It's July 1998, and A.J. Vallejo is strolling through the parking lot of Austin's Tinseltown movie megaplex on a mission to see Armageddon, the syrupy sci-fi movie about a massive meteorite on a doomsday path toward earth. In an instant, the front man for his eponymously titled Latino funk-rock band is starring in his own disaster flick, courtesy of a speeding Jeep Cherokee. The impact knocks Vallejo underneath the vehicle, crushing his ankle.
The fact that Vallejo has recovered, and that the band has emerged after three months of canceled gigs and disappointing sales of its second CD to rebound with a major-label deal, has infused Alfredo Vallejo Jr. with even more nervous energy than usual.
The physical aftershocks of Vallejo's accident are minimal, little more than the beeping of airport metal detectors due to the screws and pins in his leg. But the financial legacy, aside from lifetime movie passes to the Tinseltown, includes a major renovation and state-of-the-art studio upgrade at Vallejo's South Austin home, dubbed Casa de Vallejo. If you believe good things are born of misfortune, then the band's subsequent signing to Sony/Epic in late 1999 was the only just result. Particularly when you consider that at one point the band looked as much like roadkill as Vallejo did in that Tinseltown parking lot.
Not long after the accident, the band Vallejo -- which includes Vallejo's twin brother, Alejandro (drums), younger brother Omar (bass), kid sister Julissa (who handles merchandising and occasionally dances on stage), Bruce Castleberry (guitar) and Diego Simmons (percussion) -- was in danger of being yet another Austin group that had reached a plateau then succumbed to bad record industry karma.
The October 1998 release of the band's second full-length disc, Beautiful Life on New York's TVT Records, was, on paper, going to be the singular event that would rocket Vallejo into the stratosphere of commercial success, but the results were flaccid. Almost $500,000 was spent on production, including mixes by DJ Hurricane (Beastie Boys), but the record barely sold half as much as the band's self-titled debut, also distributed by TVT, which sold 50,000 units. Vallejo concedes he wasn't thrilled when, for example, the band would play a gig in Nashville to support the record and would find there weren't any for sale in that city.
"[TVT was] a techno label, and we didn't quite fit in very well, I guess," says Vallejo. "We were all down on what happened with Beautiful Life. Everybody was pointing fingers at everybody else. Thank God TVT was pretty cooperative" about letting the band out of the deal, "saying they hope somebody else can take us to the next level."
The height of the next level remains to be seen, but the band has been building a following in Austin, where bonged-out followers enjoy tripping to Vallejo's big-ass riffs and Afro-Cuban rhythms. And the group certainly has that wait-till-they-mature potential A&R gurus are paid big bucks to sniff out.
In a way, Vallejo's father, Alfredo Sr., was way ahead of those A&R weasels. Alfredo Sr., who now lives in Houston, saw enough promise in his three boys to buy them trumpets when they were growing up in El Campo. He figured they could be the next Tijuana Brass or something. Dad's love-of-music vibe rubbed off, but Herb Alpert wasn't nearly as cool to three adolescents as Mötley Cr¨e.
"Latin music was all around us, with our uncles playing their Tejano tapes, but we were kids just getting into rock music," says Vallejo. "Hey, no disrespect, but Tejano is pretty basic stuff, repetitive polka and ranchero melodies. Five songs later, it all sounds the same."
After the family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, the Vallejo boys' musical renaissance took shape. As teenagers they took in a KISS concert in 1985, then formed a band, The Vallejo Brothers, playing pop-metal covers and initially recruiting as lead singer the high school quarterback. His value as a vocalist paled in comparison to his worth as a chick magnet. When he failed to show up for a gig, Vallejo took over the mike. For good.
When the brothers decided that music was going to be a career and not just a lifestyle, a move to Austin in 1995 was orchestrated. It still looks good to Vallejo. "Let's face it," he says. "A Latin band in Birmingham? It just doesn't work."
The group with the cojones to think of itself as the Latin Aerosmith or Latin Pearl Jam has attracted the attention of Latin record mogul Emilio Estefan Jr., who began negotiations with the group after a late-1999 showcase in Orlando. Those meetings led to a deal -- with full creative control to the band, Vallejo insists -- for an English-language rock release on Epic and a rock en español disc on Estefan's Crescent Moon.
Wanting to be the Latin Pearl Jam doesn't mean Vallejo wants to disrupt its party vibe. The band would rather turn its attention to the dance floor than to weighty social issues. (Hint: This is a band that lists the how-to-make-your-hard-on-last-longer rag Maxim as its favorite reading material.) When Vallejo, as chief lyricist, takes on a heavy topic, as he does in "If I Was President," the results are sophomoric. He appears to be too busy trying to match rhymes to get a message across. Here's a sample lyric: "I'd talk the truth then I'd tell you what I mean / I'd save the forest and make everything green."
Says Vallejo: "I'm not really some Goody Two-shoes, but when I'm writing lyrics, I'm just looking for a play of words that works well with the music. That's just the way it's evolved. This isn't about wanting to put your foot down and saying something, so kids are lining up at your gigs asking what are your big issues. It's just drink and have fun, you know."
As expected, he bristles when the words "Latin music" and "fad" are used in the same sentence, now that mainstream labels around the world are replaying the grunge scenario of the early 1990s. They're stomping all over each other to sign the next big star with a tight black Tshirt and a tilde in his name.
"That people can say Latin music is a fad just because it's all over the pop music stations is kind of a joke," says Vallejo. "Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but to put it down without understanding that it is more about a cultural expression.It's like people said hip-hop would be a fad. White metal bands wanting to be black rap guys -- now that sounds more like a fad."
Vallejo performs with special guest Autumn Lords on Saturday, January 29, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington. For more information, call (713)869-COOL.
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