A House-Warming Party for the World
Three-fifths of Dos Santos meet me at Marz Community Brewing in the Bridgeport district of Chicago on a Sunday evening in June. Singer/lyricist/keyboards/guitarist Alex Chavez, multi-percussionist Peter Vale and drummer Daniel Villarreal Carrillo have come directly from a rehearsal for their album release show at Sleeping Village less than two weeks away, after recording a radio interview earlier in the day. It’s a busy and exciting time for the group, and as they wait for me in a fairly pimpish booth holding uniquely crafted beverages, they appear a bit tired from the day’s exertions, yet still greet me cheerfully. There’s a big summer ahead of them and they’re nowhere near running out of energy.
Logos, their third LP and first full-length release on Chicago’s cult favorite jazz-leaning label International Anthem, comes out June 15, the day after the Sleeping Village show. Concert dates across the U.S. (and hopefully outside its borders as well) will follow for much of 2018. Logos very well could be many people’s house party album of the year, with its fantastic, fun synthesis of psychedelic indie rock and Latin American song styles certain to appeal to a diverse range of sonically curious and active-hipped music fans. There’s little reason to doubt that with word of mouth and their new label’s support, Dos Santos could be on their way to becoming Chicago’s new favorite sons and musical representative to the world.
It’s only been five years since Chavez brought Dos Santos (often expanded in name as Dos Santos: Anti-Beat Orquesta) to life. Playing traditional Mexican music in the city and feeling limited to “interpreting a repertoire,” he says he was “jonesing for an original project...that explored Latin American rhythms in a progressive, even experimental way—psychedelic or otherwise” so began putting out the call to a network of friends and local musicians. Villarreal Carrillo came on board, and he and Chavez reached out to bassist Jaime Garza in spring 2013, with their first shows soon booked after initial writing and experimentation. “That’s my thing--incessant rehearsal? No--rehearse, then book a show. You gotta get out there and take a risk; it’s never gonna be perfect,” as Chavez tells it. By the end of that summer, conguero Vale and guitarist Nathan Karagianis had joined via connections with Villarreal Carrillo, replacing departed earlier members, and the present lineup was solidified.
A self-titled digital LP was produced in 2015, with sophomore effort Fonografic arriving the following year. With a modern Latino music scene emerging in the city, including DJ collective/record label Sonorama Discos who put out the first Dos Santos seven-inch, the crew began fishing around for a place to record a new album. Daniel then met and invited International Anthem head Scott McNiece to check the band out when Anthem artist (and Chicago jazz superhero) Makaya McCraven opened for them. McNiece was impressed with their style and, with the built-in trust of having many common friends and collaborators within the Chicago musicscape, he was immediately amenable to helping them simmer ideas for a new record. Daniel tells of it being a natural match between the progressive, experimental label and the band, who “wanted to do something super out there, that we haven’t done but know we’re capable to do, using improvisation and using a different way of recording.” McNiece brought in “The Daves” (engineers Vettraino and Allen) to set up shop at the non-traditional spaces in the Bridgeport neighborhood the band had chosen, with portable recording gear turning storefronts and even Daniel’s basement into locations for organic collaboration and the sessions that would become Logos.
The day I meet up with Dos Santos happens to be the one-year anniversary of the start of the Logos sessions, 2017’s first blazing Chicago weekend that fostered a creative “sweatbox” for the quintet. The initial song ideas brought to the table, says Daniel, were “sketches and drafts of rhythm foundations. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we have every part and we’re ready to rock it!’” Alex effuses a philosophy of collective songwriting and using the studio as a space for songs to evolve: “I think you should do it with a lot of abandon, I don’t think you should be worried about, ‘Oh, am I going to be able to recreate this (live)?’ Who cares! Go in there with a sense of adventure, especially when you have the time to do it and the support, and you’ll walk away with some cool stuff, and then you’ll figure out how to render it later.”
As with the band’s original concept, traditional Latin America rhythms-in-song are the root from which their compositions grow, or as Vale puts it, “It’s almost like a duality--you’ve got this rhythm that’s usually like a big heavy storm, and then you’ve got the guitars and the vocals floating on top, riding the storm really nice and even. There’s a lot going on, but at the very foundation there’s a steady rhythm that Daniel and I are holding down, and you can pick exactly where it’s from,” citing Cuba, Eastern Africa and Veracruz, Mexico off the top of his head as individual examples. The album’s title track and lead single “Logos” features a 6/8 rhythm with a half-time backbeat that Chavez says “makes it gallop the whole time,” into which a tricky and infectious chanting vocal part cuts in as a counter, making for a thrilling, ear-perking listen, and that’s before I even mention the 11th-hour addition of the horn section from Brooklyn Afrobeat mainstays Antibalas as guests to that record’s party.
All five Santos are rock-solid musicians and well-versed in musical forms and global influences, but are untethered from label and genre expectation, and unafraid to follow their instincts into wilder, weirder territory. I ask if any idea has been introduced in their process that helped them define their boundaries, as in “That’s what Dos Santos is not.” The gentlemen laugh and agree that they haven’t found it yet. Sometimes a musical idea took months to gestate before turning into a crucial aspect of a song, like the surprise of Alex’s Tame Impala-reminiscent Roland Juno-106 analog synth on second single “Manos Ajenas” which brings some pop romance to Daniel and Peter’s funky rhythmic interplay, even though it was kept in his “back pocket” until post-production.
He describes this freewheeling approach as “exploring that airy territory of the edges--we don’t know where we’re going, but we know we feel good as we’re playing it, that elusiveness, and having fun with that.” Talking about their rehearsal earlier in the day, while distilling a tune from the album for live performance for the first time, a break in the song led to an exciting, unplanned space for exploration, illustrating that “in that moment where things begin to collapse, all of a sudden, there’s an opening,” before wrapping back around to clarity.
That collective confidence and comfortability with uncertainty also translates to how the band see themselves positioned in the Current Cultural Climate. In the trailer video for Logos, multiple members talk about the album sessions serving as “creative therapy” during last summer’s early waves of distressing, president-exacerbated polarization. I note that in the year since, things haven’t exactly calmed down and ask if they sense that Dos Santos is gaining a larger purpose, as young people, peers and leaders in their community have been expressing their admiration to the band for the work they’re doing, not only at the vanguard of an exciting artistic scene, but as representatives of embattled populations (all five members are either migrants or children of migrants to the U.S.).
“Just by necessity man, being who we are, in this country our presence is politicized to begin with, so anything we put out there is going to be read through that lens,” says Chavez. He notes that while Dos Santos avoids for the most part “contrived intentionality” of reaching to make explicitly political statements, the intense context of the times in which we live gets “baked in” to their art, and listeners can divine meaning and draw strength from their offerings. The most direct statement on Logos then, is one of its most exciting stylistic left turns, with “Sole Party” bringing the album to a late climax with guest vocals from Chicago/Texas poet Roger Reeves, who follows Chavez’s verse with a spoken piece personifying the universal migrant and boldly announcing to the world, “We come awaking you into the Future.”
Vale draws a distinction between music that is politicized, and Dos Santos’ intention to humanize. “There’s polarized sides, but when you humanize something, that’s just something you can’t argue with. The messages that he (Chavez) conveys through his lyrics are of love, togetherness, and a curiousness of ‘Where are you from so I can understand you? I’ll tell you where I’m from, but you gotta let me in, and I’ll let you in.’ It’s true that it was a hot time last summer, but you look at your friend and say, ‘I feel better with this (music)--you want some?’ And you hope that it makes them feel better.”
Alex further explores this conversation between artist and audience by pulling in the album’s title, the classic Greek concept of logos: “the notion of dialogue, logic, staking claim, like: ‘Here’s the Voice, in a moment when you have the deafening sounds of all kinds of crazy shit, how do you stake a claim and say ‘This is who we are, in this moment, in this place, making art in ways we hope are impactful?’” The band’s independence and uniqueness is fiercely intentional, and unifies them: “I think there’s a refusal among us to allow the (political) context to determine what we do, because we value the sense of autonomy of being artists. We’re gonna take ownership of what we do, and try to be conscious of, and escape, tropes,” says Chavez.
Later, when I ask about the difficulty of getting five guys, all with family responsibilities and various side projects going, to carve out the time for extended creative synthesis, followed by touring to bring the fruits of their labor to new fans, he celebrates his bandmates’ commitment to shared artistic ideals. “Being an artist, that’s a life project. It’s serious and it’s work and it’s enjoyable, so you value it. It’s not a sacrifice, it’s an investment in fulfilling your own life path, into seeing what happens in the future.” All three friends note how beautifully they get along, with Vale breaking us up with “I look forward to touring like I used to look forward to sleepovers when I was a kid, like ‘I’M GONNA HAVE THE BEST TIME OF MY LIFE!’”
The enjoyment of being in Dos Santos is certainly strengthened by their collective respect and admiration for each other as musicians, coming from disparate band experience and training backgrounds, but all having attained literacy and fluency with both traditional Latin American music, and U.S. pop/rock/jazz/R&B/etc. “We gotta do both well, and that’s a lot, man,” Alex sighs. While Logos switches up styles on the fly, from Karagianis’s deft modern rock guitar strums and solos on “Caminante,” to spaghetti western sounds on “Purísima,” to the improbable resolution from science fiction soundtrack to ‘70’s fonk on instrumental interlude “How Far Are We from Here?”, the LP as a whole somehow remains of a piece, playing as a strong top-to-bottom, no-skips experience and never inducing genre whiplash. “We play up to each other’s strengths and we hold up each other’s weaknesses,” says Vale in tribute to his colleagues.
The finished package of Logos speaks of a group decisively coming into its own, with a very real possibility of greater, even more ambitious things to come. Responding to my comment about “the house party album of the year,” Alex says he wasn’t anticipating how it would all turn out, but that the record’s organic, homespun origins, the friends and collaborators who grace the proceedings as guests, and its welcoming sound make it house-warming. “If you really want to have some folks come together, you’ll hopefully put on a record, and say ‘Yeah, check this out--this’ll make you feel at home.” It’s a party I for one am looking forward to being at all the warm summer, and to inviting everybody along.