These days, the Tampa act Candy Bars often seems to be a member short. Drummer Ryan Hastings' job with musical instrument sales chain Guitar Center has seen him shipped off to the bucolic splendor of, uh, Nashua, N.H.; as a result, most local Candy Bars shows currently feature singer/guitarist/keyboardist Daniel Martinez and cellist Melissa Castellano sans their one-man rhythm section.
But it wasn't always that way.
In fact, the initial rehearsals that eventually led to Candy Bars' carefully textured indie-pop sound and long-distance musical romance actually featured one drummer too many.
"We sort of started a band called Christmas," Martinez recalls. "It was four Guitar Center employees, two guitars and two drummers. [The first practice] was the oddest rehearsal I've ever been to."
Four years ago, Martinez moved up to Tampa from his native Dade County for a band (and also, naturally, for a girl). His musical focus was drifting away from the mainstream modern-rock tastes of his longtime friends and collaborators, however, and he soon found himself without the band (and also, naturally, without the girl).
"I was getting into different stuff, more alternative music, and the others didn't agree," he says. "I think, one of the last things was, I got into an argument with them about Radiohead."
Holed up in an apartment in Lutz, Martinez began working on material that was decidedly different from the tunes he grew up writing and playing.
"When you're involved in a band like that for six-plus years, you want to get as far away from [that style] as possible afterward," he reasons.
His day gig was at Guitar Center's Tampa location, where he befriended co-worker Hastings. Christmas came for both of them in the summer of '03. But often, the fledgling outfit's two other members neglected to show up for rehearsal, leaving Martinez and Hastings to explore song ideas on their own.
"We sort of just stayed with what we had," says Martinez. "We were both writing songs, we both had ideas."
Eventually, the pair felt ready to play out, and began looking for an open mic night to abuse. They settled on the regular Tuesday-night shindig at well-known Davis Islands watering hole Yeoman's Road Pub, mostly because it seemed to be where they often ended up after rehearsal anyway, but also because their catchy but emotionally downbeat and resolutely contemporary sound would be a thorn in the side of the traditionally jammy proceedings.
"It was pretty heavy on Dave Matthews Band-type stuff, and the usual blues," Martinez says. "We decided to come up with a really depressing act to put in the middle of that, and just kill the vibe."
The duo chose the name Candy Bars as an act of subterfuge — they didn't think something more appropriate, like maybe Post-Breakup Comedown & The Kill Yourself Hippies, would get them into the lineup. Over the next year and a half, the moniker showed up on more and more open-mic schedules, along with bills at hipper Tampa venues like Orpheum and New World Brewery, as Martinez and Hastings grew increasingly confident and prolific with their collaborative aesthetic. They home-recorded constantly, a practice that not only yielded three buzz-inspiring EPs but also largely defined Candy Bars' light-but-layered sound on wax, far different from its more dynamic and slightly more rocking live character.
"I could never get a decent electric guitar sound taping at home," says Martinez. "So we started to use other stuff instead, put in a lot of keys, a lot of acoustic instruments."
By the time Christmas — the holiday — approached in '04, the two songwriters were thinking about adding something new and interesting to the lineup. Enter cellist Castellano — literally; the orchestral-music teacher walked into Guitar Center one day to buy a piece of equipment for her fiancé, a bassist, and met Martinez, who gave her a CD of Candy Bars material.
"It probably got stuck in my car player, because of the stick-on label," she says, laughing. "I was forced to listen to it forever."
Castellano, who'd never really listened to independent pop music before, threw in with Martinez and Hastings because she "thought it would be something interesting to do.
"I'd just go over to their house at night and unpack my stuff," she adds. "They were just nice guys. I had no clue it would turn out to be what it is."
The eclectic now-trio was just beginning to enjoy some well-deserved hype as one of the Tampa scene's most original acts when Hastings' job sent him north to Jacksonville. The quality local label New Granada Records soon approached the band about doing a full-length; Hastings came back to town and knocked out his drum tracks inside a week before being shuffled again, this time all the way to New Hampshire. The incredibly collaborative songwriting process he and Martinez had developed was strained by the distance, however, and the making of the record stretched over an eight-month period.
The resulting CD, the cumbersomely titled On Cutting Ti-gers in Half and Understanding Narravation, finally saw the light of day early this year. Intimate yet majestic, familiar yet strange and eccentric yet immediately engaging, the carefully woven Narravation was worth the wait; it's one of the most ambitious and original albums to emerge from the Tampa scene in, well, maybe ever.
And the indie-pop world outside our bubble is taking notice, as well. The college radio bible CMJ interviewed the group last week, and reviews of the album are slated to run in several cred-heavy national magazines, including Magnet, in the coming months.
Through all this, though, the members of Candy Bars are just concentrating on making their difficult situation work. Martinez and Castellano are developing a new set of Candy Bars music to perform locally between statewide road-trips with Hastings when his schedule permits. Replacing Hastings, all avow, is simply not an option.
"It sucked [when he moved], because he's a close friend," says Martinez. "He's one of the best people I've met in this town, and he co-writes everything.
"Even if he moved to Russia, we'd find a way to do it. We're just taking it in stride, figuring it out as we go."