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POP MUSIC

Four years after the murder of his wife Selena, guitarist Chris Perez emerges as a survivor, a new father--and as the shy leader of his own rock band.

May 09, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

Chris Perez is staring at his 4-month-old daughter, Cassie, who at this moment rests in the arms of her smiling mother, Venessa Villanueva.

Perez's bright and beaming face is nothing like it appears in the mournful publicity shots for "Resurrection," the debut rock album by his new group, the Chris Perez Band, due out on Hollywood Records on May 18. No. A grinning, affable new daddy just ain't what one would expect of the most famous 29-year-old widower in pop music.

He was Selena's husband and guitarist. Yes. But as the new band, album, girlfriend and baby attest, Perez has fought hard to heal in the four years since the famous tejano singer's murder by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar (now serving a life term). With the help of counselors, family and friends, Perez has moved on. And he's tired of the misconceptions about him.

Misconception Numero Uno: "That I'm sad all the time."

But because he is shy, because his mustache and eyes droop down, and perhaps because he carries himself in the vaguely tortured manner of irresistible bad boys such as James Dean, it might be easy to misconstrue the natural Perez presence as a permanent state of grieving. It's simply not so.

"I'm not sad," Perez says, taking a break from practicing with his new group at a North Hollywood rehearsal studio to change a diaper and talk to a reporter. "I'm not a basket case."

Which leads us to Misconception Numero Dos: That Perez's career died with his wife.

Perez, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, is on the road to promote "Resurrection," an eclectic pop-rock collection featuring nine Spanish- and six English-language songs, all but three written by him. Though he found fame in the tejano scene while backing Selena, Perez, who grew up in San Antonio listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, says he never let go of his dream of being a rock star.

"People expect Chris to be a cumbia or tejano act," says Julian Raymond, who produced "Resurrection" and has produced recordings for artists such as the Wallflowers and Fastball. "But that's just not who Chris is. He's always had other goals. He's your classic rock 'n' roll guitarist."

Perez may be on his way to fulfilling his rock dreams: The English-language single "Resurrection" has sparked interest from mainstream radio stations from Seattle to Boston, and the video is set for MTV.

If Perez and his band succeed in the mainstream rock market, they will be the first U.S.-born, all-Latino act to do so since a Los Angeles teen named Richard Valenzuela changed his name to Ritchie Valens in 1958.

Cameron Randle, senior vice president for artist development at Hollywood and the man who signed the Perez band, says he could sense the band's reluctance to admit they wanted to play rock.

"Their resistance to being completely candid was palpable," Randle says. "They came from a background where they'd been told all their lives that the music industry regarded them as tejanos, period, even though they were born and raised in the United States and their influences were as much KISS and Metallica as the next rock band. I was the first record executive to tell them they could be a great rock band, period."

While Perez, by virtue of his name and fame, is the obvious entry point into his self-titled band, it is lead singer John Garza, an unknown from Corpus Christi, who is the focal point. Keyboardist Joe Ojeda, who also played in Selena's band, is a driving force in the band, co-writing most of the songs.

Perez, a self-described follower and "team player," fades into the background when the group performs, and Garza, who was a construction worker and part-time club musician, stands out.

At 25, the charismatic Garza has the earnest inflections of singers like Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. Though Perez wrote all but three of the album's songs, it is Garza who gives them their bite. Randle compares Garza's star quality to that of Jim Morrison and Roger Daltrey.

Critics have not, however, equated the Chris Perez Band's music to such heavyweights. In fact, many have accused the group of being too predictable. Garza, Perez and Ojeda defend their music by saying they've made a conscious effort to go after a classic rock sound they say reflects their identity as Mexican Americans from southern Texas.

Perez admits he didn't initially want to name the band after himself, preferring the name Cinco Souls. But the other members voted to name the band after Perez, who describes himself as the group's "reluctant celebrity."

"Chris and I are really good friends," Garza says when asked about taking a back seat to his backup guitarist. "We understand each other, and we understand the business. We have an agenda. I love to sing, you know. I groove off everybody. I feel like I'm just another instrument."

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