Wherein Reuben Torres offers some insights into the precarious life of touring and live performance, from the point of view of perpetually emerging band, Los Macuanos. This time:
Just a (Mexican) band in Sweden
I’m currently on a bus, en route from Gothenburg to Copenhagen Airport, where I’ll fly to London for a 12-hour layover, and then board another 10-hour flight to Los Angeles, with a tiny layover there and then finally take a forty-five minute flight back home to San Diego. I’m just going to go ahead and say this: I hate traveling. No, that’s not true. Who hates traveling? I do hate touring though. Well, that’s not entirely true either, but every time someone hears you’re going out on tour, they immediately express awe and/or envy. Especially when it comes to Europe, people just seem to envision some sort of romanticized escapade, like it’s all castles and Eiffel Towers and baguettes. It’s not.
This is our second time playing in Sweden, but to be frank it could well be our first. Or our tenth. I get the feeling that this is the sort of country you never quite get used to, for better or worse. The occasion this time around was the Kaffefestivalen (Coffee Festival) in Stockholm, which took place at the lustrous Södra Teatren. There, we shared the bill with a handful of bands from across the globe, like Italian band, Ninos du Brasil, Kenyan group Just a Band (who are, indeed, just a band), and Savan + Son Sinu, who were perhaps the most engaging act of the lot. We also drank way too much coffee and made quick stops in Malmö and Gothenburg, but I’ll get to those in a second.
It’s not all castles and Eiffel Towers and baguettes.
It’s complicated enough trying to contextualize a band like ours in our native country. Being an electronic music group, with highly dissentient and political overtones, and with an unabashed influence from Mexican folklore, is hardly a cinch in a highly dichotomized scene like Mexico’s. After all, the national panorama is pretty much split between two camps: the rock bands and the DJs, and furthermore, between the folklore-friendly and the non-folklore friendly acts. So imagine now trying to contextualize our music within an entirely different cultural sphere where, first of all, no one even speaks the language –– at least insofar as the lyrics go –– and everyone is mostly oblivious to its cultural and political themes. This yields interviews where journalists ask you questions like: “Why is your music so dark?” and “Where is the hope?” Lady, if you took one step into Mexico, you’d answer your own question. Also, you’d probably get extorted or something. (Hopefully not though).
But decontextualization isn’t necessarily a drawback, as we proved during our Swedish stint. Last year was the most extensive period of touring in our band’s history. It was also the one in which we found ourselves better situated within an actual “scene.” Most of the shows we played were around the center of Mexico, where the (mostly) independent promoters who booked us were quite keen on having us over. This was, in no small part, aided by the media apparatus, which is still largely centered around Mexico City. In Mexico, making waves in the capital means that rest of the country will quickly take notice (or at least the central and southern regions, which are essentially satellites of DF). Ultimately this means that you know exactly who’s booking you and who you’re performing for. You come to expect a certain type of response, and sometimes deference, from your audience. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just a natural consequence of the climate.
Why is your music so dark? Where is the hope?
So that’s where Europe comes in. That is, to knock you and your illusions of rock-stardom back to earth. I mean, this a place where I can’t even explain to a guy what sort of pizza I would like to order, let alone the situation in Mexico during the past decade, political or otherwise. It’s like going out into the wild. You get on a stage in front of an audience that’s largely not cognizant of you and your music, you take a sip of that Swedish beer, and you just sort of hope for the best. Needless to say the results are always mixed. I’ll break them down neatly by city:
Stockholm is surprisingly Mexican for a Swedish city
As I mentioned before, we played at a coffee festival. What can I say? Those Swedes really love their coffee. And their mustaches too, apparently. (To the drunken gentleman who complimented my mustache about five or six times, and subsequently bought me a whisky: Thank you. I only wish your statement that I could, as you put it, “get any woman in Sweden with that mustache,” had actually been true).
Other interesting anomalies: there is a surprisingly large and fervent Mexican population in Stockholm. I mean, it’s a big metropolis, yeah, a true cosmopolitan milieu, to be sure. But who’d ever think we were spreading this far across the globe? I swear there was a point during our set where the dance-floor splintered between the Mexicans and the Swedes, in the front and back respectively. Incidentally, a very enthusiastic young man from Guadalajara came up to us after the show and commented on our closing track, which was an obfuscated and highly distorted rendition of the Mexican national anthem:
“Did you play the national anthem? Awesome!”
I don’t think he grasped the irony.
We were billed on the flyer as Mexikanska Kraftwerk. I’m assuming this means The Mexican Kraftwerk.
I don’t think you ever really stop being an “emerging band.”
I’m not even going to get into this one.
Gothenburg is hipper-than-thou (and that’s a good thing)
I’d heard quite a bit about the Gothenburg scene in the past. There’s a slew of bands from there that were no doubt a big influence on me and my bandmates growing up (Studio, The Tough Alliance, El Perro Del Mar, Little Dragon, Pacific! and of course The Knife, are just some personal favorites of mine). So it was maybe for this reason that we didn’t hesitate to take that six hour bus ride to-and-fro in order to play a show at Oceanen. On a Monday, no less. To be honest, I was quite out of it for most of the trip. I slept through the entire soundcheck of the other two bands (on a couch, at the venue), took a second nap after dinner, and still had trouble getting up to play. Jetlag is indeed a bitch.
This was the last show of our three-date tour, which meant we came into it with no expectations (read: not a single fuck was given). We weren’t even drunk, for Chrissake. The bill was all over the place, no question, with a Chinese post-punk band playing prior to us, and a folk band from California before that (at least I think they were from California, as the singer kept repeating that he was from LA and that he wanted money to buy “expensive Norwegian weed”). Yet, strangely, it wound up being our strongest performance, or at least my pick of the lot. We closed off the night, receiving a surprisingly warm and extended ovation from the audience. Not that there’s anything weird about that, except that we don’t get that half the time in Mexico! It was a strange and endearing moment that took us back to our first ever performance as a band, at Café Sevilla in Downtown San Diego. Much like that gig, we took it up just for the lolz and –– much to our bewilderment –– ended up receiving a highly enthusiastic response from the audience, with a few scattered members even dancing along. This isn’t surprising in San Diego, but it’s saying a lot in the case of Gothenburg’s mostly aloof, hipper-than-thou crowd.
It’s just now dawning on me that after four years of touring, the idea –– or rather, the luxury –– of playing for a knowing audience is still rather new to us. When I look back, I realize we’ve actually spent a bulk of our years playing at the most random venues to mostly blank slate audiences, who have no idea what is in store for them. It’s a testament to the power of the glocal hype machine, which just sort of fools you into thinking that you’ve somehow become an established act, when in fact, there is no such thing. Not really. To be honest, I don’t think you ever really stop being an “emerging band,” you just sort of get nestled comfortably in a niche, and it’s on you whether or not you choose to stay there. Yet at the risk of sounding trite, I’d say that fresh faces and fresh ears are a sort of blessing in disguise. In fact, they can occasionally be a reality check for artists –– for worse sometimes, but mostly for the better –– proving to them just how well their music stands up in a purer sense, without the hype, without all the interviews and the discourse and, occasionally, without all the crutches. It’s like going back to square one, a hard test that serves to keep you and your music grounded. And I mean, if a savvy crowd like Gothenburg’s can dig our music on a fresh listen, I reckon it can’t be that bad.
Reuben Torres is a member of Tijuana-based band Los Macuanos. He is beginning to appreciate the small victories in life. Follow him on Twitter: @conejitocolvin.