Toxic Audio

Toxic Audio

I recently called up Rene Ruiz, the head toxin at Toxic Audio, to check in on the state of a cappella music in the Orlando Area. Here’s his report.

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What’s your background in music, and how did it get you involved in the a cappella sound?

My background is music education. I left the University of Texas to pursue a career performing at Walt Disney. I’m drawn to the idea [that] all the instruments created over time basically mimic some aspect of the human voice. It’s the idea of taking things back to the beginnings and turning them around, so the voice now mimics those instruments.

Where did you hook up with the rest of the Toxic Audio crew?

I met them through various groups I’ve performed with at Universal Studios and Walt Disney World. We’ve worked in several projects I’ve directed around the area, such as Forever Plaid in Lakeland, and Is There Life After High School?

How did you guys get together?

We got together specifically for the Orlando International Fringe Festival two years ago. At the time I was trying to do a lot more with directing and was challenged to create something original. I didn’t want to interpret someone else’s work, but rather create something unique. At the time, I was being exposed to things like Blue Man Group and Stomp and Tap Dogs. These were concept shows taking something that’s been around for a long time, such as tap dancing or percussion, and presenting them in a new way. It created a new theater style that brought things into the ’90s. I was introduced into a few contemporary a cappella groups that were doing mixed vocals. The type of music they were creating was a far cry from doo-wop and barbershop. They were taking jazz harmonies into a contemporary style and adding a contemporary feel. That interested to me, and I thought there was a theater audience that had never been exposed to that before.

Speaking of theater, you just wrapped up a run at the Orlando Civic Theater. How did that go?

It went wonderfully. We were sold out after the first weekend. Word of mouth was really good, as were the reviews. It really gave a lot of credibility to what we were trying to do and gives us the sort of following we are trying to put together. We’re excited to continue to work on the show and fine-tune it, and create new pieces.

You did an improv piece where you ask for a song title and style, and make up a whole number right on the spot. Is that risky? Have you had any requests that stumped you?

It’s always risky, and that’s what makes it exciting for us. There’s been an element of improvisation in what were doing for along time, taking on scat solos, improv solos, things like that. At the Fringe Festival last year, we did a piece where we took “Row Row Row Your Boat” and asked people to give us different styles of music. We got everything from opera to jazz to rock & roll, and we would perform “Row Row Row Your Boat” in those different styles. At the Civic shows, we took it one step further. We knew we could do a song everyone knows and do it in a unique style, so now we’ll create a song that no one’s ever heard. We were pushed on by the fact that improv is starting to make itself better known with that ABC show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? They were improvising original songs, and we thought we could do that as well.

You’ve won a few awards lately…

Yes, we competed in the National Harmony Sweepstakes, an a cappella competition with eight regional contests all over the country. We competed in the Washington DC region, won that region, then went to San Francisco and took the national title.

Congratulations. I also see you’re working on a new Ed McMahon project?

Well, we just sort of dropped in on it when they were taping auditions at a local mall. We basically just videotaped ourselves doing our stuff, and we were chosen to be a part of this new venture called Next Big Star, which is an online star search. People go to the Web site (, click on the different categories, view the acts, and vote on them. It’s a 13-week competition. Every week they choose winners to move on to the next level, and we’re now in the semi-finals. If we survive that level, we’ll be back in week 13 for the finals.

You have two CDs out now. Do you see yourself ever appearing in Billboard with a bullet?

There’s a lot of talk in the a cappella news groups about which group will break into the mainstream first. It’s tough because the record labels dominate everything. They control what gets radio play, what gets shelf space in the major record stores, etc. Short of being signed by a label that’s really gonna push you that way, it’s kind of hard to break onto the charts. The direction we’ve chosen to take is [to] continue to perform our music but find a new audience for it, a theater audience, which is a lot more willing to try something new. And there, you don’t need a lot of radio play or a lot of Billboard chart success.

Have you gotten much radio play?

I think so. There are several radio stations across the country with one or two hour a cappella radio shows. They play nothing but a cappella tracks from groups across the country. We’ve submitted our CDs to those stations, and we know we get pretty regular airplay, one or two tracks on these shows each week. Little by little, the awareness of a cappella and what it’s doing in the contemporary music market is growing.

What are your plans for the near future in the Orlando area?

We’re trying to find a place we can settle into and call our own on a regular basis. It’s been really frustrating approaching some of the clubs known for showcasing local acts. It’s hard convincing them that we are a legitimate local band and our style of music is as entertaining and energized as stuff regular bands play. The only difference — we do it with no instruments. Until we get to a point where someone at a major venue like House Of Blues or Hard Rock Live sees the audience we bring and the fanbase we’re creating, they won’t take a chance on booking us for an evening. We drew really well when we performed recently at City Jazz. The house was packed and the audience writes us asking when we’re doing a full show. That’s what we need to get into a club on a more regular basis — get the fans to ask for us by name.

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