Destined: Los Llamarada
Mexico has not been kind to its native sons and daughters in Los Llamarada, the country’s most exciting new band. Some get it, of course, but most leave in droves or feign polite interest to later defame on-line.
"We have played in some local bars, a birthday party, an art gallery," writes Sagan, keyboardist/vocalist in a recent e-mail interview. "A classic rock bar where we only played two songs before escaping. We've had uninterested arty audiences who walked out because we were too loud, a pop-punk festival full of Blink 182-like bands and their teenage fans, a bar where they asked me to play Cranberries covers, a 'cultural week' in our former school - they later wrote nasty stuff on (other keyboardist/vocalist) Estrella's Fotolog."
That's not surprising, given the limited mass-palatability of their 2007 offering for the S-S label, The Exploding Now. The music is Stooges-crude and rendered free of distractions, like high-midrange frequencies. It evokes an eavesdrop upon a found practice space transmission, a shambolic rock and roll 'happening' maybe meant to have been purely ephemeral and undocumented.
Monterrey, located in the state of Nuevo Leon, is a modern city with a healthy GDP. It's a far cry from the notion of some southern Ultima Thule, isolated from international cultural influence – at least in the mainstream sense. A peep at Wikipedia highlights a city progressive enough to host UNESCO’s 2007 Universal Forum of the Cultures. This would suggest, at least in the mainstream, a local awareness of and a demand for ideas beyond Mexico's borders. Those with more esoteric, underground tastes are met with a new set of challenges, however, as Sagan can attest.
"For a while it wasn't easy to find 'weird' records. You only had access to Mexican editions of commercial stuff. So if you wanted something different, you had to buy them in the USA. The Internet has changed that, of course,” Sagan writes.
Which is not to say that los Llamarada didn't gestate in somewhat of a vacuum. Consisting of Danyhell on drums, Johnny Noise and Violeta Gloom on guitar, Estrella Ek Sanza on keyboards and vocals, and Sagan, the band formed in Winter 2002. "We spent some time before that saying we already had a band – without instruments, that is. Some people say that was our best moment."
"I met Daniel (Danyhell) and Juan (Johnny Noise) in college, the School of Psychology in the local State University,” Sagan writes. “It was the mid-’90s, the Zapatista times, and we were doing Xeroxed zines, DIY stuff. We felt we had something to say, and that there was nobody else around to do it. And we had the same group of friends, and a lot of music in common, too."
After a time as rock critics for the online cultural section of an Internet portal, Sagan and Juan began playing with Daniel, who had left a job as a prison psychologist and purchased a drum set. Armed with Juan's guitar experience and Sagan's collection of lyrics, the three enlisted a couple of bass players in succession, and two other guitarist/psychologists (one of whom, Herla, has since served as the band's cover designer). Current member Estrella (whom the group met when she was a student of, again, psychology) started on guitar before defecting to keyboards. Violeta has been playing with the band since October of 2007.
"We started because we liked some sounds, and we couldn't find them anywhere else," writes Sagan. "We used to go see shows, and we liked some of those bands, but it wasn't what we were looking for, so we had to invent the band we wanted to hear. Los Llamarada was created for our own amusement; we never thought about having an audience, we thought about making and releasing records, but not about people buying them. Our style was dictated by what we could play. We don't have the technical ability to pretend something else. I think our fate was decided on our first days, when we tried to play a cover of the Pixies, “Where is My Mind.” Some people, real musicians, so to speak, have later told us that it is one of the easiest songs to play. But for us it was like prog rock or something: a 30-minute Yes song. So we tried our luck with Wire's Pink Flag. And that's how we started. I think I never heard the Pixies again."
That fortuitous abandonment led the group to their current approach – squalling synth primitivism blasts and curdles around the two-chord caveman stomp of "They Walk in the Air" before degenerating into a droning interlude. When gentler moments surface, as in "Je Suis,” they are equal parts muted discord, ill-tuned jangling guitar and breathy vocal.
Stacked against the modern crop of inexpensive, high-quality recording software the cassette-based tape recorder doesn't even register as a blip in living memory to most. In Los Llamarada's music, the device and its use is at least a sonic hallmark, at most a sixth member. Often, the guitar tones seem to disintegrate into angry static, obliterated on white-hot impact with the oxide particles of tape.
"We have recorded most of our stuff (like The Exploding Now) live and direct to one those small radio AM/FM tape players (as pictured above)," Sagan writes. "It all goes back to the zines, the DIY stuff and working with what you have. Since the first day, we have recorded practically all of our sessions, and at the end we said 'this is our first record.’ I have seen a lot of people who wait for the "right" equipment to make a record or a magazine, and wait and wait and wait and nothing ever happens.
"We like the way things sound on tape. When we went to California we bought a Tascam recorder, and I think we're going to combine 'mid-fi' with the other method. We get easily bored, so we don't want things to have the same sound as in past records. We also have some digital recordings, like “The Very Next Moment” (7”), completed and mixed with a hip hop producer."
The minimalist rock/aural grit combo calls to mind a certain aesthetic shared by some certain kiwi bands, though such comparisons fall upon the confounded ears of Los Llamarada.
"I had only heard about New Zealand bands as a reference through Pavement, and I had read about, say, The Dead C. In those times you only read about bands, and had to imagine what they sounded like, based on descriptions in reviews on Mark Prindle's website, for example," writes Sagan. "We have a common ground of classic rock, which is very big in Mexico, and was bigger in our teenage years. I think for a while I felt it closer than what was on current radio. Black Sabbath, Creedence. Then Nirvana. I remember I was eating breakfast when I read the news about Kurt Cobain. And during college I listened a lot to Pink Floyd, The Who, then Elvis Costello. We found Sonic Youth in the '90s, some copied cassette we used to play in parties. And later we were into the Velvets, Joy Division and The Fall, when one of their records appeared on the local shop."
Los Llamarada's outsider's resistance to convention put them at odds with audiences locally. Verily, Sagan admits that they're not the "most representative of popular band here," as a result of their often improvised anti-arrangements. As for those, he cites "memory, very bad memory," as a compositional tool or foil, depending on your perspective.
"While recording we sometimes use past riffs, but we have to hear them on tape. Our bad memory is one of the reasons why we have to tape it all. And the rhythm and duration and lyrics may vary depending on what happened that day. Many of my lyrics are improvised, based on what the music makes me think/feel: that time has stopped or that we are lost. The songs are usually about Estrella's boyfriends, or the end of the world. The eruption of something in history, a terminal transformation of our reality," he trails off, cryptically.
"As for a scene: Our first shows were with the punk bands, which have existed for quite a while, people who we had met in the activist scene, with some really good bands like La Caída de la Civilización," says Sagan.
The band set about recording and self-releasing their music in 2003, with the What Goes On CD-R. They followed with Start a Fire (2003), Lost (2003), Accidents (2004), Khowy (2004), Afterthepunkshow (2004), and Close Your Eyes (2005), which Sagan describes as "all lo-fi stuff, tape-recorded material, mostly made before Estrella was in the band." After a brief breakup, the band reformed in 2005 and contributed some tracks for the Kutre Punk Noise Ska compilation, then recorded the material that would see eventual release on The Exploding Now, their S-S records debut. A session to record material for a compilation for Nene Records followed, with a portion of the material later adapted for the decidedly higher-fidelity "The Very Next Moment" 7” from this past year.
Los Llamarada is finishing the recording of their next LP for S-S Records, and plan to record and release a tape in Belgium. Concurrent with their upcoming Eurotrip, the Italian label Disordered Records will release a new 7”, "Against the Day" / "The Blanket Escape".
Though they've not yet played in comparatively nearby Mexico City, Los Llamarada made inroads into the U.S. scene with a pair of appearances in San Francisco and Davis, Calif. (where they met S-S label head Scott Soriano). A subsequent performance at 2007's SXSW – unfortunately, during Daniel Johnston's set on the venue's first floor - netted the approval of a few, including Times New Viking and Siltbreeze honcho Tom Lax. In February, the band plans to play the K-RAA-K³ Festival in Belgium, and dates in Germany, the Netherlands and possibly France before again taking the stage at the Siltbreeze showcase during the 2008 SXSW in March. Afterward, Sagan is hopeful about making it to the east coast, particularly New York City, before yet another west coast appearance. "We also have our jobs, school and other responsibilities, so we will have to find some time for that," he says.
Rocking psychologists, musical spelunkers, unassuming artists from an outsider trajectory – Los Llamarada seems comfortable in all of those roles. As cheerful and willing 'masters of none,’ they embody the attitude of working creatively within limitations, touting a lack of rule as their only true rule.
"All languages are foreign," says Sagan. "When we started, using English was part of the plan: playing instruments you don't understand, creating sounds you can't define, not knowing when you are going to stop, and using a language that is not yours - vocals as just another instrument. It makes things flow in a different way. But we've also had some songs in Spanish (the conqueror's language) when playing live, and Estrella has even sung in a version of Sanskrit. And I could talk in a made-up language when I was younger. Hopefully it won't happen again."
By Adam MacGregor