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The Fab One 

Sgt. Mario's Lonely One-Man Band

Wednesday, Jan 10 2001
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If mental health surveys are to be believed, most people would prefer death to performing in public. Fortunately, Alameda superstar Mario Hernandez, in his solo act From Bubblegum to Sky, has channeled his anxiety into a miraculous one-man Beatlemania.

In fact, Hernandez -- standing alone onstage with a DAT machine, a cheap guitar, and a tiny amplifier -- exudes more energy than most four-piece bands. With a concept that's equal parts epic rock concert and pop art happening, From Bubblegum to Sky finds unconventional ways to bring Hernandez's obsessions to the people. The results are a revelation to many, but occasionally confusing to those who expect live music to follow a standard formula.

"Someone posted a message about me on the Internet saying how awful it was to see bands perform with prerecorded music and that I should just send a cardboard cutout of myself. I thought, "That sounds fucking great.' He also said that maybe I should call my shows "performances' and charge half. I think there are already so many bands with instruments who suck, so what difference does it make?" says Hernandez.

Originally one-half of the studio-oriented duo Ciao Bella, Hernandez honed his writing and recording skills with partner Jamie McCormick in an abandoned Alameda movie theater. "We used to have this competitive thing going on, and people think it's kind of gross, but I think it's healthy. You have to have a rival [who] motivates you to write better songs," says Hernandez.

Seven years of healthy competition yielded 1997's 1, an appealing mix of the jangly '80s sound and the heavier, early '70s power-pop groove of groups such as Badfinger and Big Star. The album (a split release on independent labels March and Endearing) sold well, especially in indie-obsessed Japan. The band's low-budget video even got some airtime on MTV Japan.

McCormick's decision to move to New York prompted Hernandez to go it alone, taking the name From Bubblegum to Sky from the spectrum of blue shades offered by one brand of eye shadow. He decided his new project would reflect not only his love of American jangle and Beatles-esque sounds but also of the synth- and string-laden Japanese pop and disco of his childhood. Born of a Japanese mother and a Mexican-American father, Hernandez grew up in both Japan and the U.S. Feeling like the perpetual outsider led him to seek solace in music.

"I don't think I could have survived my early years without the music I heard and loved in my youth, all those girl groups and Japanese versions of British and American pop stars. I definitely sweat that stuff out of my pores. I love American/ British music, and I try to write like the bands I love, but somehow my melodies always turn sugary, like that pop I heard growing up in Japan, the kind of songs that would make the Archies cringe."

Even though he adopted the name From Bubblegum to Sky, Hernandez decided to forgo forming an actual band. "It's an answer to a problem I have, which is, I'm so finicky and I'm such a jerk sometimes that I don't think people can be in a band with me. I would always be complaining, "OK, you're not playing the drums right; you're back there going tap tap tap. You're not even hitting the fucking drums!' I can't even think of putting an ad in the newspaper or something."

The fruit of Hernandez's vision is Me and Amy and the Two French Boys, recorded in six months in his own Spartan eight-track studio and released earlier this year on L.A.'s Eenie Meenie Records. The album has moved an astounding number of units for an indie pop act, and, like 1, has gone over biggest in Japan. Hernandez laid down almost all the parts himself, with McCormick returning in time to lend a hand with guitar and general recording advice.

"I don't want to spend time explaining my "idea.' I've gotten myself to a place where I can play a lot of the instruments well enough that I can do all the parts. That way I don't have to hurt anybody's feelings, and at the same time my feelings don't get hurt. I'm also lucky to have someone like Jamie who understands what I'm doing and can come in and contribute," says Hernandez.

The outcome of this methodology is stunning -- if a bit claustrophobic. Almost every song is an overwhelming barrage of descending Paul McCartney bass riffs driven by unrelenting drumbeats and handclaps. New wave synthesizer sounds replace George Martin's string arrangements and nearly overpower the impossibly fey multitracked vocals. "Shaboom They Said" is an insane kaleidoscope with a shrill chorus that's impossible to forget. "I Wanna Be an American Boy" hits hardest, with its brittle synth intro and sneering vocal hook. Hernandez allows a little breathing room only on "She Floats," where the acoustic strumming is reminiscent of T. Rex.


Hernandez sidesteps the problem of playing his densely orchestrated music live -- without a band -- by using prerecorded backing tracks synced to background images. The homemade videos alternate scenes from the movies Xanadu and Magical Mystery Tour with split-screen footage of Hernandez playing all the instruments in his studio or performing slapstick Monkees routines in the streets of Alameda. When Hernandez plays a fist-pumping cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" over footage of Yellow Submarine, his choir-boy voice seems somewhat at odds with his imposing frame. Nervous sweat soaks his clothes. In between songs, a huge pink caricature of Hernandez with button-down shirt, tie, and mop-top haircut appears on the screen.

"When I get out on tour there are usually two extreme reactions. They'll either say, "Oh my god, this is great; I've never seen anything like this' or "What are you doing? Where's the band?' A lot of people don't understand doing a performance with a DAT machine; they think it's cheesy. But if you try to appear confident about doing what you're doing it'll come across. A lot of people who come to my shows are friends of mine anyway, so they are pretty forgiving," says Hernandez.

The projected images and blaring DAT recordings all but dwarf Hernandez onstage, and the one-man shows are often taxing physically and mentally. "Before one show I was popping tons of Xanax. Afterwards I had so much lactic acid in my legs I couldn't even get up to go to the bathroom," Hernandez recalls.

Despite the hazards, Hernandez has taken his multimedia show on tours of Japan and up and down the West Coast, with another planned for the Southwest in spring. As he travels, he finds that the challenge of performing can become therapeutic.

Hernandez explains, "I have a lot of anxiety; I have panic attacks. In a panic attack situation you are freaking out about how people perceive you. You feel like they're looking at you weird. I think subconsciously [that] I picked something that I have to do that shows my weakness. I perform alone in front of people but I'm totally freaking out at the same time. It's my way of getting through that barrier."

Even with stage fright, Hernandez reluctantly finds his rock-star pose. "There are only a few people that ever really pulled it off: Lennon/McCartney, Keith Richards, Marc Bolan, and David Bowie. They all have this thing where they could be doing laundry, and they would look fucking swank. If I had that charisma, I would wear that space outfit; I would go mad. As it is, I don't know how to play guitar very well, but if I hold the guitar a certain way it might look OK. At certain times I have flashes of it, but mostly I feel ridiculous -- especially when my girlfriend is there. She knows I'm a total dork. All I want is to look like I belong onstage, but I don't."

Hernandez is forever hooked on what he calls "the junk of pop." He plans to release singles on 555 Records and Berkeley's Slumberland Records, with another Eenie Meenie full-length expected for next summer. There's also the possibility of more Ciao Bella recordings. In addition to playing star, Hernandez's boundless energy extends to his hosting a dance party called "Be My Ambulance" and helping to organize an S.F. music festival called 2001 Pop Fantasy.

But that's not all. "I'm also doing design stuff, not that Web site shit," Hernandez explains. "I want to design shampoo bottles and underwear. I also work with kids with special needs. I do some graphics for a hair salon. I'm also putting together a vegetarian cookbook." The avalanche of projects and plans continues, but thoughts of expanding From Bubblegum to Sky still consume him.

"I want to do stuff where the audience gets more involved. I want to have interactive performances, where the crowd does the handclaps or something. I want to have laser lights and fog. I want it to be ridiculous, but I don't want it to be comedy. I don't want to lose that sense of urgency. I want to expand and have props and sets onstage, but I don't want it to be faux-artist shit. I want to have something more vicious. I have so much time on my hands [that] I have to do this stuff."

About The Author

Glenn Donaldson

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