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Daring to rock

Local band Marianne’s Wish have been invited to two gigs in America – the first Cypriot band to play in such prestigious venues. THEO PANAYIDES meets them as they prepare to go on stage in their other guise, as Minus One

 

The dim narrow corridor leading to the dressing room is adorned with scrawled messages – greetings, thank yous, cryptic one-liners – in black, red and blue. The dressing room itself, in the basement of DownTown Live in Nicosia, is small and poky, its brick-walled bareness interrupted by a mirror where musicians can primp and preen and practise their moves. The mirror runs almost the entire length of the room, except for a corner at the far end where I sit with the members of Marianne’s Wish, or perhaps Minus One (more on this later). The wall has been done up with prints of rock’n roll legends, doubtless to inspire those about to take the stage; one print depicts Elvis Presley, in his coiffed hip-shaking glory. The caption reads: “HE DARED TO ROCK”.

Marianne’s Wish also dared to rock, and will soon be rocking on a much bigger stage. They’ve been invited to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, “the largest music festival of its kind in the world” according to Wikipedia, after which (again by invitation) they’re doing a gig at Whisky a Go Go, the legendary LA music club where The Doors used to be the house band and Janis Joplin had her last drink – four shots of Southern Comfort – the night before she died. Needless to say, they’re the first Cypriot rock band to play such prestigious venues.

Right now, however, it’s about an hour to showtime and we’re still in the basement of DownTown (formerly Avlea) where the five members of Marianne’s Wish are slowly filing in, each in his own time – only they’re not Marianne’s Wish tonight, they’re Minus One. The guys look a bit stressed-out when the subject is broached, as if preparing to explain something very complicated, but in fact it’s not that difficult. Minus One are a cover band playing gigs in Cyprus (mostly DownTown Live and Savino Live in Larnaca), Marianne’s Wish write their own songs and release albums mostly online – but the personnel is the same in both bands: frontman Francois Micheletto, guitarists George Solonos and Constantinos Amerikanos, bassist Antonis Loizides and drummer Chris Ioannides.

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Actually no, there’s one difference: Chris Ioannides goes by ‘Chris J’ in Marianne’s Wish, a change he made to placate unhappy Americans bemused by the weird random vowels of ‘Ioannides’. Who cares what Americans think, some might say – but that’s the point, Marianne’s Wish look beyond Cyprus. Their first album (released in 2012) was called Add to Wishlist, a title that owes everything to the internet and nothing at all to their home country. The new one (which came out last week, just in time for the US gigs) is called Mind Your Head, taken from a sign they saw on a cruise ship – though it also, claims George, works on other levels like ‘mind what they put in your head’, ‘put some mind in your head’, etc. I assume it made sense at the time.

George is tall, shaggy, and the only one from a musical family. He has musical genes on both sides, and his uncle is famed UK writer-producer John Themis (George has played gigs with his more iconic namesake Boy George, one of Themis’ collaborators). The others come from more varied backgrounds, which they don’t particularly care to discuss – “I don’t think people would be interested in what our parents did for a living,” says Antonis – though Francois happily admits to being the son of Dominique Micheletto, probably the best-known beekeeper on the island.

For George, music was ever-present: “Since the day I was born, I don’t remember doing anything else”. For the others, it was something that just happened. “I started playing completely on my own,” recalls Chris the drummer. “I’d be at a Chinese [restaurant] and pick up the chopsticks, I’m not really sure how it started myself”. Antonis is older – he’s 45, Chris 37, the others in their early-to-mid 30s – and remembers the 80s, a more primitive time: “Back then, rock and metal was … well, we were like 15 people in the whole of Nicosia. So, if you listened to that kind of music, you were hanging out with those few people – and you know, you start winding each other up. Some people played a little bit, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a guitarist’, I played some guitar so it was ‘Yeah, come join us’. You just drift into it, and slowly you discover that it’s something you can take seriously.”

Antonis has a hearty, gregarious quality, the easy bonhomie of the confident veteran. He’s been doing this since he was 18 – actually they all have, but, as he puts it, “my 18 was earlier than everyone else’s 18”. You can imagine him playing peacekeeper if tempers threaten to flare, or sitting in a bar telling stories, or perched over the barbecue on a Sunday morning. He’s more involved in Minus One than Marianne’s Wish, and deals with the marketing and networking, whereas Chris is more of an ‘ideas man’ and more in the latter band, along with George. (Chris and Antonis are the ones I mostly talk to; the others arrive later.) Chris has a lively quality – in-your-face without being aggressive – and radiates intelligence; he also looks the most ‘rock’n roll’, with sleeve tattoos, a tongue-ring and a shaved head with a single tuft of hair at the back, from which hangs a long, thin ponytail.

That’s a whole other question, of course. Elvis “dared to rock” according to that print on the wall, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin abused their bodies at places like Whisky a Go Go before dying young – but what does it mean to be ‘rock’n roll’ these days, and does it even matter? “I think we’re over the days when you had to be crazy onstage,” reckons Chris cautiously. Not that the guys are prim and proper, of course: they’re all holding beers as the clock ticks down to showtime, and one of them – I won’t mention who – announces his arrival with a loud burp (then spots my tape recorder and looks slightly embarrassed). There’s a definite laddish vibe in the room, honed by years of playing together (Minus One were founded in 2009) – yet the band are clean-living, even as they whip crowds to a frenzy.

What do they do to maintain all that energy onstage?

“The opposite of what people think!” laughs Chris. “No drugs, that’s for sure. We eat well, we sleep well and we prepare well. I mean, as a drummer I might lose 1½ kilos during a gig. Rock music is really punishing”. A recent article (says Chris) measured a rock drummer’s heart-rate during a concert and found it was like a Premier League footballer’s during a match – not to mention the hot lights and smoky venues, which make it even more physically taxing. “We’re not ‘like’ athletes, we are athletes! It’s very hard. If you see me after a three-hour show, I’m like this,” he says, flopping down on the chair like a rag doll. Never mind coke and hookers, he’d much rather guzzle two bottles of water and head home.

There’s another, related issue. Rock bands used to be sheltered by record companies. The way it worked was that you made a demo, sent it out, got accepted, and found yourself signed by a record company. They’d use you, exploit you, often cheat you – but at least they gave you money to make a CD and more generally coddled you, took care of your needs. Rock musicians didn’t have to be entrepreneurs.

Things have changed, dramatically. “Record companies are dead,” says Chris flatly. People no longer buy CDs, they download, either legally or illegally. “The industry is confused at the moment,” he explains. “Records are dying, and nobody knows where the internet is taking us. I mean, we’re releasing our new album on Thursday, and we made some CDs – but I’m sure that on the next one we won’t bother with CDs. Even now, they don’t really sell, you use them more like a business card. So, like, if I had it in my hands now, I’d give you a copy. ‘Here’s our new album’.”

“So you can listen to it in the car, let’s say,” puts in Antonis.

“Or don’t even listen to it, pass it on to your niece or something.”

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Playing live is where the money is made. “We’re just begging for people to download it, even for free,” Chris admits. “I mean, many people do pay for downloads, we get money – but let them grab it even for free, all I want is for people to hear us so they’ll come to the live concerts”. The hope is that SXSW will lead to more invitations for Marianne’s Wish to play abroad (there’s no market in Cyprus for an English-language band playing its own material), or for one of the few remaining record companies to put the band on its roster, meaning better gigs and bigger tours – and meanwhile they just keep trying to put themselves out there, uploading videos and hoping they attract the right pair of eyes, helped by the power of social media. Slightly embarrassingly for a rock band, their model is Justin Bieber, who made a video of himself singing, put it on YouTube and became a superstar – though of course they know that Bieber is a case in a billion. “He won the lottery,” shrugs Chris. “We haven’t won any lottery, we’re just taking baby steps”.

It’s not going too badly. People call from small radio stations, saying they saw them on YouTube, asking for shout-outs (‘Hi, we’re Marianne’s Wish and you’re listening to…’). They took part in a global Hard Rock Café contest – in the brief window when there was a Hard Rock Café in Cyprus – and came 8th out of 10,000 bands, which got them noticed. SXSW could be the one, their big break – and George confirms they’re “aiming high”, though he also insists they’d be happy just doing what they do. That’s where the dual personality comes in handy, Minus One bringing regular gigs and allowing them the rare luxury of making a living out of playing music.

Back in DownTown Live, Francois is limbering up in the dressing room; George is strumming a guitar, Chris is loosening shoulder muscles and fiddling with his drumsticks. Suddenly, it’s showtime; they put down the beers, pick up guitars and go onstage with the ease of having done it hundreds of times before. I stick around for a while, and am slightly surprised by the songs they cover – not just Aerosmith but for instance The Beatles (‘Come Together’) and even Sting (‘An Englishman in New York’). “From Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga,” as Chris puts it earlier; Minus One aren’t exactly a rock band, adds George, more “a band having fun, spreading the fun around”.

Music links them, music made them, music brought them together. Antonis is an amateur photographer, Chris and Constantinos cook, Francois enjoys gardening and DIY – but when they’re all onstage they become something more, greater than the sum of their parts. “Everyone thinks I’m a wild man, when I’m really a pussycat,” chuckles Chris at one point, talking of his unconventional appearance – but Antonis hastens to add that the onstage act isn’t just an act. “You’re not pretending,” he explains. “You’re transformed by the music.

“When you get onstage it’s overwhelming, you become another person. I don’t know how to describe it. I was saying to someone – it’s ‘your sex face’, you know? It’s a bit like that. You’re not always wearing your sex face, but when you’re having sex you wear your sex face. It’s the same thing: you go into another mode, and your whole body too. If you’re doing it right, of course!”

Have they ever thought of quitting music, maybe getting a ‘real job’? Did they ever feel like misfits, especially in the less enlightened 80s and 90s? Sometimes, shrugs Chris – but “you don’t feel like a misfit. You feel cool. It’s not that we’re different from everybody else; it’s that everybody else is the same”. They might’ve briefly envied the drones with steady lifestyles – but not now, surely, when it’s all taking off and America beckons so sweetly. “We’re at our peak,” smiles Chris. “Leave music now? No way, man!”. I see his point.

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