Ex-Lovemongers Frontman Angel Zuniga Martinez Builds a New Brand

When Angel Zuniga Martinez was a little boy, he had three dreams in life: "I wanted to be a rock star, I wanted to marry a pretty girl, and I wanted to be a Wall Street investor," he says. "Of course, I was only 8, so this was before I had figured out that [Wall Street investors] were the devil."

Tall, sartorially impeccable, with a jet beard that is pruned and buffed to a formidable sheen, the former lead singer of Knoxville's Angel and the Lovemongers looks more Wall Street than rocker now.

He did go to school as a marketing major with a minor in finance, after all. And as he sits at a local bar discussing his new solo album, The Cage, his speech is peppered with references to "the brand" and "the product."

But maybe it would be too hasty, way too autopilot-easy to write off Martinez as just one more careerist deficient of soul. Because he's not that kind of man; he has a palpable emotional investment in his product, and he departed a local outfit of some accomplishment and reputation, starting afresh from square one as a simple matter of artistic choice.

The Lovemongers had cracked the CMJ top 200 with their 2007 release The Humanist Queen, produced by Mitch Easter, the former Let's Active frontman who produced R.E.M. records in the early '80s. As the band was set to embark on an East Coast tour, Pollstar called and said they'd like to do a feature article about the band on the road. Agents were calling.

"We were on the cusp of going to the next level, whatever that was," Martinez says. "I felt we had built up the brand to have the next album really well received."

But it wasn't all love with the Lovemongers. The band consisted of Martinez and drummer/Rock Snob studio owner Eric Nowinski, plus a changing cast of sidemen. The musical differences between the two principles were becoming glaringly, heatedly apparent.

"We were coming from different directions, musically, and one night we ended up getting into a chest-bump-fight," Martinez remembers with no little embarrassment. "After about the 30th chest bump, we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn't fun anymore.' So we parted ways as a band, and wished each other well. Eric and I still have a good relationship; I finished the album at his studio."

That's how the record that was to have been the Lovemongers' third became The Cage, Martinez' first solo project. For his backing band, he used local singer/songwriter Kevin Hyfantis and his band, with Hyfantis appearing with Martinez, as performer and as sideman, at the Back from the Break CD release show on Feb. 6 at the Bijou Theatre.

"Once I started recording it as a solo project, the direction changed," Martinez explains. "Angel and the Lovemongers fit a box. It was British power-pop/rock, and I was the flamboyant frontman. What I'm doing as a solo artist has some of those elements of Brit rock, but it has more variety, more of a tip of the hat to my Texas roots, R&B, blues.

"I'm very grateful to Eric. Because of Eric, we had Mitch Easter produce a record, then got into Bonnaroo. And he and his wife paid for a lot of the things the band did. But I guess it was time for me to be able to take any musical, artistic, or business direction I wanted. Or course, that means I have to self-fund some things, too. But now I can sing in Spanish if I want to."

There's a reason Martinez includes the word "business" in the same list as "musical" and "artistic"; he's given voice to the heretical notion that the concepts are not wholly exclusive of each other.

"A lot of artists scoff at the business side of music, and I do, too, to some extent," Hyfantis says. "But it's kind of one of those things where you have to have some intelligence about it. You have to learn how to play the game without going over to the dark side."

Adds Martinez: "You can't throw out the baby with the bath water. You have to be able to communicate intelligently with the business side or you get screwed, and then the music suffers. Right now, the music industry has been turned upside down, and it's trying to figure out what the new model is. I think it may look like a collaborative, with artists fronting for artists, working with artists who have something to communicate."