Saturday, January 4, 2014

It Has to Taste Like Whiskey and Sting Like a Switchblade

Andres is one of the sweetest dudes on the planet. 

That's the truth. He's also a hell of guitarist, and there are times when Jagged Lines, his main band at the moment, can sound a lot like one of my favorite old punk bands, Jawbreaker.

Here's the story of guy trying to live his dream.

Very inspiring.

My questions are in italic.

Where did you grow up?
I'm a product of a few different cultures. My mom is Spanish and my dad is Guatemalan, which basically means there was always delicious food around! Haha, I was born in Central America, in Guatemala City, briefly lived in Spain for less than a year outside of Sevilla, then moved to Winslow, Arizona and lived there for about two years, and then by the time I was six, we were in Waterbury, Connecticut, the place that I'd assign as the place where I grew up. I remember a little of those two earlier places, like walking on cobblestone streets or chasing pigeons, but as you can see, unfortunately not much of great importance. 

What was Arizona like?
Arizona did make an impression on me, though. I clearly remember the Grand Canyon, the hotel my parents worked at, the dog we had, the house we lived in, and the streets of that tiny town. Life was good there. It was here that I developed this idea that everyone was my friend and that I could just go up and talk to anyone. It turns out a lot of people in small-town Arizona feel that way, too, so I had no problem making friends, even without speaking much English at all. It wasn't until I got to Connecticut that I really experienced the colder side of things, both in climate and in people. I remember feeling a little heartbroken at how cold and indifferent people seemed to me. This heartbreak persisted until I saw New York City for the first time. I remember being utterly mesmerized at the sheer amount of people, places, and things, and people didn't seem as warm or as polite, but there was purpose and meaning to even that. I remember having the thought that every square inch of pavement, steel, glass, or brick in that city was the result of someone's vision, volition, and dedication to put it there and make it real. It was the first place I ever remember feeling totally at home in because there was no feeling of being an outsider. There was no "right answer" as to what a New Yorker was like, and having been to so many places and feeling like an outsider, the anonymity of being lost in the crowd was a really beautiful escape. I still love New York for that reason.

I had a tough time in school at first because I didn't really start learning English until I was about 6. I remember being in kindergarten and just repeating back words people said, trying to get it down. At that young age, I remember thinking that I had to get good at English quickly to not be just another ESL kid. I remember signing up for summer school after 1st grade just to be able to read and talk more. It paid off, I think, because I just started reading everything under the sun. I was reading junior high and high school books by third grade. Later on I had the audacity to be annoyed at other kids for their shitty spelling and grammar. Ha!

What was your family life like?
My family life was very traditional of the values you'd expect to find anywhere in Hispania. My mother and father had a lot of similarities, but my mother spent much more time with my sister and me, and she really raised us with a lot of distinctively Spanish values. She taught me to question authority, that no one was above or below me, and that we had to be extremely proud of who we were and where we came from. "Spanish," she'd say, "is the language of kings and conquerors, and you should be proud to speak it." She fiercely believed in hard work, education, chivalry, and proper conduct. Haha, she was very much a fan of discipline, to put it mildly, to the extent that my sister and I would often call her "the Spanish dictator!" In Spain, people are not as forgiving as they are in the US. Here in the US we believe everyone is special, and that people learn, grow, or do things in their own way and at their own pace, and that these differences should be respected. In Spain, there are only two ways of doing anything: the right way or the wrong way. If you aren't having success, you've clearly fucked something up, and you have to do things the right way. Ironically, Spain equals no bull.

My dad taught us about more Central American values: humility, optimism, and this vague sense of innocence that I feel a lot of people in Central America have. My dad was always getting ripped off or taken advantage of because he always believed in people, and if things went badly, he would just shrug it off and try again. He always seemed to see the world through the eyes of a child, and didn't seem so upset when things went sour. It took me years to realize how wise that is.

Did you grow up religious?
They both believed that family is paramount, that your behavior is a reflection of your family, and, once my sister was born when I was six, that my sister and I are all we had and that we had to be there for each other. Interestingly, they also taught us that we had to love God above everything. This is major because it's the most notable example of me changing a long-held belief that my mom had. By the time I got to college, I no longer felt comfortable with the church. Years of being told that no one on earth was more than me, that authority needed to be questioned, and that no one had a right to impose themselves in my life was squarely at odds with what the church taught. We were raised in strict Catholicism, and for a long time it just stuck since it was so culturally relevant to both my parents. In both their countries, the cross had always just been there. In fact, every day of my education was in a Catholic school, from Kindergarten to college! By college, though, I was ready for dissent, and my mother wanted to know why. I explained that I didn't see the church as necessary, that I saw Catholicism as self-serving and hypocritical, that I didn't believe in priests or clergy, and that the church as an institution was a device for maintaining power for the few. She listened, and eventually, she finally came to agree with me completely. I felt a little bad about having changed something my mom had grown up with, but what more validating thing is there than to have your strict mother tell you you're right about something you challenged her about? My dad has never been on the same page, and though we explained what we thought to him, he maintains his lukewarm but consistent participation in Catholicism. I respect him for not just jumping on the bandwagon, to be honest, but it's something that has brought me much closer to my mother.

To resolve that, by the way, I am hardly an atheist. I believe in god, but I concede that my totally unconventional definition of god is a lazy term for something that's inexplicable.  I quite literally believe that god is love, the intangible little difference that makes your heart jump at the sight of one bundle of cells versus another, or the thing that is in music that makes it a great passage that moves people versus any ordinary amalgam of organized sounds.  It's in the passion that makes any endeavor extraordinary. Rather than try to explain that, I call that "god," and I can attest to seeing that. 

I love the story of how you guys eventually came together.
I could get extremely long-winded about this, but the truth is still simple: I fell into one of my favorite bands.

That being said, here's the longer version.

I went to college in Albany, NY and became great friends with this guitarist named Seth. For four years, we were each others' sounding boards, sanity keepers, and supporting musicians, and as graduation loomed on the horizon, we began forming a dream. We didn't know how or when, but we decided we would try to someday move out west and try to make our band happen. We dreamed big, like stupid rocker kids often do, but we had a great sound to back it up. We graduated in '04, and he moved to San Diego in '05, while I stayed behind to tend to my life and save money for the move. Life had a way of adjusting those plans, though. This happens to everyone, but i never could've predicted how differently things were about to go. I hoped to move to San Diego in the next few years.

I wouldn't move to San Diego until December of 2010, after my whole life had fallen apart.

In about 2006, I was working as a broker for Wells Fargo, based out of New York and Connecticut. I had a girlfriend, Ashley, of six years, I drove a nice new sports car, saw my family often, and occasionally played relatively tame and forgettable music in tame and forgettable bands. I was much older then. I got to a point where my whole life felt shallow and rehearsed, but that all changed one day when I got an email and responded to it.

Back in '06 I was also a writer and head editor for a music online zine, and I really enjoyed writing about music, or dancing about architecture or whatever. Apparently I'd struck a nerve with this girl from Texas named Jessica, and she wrote me an email to tell me so. Flattered and extremely intrigued, I wrote back, complimenting her for her fine taste in music. We started an intense email correspondence, which eventually was replaced by the phone, and then I realized she was going to school in nearby Boston. I got tickets to a Black Keys show in Boston one night, secretly as an excuse to meet this fascinating girl. It turned out that Jessica was the most amazing girl I'd ever met. I never did anything to cheat on my girlfriend, but I sneakily and coyly never brought her up, either. Jessica and I became best friends, and as my current relationship sadly lost steam, hers and mine began getting intense. It got to the point that I felt like I was cheating on her by still being with my girlfriend of years and years! I finally broke it off with Ashley, and started a relationship that would change everything.

Briefly stated, Jessica and I found both the purest happiness and the darkest misery on earth together. We were euphoric, and planned to elope. I had no notion that people could even feel such intense, electric, holistic happiness. We fell in love for all the right reasons that two young, intelligent, capable people should fall in love, and even a few more. Unfortunately, horrible tragedy struck and we were torn apart. It was horrible and sad, and it was also irreparable.

After everything was said and done, I lost my job, lost Jessica, and I lost my appetite for my life as I'd been living it. I had placed all of these things ahead of the one thing that had always made me happy, and I was sick of it. I'd even started dating my high school dream girl, Bridget, who was a really great girl with more insanity than I could handle between her family and her own issues. She'd had a daughter with a not-so-great guy, and their custody battle was exhausting. One day she said to me, "I think you'll be happy to know that won't be a problem anymore because he's moving to California to try and make it with his cover band!" That shouldn't've been the last straw, but it was. Ashley and I had been incredibly responsible for years, and now I was going to sacrifice MY dream, while THAT guy would go to California to live MY dream while I raise HIS daughter, and all of this for his COVER BAND?!?! It all became very clear to me then. I packed up all my stuff in a VW hatchback in December of '09 and drove to San Diego, to pursue this musical dream with my buddy Seth from college. For about ten years we'd been talking about setting up a studio to play and record our music, and it seemed like a distant pipe dream until everything fell apart. I decided to go for it, and when I got there, things were first.

Seth and I had always had a rare ability to connect musically and to improvise our way into new music constantly. I played bass and he played guitar, and the music we created was dark, pensive, quiet, unique, and undistorted rock. I was rhythmically relentless and he was an endless stream of new ideas. Together we'd always had the ability to make music effortlessly. When we met up again in San Diego and finally got around to playing, we were stunned to find that the chemistry was gone. He'd just spent so much time and money building the perfect studio that, once he had it, he was so obsessed with the technical details of the way music sounded that he'd lost his creativity. It was more than a little sad. In the same interim time we'd been across the country, I'd decided to leave the production aspect to him, and I'd been busy writing songs for my solo project, the Film Noir. Since we were there with his knowledge and my songs, we decided our studio's first project would be my Film Noir solo album, Dark As the Night I Left Her.  It proved to be the death blow to what had been an increasingly estranged friendship.

He wanted creative control of my songs, and I wouldn't budge. He hired his producer friend to help us make the record, and his friend ended up working more directly with me. The producer and I also let off steam by tossing back some beers and whiskey at the end of the night.  Seth wasn't a drinker.  Seth was also a paraplegic, and though he'd occasionally have luck with girls, his situation presented a problem in that regard as well. I felt for him, but when he introduced this girl to me that he was after, and she took an interest in me, even though I wanted nothing to do with the whole situation, it exasperated an already fragile situation. It was so awkward that he ended up kicking me out, and I had nowhere to go. The only person I knew who could help me was ironically the girl he'd kicked me out over. So I stayed at her place for a week until I figured it out. She became the first girl I dated in San Diego.

In my haste to find my own place, I settled on a third of a house being rented out for very little money. It was in this crazy old Vietnamese alcoholic guy's house. It was nice enough: I got two rooms, a hallway, and a bathroom all to myself. Naturally I kept one room empty for the reverb for my classical guitar. It was perfect. (I finally finished my solo album there, though the remaining songs were distinctively lo-fi compared to the other songs done in the studio.) Then the landlord told me he was having another guy move into that empty room. Oh, and the new tenant was a musician, too. If you know musicians, you know we're unnecessarily particular to the point that we're like beta fish with each other when we don't know each other. Jake moved in, and thus the plot thickened.

Jake had moved from Michigan to San Diego to live with his childhood friend and drummer, Bill, to fulfill the dream of starting their band, Spiral Pitfall, and rocking the world. Things went well, until they didn't. Jake ran low on funds and luck, and he ended up there in that house with me after similarly cutting a record but straining his friendship with Bill and their bassist Jared. Jake and I had about a million other things in common, not one of which, however, was my newly found appreciation for San Diego. We went through some of the worst things in the world together: poverty, financial ruin, hunger, desperation, homesickness, and the ever-present threat of the demise of the single thing that had brought us out to all this. When he'd spent up his luck, he moved to Portland to be close to family, and since I was looking for a band, and he no longer needed Bill and Jared, I asked him if he'd mind if I played with them. I'd sat in on a couple of their band practices and knew they were a solid rhythm section. He thought it sounded like a great idea.  Acquiring them meant I had to play guitar, which was fine. I was just happy to finally have a band!

At first, things were a little awkward. I felt like the odd man out since Bill and Jared had both grown up on metal and had been playing together for years. We started off playing some of my Film Noir stuff, but it quickly became apparent that this lighter emotional indie rock aesthetic wasn't going to work for two reasons. Firstly, Bill and Jared had no exposure to that kind of music, and about as much interest in playing it. Secondly, I had gone from being heartbroken to being pissed off. I no longer had it in me to play those sad old songs. So many things had gone wrong in the last few years that, having finished that very melancholy Film Noir record, I was ready to riot and rage. I was drinking excessively at the time, and it was almost always Jack Daniel's. I decided that this new band needed to sound the way that my new favorite beverage tasted: rough, hard-hitting, immediately noticeable, and culled from deep-rooted American tradition. I decided I wanted a blues-based rock 'n' roll band that burned and hit like whiskey, and I was about to get exactly what I was looking for.

Bill grew up in Wisconsin, and of all the people I know who are transplants to San Diego, Bill is the least influenced or changed by his new surroundings. He still likes to split his own wood. He doesn't like big crowds. He prefers to live in a remote rural area. He's a heavy-handed drummer with exceptional technical skill, so in many ways, we've never had to compromise between a John Bonham kind of drummer and a Neil Peart kind of drummer. We've been spoiled to have both. Bill is also the quiet good sense in the band.  He's got a fine ear for acoustics and audio quality, and he's great at the technical aspects of sound manipulation.  We have a drummer who builds his own speaker systems for fun!

Jared grew up in California. Though he moved a couple of times to briefly live elsewhere, California has always been home to him, making him the only native Jagged Line. He's a really talented bassist, and though I used to consider bass to be my main instrument, Jared will probably surpass me soon if he keeps learning and growing at the rate he is. As it is, his head is in the game right now, and his bass lines always surprise me with their energy despite their steady reliability. Jared is also one of the most hyper and energetic people I've ever met, and his energy and enthusiasm in this band are indispensable. I have thought to myself often that I truly could not do this band without Jared and his big energy.

Though guitar was my first instrument, and though I started Spanish guitar lessons on it as early as the age of 12 (my mom said, "If you're going to learn to play guitar, you're going to learn to play real music!"), once I turned 15, I became a bassist in my high school band, first because of their need for a bassist, but later because I became seduced by the role of being a bassist. It's not that just anyone can play any other instrument, but unlike other instruments, bass requires a certain commitment to the role and concept of being a bassist, of toiling in the shadows and of sacrificing the spotlight for the good of the song. You have to think like a bassist. I was 22 when I finally got a real electric guitar of my own, a beautiful 1976 Gibson ES-335, that I really began taking ownership for the composition and the whole outcome of my musical endeavors. It wasn't so much that I wanted to sing or be a frontman or guitarist, but I would've been DAMNED if some other dude was going to be singing my lyrics or telling my story. I realized that if I ever wanted to really be a part of a band I loved, I'd have to excise the demons inside and step up and be the singer/guitarist/frontman.  I shrugged my shoulders, picked up the guitar, put my bass away, and got in front of the mic.

Writing music has been one of my ultimate exercises in self-confidence. It's only when you finally learn to trust yourself, and understand that no one who has ever done this before has been any different, that you begin to own the ability to compose. I'm one of those guys who can't write a song about just anything. I have to have it happen to me and affect me for me to create such a nakedly honest statement about a given event. I really like that about our band. It's given me hours of free therapy to scream my biggest secrets at an audience with conviction over and over again. After a while, you're not the same person who wrote that song because you've recovered. You're not singing for survival anymore; you're singing because no one can tell your story like you can.

That being said, the songwriting in this band has certainly been shaped by its members. I know, for instance, that to bring something too weak to band practice is going to end in disaster. I know that the song is going to be punctuated by Bill's spartan drumming and fueled by Jared's intolerance for the demure. These songs are born in that atmosphere of expectation, so even a ballad I write for this band is going to have a sharper edge than something I do for the Film Noir, for instance. If it's going to be for Jagged Lines, it has to taste like whiskey and sting like a switchblade.

Give me a few of your GUILTY pleasures, bands you really should not like but do.
You really want those skeletons, don't you? Well, I'll admit, I grew up with some insanely cheesy influences before my first exposure to the rock 'n' roll, metal, jazz, blues, flamenco, punk, hardcore, or indie that ended up shaping who I've become.

When I was a kid my dad had a box of tapes that didn't get listened to much, and for whatever reason I was always drawn to the heavier side of things, even though it wasn't really heavy at all. If the whiskey is flowing, I might find myself singing along loudly to some Bryan Adams, Roxette, or the Gin Blossoms like there's no tomorrow. Those seem pretty guilty to me.

I used to say Iron Maiden to a question like this, but at some point that became cool. Something people might not expect is that I absolutely love a lot of downtempo female vocal stuff. I love PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, and early Bjork stuff, but my favorite female singer ever is Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. Her voice is like an opiate you can comfortably (and legally) lose yourself in. I'd marry her voice if the state of California would allow it. I love geeky girly singers like Laura Veirs and Ingrid Michaelson, too. I don't think there's much wrong with liking that, but there might be something wrong with how MUCH I love it. As a rock 'n' roll singer, it's not always defensible to love that stuff as much as I do.

Actually, I've got some dirt for ya! So I've also definitely geeked out on some girly indie pop like Stereolab, Asobi Seksu, and older Liz Phair stuff, but the hard geekery happens with Japanese pop. I've noticed I have a penchant for a lot of Japanese sugar, from pop to ska or whatever. I just love it! I like the crazy pop of bands like the Pizzicato Five, and I definitely own a copy of the 5,6,7,8s' album "Bomb The Twist." I used to love this super-caffeinated Japanese ska band called Kemuri, too. I didn't understand any of the words, but they had furiously fast, killer singalongs! And of course, there's the ever-ridiculous Cibo Mato.

As if that wasn't enough, I'll occasionally get in the mood for some good ol' fashioned goth, too. I'm one of the only people I know who even knows some of those bands, but I do like Bauhaus, Nitzer Ebb, and the Sisters of Mercy, haha. It's very dorky, but I have a soft spot for it still. For the record, I also love all that dream pop, shoegazer rock, like Slowdive, Aeroplane Pageant, and the Brother Kite. It reminds me of drugs I'd love to do again, but am too old to mess with.

So there you go: I love girly indie dream pop, goth, shoegazer rock, and Japanese sugar pop.

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*UPDATE: Jagged Lines' first single off their new album, free. Click below to listen. 

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