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Photograph by Tara Robison

Strata Outta Campbell: The hottest band out of Campbell rocks harder than the sedimentary layer they're named after.

Home Boys

Strata scopes out the tricky music industry minefield from its Campbell roost

By Sarah Quelland

CAMPBELL Avenue is impressively lively for a Wednesday afternoon, and the members of Strata are clearly familiar faces on this downtown strip. Several people spot them and call out, to which the guys smile and wave back. But while everyone seems to be importantly on their way somewhere, these four feel like they've been on a freight train that just slammed into a wall--and they seem a little dazed. In the past five months, Strata vocalist Eric Victorino, guitarist Ryan Hernandez, bassist Hrag Chanchanian and drummer Adrian Robison have been touring with Alien Ant Farm and Die Trying and with dredg, S.T.U.N. and Codeseven. They've only been back in town for two days but they're already restless.

Victorino explains, "When you're out on the road every night, there's people clapping for you and shaking your hand and telling you how fucking awesome you are. Then you come home and it's just real and everyone knows you for the dork you are. It's really cool but it takes a second to get used to that again."

There's also a sense of relief that comes with being home, but Victorino adds, "If they called us and said to pack up your shit and go, we would do it. You have to be ready to drop everything."

Robison nods his head in agreement. The 21-year-old Strata drummer quit his job and sunk his entire college fund into the band. "You gotta put all your chips on what you think is the thing that's gonna take you the furthest. That's what I did and I'm still not even signed, but I still have this dream."

It's been a long ride for this unsigned band and, now that they're back home, some clarification is in order. So many people, Victorino says, think they moved down to L.A. Quite the opposite; Strata flexes Campbell pride, from their ASCAP account (Campbell Avenue Music) to their stickers and shirts which reference the home to the state's largest prune festival and Taco Bravo.

"We didn't move down to L.A.," says Victorino. "We stayed there for two months and recorded a shitty album. We live up here and we love this place. The spirit of our band lives in Campbell."

Known for a vast, complex and expressive style of heavy, artistic rock, Strata formed three years ago as downside, played places like the Cactus Club, and became a regular at the Gaslighter Theater in Campbell. They released their first full-length, sleep, in 2001 to good response, and followed up last year with an Internet-only album titled when it's all burning.

Now about that shitty album. Earlier this year the band spent two months in Los Angeles with producer John Travis (Buckcherry, Kid Rock). They ended up scrapping the session because it didn't give them chills. Victorino blames himself. "I couldn't find an environment that I liked writing lyrics in L.A. I didn't want to sit there and write about how I missed being home and I missed my girlfriend and my dog, but that's all I could think about."

The band members say they forfeited creative control and paid too much attention to what they were told about structure in the studio.

Hernandez says, "Instead of playing from the heart, which got us where we are, we started to listen more to the producers and try to be more of an industry band."

After being disappointed in L.A., they remixed when it's all burning and are determined to put it out on an independent label or by themselves. They're also anxious to write new material that they plan to record on their Pro Tools rig. The quartet has been exposed to a wealth of music on the road and can't wait to see how these new influences will affect their music. Victorino cites bands like the Used and GlassJaw as inspiration, "I'm getting so attracted to bands where the singers aren't doing typical things."

Strata's first major tour was the May-June 2003 run with dredg. Soon after, they joined Alien Ant Farm on tour. They speak often of the lessons learned on the road, like learning how to stretch their dollars by sleeping during the day at the venues they were playing or by inheriting AAF's hotel room at 5am when the band returned to its bus and headed back on the road. They also learned about stage presence and making new fans.

"I think the Ant Farm tour upped our game a lot," Robison says," because we knew what to expect from the dredg tour. We fixed a lot of our tempo problems and gave more of a high-energy performance."

It took time for them to find their comfort zone. As Victorino explains, "Toward the end of the dredg tour, we started exploring the stage more, jumping around from watching S.T.U.N., from watching how active they get. The thing was, we were getting musically really sloppy but we were fun to watch. So on the Ant Farm tour we decided to strike a balance between the two. I'm starting to open up and interact more with the audience."

After shows, when they weren't hawking their $5 limited-edition EP now the industry is outnumbered ... their factories are burning down and other merch, the band hung out with folks in the clubs and, during their long drives, they cyber-chatted with people who accessed their website after seeing them perform.

"To kinda get all hippie on it," Victorino says, "there's like a completion of a circle there that's really amazing once you realize it's happening. You write a song, you get on a stage and you play it and someone understands it really well and cares about it and you affect their life. And they impact ours 'cause we could be having a really shitty day and someone will pop up and say how much we mean to them and then that completes the whole circle."

It's no secret that Strata would like to be signed to a major label--or even a strong indie. But they're in no rush. They've already burned their mouths on the taste of success. They've done showcases in L.A. only to be passed on repeatedly. Two years ago, they got as far as a congratulatory dinner where label execs toasted to the marriage of Capitol Records and downside before watching the deal slip through. Then there's the litany of bad judgments, hasty contracts, legal settlements, name and lineup changes and band debts.

Hernandez adds, "As Eric says, it's better to be on your deathbed and say, 'I've tried all this stuff,' than to be on your deathbed and be like, 'What did I do with my life?'"

"We've all been busting our asses for a really long time," Victorino concludes. "So we're not in a hurry to just have it snatched away from us. We have everything in place except for the record deal, and so, however long that might take to get doesn't really matter 'cause we're doing fine the way we are."

Strata plays main support at Plans for Revenge's CD-release party with Name Taken and the Program this Saturday (Aug. 30) at the Los Gatos Outhouse, 4 New York Ave. in Los Gatos (408.395.5553). The show starts at 7pm and there's a $6 cover. Visit www.stratadirect.com.

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From the August 28-September 3, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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