Interview: Moreira, Solving La Ecuación [P.R.]

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I left Puerto Rico when I was 17. College seemed like my savior, a way out of an island I never felt much of a connection to. I didn’t hate Puerto Rico. I couldn’t truly hate where I came from. I appreciated it historically, culturally, ecologically (when it wasn’t being trashed). I appreciated my grandparents. I appreciated growing up effortlessly bilingual. But it was difficult for me to forge connections with people growing up there. I felt like I was part of a community and a social class (yes, class, these things are very apparent in PR) that rejected most things I believed in. This was a product of being raised in the Catholic private school system, a system that fomented two things I’m not too keen on: fundamentalism and privatization. I didn’t have very many outlets within Puerto Rico, so music from the outside became essential to me. I grew up on a lot of Mars Volta, Sleater Kinney, Talib Kweli, and ‘80s U2. These things helped me feel a part of something bigger because everything around me felt like it was collapsing. I didn’t cling to Puerto Rico’s music because, at that time, it didn’t feel very varied to me, there wasn’t as much of a “scene” as there is now. This belief might be a product of my then ignorance, but I’m convinced that if 16-year-old me was growing up in San Juan now she would have a very different experience. She’d feel a deeper connection to the sounds coming from her island. She’d feel prouder of its artistic outpour, of its dissidence, of the sheer volume of expression. She’d feel more at home.

Puerto Rico’s music scene today is thriving more than ever, constantly evolving and accruing into a mass of infectious sound. From Los Petardos! to Fantasmes to tach.dé to AJ Dávila to Las Ardillas to more bands I’m too exhausted to list, there’s such a joyous yet dark growth happening right now. José Iván Lebrón, a.k.a. Moreira, is a part of this expanse. A 23-year-old Bayamón native who is currently getting his BA in Hispanic Literature, Moreira is an active member of the local scene who attempts to embrace different genres, even the ones that aren’t fully embraced by others quite yet. While his solo work traffics in the electro-ambient world, he’s perhaps best known as a drummer for punk bands Venera-3 and Las Abejas. But through his solo work he’s able to tap into his love of the digital while still keeping it intimate and organic (evidence of this can be found in his debut EP, La Ira Secreta, off Sonovibe Records).

Recently we connected over the phone, one 787 to another, and talked about ‘80s hair metal, why punk is the current drug of choice for Puerto Ricans, and balancing the electro with the thrash. And because there’s only one proper way to communicate with a fellow Rican, all of this took place en (what else?) Spanglish.

What music did you listen to as a kid? Were you well versed or is that something that happened later on?

I remember in the 3rd grade I loved to watch videos of ‘80s hair metal bands and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. Since then I’ve been really amazed with music. Me ha fascinado todo lo que tiene que ver con la estética de estar en una tarima. When I was 12 years old my father bought me a drum kit because he wanted me to stop riding skateboards. Then when I was 14 I started playing in bands y cuando tenía 19 años empecé mi primera banda oficial, La Máquina de las Pausas. It was electro rock, drum and bass, spacey electronic sounds and at the same time I was playing drums in a band that was another style completely, more alternative grunge, psych rock kind of thing. Both bands terminaron por diferentes razones and I started to do my own thing with drums, which is the main instrument I use in Moreira.

So it sounds that most of your music education came from you, at home. Did school play a part in your development as a musician?

We played a lot of music in my class. There were a lot of musicians who didn’t really read a note of music, teóricamnete, but we would play instruments. In 9th or 10th grade we had a band with our teacher and we played covers.

What songs did you cover?

[laughs] We played some Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, Linkin Park, some originals (at the time I was writing some of my own songs). We played different hits from Latin rock: Enanitos Verdes, La Secta. Really, the things that you hear on the radio. If you go playing a Radiohead song to them they don’t understand it at all.

Other than ‘80s hair metal, what did you listen to as a kid? Any local music or mostly Anglo?

I didn’t really [listen to] hair metal. I wasn’t attached to that kind of music. I’ve been more attracted to ‘90s grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and later on some nu-metal. I started to [listen to] Björk and Radiohead, these big bands that are really art to me, esas son mis verdaderas influencias.

Hair metal fue más por el espectáculo.

Exacto. Eso fue lo que me atrajo de la música: el movimiento, la actitud, la imagen.

¿Crees que llevas eso contigo cuando tocas? Leí que usaste glitter durante un show que tocaste con The Coathangers. ¿Tratas de hacer algún espectáculo en tus shows o son más íntimos?

Depende de donde esté. Ese fue bastante grande, ha sido uno de los shows más grandes que he tocado. Quería hacer algo más llamativo. Han habido veces que me pongo cosas en la cara, usualmente no lo hago, pero sí trato de crear visuales, videos from YouTube or from my iPhone, and I make some visuals because I think it helps the experience and it complements the music.

How would you describe the visuals you use?

I’ve been into a lot of structuralist films like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, avant-garde surrealist films from the ‘30s and ‘40s because they’re really abstract, so you don’t have a storyline. Mucho de estos filmmakers no hubiesen querido tener ningún tipo de música detrás de su filme o se ponía música que era más como ruido. Estaba interesante el sentido de que estás mezclando un tipo de estética que era como anti-música y estás poniendo un montón de música colorida por encima.

So how do you balance your commitments with Las Abejas and other bands and your solo work? Is it easy for you to switch a certain part of your brain off to go from Abejas-style music, more garage and punk, to Moreira solo work?

That’s a really good question, I sometimes wonder myself. But I think the thing is that I [listen to] a lot of rock bands, that’s my main influence. I remember when I was 13 or 14 I heard drum and bass for the first time, and was like, “Whoa, what is this horrible music?” And with years I started to understand it and when I started to make music I understood the process, that it’s not [as] organic or as instantánea como tú coger una guitarra y ponerte a intentar. Hay un proceso, hay una matemática, patrones. El proceso de construcción musical se siente mucho más matemático, quizás intelectual, más sistemático. Puedes ver la música al frente tuyo, como una ecuación. Pero he podido mantenerme en contacto con esas raíces roqueras y estoy súper contento por eso. Hay veces que me siento confused como, “¿Qué es lo que a mí realmente me gusta más?” Pero últimamente he dejado de pensar en eso porque simplemente música es música.

The song “Pao” is about your sister. Why was it important for you to write a song for her?

My sister is 10 years old. She is the most important person in my life right now. She was born when I was 13, so desde esa edad he creado esta relación paternofilial con ella porque, más que mi hermana, ha sido como una hija. Simplemente poder pasar por esa experiencia de verla crecer despierta unas cosas nuevas en uno. Ves como el tiempo va pasando, ves como te vas poniendo viejo y ves como ella deja de ser una niña y se va convirtiendo en una mujer. Y pues sentí que debería de hablar de eso en alguna canción y estoy contento que a ella le guste por lo menos. El otro día la cogí cantando [“Pao”] y fue como que lo mejor que podía haber pasado.

Every time I go back home I feel like the big wave is mostly punk and garage bands. Of course, there’s a little bit of everything, but there’s a preponderance of punk. Do you agree?

Yeah, that’s totally right. The bands that are more [publicized] are the punk and garage bands. A la misma vez hay mucha gente haciendo música electrónica muy buena.

Why do you think punk and garage are having this moment? Do you think it has anything to do with Puerto Rico? Do you think PR needs this music right now or wants this music right now for a particular reason?

Wow, that’s a dangerous dangerous question. Las razones concretas están en cada persona. No puedo obviar el hecho de que quizás hay mucha gente molesta por distintas razones. Me imagino que hay mucha gente molesta que van a mis shows también, pero el punk y garage siempre se han identificado más con rebeldía y nihilismo y drogas y alcohol, que todo eso está súper nítido y súper gufeao’ [laughs]. Pero se siente que es algo más de furia, que no importa nada. Vamos a destroy and let life happen y pues siento que en Puerto Rico siempre ha habido eso, pero cuando hay tantas cosas, tanta presión, tanto stress, tanto tapón, tanto calor, tanta sustancia, tanta depresión, me imagino que esas cosas se reflejan en los shows. Pero realmente eso es una especulación. Pueden ser otras cosas. Puede ser simplemente el jangueo, puede ser simplemente el sexo, quieren ir a un show to hook up, pero sí pienso que es una buena pregunta porque por lo menos el punk punk punk siempre ha estado desde los ‘80s en Puerto Rico y ahora es más garage. Hay muchas razones por las cuales ese hype está aquí en la isla.

If you report on music in Latin America you notice a trend, the usual suspects: Chile, México y España. Those tend to be the three countries that cross over more or that you read more about for some reason. PR, compared to all of these other micro scenes, keeps feeling even more micro. Not because the talent isn’t there, but it seems that it might be harder for Puerto Rican bands to cross over, or it’s been the case historically. Do you agree?

I think maybe it’s hard for Puerto Rican bands to succeed because the things that are well known about Puerto Rico no son las cosas que la escena se ocupa. En la escena no hay un Ricky Martin, un Tito Trinidad. Musicalmente las cosas que son bien famosas (puertorriqueñas) no son las cosas que se escuchan en las escenas de afuera. Puerto Rico se mantiene siendo esta cosa que nadie conoce. Nos mantenemos siendo bien bien micro dentro del micro pero no hay razón para la cual detenerlo. Fantasmes ha tenido mucha exposición afuera. Las Abejas recientemente estuvimos en Miami. Y allá todo el mundo sabía quien era Dávila 666. Poquito a poquito nos estamos dando a conocer.

That’s what I meant, that PR feels like the constant well-kept secret. You read any of the blogs that focus on music from Latin America and there seems to be a very slim list of PR bands that they either know or decide to report on. It feels constantly buried under all these posts about Chile and Mexico, just because there are so many of them.

Sometimes bands have to be together for a long time to be recognized and a lot of bands here break up. Yo conozco bandas súper buenas que se mantienen juntos por uno o dos años y se splitean por razones de trabajo, o no tienen chavos, tienen que comer, tienen que pagar la renta, tienen que mantener un hijo, y no pueden seguir tocando porque los shows no les proveen dinero. La escena aquí es bien reducida. Si te vas con $50 de un show para ti solito eso fue un súper success.

Is there something you want to see happen more in the Puerto Rican music scene? How do you want to see it flourish?

Que los shows estén llenos y que todo el mundo se ponga a grabar. Que siguieramos tocando in the same places that we play pero que sean más sitios así. Y siempre que la gente nos apoye y que podamos viajar y dar nuestra música a reconocerce. Yo creo que a mucha gente le enctantaría. Es a veces frustrante que uno tenga un buen material y con todo y los medios [que] te dan una oportunidad, pero no es suficiente, por lo que ya estamos hablando, de que somos Puerto Rico, de que en algunos aspectos somos marginados, especialmente artísticamente.