“They used to play with that edge…‘it’s a girl, she’s really good looking! No, it’s not a girl, it’s a guy,’ and then, ‘Oh, is he gay?’ ‘No, he’s not gay!’ So people used to be like, ‘Agh! What the fuck?’” exclaims Sonya Carmona, Las Robertas’ bass player.
Carmona is describing the band’s earliest configuration a few years before she joined Las Robertas, as we Skyped with her from San José and then also with singer-guitarist Mercedes Oller, Las Robertas’ founding member, in anticipation of their upcoming set at Chicago’s Ruido Fest.
At that time in 2010, a period when Costa Rica had also elected its first female president, Las Robertas (whose name draws inspiration from 60s girl groups and The Ramones) had rapidly gained attention for a lo-fi, garagey, and fuzzy pop sound driven by paradoxically ethereal vocals. Along the way, they garnered praise from outlets like Club Fonograma, who describe their first record, Cry Out Loud, as an “impressive and engaging debut from four beautiful girls from San José.” However, those four “beautiful girls” were actually Monserrat Vargas, Mercedes Oller, Lola Miche, and Franco Valenciano, who dressed as a woman and took the stage name Ana Maria.
At the beginning, says Carmona, Las Robertas used to “have a lot of hate. It was so weird, like, why are people taking it so personal? It was very controversial.” But as Oller describes the choice for the band, it was no big deal – Valenciana had asked to play with Las Robertas dressed as a woman. After some time, he simply got tired of dressing up and putting on the wig, and moved on to other projects, remaining good friends with the rest of the band (Oller is the only founding member left in the band; Miche moved on to studies in Europe, Vargas to other projects, and Valenciana to lead a band named Monte).
Today, that initial controversy has passed, and Las Robertas includes Oller, Carmona, and drummer Fabrizio Durán. As a trio, they continue to build on Las Robertas’ slightly distorted vintage and garage sound with touches of surf and psychedelia that premiered on their debut and continues on another recording, Days Unmade (2014), as well as an upcoming release recently recorded in California.
Las Robertas’ musicians are also heralded as an important participants in a burgeoning Costa Rican music scene, which includes celebrating the acclaimed indie festival Epicentro and hosting the country’s first edition of Nrmal.
Carmona, who also leads Color Noise with Alison Alvarado and Mari Navarro, speaks of this Costa Rican music scene as one in which women musicians are beginning to headline. “I think we have a lot of female empowerment in this country; of course [it clashes with] the usual machismo. When you have a culture that is very traditional in so many ways, you [also] have the other counterpart that’s against those dogmas or precepts.”
She adds that Las Robertas’ dedication to women’s empowerment through music – especially experimental music – is part of a reaction to the land’s Catholicism. “There is a double edge. We say we are very open, but at the same time we are very judgy and we have all these religious things in our heads. There’s a lot of [clashing] on that side.”
“I’m not really a feminist. I know women are superior! We are the base of everything.”
This may account for why, until recently, their largest audiences were in the sprawling urban metropolis of Mexico City, where they perform several times a year. However, she feels that lately, Las Robertas have found more acceptance in Costa Rica, which she attributes to “post-millennials that grew up with the Internet, Tumblr, music blogs…Now is the youngest audience we have had in our time as a band. The wave that came out in 2011 is like this wave of kids that were very influenced by North American culture.”
And of course, their English-language lyrics continue to attract an audience of Latinos who attended bilingual schools and are very influenced by British and American bands, says Carmona, as Las Robertas has chosen English as their musical lingua franca. “It comes more natural especially when you are playing rock; sometimes Spanish is more complicated to match to the rhythms and then you sound cheesy.”
English is a natural choice for music that is highly influenced by 70s American and British rock, along with shoegaze and indie pop from the 80s and 90s. It is these strands as well as their intersection of musical interests, comments Carmona, that gives the band its unique textures. “With the industrial and krautrock post-punk wave, I connect with Fabrizio. With Meche, I have this other side, a vintage sound, acid-British kind of psychedelia. We all match, but we are a triangle, so we keep a balance.”
In other ways, Las Robertas continues a longer history of Costa Rica’s love for punk, grunge, jazz, and experimental, says Carmona, mentioning a time in the 70s when the country’s rock outfits (“Led Zeppelin-ish” bands, as she describes them) started traveling to California – including her own uncle, a jazz player, who traveled to New Orleans and New York.
“I think we have a lot of female empowerment in this country; of course it clashes with the usual machismo.”
As they see it, Las Robertas’ sound also expresses an intense feminine energy. Oller trained to be a professional ballet dancer in her childhood, and says that this keeps the “musical tempo in her head.” Add to this a conscious desire to create a specific ambiance in the melodies and vocals, something she describes as a “sylphic, ethereal fantasy, like female wood nymphs or mermaids.”
Nevertheless, even though an underground scene is gaining strength in Costa Rica, Carmona says, and is “creating a lot of female artists of pop or electronic in other Latin American music,” she notes that they are definitely in the minority. “People that are mostly doing this stuff – we live in a bubble, if you compare it to the mass of women that are being submitted to a machista lifestyle, and have to be submissive, take care of the kids, [take on a] feminine role in society.”
But it’s a start, she declares. “I think my generation is angrier and less afraid.” For Carmona, it’s simple. “I’m not really a feminist, [because] I’m going to say, ‘I know women are superior!’ We are the base of everything.”
Las Robertas play Ruido Fest on Sunday, July 10. For more information, click here.