Since their debut in 2010, Costa Rica’s Las Robertas have been on the move constantly, releasing a new slabs of vinyl, getting involved in side projects (which, in the case of Monte, became a full time thing), and packing their instruments up to play their immaculately-executed three chord songs all over Latin America.
Now, they are about to embark on another cross-continent journey that will see them play some prestigious shows, namely Austin Psych Fest and Festival Marvin in Mexico. We thought it was an ideal time to get singer/guitarist Mercedes Oller to talk a little bit about life in Las Robertas, their career so far, and one of their most passionate topics: the music scene in Costa Rica.
What’s new with Las Robertas? It might sound like a lazy question but most of the time there’s something going on with you guys.
Right! We’re about to go on tour. We’re touring the U.S. West Coast; California, Seattle. Then we’re playing Austin Psych Fest which features a ton of garage and psychedelic bands, the lineup is very cool. Then we’re going to play Festival Marvin in addition to other dates. I’m not sure exactly where we’re playing, we’re touring [in Mexico] too.
Austin Psych Fest is going to rule, right? You’re sharing the stage with some legends like Spiritualized, Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain, Flaming Lips…
It’s an amazing lineup! All my favorite bands are playing there.
That’s awesome. It’s great that now there’s a Latin American connection to that kind of music and that you’re one of the bands representing Latin America. There’s a ton of bands now playing garage psych, garage punk, and all those styles.
We met a lot of psychedelic bands in Mexico that are signed to labels in the U.S. and Europe, like Lorelle Meets The Obsolete and Has A Shadow. That’s also the direction our new material is taking, the new songs are more psych, more Western.
You’ve been around for some time, enough to see things change in the independent music scene. What are the biggest changes you have noticed in Latin American music?
There have always been healthy scenes in Mexico and Chile. We think of those as mega-scenes because in Costa Rica it’s nothing like that. When we started playing, there were no alternative bands, it was us, Detectives Salvajes —which was Monte’s first project— Zopilot, and the Great Wilderness was just getting started. There were very few bands and then everything started happening —we were getting invited to festivals and record labels abroad— I think it was an eye-opener for all involved. People stopped being afraid and just started doing things, they saw us and said “they only play three chords and they are doing great. We should start a band as well!” [laughs]. I think we helped motivate the scene, us and the other bands that were active, and the bands that came later like Monte, Los Waldners…well, Ave Negra, obviously…I wasn’t thinking about them because they are family [both Mercedes’ brother and boyfriend play in Ave Negra]. There’s a ton of bands.
And everybody starting doing it the DIY way…
In 2008 I went to a festival in NY called the New York City Pop Fest, it was indie pop, which is the music that I love the most. Attending that festival inspired me a lot. That was important, making your own merch. That’s something we had never seen in Costa Rica; maybe in the punk scene they made their own patches and stuff, but the alternative scene had no idea about it, and the scene itself was practically non-existent. Designing the t-shirts, sweaters, tote bags, pins. It was about starting a DIY culture, and putting on shows that were not happening before, and now it has become bigger.
For you it’s very important to mention the scene in Costa Rica any chance you get. And now it has become a bigger scene within Latin America, with the bands that have come out of there and festivals like Epicentro.
Even before Epicentro started, people were becoming aware of what was going on here, thanks to all the bands going out and playing in other countries. All the bands in the scene are friends with each other, so it’s natural that we talk about each other constantly. Before the festival, people knew what was happening in Costa Rica, but Epicentro gave some bands the chance to play with foreign musicians and to play for bigger crowds. But it’s been something that has been building for years. For me, my goal isn’t that all of us friends start a bunch of side projects, but rather that we foster younger bands playing, and we’re happy to help them out. I always try to go to all the shows I can. I enjoy it a lot.
How you discovered any younger bands recently?
Right now, the only new band that comes to mind —and they are not exactly new, it’s more like we recently learned about them— is Desorden Siniestro, who play post punk very much inspired by the darker side of La Mode, like early Alaska [y los Pegamoides] and Paralisis Permanente. They are incredible. I think they recorded something or they’re about to record something, but they’re amazing. They have a video on YouTube that was made by Kevin, who does Super Legitimo, which is a DIY video production house we’ve worked with.
You have been playing abroad from the very beginning. How has that been and how has that become better for you?
We never set out to tour and stuff, we were always very open to playing anywhere. It was a surprise that people wanted to book us for their festivals. And that has led to others inviting us constantly —in October, we’re playing South America for the very first time; Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina…for us it’s a new frontier. The idea is to keep doing this until, I don’t know, we have kids. It’s been very casual. We got signed to a label and that’s how we got to go on tour. We’ve never written to anybody saying “Hey, invite us to play in Mexico.” Luckily, the gigs found us.
At this point, Mexico is a familiar audience for you guys. But what’s it like touring in more unfamiliar places, like Europe and U.S.?
It’s always very impressing. The people are different. In Spain and England we usually have very young people in the crowd. Older people too. I mean, people who lived through the indie pop years in their youth, in the Eighties and Nineties; and perhaps they loved Black Tambourine and we remind them of them. We used to play a Beat Happening cover and people would go crazy for that. It’s weird because we have a very mixed audience, with people who listen to very underground stuff, others who like more commercial stuff, and people into punk or psych or garage. That’s one of the aspects of the band that I love, that there’s no limit when it comes to public appeal.
And you accomplish all that playing three chords. That’s quite amazing, because you’re doing it right. It’s not like you are trying to blow people away by playing epic solos…
[Laughs]…or electronic experimentation. I think it’s something that comes naturally to us. It’s the music we’ve been listening to our whole lives, and I think our music is really honest, and people like honesty. We’re not pretending to be something we’re not; it’s not like I’m trying to play a bunch of solos [laughs]. Honesty is what we want to communicate and people notice it and they like it.
I think it’s interesting there are a lot of bands that started pretty much at the same time, playing very straight rock music, all over the Spanish speaking world, in Spain, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Why do you think this happened? What did you think when you noticed there were all these bands you shared so much with?
That’s amazing. It has yielded a sort of brotherhood. It happened with Los Blenders, and everytime we go to Mexico, the first day we see [singer] Arch who is basically our best friend there. It’s very cool, they go to our shows and we try to do stuff together. Same in Spain, Mujeres are very good friends of ours, Univers too. When we go to Europe we know we’re going to be playing with Aliment or Univers or Mujeres. And sometimes they come to Costa Rica for vacations and we see them all week.