially viable en-tity so suddenly? Simply put, a record with compact songs. "The jam thing probably got a little out of hand," says A.J. Vallejo of the band's reaction to club crowds. "The only way you are really going to get people to listen is a more song-oriented approach, which is a writing skill you have to grow into. And as I've gotten older, I think I've tended to value melody and texture more than jams or loudness."
But perhaps what Vallejo really seems to value most is recognition of the band's roots in Latin music. Born in Wharton, Texas, and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, the Vallejo brothers spent much of their childhood listening to their Guatemalan mother's record collection -- which was heavy on Tito Puente and Herb Alpert. And although their first musical excursions nearly ten years ago involved playing Aerosmith, Metallica, Megadeth and Zeppelin material as a power trio on the Birmingham party circuit, the band's move toward its latent Latin textures was actually in the works just before its relocation to Austin two years ago. By that point, the group they then called the Vallejo Brothers had won a Birmingham battle of the bands, added percussionist Steve Ramos and guitarist Bruce Castleberry and met Michael Panepento, a former production manager for Motown who agreed to manage and produce Vallejo.
"We told Michael we wanted to do something different, and went to him with the idea of going back to our roots in Latin music," says Alejandro Vallejo. "But we also wanted to incorporate all the rock stuff that we grew up listening to, like Zeppelin. And he pretty much showed us how to play those rhythms ... sambas, mambos and whatnot."
Those sessions, with Panepento handling most of the percussion, yielded Sins, a self-released CD that included an early attempt at "Boogieman," the band's upcoming TVT single. And while that CD sold well, and while the band found itself playing Birmingham's largest auditoriums to crowds of 3,000 and up, the members of Vallejo say they felt like they had begun growing stale. One problem, says Omar Vallejo, was answering the question "How do you shop a Latin band from Alabama?" So after a successful New Year's Eve 1995 gig in Birmingham, the band left town with enough money for two months' rent in Austin.
"Pretty soon, it was the epitome of every story you've ever heard about bands coming to Austin and lining up for sandwich jobs," says Alejandro Vallejo. "We were at the bottom, and had no money and no fans. We were used to living large in Birmingham, because there was really no other band to compete with and [we] didn't play every week, [but] maybe once every two months. There were only two big clubs there, and when we got [to Austin we found] 30 different good bands at 30 different clubs."
Adds A.J. Vallejo, "I think we left [Alabama] with a little bit of an attitude about how much better we were than everyone else. Getting [to Austin] slapped us back down, because we'd show up to try and get gigs and they'd hand us these tickets to give to friends, and then judge you by the number of tickets returned. Only we didn't have any friends."
Nonetheless, Vallejo wound up getting a regular Wednesday gig at the Sixth Street club Steamboat, and the grounds for a new CD were somewhat naturally influenced by the bands it shared gigs with, most notably funk-driven acts such as the Ugly Americans and Sister 7. As such, Vallejo's eventual studio maturation didn't come at the expense of its groove. "Without the Latin percussion thing we might just be another rock band with decent songs," admits A.J. Vallejo. And, in fact, Vallejo works chiefly because of how well drummer Alejandro Vallejo and Ramos play against each other.
"There's a formula to it, in that we don't play together like a rock band," says Alejandro Vallejo of the Latin inflections, which continue with new percussionist Diego Simmons, who replaced Ramos earlier this year. "While the drums are rock beats, we incorporate Latin percussion between those beats. And with Latin bass lines and heavy guitars, it's the percussion patterns that are hopefully going to fall between -- and open the holes that wind up being the groove."
To some degree, it could be the groove elements that are getting radio's attention. But more likely it's the fact that nobody else so percussion-based is making records right now. As for the string of AOR stations spinning cuts from Vallejo, TVT's radio department isn't shy in admitting that the lack of new radio-ready Carlos Santana product hasn't hurt the band.
"The Santana comparisons are something we try to look at positively," says A.J. Vallejo, "because the worst thing you could do about something so similar and influential is to knock it. But mostly, the comparisons seem to stem from the fact that we're the first mainstream rock act that vaguely sounds like Santana."
The comparisons seem to be helping, not hurting, sales. And it's also allowed them to tweak the noses of Austin's musical-powers-that-be. Just a year after they were turned down for a spot at South by Southwest, Vallejo celebrated this year's conference by having the bestselling CD in Austin record stores. And they have a few national pluses to point to as well: At Dallas's KDGE festival they'll share a stage with Beck, a gig that will be followed by stints with Los Lobos and at ESPN's X-Games festival.
And so, after just one relatively successful radio single, A.J. Vallejo has contemplated the empty clubs his group used to face, and the crowds now, and has come to a fairly classic music-business conclusion.
"Radio is power," he says, "and just that people in Montana are possibly hearing us, considering buying this thing and perhaps showing up to a gig is an amazing phenomenon. Unreal."
Vallejo performs Saturday, April 19, at 2 p.m. on the Texas Stage of the Houston International Festival. The band also performs that evening at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. The Sheridans open. For info, call 869-
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