Sometimes, it's better to be known for nothing. When it comes to perceptions about "scenes," when you get past hoary hot spots like New York and Chicago, it seems that the less people think they know about your town, the better. Athens, Seattle, San Diego and Omaha were respectively known for SEC football, bad weather, great weather and an insurance company before their creative communities got noticed by the indie-rock cognoscenti. Of course, after being noticed, those cities became synonymous with the sounds they produced and now, bands from those burgs have a head start when it comes to getting respect.
Unfortunately for this city's smarter rock bands, Orlando already has a fairly well-accepted reputation, and if it's not about theme parks, it's about highly polished, mass-market-ready music. "Quirky" and "independent" don't typically make the equation, to the unending frustration of those of us who insist otherwise.
"We played in Norman, Oklahoma, and Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips was at the show," says Josie Fluri, bassist for New Roman Times. "Afterward, he asked us if we were joking about being from Orlando. We said, no, we're really from Orlando and he kept saying 'Orlando?' And we were like, 'Well, you're from Oklahoma City!'"
Needless to say, New Roman Times' intelligent and forward-looking indie rock doesn't categorize itself with Creed's bombast, but remember this: QueensrÃ?che was from Seattle too. And though national perceptions of Orlando are steeped in un-hipness, perception doesn't necessarily equal reality. This is something that the principals in New Roman Times discovered completely by accident.
In fact, when Fluri and guitarist Dan Owens moved to Central Florida together from Denver, the primary reason was to get away from music.
"When we lived in Denver, we were in this band called Register," says Fluri. "Dan had gotten to a point where he was kind of over `being in bands`, so that's when we started talking about the idea of moving here and opening up a clothing store."
"Josie's family lives here," says Owens, "and that, for all intents and purposes, was why we moved here to open up a clothing store. I just wanted to be in a position where I had ... not a normal life, but at least some sort of dependable income and be like, 'This is what I do. I run a clothing store.' The idea behind the store was to have something where we could be our own bosses and do our own thing, and we could still have money coming in and have a core for our lives to revolve around."
In case you haven't noticed, this story is not about Dan and Josie's boutique. Because, as those things go, the store never opened. Instead, as those things go, the two wound up forming a new band. And that band, in case you haven't noticed, is what this story is about.
Although their Denver-based band Register did achieve a bit of national note, thanks to shows with the likes of June of '44, the geographical isolation of Denver often made touring more work than it was worth. "The next closest city is Salt Lake, so we did most of our touring on the East Coast," says Fluri. "Two days to drive out, two days to get back ... it was a lot of work and we didn't have any help."
So, with their arrival in 1999 in Central Florida at the Orange City house of Fluri's family, to be precise the idea was to let music become a hobby, while focusing their entrepreneurial energies on the store. At least that's what Owens, who had also been through the indie-rock treadmill with Atlanta band Marcy in the mid-'90s, thought. Did Fluri have the same intentions?
"Oh no," she laughs. "I was just getting started. I had recorded all these songs before we got here so I could play them for people to see if they wanted to work with me."
"And before I knew it, I was involved," laughs Owens.
"There was no store," says Fluri. "There was no break."
The sound of NRT is more succinct and atmospheric than the math-rock leanings of Register (or the full-bodied pop of Marcy), with a muscular low end and crisp melodies. But the songwriting core of Owens and Fluri has nonetheless been the singular defining factor. The lineup of the band has not exactly been stable. At least a half-dozen members have passed through NRT's ranks in the past few years, including members of Summerbirds in the Cellar and the Tampa-based band The Washdown. The current lineup including guitarist Ryan Seagrist (formerly of Gainesville band Discount) and drummer Shane Brown has been in place for the last four months and, given that no members are in other bands at the moment, should stay that way.
The group's newfound solidity is reflected in their recent live shows. But, despite the fact that Owens and Fluri are the only members of the roster appearing on it, the entire band's focus is now on the release of their debut CD, International Affairs. Recorded in the summer of 2003, the disc has been a long time coming. Different label possibilities opened for the band since recording was completed, but no situation seemed exactly right.
However, when approached by Michael McRaney and Gerard Mitchell of The Social (where Fluri works as night manager) about being the debut artist on Social Recordings a label with national distribution, publicity and marketing behind it an opportunity to do something good for their band and their city seemed possible. With The Social acting as a center of gravity in Orlando's recent renaissance as an indie-friendly city, invaluable professional contacts had been made but, more importantly, the club had done a lot to change perceptions both within and outside Orlando about this city's musical climate, and there was no reason to think that their label couldn't do the same.
"We were touring with VHS or Beta and The Fever, and the best show they had on that tour was the one at The Social, including New York or Los Angeles or wherever," says Fluri. "You'd think that, with crowds like that, Orlando would have a lot more musicians and a bigger sense of camaraderie, and although there are a lot of musicians, there aren't a whole lot who play the same sort of music that we do. Even though there are a few really good indie bands, people don't know about them."
"I'm optimistic about the scene here," says Owens. "It's very affordable to live here, there's a really great club here and you have a huge population of young kids like 15 to 20 years old that come out whenever there's a good show. Those kids are gonna start bands. The big thing with me is that, if we're gonna stay here, I want there to be cool bands from here."