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Salmon's Season

band
Christopher Gardner

Gym Jam: Salmon vocalist Lawrence Martinez gets wrapped up in a performance at the Los Gatos High School gymnasium.

Its musical lines baited with rap and rock hooks, the band from Gilroy goes fishing for fans

By Todd S. Inoue

Two years ago, I saw a freshly hatched band named Salmon open for the then-unsigned melodic metal-assault unit the Deftones. The show took place at the South County Playhouse, a chintzy Morgan Hill strip-mall theater that doubled as an all-ages music venue once a month, attracting scores of bored South County kids looking for something to do.

Rather than hew slavishly to any one genre, Salmon built its complex sound by borrowing freely from rap, funk and metal. The set consisted of only six songs--all originals--but even that limited repertoire showed off tremendous potential. Tapping into the youthful discontent simmering behind the garlic fields and outlet shops that dominate the small agricultural bedroom communities strung out along Highway 101, Salmon summoned up a fury that resembled no other group within a 100-mile radius.

The strong material was backed by a refreshingly unstudied stage presence. In midleap, guitarist Aaron Goodwin constructed sky-piercing licks and spiraling solos that linked '70s Jimmy Page with '90s Jane's Addiction-era Dave Navarro. Rock-solid bassist Tom Walker--as respectful of gravity as Goodwin was defiant--paced in steady circles and cracked cheeky smiles. Drummer Pat Ruiz enhanced his kit with an 808 synthesizer pad loud enough to set off car alarms outside.

Vocalist Lawrence Martinez, then sprouting knotted dreads, spent much of the night airborne, occasionally dropping down to perform an impromptu knee spin. His intricate, slightly loopy raps shuddered with unpredictable leaps and scats. The crowd reacted wildly, swirling and surging through the whole set.

After establishing a fervent following in the tightly knit rural towns of Gilroy and Morgan Hill, Salmon migrated north along the same road that carries many commuters to jobs in the Silicon Valley. Salmon hit the downtown San Jose clubs hard, winning the first Cactus Jam Night competition and playing main stage at the 1994 SoFA Street Fair. Its demo tape, Gracias Mijo, regularly sold out at local record stores.

Lots of South Bay groups have done as much, but have faltered on the crucial next step: release of the first full-length CD. Salmon has taken that next step with assurance on Flourished With Candies (on San Francisco's Entropy label) and will celebrate the occasion Saturday (March 23) at the Cactus Club.

Do You Know the Way
Out of San Jose?

The mythical rock & roll itinerary strikes a familiar chord: a band from the sticks (or garlic fields, in this case) makes a splash in the big city and then gets heard around the world. But this is San Jose, where a band takes off to the big dance about as often as a San Jose State University basketball team.

All too frequently, local groups garner a lot of attention and then squander it by oversaturating the market, playing every venue that will have them. Throw in money-wasting tours, a dated demo tape and a fickle public, and soon the band breaks up without a whimper. Frontier Wives, Cafe of Regret and Shovelhead all come to mind. One way out of the trap is to stop lusting after a major-label deal and carve out a national niche with an independent label, a strategy that No Use for a Name, Neurosis and Sleep have made work. Popular opinion has pegged Salmon the next in line to make the jump.

Flourished With Candies solidifies this theory. Salmon's trademark talents--Goodwin's versatile and aggressive guitar work, Ruiz and Walker's elastic punk/funk backup, and Martinez's box of vocal tricks--appear in abundance. The now-familiar seven beats of dead air at the beginning of "7" hang mouths out to dry before slamming them shut with Martinez's comic rap and Walker's lucid bass. The Jurassic guitar work on the chugging "Q" scratches eardrums raw. On "Pedastool Break," listeners are lulled with a pseudo-funky vamp before being ambushed by a surprise attack of cymbal and guitar thrusts. "Falling, Giving, Being" aggressively shuffles Martinez through tough vocal terrain, while "The Knack" and "Voltron" show off his multispeed flow.

When a young band with a strong live show tries to capture that energy in a recording studio, the results can often be disappointing. On Flourished With Candies, not a sweaty drop is lost. The album, which features both old and new tracks, includes a lyrics sheet so dedicated Salmon fans can finally decipher Martinez's vocal tricks on "7," "Bantamburg," "The Knack" and "Q" (a recent Carson's Pick of the Day on KOME).

"I've never been so stoked listening to our own stuff," Goodwin says, lounging backstage at the Cactus before a show with the Untouchables. "It takes a band a while just to get together and get what they want to do. A lot of your better bands, the best albums aren't always the first one. It's the second and third. I'm glad we took this much time because at least the music's there."

"Distinctive" is how one longtime fan, David McHenry, sums up the album. "You know it's Salmon from a mile away."

band
Christopher Gardner

Garlic Toast: Salmon's Lawrence Martinez (from left), Tom Walker, Aaron Goodwin and Pat Ruiz backstage.

A Fertile Rap-Rock
Spawning Ground

What makes the album not just distinctive but exciting is Salmon's skillful navigation of competing musical currents from rap and rock--an upstream battle that has daunted many bands. Rockers who want to be rappers (Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis) and rappers who want to be rockers (Ice-T) often cancel each genre out, rarely garnering praise from either faction.

The success rate for bands that try to unify the genres is dismal--Psychefunkepus, Limbomaniacs, Mordred, 24-7 Spyz and Urban Dance Squad all suffered from initial hype that landed their follow-up CDs in bargain bins and their careers in major-label purgatory. Both Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have tinkered with their formats to appear vital to listeners' changing tastes.

Lately, however, with the acceptance of rap and rock's cross-pollination--thanks to Run-D.M.C., skateboard videos, Lollapalooza and MTV--the factions aren't as distant anymore. Kids make mix tapes with groups like Biohazard and Onyx (and the Biohazard/ Onyx "Bionyx" collaboration). Fashions cross hip-hop's obsession with labels with skating's do-it-yourself aesthetic.

This is the fluid nether world Salmon inhabits--entertaining a healthy middle ground of middle-class music fiends who follow both rockers like Pantera and hip-hoppers like the Wu-Tang Clan. It's no wonder the Beastie Boys, who declared that skin color wasn't a prerequisite to play rap, punk or acid jazz--or all three at once--is one of the band's influences.

Many San Jose bands' attempts to mine both rap and rock styles still fall short--due to outright plagiarism, Al Jolson-like jive or rabid schizophrenia. Salmon, however, successfully works one without disparaging another. The band realizes it takes more than hooking up a beat box to a guitar amp and rhyming "dad" with "glad." The sole rap-rock band in the area that incites both head-bobbing and a raging mosh pit, Salmon breaks up the monotony of the area's long menu of straight punk with a raging anthem of beats, bass and guitar wizardry, topped with Martinez's distinctive rap style.

On the surface, the members of Salmon appear both bewildered and nonchalant about their gap-bridging popularity. Poke them a little, however, and it is clear that they are fully aware of the contentious scene they inhabit. Punks and non-punks may have been trading beats in the demilitarized zone of hybrid bands, but they haven't exactly declared a cease-fire. Salmon has heard the anti-rap vitriol from the pro-punk majority that rules the downtown San Jose music scene, and some local musicians have griped that Salmon's fans don't stick around after the set, leaving a gaping hole in the dance floor when 30 minutes before it was fully stocked with reeling fans. On a more hopeful note, rock bands like Sublime, No Doubt, Deftones, Korn and 311 have requested Salmon by name as their opening-act appetizer.

The dissension has taken its toll, which is why Goodwin says he likes to play the bigger shows, because "there's less BS. Everyone's positive. I don't want to seem ungrateful. The majority of people around here I've ever met are really nice, but one negative person seems like three negative people. Three negative people seems like 10 negative people. We just want to play and have fun."

band
Christopher Gardner

Winds From the South: Aaron Goodwin tries not to get blown away.

Something Fishy

Salmon polishes its sound out of the Practice Place, near the Highway 101 and Interstate 880 interchange. At its creative peak, the band convenes three times a week, though it's not always possible. "When you don't play for a while, you don't have that stage presence. You lose your chops," Ruiz says. "One week's time [without practice] kills us. Practice keeps us in shape. It's good for stamina."

Stage personality doesn't always tell the whole story about Salmon, but it is a reasonable gauge. Ruiz is friendly and the resident card. Goodwin and Walker are more reserved. Offstage, Martinez reveals little. He glides around, a ragged b-boy with detached cool. The guise shatters when he hits the stage, where he transforms into a frog-legged loony in hazardously oversized shorts.

There's a cosmic looseness that runs through the band like a current. They appear hesitant in the presence of a reporter, but capping on each other is an everyday thing, and they pepper their diction with old school Gilroy High School slang, in-group code words like "chicken," "seven," "schweg."

While the other three members of Salmon have moved out of Gilroy to find homes in San Jose, vocalist and chief lyric writer Martinez still lives there with his mom. After graduating from Gilroy High School in 1988, Martinez dropped out of the graphic-design program at Chico State after three years, finding true education selling books door to door.

An old soccer friend convinced him to attend a sales presentation, and he took the bait, eventually landing in Nashville, where a rigorous week of sales propaganda loomed. Soon he was knocking on doors up and down the East Coast, hawking study guides and encyclopedias.

"It hooked me because I was totally vulnerable at the time," Martinez recalls. "We knew chants about the company, how to close a sale. If any of my friends saw me then, they'd shoot me."

When he returned to Gilroy from that dubious career detour (Martinez ended up owing money to the book company), making music full-time became his priority. Linking up with members of his high school band, Dutch Courage, and enlisting Goodwin and Walker led to the formation of Salmon.

Martinez's peripatetic job training wasn't a complete loss, however. "The thing that interested me the most was the challenge of doing something nobody thought I could do," he says about selling door-to-door. "The discipline crossed over to the band. A lot of what happens with the kids in bands, they want to be like rock stars quick. They don't know how much discipline it takes to be good."

In Salmon, Martinez plays court reporter to disaffected youth. Hopelessness and frustration came easy to the small-town graffiti artist who didn't care about school spirit and the annual rah-rah community festivals celebrating Gilroy's fragrant cash crop.

Martinez's wayward experiences get distilled into concentrated fury on Flourished With Candies' best numbers. Listen, for example, to the eruptive, stutter-step attack on vanity that is "Pedastool Break." But Martinez doesn't traffic in chic despair. The spiritual "Falling Giving Being" dangles a hopeful rope at the deep end of low self-esteem, as do these lines from "The Knack":

Ain't hard to see that I'm a ramblin' guy
Decent at what I do and I continue to try
Enjoyin' what I can, I try and keep my hand
In a place where a face will see a helping hand

"I learned an insane amount of knowledge about people," Martinez says about his time on the road. "Looking back on it, I learned about the rich, poor, all colors. It was amazing how cool and how mean people could be."

From Garlic to Gangs

Despite the maniacal stage presence (he's knocked over monitors and suffered bloody noses), Martinez is actually a very spiritual person who laces his songs with references to the Bible and to Karma.

Though some of the lyrics are derived from Martinez's religious influence, others vent a frustration toward his hometown and its stark realities: gang activity, bored kids and a lack of hope.

"Ever since I graduated, there has been an insane uprising of stupid gang shit," Martinez says, noting the recent stabbing incident at Gilroy High School. "I've noticed a lot of changes. They're partying a lot younger, having sex a lot younger. It's kind of sad in a way. You're always hearing someone getting jumped and stabbed and drive-bys. A lot of them are scared, scared to do anything or standing out as an individual."

"Bantamburg" examines youthful Gilroy discontent in classic Salmon style:

So let's stop. I ain't here to harass you like a cop
But the dilemma is just like a crop
Rotten roots'll weaken and make your crop drop and go
Plop, plop, fizz, fizz
Please stick your nose inside my biz
It is the way of the day where everybody knows about ya, doubt ya
Less shit to spit if they were without ya

Bad relationships also play well with Martinez's words. He shows me a tattoo. Inside an intricate circle, a name is spelled out. It's a remnant of a breakup immortalized in the angry "Punk Like Me," a true song about an irate stepfather who broke down the door of Martinez's apartment, taking his girlfriend away, warning him never to see her again.

The feelings are still fresh from that incident. One time when he performed "Punk Like You," a glazed Martinez punched a water bottle and sent it flying into the crowd. "It doesn't take much to transport me back to that night," Martinez says. "I always get a little nauseous singing it."

Hooked on Sonics

Since the South County Playhouse gig, Salmon has watched the Deftones sign with Maverick Records, the home of Alanis Morissette and Collective Soul. Ruiz and Martinez went to visit the Deftones last month when they opened for Ozzy Osbourne at the Oakland Coliseum. They got a glimpse of what waits at the end of the road: a huge tour, a large stage, a crowd going nuts.

"It was inspiring," Martinez says. "It definitely made me want more from my band. I'm never really satisfied with anything as far as our band is concerned. I'm always pushing for a new song, telling [manager Gary Avila] to book more shows. It made me want it an insane amount more."

His voice rising, he adds, "I kept thinking that we could be there. The other half of me was nervous, like, could we really be there? Or are they really lucky to be there? I know how much those guys are into the music and they deserve it. And I know if we put our heads down and work, the possibility is there."

From that vantage point, so close they could almost taste it, Gilroy never looked so far away.


Salmon, Soda and Crack perform Saturday (March 23) at 9pm at the Cactus Club, 417 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $5/$7. (408/491-9300)

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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