I know where Costa Rica is. Automatically, I get brownie points. Not because this is a particularly hard fact (at all), but because I as an interviewer at least know where my subjects’ country is located. And that it is a country and not a city in Southern California or wherever. Unfortunately, there are some geographically/common-sense-impaired “journalists” out there and, unfortunately, Costa Rica trio Las Robertas had to experience one. On behalf of the United States of America, perdón.
At Park Slope’s bocce-ball-friendly hub Union Hall, Las Robertas wailed with a mix of restraint and passion. Bassist Monserrat Vargas let her dark fringe hide her doey-eyed glare. Singer Mercedes Oller exuded a sweetness you wouldn’t expect from a drone producer, particularly when her idol, Black Tambourine’s Mike Schulman, joined them on stage to shred. And drummer Franco Valenciano (who proclaimed himself “tan and sexy” to the crowd) just about maimed his drum set on the last song. It was a good show from a band that has in the past two years cultivated an unexpected reputation in Latin America and the U.S. as one of those bands to watch for. Imagine that, a band from Costa Rica, not Chile, not Argentina, not Mexico, getting recognition in all the right indie circuits. So to be able to chat with them after such a memorable night in their hearts and our ears was daunting.
But in a booth at Union Hall, I sat with the now-trio Las Robertas and discussed the overlooked (and totally-but-kind-of-non-existent) Costa Rican music scene, Starbucks smack downs, and living the dream.
Talk to me more about the style that you have now as opposed to when you first started.
Monserrat: We started as a five piece, two guitars, one bass, drums, and another friend that was singing. Then, the rhythm guitar left. She’s still a good friend. Then, the other girl that used to sing is a good friend as well, and she left because of personal reasons. So it’s a three piece now.
Mercedes: The trio.
What are the pros and cons of being a trio or having less people as opposed to more?
Mercedes: I think it’s better. It’s easier, it sounds tighter.
Do you think the sound is substantially different?
Franco: We have to replace that empty space that the others members left. We have to rehearse more and do some arrangements to make the songs feel spacier. I think it worked for us, because we worked hard to kill that space. So, I think it improved the quality of the band as three members.
Do you think the Cry Out Loud sound will carry over to your second album?
All: We hope not.
Mercedes: We want something different from Cry Out Loud. It was experimentation, we were starting. Those were our first new songs. It was experimenting and discovering our sound.
I CONSIDER OURSELVES THE FLAG CARRIERS TO A MOVEMENT
THAT’S HAPPENING IN COSTA RICA. IT’S NOT ABOUT ONE BAND.
IT’S A LOT OF BANDS.
What do you guys think you bring individually to the band? Either behind the scenes or when you’re on stage?
Monserrat: It’s kind of hard to say. Like, “I bring this to the band…” I guess what I’m trying to do is set a mood. It’s really hard to say, honestly.
Franco: It’s kind of like if I asked you “What’s beautiful about you?”
I could probably name some things.
Franco: Really? (Laughs). Wow, I cannot say anything about myself. I mean, the thing is I play drums. That’s what I do and that’s it. You don’t try to do anything, you just do what comes out of you.
But what do you think comes out of you?
Monserrat: Drums, the guitar, the bass.
But does it represent something more to you other than just being the instrument?
Franco: Of course, expression.
Monserrat: What we’re bringing, not just as people in a band, is the expression. Not just some sound or instrument. It’s more like a way of expressing at the moment. That’s why it’s so hard to say. Because it’s at that very moment that you start playing and creating a song…whatever is going through your mind, through your life, it’s happening at that moment. So it’s kind of hard for me to remember what I was going through back then, because I don’t remember. That’s what happens.
What about tonight, what do you think you were going through?
Monserrat: Fear, excitement, happiness, sadness, everything all in one little moment.
Mercedes: We were very excited. Black Tambourine is one of my favorite bands. And Mike [Schulman] asked me today, “Can I play with you?” And it was like, oh my God…I’m in shock. I don’t know what to say, I wanted to cry. I’m still about to cry.
Do you think that’s gonna make the New York show stick out more?
Mercedes: Yes, of course, forever in my life.
You’ve been in New York for a week now, what have you guys been doing?
Monserrat: Eating Chinese food, doing laundry, playing ping pong.
Wow, it’s like you live here.
Monserrat: It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. And the people, that’s all we were talking about today, the people, like the culture, are totally different. And I’ve seen two feuds already, one in Starbucks and another one in Dunkin Donuts.
Awesome. Do people not fight in public in Costa Rica?
Monserrat: No! But that was pretty bad, yelling, and throwing things at girls. Throwing hot water into a guy’s laptop. I was standing in line, and then I felt something flying next to me. And then I look, and it was the girl running. And the guy was after her, like “This bitch!” It was awesome.
That’s your quintessential New York experience. Could you guys see yourselves living anywhere other than Costa Rica?
Monserrat: I don’t know about that, I really like where I live.
What do you like about it? I’ve never been so I don’t know….
Monserrat: You should go, and you will know.
Franco: Costa Rica is the greatest place in the world. People there are awesome, we don’t have an army. Everybody’s happy and chill. We have lots of nature.
Monserrat: Even the weather, it’s always nice….
IT’S LIKE A DREAM…NO, NOT EVEN A DREAM.
LIKE A FANTASY COME TRUE.
My friend goes surfing there a lot. Do you guys surf at all?
Mercedes: I’m scared, I’m so clumsy.
Monserrat: I’m not going to say that I’m afraid of the sea, I’m gonna say that I have great respect for the sea.
But you’re afraid of the sea. What do you guys do outside of the band? Do you study, or have jobs?
Mercedes: I just graduated one month ago. I’m an interior designer. It was that and the band. And now it’s only the band. I like to thrift shop. And that’s it, that’s my life: the band and thifting.
Monserrat: I have a sucky job at Amazon, which I have to go back to next week.
Franco: But she has an awesome band!
Monserrat: Oh yeah! I have another band. There are lots and lots of bands in Costa Rica that are amazing, and we’re making that a point in every single interview. People should check them out. Now. Our friends from Niño Koi, Zópilot! [Franco’s other band], my other band The Great Wilderness, Monte. They’re killers, an amazing band. People should really listen to them.
I know you guys have mentioned in the past that there is no music scene in Costa Rica, but there are good bands.
Mercedes: That’s the catch.
Franco: Thats the point we are trying to make, I consider ourselves the flag carriers to a movement that’s happening in Costa Rica. It’s not about one band. It’s a lot of bands that are doing the same work that we’re doing. People should turn their heads to Costa Rica.
Mercedes: Not the same style though…
Franco: Creatively, people are doing the same thing, and even better than us. There are really, really good bands. In the States they would absolutely kick ass, because in Costa Rica there are people who know what they’re doing. And they are doing it great.
Monserrat: So the title of this interview should be “Check out Costa Rican Bands.”
Or “Costa Rica Rocks.” So, you guys have only been together for two years and to come to the States is pretty huge. I know bands in Latin America who have been together forever and they cannot crack the U.S. scene, for visa issues or money issues. And it’s a testament to you guys that your sound is very marketable here in the States.
Mercedes: I think we’re just lucky I guess, we worked a lot of course. We never made music to get signed to label or be invited to festivals. We never thought we’d play at San Jose. We were just making music for fun. It’s like a dream…no, not even a dream. Like a fantasy come true. It’s what the three of us have been dreaming of as kids.
Can you recall a moment when it became even more surreal, or like you started realizing you were actually getting some traction, and it’s not just some project in the basement?
Mercedes: When we got on the plane.
Franco: The thing is, you realize it’s a dream when you wake up. We are still in the dream, we’re still living the dream. It’s going to hit us when we get to Costa Rica and we continue our regular lives.
Can you guys see yourselves doing this for a really, really long time?
Franco: That’s the dream we’ve been looking for. Doing this forever.
Monserrat: Ever since we started listening to music we’ve wanted to be here, play here, breath here.