BY BROCK LANDERS
When senior Michael Llerena walked into last year’s Cowboy Idol auditions with his guitar case people were surprised. Known among his classmates as good natured and shy, most had no idea Llerena even had an interest in music, let alone the drive and determination to audition to perform in front of hundreds of them. None of the judges knew what to expect, although many of them were bracing for a possible train wreck. However, bemused smirks were soon transformed into looks of astonishment as Llerena started to play. Singing his own original song, Llerena’s performance was not just good – it was amazing. In what has turned out to be one of many instances were he has defied expectations, Llerena was transformed from a slightly awkward teen into a potential rock star in the space of a three-minute song.
“He has a gentle soul so the strength of his voice was definitely a surprise,” CCHS alumni Jennifer Pritchard, who was there that day, said. “I think everyone that knew Michael was in shock when he first performed.”
Llerena’s musical metamorphosis is fairly recent and coincides with his high school career at CCHS. Although his father always had guitars around the house, it wasn’t until he discovered Green Day’s punk rock-opera American Idiot in the ninth grade that he was inspired enough to actually pick one up and plug it in.
“I really got into music after hearing American Idiot,” Llerena said, “I enjoyed how each song was composed and related to the lyrics. I wanted to emulate it.”
Llerena was a quick study; after his father showed him some basic chords, he learned his first song, Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” within a few weeks. After that his natural talent blossomed and it wasn’t long before he found himself putting his own chords and lyrics together.
Following the maxim “write what you know”, Llerena soon had dozens of songs chronicling the ups and downs of his own little corner of suburbia. It’s a worldview many around him can relate to as well.
“One of his songs was stuck in my head for days after he played it,” senior Nathan Shammay said, “I was begging him to play it again just so I could hear it.”
Songwriting is an organic process for Llerena, a simple melody or guitar riff will trigger a domino effect of musical possibilities. A chord progression will lead to a bass line and so on until a finished song is formed.
A similar domino effect has impacted Llerena as a musician. Simply wanting to realize the songs in his head has led him to pick up the bass and keyboard as well as guitar. This diverse musicianship has in turn changed how he sees songs.
“By playing different instruments you discover different styles and ways to play,” Llerena said, “You start breaking down songs by their instrumental parts and figuring out how they work.”
This awareness of song construction has served Llerena well as he’s begun to record his own songs. He plays all the parts in the studio himself, and the recording process has allowed him to see possibilities in his songs that he hadn’t previously envisioned.
“Recording sharpens your ears to what sounds right,” Llerena said, “It opens your eyes when you hear it played back. Songs can go from acoustic to epic in the studio.”
Llerena is currently recording a seven song demo CD that he plans on finishing before the end of the school year. The songs on it are eclectic, running the gamut from classic punk to blues and folk influenced rock.
Although he has been a one-man band up to this point, performing solo at both Cowboy Idol and the Senior Variety Show, Llerena recently formed a trio with junior Marc Sorrentino on bass and junior Matt Shuham on drums. Dubbed Sonic Reducer after the classic Dead Boys song, the group was put together in order to perform Llerena’s songs at the 2010 CCHS Battle of the Bands. Sadly, the group had to drop out of the show at the last minute when Llerena experienced vocal problems and was unable to sing. Despite that setback the musical collaboration was a rewarding one for everyone involved.
“It was really fun being in a band with him,” Sorrentino said, “When we practiced together, everyone’s ideas were awesome. It was the most fun I’ve had in all my years of playing in bands.”
Llerena hopes Sonic Reducer can play a couple of gigs before he leaves for the University of Florida in the fall. The group has left the door open to getting back together when he’s home on breaks.
While Llerena is planning on majoring in journalism at UF, music will always be a part of his future. He plans on finding a way to distribute his demo and maybe form a new band. It is something he feels he was meant to do.
“Seeing a crowd react to my music is one of the most fulfilling experiences I ever had,” Llerena said, “Nothing has ever felt as right as that moment.”