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Bitter Pill

Juarez front man Brent Miles: "We're going for the seratoninly challenged audience, I think."
Annette Callahan

Let's say, for the purposes of this article, that's it's 3:30 in the morning. Only, it's really 4:30 because the clock in your car is an hour slow. Time is of little consequence anyway. What do minutes matter when you're sick with doubt and doubled over by the weight of betrayal?

The predawn air is cool, but your blood, heated by the unyielding surge of adrenaline, is warm. As you drive aimlessly through the night, the deafening silence is broken only by a strange, fractured voice asking the same questions over and over again. That is, until you realize it's your voice and your questions.

Ah, love.

What else would prompt a normally sane person to spend hours cruising cinder-block suburban streets looking for something and someone that's not home -- or worse, at home with someone else?

This is life rendered as a cheap cliché, a lyric from a pop song: I write your name, drive past your house. Your boyfriend's over, I watch your light go out.

In this cynical age, such behavior might be considered stalking, but you know better. What sort of masochist would willfully choose to endure this pain; the internal chaos increasing with every pass by an empty driveway? Madness, pure and simple, exacerbated by the drink and drugs you thought would provide relief.

For all the sad songs ever written -- and that is no small number -- very few have ever gotten this feeling quite right.

To really nail a true sense of heartbreak is practically impossible. It's much easier to romanticize it -- the way Sinatra did, the way the Beatles did, even the way the best country music does. Frankly, it's just so much macho posturing dressed up as genuine pain. And, ultimately, most of it rings false.

Being in love, however, is a different story. When you're doe-eyed and head-over-heels, it's barely a challenge. The dizzying fever of romance is easy to capture. Play a couple of Phil Spector numbers, fall into the welcoming arms of some girl, and that's it. Game, set, match.

But the flip side to that coin is a much tougher sell. What is it they say? Oh yeah, breaking up is hard to do.

It's especially hard if you can't let go, and surely this is one of those instances. In moments like this, when we'd do anything to keep from fixating on the minutiae of a dead affair, relief -- even salvation -- can come unexpectedly. Tonight it's arrived in the form of a Maxell Gold cassette, marked "Juarez -- Self Titled."

At first, there is nothing spectacular about the sound coming from the crackling speakers near the floorboard, but there is something. A quality to the voice perhaps; a lilt to the melody. As it goes on, though, you recognize a bit of yourself in the lines, hear a touch of your own experiences, your deepest regrets.

Gradually, the swirl of the guitars, the halting honesty of the words, the judiciously deployed piano lines make an impression. The forlorn stories of lives drifting apart offer strange comfort and begin to set your mind at ease.

You give up the chase, make the long trip home and fall into a restless slumber. Over the next few days, sleep will not come this easy, but you've been sated, temporarily at least.

Whatever else has been lost during the course of the night -- a lover, a friend, a measure of pride -- you make sure not to lose that tape; you may need it again.


Maryanne's Copper Queen is an old lounge on the eastern stretch of Glendale Avenue near Seventh Street. Tucked behind a service station and a Whataburger, it would be hard to find if not for the garish neon sign out front flashing the word "Cocktails."

It's late Tuesday night, and the place is practically empty; a couple of drunken businessmen in suits hoot and holler as they play darts in the back room; out front a cheery-faced barmaid cleans glasses.

Sitting on a stool in the corner and eyeing a basketball game on TV is Juarez singer-songwriter Brent Miles.

He looks different from the photos that adorn the group's album cover. Gone are the long, bleach-blond bangs and sharp soul patch, replaced by a pomp of black hair and a healthy scruff. As we move to a booth, he casts a quick gaze across the quiet barroom. "This is nice," he says softly. "I don't like a lot of people."

Settling down to begin the conversation, Miles tosses a pack of menthol cigarettes down on the table. Occasionally plucking one out, he finishes maybe half a dozen over the next four hours. It's unusually long for this kind of interview. But Miles is a rare subject. A journalist himself (he's finishing a degree in the field and works part-time as a news assistant for the Arizona Republic), he lacks the strained self-awareness of most artists. There are no preplanned quotes, canned stories or painfully thought-out agendas to be had tonight, and for good reason. After we're finished, he admits, "That was my first interview."  

Judging solely on his work, one would expect Miles to be a hesitant, slightly troubled soul. Instead, he's affable and good-natured, smiling and joking even as he reveals painful details about his life.

With a stellar debut, success -- on both a creative and modest commercial level -- seems to have come quickly for Juarez. Though it took only a year -- the time between the group's inception and the album's release -- to reach that point, the record is actually the result of a long and arduous journey more than a decade in the making.


After graduating from Apollo High School in the early '90s, Miles, along with schoolmate/drummer Bobby Lundberg and guitarist Matt Wiser, formed their first band, an indie-rock outfit called Nostalgia Drags.

"It was a pretty noisy, angry kind of group," he says. "We played with people like Halfstring, Alison's Halo, that whole 'beautiful noise' scene, or whatever they called it."

Throughout the mid-'90s, the singer would go on to form a handful of other short-lived combos along with Lundberg, including Seniorita Bonfire and Monte Verdict Stars. With each new band, there was a definite stylistic shift away from a corrosive sound toward a more sophisticated and rootsier muse.

"In our first bands, it was all about alternate tunings and dissonance, and that actually progressed into learning chords," he adds, laughing.

Miles is hesitant to label Juarez stylistically ("I don't know what the hell to call it. Who knows anymore?"), and admittedly, the group's lush twang is a hard fit -- too intelligent for new-country listeners, too indie rock for hard-core honky-tonkers and too pop for alt-country fans. But such genre-tag semantics are rendered irrelevant once the proverbial needle drops.

Miles draws the bulk of his inspiration from the catalogues of gravel-chested wordsmiths like Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, and the zeitgeist of late-'60s goth and country pop -- Bobbie Gentry, Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb.

Despite his evolving musical education, by 1996, it seemed unlikely that a career in rock 'n' roll awaited him. Deciding he needed to get out of the Valley ("I wanted to be able to say I hadn't lived in Phoenix my whole life"), Miles moved to Flagstaff and began attending NAU.

Life up north quickly proved less than idyllic. Living in a cabin on a sprawling four-acre parcel north of town owned by his parents, he developed a growing sense of isolation, compounded by a rapid disillusionment with the college experience.

If he found the trappings of academia disappointing, Flagstaff's local music scene -- a notoriously hippified center for Phish and Grateful Dead wanna-bes -- was an even more disheartening discovery as Miles tried in vain to start a band.

"There just weren't a lot of people with the same ideas as me. I didn't have much luck up there at all. When you make a flier that says, 'I want to start a country band' and you list Sonic Youth as one of your influences, people don't get it."

Tired and frustrated, Miles dropped out of school after three years, leaving the city for the familiar comforts of his native Glendale.

Yet his years there were not wasted. Miles continued to write furiously, his lyrics evolving and gaining poise. The time spent alone during the bleak winters had yielded a batch of new material that perfectly captured his rural melancholia. This trove ran the gamut from fatalistic tales of slacker futility to neurotic anthems of soured romance.

Miles knew he was heading in a different direction. All he needed was a band of sympathetic comrades to help him realize his vision.


Upon returning to the Valley last year, Miles was finally determined to start up the band he'd been dreaming of while away at school.

Reconnecting with old Nostalgia Drags mates Bobby Lundberg and Matt Wiser, the trio got together at the studio of another old acquaintance, Mark Kopenits, producer and owner of Glendale's The Gray Room. Kopenits eventually turned the group on to veteran Valley bassist Jon Saccoman, who was enlisted to round out the lineup.

Recorded between March and September of this year, Juarez's 10-song disc, released on Kopenits' New Beat Records imprint, is an omnibus of Miles' material from the past decade. Most songs are abstract vignettes, snapshots of the life of a frustrated twentysomething.  

Chronologically, the oldest composition on the album, "Michigan," dates back to 1991. Written while visiting family in the Midwest, the song details Miles' life-altering epiphany.

"I was going through a weird phase," Miles says. He hesitates for a second, then adds, "I'd been depressed for a long time. I guess I always thought that's what being a teenager was all about. Then you turn 22 and think, 'Hey, maybe I shouldn't be feeling like this.' So I started taking antidepressants; that was right when I started on them. So there I was on Prozac, standing on the banks of Lake Michigan, it's all overcast and gloomy, and it just kind of came out."

What "came out" was the first song that would serve as a catharsis and chronicle of Miles' decadelong battle with clinical depression.

"For the longest time, I was kind of ashamed, I guess," he says. "But now I just talk about [my depression]. Especially with the CD -- that's what it's all about. I mean, that's the common thread running through it."

The twin demons of depression and alcoholism have affected Miles' family deeply; both of his natural grandfathers committed suicide. And he's faced his own share of difficulties dealing with the condition, switching back and forth between medications for years, none of which seemed capable of tempering his acute mood swings.

"I tried the group therapy thing, too. And it was funny, 'cause I went to this group session, and everybody had way worse stories than me, so I started feeling much better," he says. "You've got these people who were beaten and molested, and I'm thinking, 'Jeez, I've got it pretty good.' Obviously, that feeling didn't last too long."

Here, one should be careful to point out that Juarez is not merely therapy set to music. That would be too loaded a statement; at best it would mean measuring it against John Lennon's primal scream workout, Plastic Ono Band; at worst it would be lumping it in with the "Dear Diary" psycho babble of Alanis Morissette's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

It is, however, the sound of a man engaging in the therapeutic process of divesting himself from the failed relationships of the past and the burdens that such emotional defeats carry.

Though he speaks thoughtfully on the subject, Miles is not the stereotypical pop-music depressive. Neither a recluse (Nick Drake) nor a manic oddball (Syd Barrett), he has enough sense of humor and irony to poke fun at himself: The disc's artwork is emblazoned with images of pills, while the cover depicts the band at a blackjack table, Miles betting a prescription bottle.

Bringing the essential detail and character to the sweeping narratives is a diverse troupe of talents.

Producer Kopenits, a trained guitarist and graduate of Boston's Berklee School of Music (and the band's oldest member), joined during the making of the album.

"He said he wanted a challenge," recalls Miles. "And I told him I needed someone to play piano. He didn't really play before, but had the equipment. So he sat down and jumped right in." Kopenits lends a dirgelike quality to each of the songs, his fills offering nuanced counterpoint to the melodies, as on the slow-burn mini-epic "Michigan."

Wiser is the band's utility man, bringing an unorthodox approach to a variety of stringed instruments -- mandolin, banjo, pedal steel. Saccoman's bass infuses the proceedings with a blithe energy and bounce, ensuring that the sparse arrangements don't feel vacant. Meanwhile, Lundberg, Miles' longtime rhythm foil, is given a rare prominence in the mix. With an intuitive feel for the material, the trapsman's waves of crashing cymbals are as integral and as evocative as the whine of the steel guitar.

Together, the players produce a sonic wall that is painstakingly atmospheric, yet never comes off as somnambulant drudgery.

On "Blue Light," the group makes use of the same kind of moody top-string twang employed by fellow desert dwellers Calexico. The track is a surreal travelogue, based on one of Miles' antidepressant-fueled dreams.

"[That's] about one where I dreamt I was driving out to Nevada and pulled up at what looked like a rest stop. I walked in and it turned out to be whorehouse instead -- and all my ex-girlfriends were working there," he says, with an embarrassed smile.

Yet, not all the songs are such stark confessionals. "Lupe" (which is included twice on the record -- as a mellow SoCal country rocker and also as a brawling twanger) is the least personal cut on the record, a grown-up examination of working-class pride and denial: "I raised four kids, three girls and a boy/I don't want to hear that my daughters are whores/. . . I don't want to hear/That my son's in the morgue."  

Elsewhere, the acoustic rumination "If You See Mary" -- which paints the Virgin Mary as down-to-earth savior -- sounds as if it could be an outtake from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Coincidentally, the song deals with what Springsteen himself described as that album's theme, the "unknowability of God."

Carried by Miles' unusual phrasing -- something that pays little heed to conventional notions of meter and time -- he wrings every last ounce of truth from tired country clichés ("I'm going to find myself a savior/One that doesn't come from a bottle/One that I can't swallow") and casts them atop a lachrymose bed of acoustic guitar and pedal-steel swells. Delivering the final maudlin salvo ("If you see Mary, tell her I'm in a hurry/To get this life over with, pack up my dreams and come home") with a weary, nearly suicidal-sounding sense of resignation.

It's clear Miles possesses a doleful, unforgiving view of the past and an equally bleak perspective on the future, a notion cemented by heavy-hearted hymns like "KTWC" -- an ode to the defunct Valley radio station -- and the Neil Young-ish album closer, "Going Home."

But beneath all the gloom, there lurks an indefatigable charm, a bruised romanticism that makes you want to cling to its every note. From the aching monotone delivery to the languid harmonies, and impressionist strokes of sonic color, every inch of it is suffused with a glorious despair.

Much of that is due to a quality in the writing and music so intensely personal, you almost feel as if you're eavesdropping on Miles' internal dialogue. Yet there is something universal about the lament. A quality that allows a complete stranger to identify with it as the soundtrack to his own misery, to use it as sympathetic testimony of his own wasted and confused youth.

"I'm surprised there's been that kind of reaction, because they are so personal," admits Miles. "As a writer, I don't see that someone else could actually relate with my stuff -- the way I phrase things and the words that I put together, it's kind of my own thing," he says. "But I've realized, 'Hey, there's other people out there who probably feel the same way as I do.'"

In all, Juarez is an odd debut. Slow, weepy and rife with unadorned emotionalism, it is arguably one of the darkest local releases in memory. Bridging the barroom blues of Merle Haggard's Serving 190 Proof and the existential angst of Lou Reed's Berlin, the band has created a record so uncompromisingly bleak that it should come (as Nick Hornby comically suggested in High Fidelity) with a warning sticker.

"We're going for the seratoninly challenged audience, I think," jokes Miles.

Mostly, though, the record captures the dilemma of a generation of hopeless and chronically disappointed romantics. It's the story of what happens to the brokenhearted boys of pop songs when they grow into adulthood, incapable of escaping their youthful discontent.

"Girls and breaking up and relationships. It's an integral part of your life because it kind of determines how you're going to feel about the opposite sex once you approach your 30s," says the 27-year old Miles.

It's also the underlying theme of the record: that the so-called trivial experiences of adolescence, written off as so much teenage turmoil, are really the determining factors in shaping a person.

Miles knows firsthand the dangers of such emotional pitfalls. "Especially like in high school, that's the time when relationships aren't supposed to be that serious or meaningful," he says, "but that stuff really affected me. I carried it with me for a long time and pretty deeply, too."

Part of that sting is felt by the jilted protagonist of "Coming Home" ("I just can't drive with tears in my eyes") or the devastated boyfriend in "After All," who clings futilely to a faded love ("I'm holding on to things long after they're dead").

As with most auteurs of heartbreak, there seems to be a built-in, intrinsically negative view of women. It's an element to his work that Miles, for one, is unsure of.

"[That's] hard for me, because I have a real trust of women because of the way I was raised -- by my mother, grandmother and aunt. But at the same time, you think, 'Ah, women will just leave you or just jilt you.'"

Miles wrestles with the thought for a moment, takes a pull of his beer and then gives a shrug, "Hell, I don't really know."


Located just past the mile-long row of car dealerships in downtown Glendale, in the middle of a strip mall, is The Gray Room Studios.  

Mark Kopenits spends his days here recording everything from commercial jingles and mariachis to heavy metal groups -- this is, after all, the west side.

It's early on a Friday night, and the area is quiet. Juarez is setting up in the back room, band members taking their positions against a nondescript brick wall and a jumble of equipment.

They are a subdued bunch, nervous, it seems, in the presence of strangers. But they chat eagerly among themselves about recent developments.

Early response to the record has been surprisingly good, with several cuts earning airplay on college and commercial radio, mostly in odd locales -- Alaska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, even Germany and Yugoslavia. "All the places that don't have any clubs," deadpans Miles.

The group was recently asked to contribute a track for a tribute album dedicated to Monkee and country-rock pioneer Mike Nesmith. The band will record Nesmith's "Some of Shelly's Blues" for the Dren Records comp, due for release in the spring.

Juarez is also readying a batch of original numbers for a follow-up, newer songs crafted since the group came together as a unit. Of the material, Miles says, "It's a little more upbeat. Well, a little more up-tempo. Hopefully, I'm out of that phase."

The singer has reason to be cheerful. Thanks to a new prescription, he's battled back his demons, has gotten engaged and is set to be married next summer.

Life is good, and he likes it that way. Besides, if he needs to be reminded of how bad it can be, he's always got his songs. And if he can't use them, surely someone -- maybe driving around heartbroken in the dead of night -- can.


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