Synth pop duo Los Wálters have made a splash in Puerto Rico’s music scene with their picturesque odes to island life and road tripping, all while seldom being in the same room. Scattered by graduate studies, limited job opportunities, and most recently the devastating aftermath of Hurricane María, Los Wálters’ saga of geographic disparity has driven them to create nostalgic pop music that synthesizes diasporic feelings of longing for the verdant landscapes and leisurely existence of their Caribbean homeland.
It’s almost poetic that my conversation with Luis López Varona and Ángel Emanuel Figueroa should happen over a three-way call between Miami, Chicago, and Mexico City. “We’re part of the migratory wave that left the island to seek opportunities outside,” says Ángel, Skyping from his Miami apartment. “Luis went to Barcelona to get his master’s degree and I went to Philadelphia for work, but we already knew each other in Puerto Rico and had lots of friends in common. We stayed in touch, talking all the time over [Google chat], sending each other beats and new things we were working on.”
The pair began collaborating in 2010 with a band named Yo Soy Luis Él Es Juan, a project that casually dabbled in hip-hop and electronic experimentation. After leaving Puerto Rico and swapping ideas over Dropbox for months, they soon realized something exciting and altogether different was brewing. In 2011, Luis flew to Philly for a marathon recording session that formalized Los Wálters and gave way to their self-titled debut EP.
“That was really interesting because up until that point, we had mostly worked electronically, only using Logic, and didn’t have much of a relationship with the instruments we were using in the songs,” says Luis, calling from Chicago while on a business trip. “When we finally got together in the studio we realized we were including too many elements and channels. We became intrigued by how it would all translate to a live setting, which is why we didn’t really start performing until 2013.” The addition of drummer Manuel Vargas solved their conundrum, taking over as the band’s onstage musical director and earning the affectionate moniker of The Third Walter.
Luis returned to Puerto Rico in 2013 and Ángel relocated to Miami shortly after, narrowing the considerable gap between both bandmates and allowing them to perform and engage with their fanbase more frequently. A music video for single “Toca Madera” came soon after, followed by their first full-length album #ponteelcasco. “That was a pivotal time for our career,” says Luis, “because we were able to connect everything – our music, visuals, and the people that were along for the ride.”
Los Wálters have released a total of three albums and two EPs throughout their seven-year career, telling layered stories of blossoming love and metropolitan exploration that reflect much of the band’s own pride and bittersweet nostalgia for home. Songs like “Sin Mapa Ni Bote” and “San Juan” speak to the endless possibilities of a night on the town, walking down the boardwalk, eating piraguas on a balmy summer evening. Striking a more serious tone on songs like “Mayagüez” and the allegorical “El Parque,” Los Wálters reveal growing anxieties over Puerto Rico’s economic woes and constant flow of migration, finding fleeting comfort in the island’s idyllic natural beauty. Alongside peers like Buscabulla and Balún, their portrayal of the island has made them beloved indie staples of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Caramelo, their latest project, is a noticeably somber departure from the band’s trademark cheerful sound, attributable in no small part to their recent ordeal with Hurricane María. Far from a beat-by-beat account, songs like “Calma,” “Distracción,” and “América” subtly allude to the band’s harrowing experiences and their dissatisfaction with how government officials have handled relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
“My life changed completely,” shares Luis. “We didn’t have electricity for a long time, hacía un calor cabrón, and mosquitoes were biting me all day and night. My only lifeline was my laptop, which I had to go charge during the day so I could work on beats at night because I couldn’t sleep.” Thinking about the band gave Luis a vital source of hope and motivation, also expressing tremendous gratitude to Ángel, in whom he could confide since he is part of an anguished diaspora that at the time had scarce contact with island-bound friends and family.
Luis relocated to New York City earlier this year, a bleak silver lining he calls an “empujoncito bueno” since he had pondered the move for some time. The band has also teased two more EPs before the end of the year and it remains unclear whether they’ll return to light-hearted territory or continue exploring themes of trauma and displacement.
“Songs come when they’re intended to,” explains Ángel. “If I sit down to write a song and I pressure myself into writing about a specific subject, it may not be the best song it can be. We’re still trying to express a genuine reaction to everything that’s happening but without profiting from people’s tragedy.”
Luis and Ángel continue working full-time jobs outside of Los Wálters, but the hard yards they’ve put on record and stage have begun yielding bigger and more substantial fruit. Their recent sold out show at Rough Trade in New York City alongside Stefa and fellow Boricuas Balún was electric, the way a heart soars when reunited with family. The milestone speaks volumes to the resilience of Puerto Ricans and to the support the diaspora is prepared to show their own.