It’s impossible to reduce the Latin American songbook into a single theme or mood, yet keeping your head up in the face of hard times is a very common sentiment found in lyrics across the continent. Regaling tales of struggle through contagious rhythms is a tradition that continues to resonate to this day, especially when taking into account everything that has happened in the world lately, it was bound for an album to reflect it while also giving us a good time to look forward to. Dos Santos has done this with City of Mirrors, their most recent album.
The Chicago quintet has quietly become a formidable musical force. Formed in 2013, the band consisting of vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Alex E. Chavez, bassist Jaime Garza, guitarist/vocalist Nathan Karagianis, drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo, and percussionist Pete “Maestro” Vale, was conceptualized as an “Anti-Beat Orchestra,” fusing musical genres to make no-bullshit dance music reflected on their jaw-dropping live act, even managing to capture some of that energy in their studio efforts. City of Mirrors is the next step in their evolution.
“We’ve always been anchored by Latin American rhythms, whether it’s cumbia or Caribbean [rhythms] or whatever,” says Chavez about their musical style that incorporates Latine music influences as well as psych, rock, soul, and funk. “That’s at the core of what we do. We’re also inspired by the tradition of Latin American songs, like canción romántica and the kind of melodrama of that or the poetry of son mexicano. For us, those really deep influences were always there and we continue to hold on to them.”
In many regards, the magic of Dos Santos is finding the right balance between what Chavez calls “tradition and doing something that’s your own.” He relates the story of writing the vocal melodies and lyrics to “A Shot in the Dark” by singing the huapango huasteco “La Azucena” as a fill-in only to leaving it on record. This came naturally to Chavez. “That kind of poetry is something that I grew up with and played a long time,” he explains. “If you do that for so long, it starts to shape your brain in how you think melodically or how you translate an idea or an emotion. Son is one kind of entryway musically to translate ideas.”
To make City of Mirrors, they had to leave their comfort zone as well as their hometown. The bulk of the album was recorded in Los Angeles with Elliot Bergman, marking the first time Dos Santos has worked with an outside producer. While making the album, the band couldn’t help but incorporate their feelings regarding the world around them. The cycle of creation of the album coincided with many deeply affecting events: the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico happened while writing the album, the pandemic and lockdown hit while recording in L.A, and the protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd exploded while they were finishing the vocals in Chicago. As a result, City of Mirrors is an album of its time that transcends it towards a universal and spiritual message.
To help convey their message, Dos Santos has found a new outlet on the visual side, a relatively new development in the band’s camp. They extended their collaborative efforts to include visual artists to come up with artwork and videos to elevate their narrative arc. Some of these artists include Amara “Rebel Betty” Martín, Celestial Brizuela, Miguel Jara, Osvaldo Cuevas, and many others. Martín’s collage-based visuals were particularly inspiring for the fusion-based band, and she handled the album cover art as well.
As the world inches closer to leaving the pandemic behind, it becomes especially poignant for Dos Santos. Chavez relates that their first meeting with Bergman to discuss making this album was in October 2019, almost two years to the day of its release. “It’s like we’re just now kind of coming out of that,” he says. “I feel like two years ago we had a conversation about working together and finally is now concluding, and now the world gets to hear of what we started.”
City of Mirrors comes out October 15.