FADER 51: Mexico City Rock

January 30, 2008

For Issue 51, we went south to the second biggest city in the world to find the little bands who'd been destroying our MySpaces and iPods for the better part of 2007. The result was a discovery of a scene bubbling up from the polluted streets, ready to challenge Mexico's image in and out of the country. After the jump, read David Bevan's feature story on Mexico City Rock, watch Arturo Jimenez's videos filmed while we were there and grab a couple songs by some of the bands in the story, namely Los Fancy Free, Jessy Bulbo, and Evil Hippie.

Story David Bevan
Photography Matt Eich

Up through the iron mouths of Mexico City sewer grates waft gusts of waste. Vacant cars, cadavers and 32 flavors of filth simmer and bubble meters below your feet, a source of pollution that somehow eclipses the choke of that jasper haze sitting limply atop the city’s tallest buildings. The air smacks of sulfur and sewage, of grease and limes; but even when it overwhelms, it intoxicates. Hidden away in the canyons of stucco and crumbling concrete, dozens of bands are born everyday. As faint rumblings of Mexico City rock have made their way northward, onto MySpace and into slick travel journals, I’ve sifted through a sea of mp3s, preternaturally drawn to the bands reflecting the anarchy and chaos of the city I feared long before I landed. Bands that snarled but blew kisses to disco and krautrock and punk.

For decades, rock music has slipped in and out of the Mexican mainstream. The Avándaro Festival of 1971 attracted a half million young people singing songs of peace and love. Fearing revolt, the notoriously corrupt and now defunct PRI government outlawed it, excising it from the country’s state-controlled media outlets. That would have seemed to be the perfect breeding ground for a vibrant underground, but Mexico City youths never really explored the muffled sounds emanating from below the surface. In the interim, Spanish-influenced kitsch/cheese pop ruled the airwaves, strains of which can be heard in some bands today.

Almost 20 years later, as the ’90s beckoned, rock & roll was let out of its cage in hopes of generating cash, though the decade would belong to the rave kids and party-starting DJ collectives like Tijuana’s Nortec. It was a scene that never grew wings, never detonated despite the cosmopolitan hopes that it would. These days, as its sprawl would suggest, El Distrito Federal plays home to as many micro-scenes as renegade cops: surf rockers play with surf rockers, metalheads with metalheads, indie kids with indie kids. Even the quickly ballooning emo scene remains sequestered away in the city’s countless suburbs. Most look to the US, Canada or the UK for sonic cues, but the concept of “indie”—as a marketing term or a roadmap for making music—is tossed around by upwardly mobile youth all over the city. Independent labels—such as the taste-making Noiselab or artist-founded Nuevos Ricos—are springing up like Pinkberrys.

A punk rock griot for the up-and-coming (or anyone that will listen), Martin Thulin spent the ’90s in the DF booking shows in buildings long condemned, rats scuttling between the crowd’s feet, when the streets and bars were filthier and more corrupt than they are now. His band, Los Fancy Free, has developed a reputation as one of the more incendiary live bands in the city. “I think that there’s an attitude that’s very Mexico City. But all of this music is very non-Mexican,” says Thulin, a long-time Swedish transplant. “I think Mexican bands have a sense of humor that most bands in both Europe and USA will not have. Maybe that’s because [rock] isn’t really part of the culture. [Humor] is a way to say, We really like this, but we can’t do it as good as other countries or whatever. So we kind of make fun of it.” Julian Lede, co-founder of the independent Nuevos Ricos label and member of electro-rock band Titan agrees, “For me, [humor] is very important. It’s weird that rock & roll became so serious. It’s really sad,” he says. “Humor makes things fresh.”

Thulin and Lede’s sentiments are the perfect primer for what will follow that evening. Pasagüero, a space carved out of post-colonial guts somewhere near the city’s center, features performances from El Pan Blanco and Post Pastel, rock bands that share members as well as off-the-wall aesthetics that tend to push some of the city’s more hesitant listeners back towards the mainstream. On stage, Post Pastel jitter about like neon pit bulls in dire need of a piss, ripping through a rapid fire set of ’80s synth pop, spitting Spanish lyrics that sound raunchy but most likely are not. Moments later, wearing the candy-striped uniforms of Dixie performers and little else, El Pan Blanco take the stage. One of Carlos Icaza and Bona Bonson’s many bands, El Pan Blanco is an incredibly abrasive, lo-fi attempt at what they call rock urbano, or urban rock. They aim to displease and they do it very well. Icaza claims that their “gigs are the rehearsals,” that most of what they do is completely improvised. Vocalist Miki Guadamur’s nasty monologues and pinball stage antics feature as prominently as the propulsive thrash of Icaza’s drumwork. Until bassist/guitarist Jessy Bulbo appears for her set in full-regalia (red fishnets, impossibly short shorts and onion stacks of bracelets along her tiny arms) just after 1AM, the people in the crowd have been standing at bay, creating an awkward half-moon that keeps a safe distance between them and the stage. Mexico City’s resident garage nymph receives as much catcalling for her figure as she does applause for the sloppy garage punk she’s been playing since her days as part of girl group Las Ultrasonicas, a group she recently left to fly solo. Her set is slapdash and messy and erotic and everyone goes wild—even the ladies.

The next day, Guadamur runs (literally—he abhors “vehicles”) one hour to meet me in the city’s center. We ride the elevator up to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana to overlook the city, a place that seems to have driven Guadamur completely mad. Before our meeting, I have listened carefully to his songs, understanding only snippets of the cough-syrupy Spanish he typically lays down on backing tracks capable of sending kids into epileptic fits. As he arrives, he is exasperated and impatient—his brow is beaded and his clothes are stained with sweat from the long trip. Guadamur is addicted to pure, refined sugar, downing packet after packet for a rush he likens to getting a nicotine or pop music fix. Lips chapped, hair graying, he rants at length about how much he hates his hometown, calling it upside-down, yet concedes that were he not stuck here, his art wouldn’t be as chaotic as it is. “If I go to live in a farm, I certainly would not be doing what you saw the other night,” he says. “My neuroses come from here.”

“It’s a good time to have a band,” says Andres “Güero” Velasco, frontman for indie rock outfit Chikita Violenta. The band’s members have family members in the US, and met while attending a century-old American high school where many classes are taught in English. Struggling to come up with enough money to record at one of the overpriced studios in Mexico City, they looked elsewhere for inspiration. “And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead didn’t spend $20,000 on a record and it sounds good,” keyboardist Armando David Ortigosa says. “I bet you can we can grab a car, drive up to Austin, where we could get it cheaper, more in tune with what we want while working with a small name producer. What the fuck?”

The band assembled a wish list of American and Canadian producers, emailed demos and waited for response. Of those that responded, Dave Newfeld, sonic magician behind the fuzzy peaks and valleys of the Toronto supergroup Broken Social Scene, offered to get behind the boards. What began as a small recording package blossomed into a full album, with members of Broken Social Scene offering up their talents for the project. Toronto would become Chikita Violenta’s second home, as the band spent nights in Toronto bars bonding with Kevin Drew over Pavement’s Wowee Zowie or received invitations to Feist family bonfires. Stars and Suns Sessions—their resulting album—bears a noticeable aural resemblance to BSS, though Velasco attributes it not to the copycat syndrome that so many Mexico City bands seem to suffer from, but their choice in producer. “It is not a Broken Social Scene ‘sound,’” says Velasco, “It’s a Dave Newfeld sound.” Indeed, the layered, ultra-saturated tones of that particular sound seem to mesh more with the fervid warmth of Mexico City than say, Toronto. These atmospherics could be more their own than they realize.

While Chikita Violenta’s crossover potential may be obvious, the band’s decision to sing in English has attracted the attention of those that decry the music as the product of “malinchismo,” a deeply ingrained cultural jab at looking outward to European and American muses for inspiration, rather than seeking it at home. Chikita Violenta’s members are well-studied students of the American way, speaking at length about their first CMJ experience, of SXSW or the many advantages of touring the US rather than Mexico. The band is willing to relocate to the States or Canada, should the opportunity arise. And they should have no problem blending in, opting—even now—for cans of Budweiser instead of bottled Corona. “Maybe, in a way, rock & roll was born in English,” says David.

Later that evening, we dip our toes in mezcal before heading off to the Colonia Roma’s storied club, Foro Alicia. Often referred to as the city’s version of CBGB, its walls are smeared tonight with the sweat of young ghouls and goblins dressed up for the last few hours of El Día de los Muertos; kids in costume have filled the small space for a lineup of the city’s best surf and garage bands. We are there to see Twin Tones, a soft-spoken quartet that specialize in instrumental frontier pastiche that conjures images of deserted train depots, high noon bloodbaths and circling buzzards. This is not the sound of the city they live in, but perhaps of landscapes just as expansive.

In a tiny sidestage, cordoned off only by chain-link fence, the members of Twin Tones are painting one another’s faces—some of have been milling around with brown paper bags over their heads. Usually during live performances Twin Tones play seated on saloon stools, though tonight they are on their feet, head to toe in the ranchero uniforms they almost always don. Kids are not crowd surfing as much as they are bullriding atop one another’s bucking shoulders. Hanging speakers on either side of the stage swing wildly. Only minutes later, the set comes to end and the crowd stands there looking at each other awkwardly, like people who have shown up to a party just as the cops have shut it down. As we leave for late night tacos, lead singer Chikita Violenta’s Vellasco seems intent on bringing his band back for a set at Foro Alicia. “I want to play there again. We used to play all the time when we first started out,” he says. It’s long after midnight and the streets are unusually quiet, the only source of excitement coming from the warring taco spots in La Condesa, tree-lined home of Noiselab’s offices and the city’s growing number of pretty young things. It’s amazing how many tacos you can put away after ten beers.

Carlos Icaza is perhaps Mexico’s most well-respected drummer—he plays in roughly 12 bands, including Los Fancy Free and Saturnian disco rock project Evil Hippie. Like Thulin and the brothers Bona, Icaza experienced the Mexico City scene before it became just that. He too is weary of the hype and the copycat bands it fuels. “In Mexico, there is a myth about the underground scene. It actually never happened,” he says. “It’s very funny, in Mexico, the bands have managers, but they don’t have songs. Indie is just a word, a trend. They will soon have to find a new word.” Self-taught, Icaza’s knowledge of music’s development is encyclopedic. Like a chemist amongst beakers and flasks, he shuffles back and forth between his turntable and shelves of vinyl, pulling rare 45s and LPs from their jackets, pontificating on the purity of art and the pratfalls of stardom that so many of his city’s young chilangos are hoping to achieve through music. Perhaps it is because, up until this point, the avenue has never truly existed. Outside, the street noise has come to a temporary stop and in the distance you can hear traces of loopy Norteño tunes blaring from someone’s car stereo. “I should play you some Mexican music now,” he says. But he already has.

Mexico City Rock: Introduction

Chikita Violenta, "War"

Twin Tones, "Nacion Apache"

All Videos by Arturo Jimenez

Posted: January 30, 2008
FADER 51: Mexico City Rock