“It might not look like it, but we’re very spiritual,” says Frank Briones (aka Panchitron), one half of the Houston, Texas production duo Santa Muerte. We caught up with him just days before the release of their first original EP, the debut from the pair’s new imprint Majía. “We see the good and the bad in everyone. We wanted to make something that was going to be — not dark, but místico.”
The thing is that Santa Muerte does look like it believes. There are the obvious facts: early mixtape Prayer Devotional begins with a missive to the group’s namesake Holy Death, this new release has been dubbed Oraciones, and then there’s Majía’s tarot card aesthetics. But pay attention to the less obvious forms of devotion they inspire around them, as well, like the dancefloor trances Panchitron and co-producer Sines‘ eerily addictive sets force upon their listeners in nightlife church services. Over the past year, Santa Muerte has made its name experimenting with different beats from across the Latin American experimental hemisphere, plus heavy doses of hip-hop. Think Ty Dolla $ign dembow edits. Their meticulous, sometimes surprising beat matches suggest a fervor for the source material that borders on the pious.
Santa Muerte has been channeling sound for awhile now, Panchitron in the tropical scene with his Houston DJ collective Bombón and Sines through his hip-hop influenced club music label Freshmore. After flirting for awhile with making music together, the two locked themselves inside Panchitron’s home studio during one epic Fourth of July weekend in 2015, only emerging once to get drunk (“Because being stuck in a room for so long with somebody, you’re eventually going to fist fight,” Panchitron explains) before they created what would turn out to be Santa Muerte’s first releases. This was before they even had a name for the project.
“We wanted to make something that was going to be — not dark, but místico.”
“We did about four tracks and we were like, how are we going to do this?” Panchitron remembers. “Are we going to do this as individuals, just coming together and doing a collaborative pack? Or can we come together and do this?” He and Sines decided to go with the latter, and in the year that followed, have started showing up in global party rhythmics, from GHE20G0TH1K to London’s Bala Club. Santa Muerte has also built a four-person team, including a PR person and art director, who is dedicated to crafting the visual side of the label’s black magic vibes. If that seems like a business, it is because Santa Muerte’s members are businessmen — Panchitron credits his marketing acumen to his day job as a broker.
Though Sines and Panchitron cut their teeth in Houston, they don’t necessarily see the city as Santa Muerte’s core community. They don’t fit in, maybe. Panchitron characterizes the two types of venues for musicians in his home base as underground shows or the corny, bottle service clubs funded by Houston’s famous oil money. The lack of options has led him to think outside city limits, even before the birth of Santa Muerte. “Sines and I always had that in common,” he says. “We were always going out, going to other cities, other markets, other local scenes, and playing what we were currently making.”
That state of constant motion may also be due to the fact that the members of Santa Muerte have roots in many places. Panchitron says both he and Sines are “very much Mexican and very much American.” Sines is a Mexican-American born in the States, but with deep roots in the old country and enough Spanish that he can alburear with the best. Panchitron was born in Zacatecas, came to Los Angeles with his family when he was five, and returned to Mexico when he was 10 for boarding school (“My parents were like, if you stay here you’re going to get in a lot of trouble,” he says). He got into music with the free time he gained from getting kicked off the high school baseball team, and eventually came back to the States.“I’m very thankful that my parents sent me back,” Panchitron says. “It made me understand that I can be — that anybody can be — bilingual, but that it’s another thing to be bicultural. And I feel bicultural.”
People were starting to clamor for original tracks amid all the fire remixes, so Santa Muerte kicked into gear — but they still brought the crew. It makes sense that Majía’s Oraciones features collaborations on collaborations, given the duo’s reverence for the talented network of DJs and producers of which they’ve become part. Each of the tracks were passed to another artist after Panchitron and Sines were done with them. On the micro label’s first release, we get to hear the result of experimentations with King Doudou, the reggaeton and dembow alias of French producer Douster, Bronx-based future bass head Blanco Nino, and New York’s Kala, who helped create a track that received its own aggressive remix by Chile’s Imaabs, a re-do that is also featured on the debut Majía EP.
These first four songs, Panchitron says, are the first part of a multi-release project that will end up forming a dramatic arch. “Once the first part comes out, I think the second part is going to make a lot more sense,” he says. The duo thinks of Majía as a micro label, one with a built in expiration date of 12 releases. “Once there’s 12 that’s it,” says Panchitron. “The magía’s done. We’ll put out a compilation on vinyl or whatever, but once it’s done it’s done.”
“Anybody can be bilingual, but it’s another thing to be bicultural. And I feel bicultural.”
Once the first round of tracks were drafted, Santa Muerte fell back on its business background and basically, focus grouped them. NAAFI’s Zut Zut, Asma of Nguzunguzu, and Blanco Nino all received the music “to see how versatile it is, how adaptable it is to the sound that they were spinning,” says Panchitron.
Leaking tracks to a handful of high-profile players seems like a shrewd promotional tool — and maybe it was — but Sines and Panchitron were serious about wanting feedback. Some tracks went through three versions before they were deemed ready for release.
“It’s this family, this brotherhood,” says Panchitron, talking about the producers who have played a role in the Santa Muerte story, from artists with whom the duo has traded music back and forth, or young producers that could use their Santa Muerte experience as an opportunity to sharpen their industry skills — to create “their calling card,” as Panchitron puts it. “Now more than ever we really watch each other’s back and make sure we’re always taking care of each other.” Panchitron sounds more devotional talking about the character of his collaborators than anything else — Santa Muerte hymns dedicated to the sanctity of artistic exchange.
We caught up with Santa Muerte back in March at SXSW. Check out our interview above.
Santa Muerte’s Oraciones is out now on Majía.