The Kings of Monterrey
Rock en Español's Mexican Metropolis
Genitallica wants more beer. We're at a 7-Eleven not far from their rehearsal space, and the drummer, Andres Saenz, is rifling through his pockets for change, while Gerardo, one of Genitallica's singers, is wolfing down a cheese sandwich back in the frozen-food section. The band's other vocalist, Beno, is lost in a music magazine, blissfully unaware that Saenz can't cover the beer money. The cashier shrugs, giving me a look of resignation, as Saenz attempts to shake down the rest of his bandmates for loose change. Just another day in the life of a struggling rock band from Anytown, USA. Only this is Monterrey, Mexico, not the United States. An industrial city of 4 million and former flagship of conservative, old-world values, the Monterrey of a decade ago was the type of city where if you wanted to get drunk and hear a loud rock band like Genitallica, you were better off crossing the border and driving seven hours to Austin. But now something is happening in Monterrey. Hype is building around the music scene in this dusty northern city that in the past was known more for Norteño music and cabrito (goat meat) than rock & roll.
Fueled by a DIY philosophy, Monterrey's strong economy, and numerous colleges, the music scene is diverse and growing exponentially. Bands such as Jumbo, Control Machete, Kinky, Resorte, Sofa, Zurdok, Plastilina Mosh, La Flor del Lingo, Cabrito Vudu, Pulsion, La Verbena Popular, and El Gran Silencio are just a few of the bands to be heard in Monterrey. And now Genitallica -- five Norteños in their early 20s who worship Cheech & Chong and think beer is the fifth major food group -- are on the verge of recording their Sony debut. Monterrey's next big thing, Genitallica's music has the raw energy of the Beastie Boys with infectious melodies about girls and juvenile delinquency. Word is they have what it takes for stateside crossover success. Right now the boys just want more beer.
Next month, Genitallica will be in Seattle recording an album with Foo Fighters/311 producer Barrett Jones. When they go out at night, other bands give them props and pretty girls give them phone numbers. As we drive back through an empty industrial section of Monterrey to the band's rehearsal space with a case of Indio beer and their demo CD blasting from the car stereo, there's no doubt that the boys are on top of the world. At this moment, they just might be the Kings of Monterrey.
Some might say that Genitallica's realm is not so pretty. People don't go to Monterrey for the scenery. With the exception of the jagged mountains and the prominent Cerro de la Silla that surround the sprawling city, there isn't much to be had in the way of natural beauty. People come here to make money.
Hecho en Monterrey
Just two hours from the Texas border, Monterrey has always been the country's industrial workhorse. With its massive malls, fast-food chains, and industrial wealth, Mexico's richest city feels at times like a Siamese twin separated from the U.S. at birth. The country's largest industrial conglomerates are based here, shipping exports of auto parts, machinery, food, chemicals, and plastics all over the world.
Here the youth are weaned on U.S. rock & roll and pop culture transmitted through the innumerable TV satellite dishes that sprout up from homes all over the city. While Genitallica might appear to be struggling for beer money at the moment, they all have college degrees and are members of a Latin American rarity -- a thriving middle class. The local music scene, perhaps, is headed in a similar direction.
The hype over Monterrey's music scene began in 1997 with the release of Control Machete's first album Mucho Barato. The rap group went platinum in Mexico, selling some 300,000 units, and also sold moderately well in the U.S., surprising hip-hop fans with the notion of a thriving Mexican rap scene. In fact, for a while, the music industry assumed Monterrey was only about rap. Then Plastilina Mosh and El Gran Silencio started garnering impressive reviews both in Mexico and stateside. Two years ago, when El Gran Silencio brought their brand of "Norteño Freestyle" -- a blend of cumbia, rock, and hip-hop -- to Scholz Garten during South by Southwest, Austin music fans couldn't help but take notice of Monterrey.
There is no specific tag like "grunge" that can be affixed to Monterrey's music scene, where there's everything from speed metal to hip-hop played with accordion. Enrique Lavin, editor of the CMJ's Latin alternative chart, says that diversity is a hallmark of bands in Monterrey. Recently, locals Zurdok and Jumbo, two popular alternative bands, were on the Top 25 Latin Alternative chart at CMJ.
"The key thing there is a fusion of rock, hip-hop, heavy metal, sampling, and Latin rhythms," explains Lavin. "It's all happening in Monterrey."
"I really didn't know anything about the city before we went there," says Enrique Blanc, Editor-in-chief of the L.A.-based Rock en Español magazine La Banda Elastica. Blanc recently visited the city, devoting eight pages to Monterrey bands in his Spanish-language magazine's most recent issue. "In Los Angeles, Rock en Español bands look to them for guidance, because they're experimenting with new sounds and rescuing elements of traditional music.
"They're an example for Mexican rock bands waiting for the big labels to discover them, because they are playing by their own rules, " says Blanc. "They don't care about success in Mexico City."
It's Saturday night, and Austin Rock en Español DJs Gilbert Guerrero and Xavier Campos, as well as filmmaker Veronica Cavazos, who is shooting a documentary on the musical genre, are invited to Jonas' house up in the hills of Monterrey. Jonas and Alejandro Rosso are the two-man team behind Plastilina Mosh, which besides Control Machete probably garners the most attention in the international press.
The Best of All Worlds
In his bedroom, surrounded by computer equipment, Jonas plays his band's new single, "Human Disco Ball," set for release this month on Capitol Records. The song is a sticky sweet pop-culture collage of disco, techno, and funk. Plastilina Mosh are often compared to Beck by critics, championed as masters of fusing disparate sounds to create new pop landscapes.
"This city has more musicians and is better than Mexico City right now," says Jonas.
Twenty years ago, Mexico City was the center of rock music in Mexico. Then in the Eighties, Guadalajara had its turn with bands like Mana, Cuca, and Azul Violeta. Bands in Monterrey have always felt regionally isolated. In the past, success meant a 450-mile move to Mexico City and the prospect of competing with hundreds of bands in an already overcrowded music market. Now all of this is changing, says Jonas.
"A few years ago no one would pay attention to us, but now there is a lot of curiosity about what's going on here,"he explains.
In 1996, Plastilina's EP Mr. P Mosh fell into the hands of video/film director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), who was so smitten that he gave it to MTV's program director, and a deal with Capitol -- home to Jones' close friends and collaborators the Beastie Boys -- followed shortly thereafter. Of all the bands in Monterrey, P. Mosh, with their bilingual lyrics and post-industrial edge, has probably come closest to crossover success in the U.S. and overseas. Last night, Jonas went to the Om Club, a trendy tech-inspired nightclub in the Barrio Antiguo district, to see an electronica band called Kinky. His arrival caused the low buzz of excitement that occurs when people suddenly recognize a local celebrity in their midst. Humble and unassuming, Jonas just wanted to hang out and see one of his favorite local bands.
"I go out just about every night to see music with my friends," he says.
The scene is surprisingly close-knit and supportive despite its vastly different musical styles. It's also not uncommon to go to a show and see several other musicians like Jonas in the audience. In his own music, Jonas says he's influenced by Japanese bands, and right now is listening to Moroccan music.
"Our outlook and lifestyle is more global than just Mexican," he says. "It's the best of all worlds."
The people here have always been proud of their city's wealth and geographical isolation from Mexico City, despite criticism from the rest of Mexico for their close proximity to the U.S. In Monterrey, they switch from Spanish to English with ease. And when Monterrey's middle-class youth want to upset their parents, they turn to the likes of Nine Inch Nails and MTV for their inspiration. Roger Cerda, 23, who sums up the musical style of his band Pulsion as industrial/ techno/dance/metal, says that traditional Mexican music has little influence on many of the bands in Monterrey.
"The influence is definitely coming from the states," he says. "I love mariachi music, but it has nothing to do with what's going on here. Our drummer is into Slayer, but the singer likes Alan Jackson and Kenny Rogers."
"We don't like Norteño or traditional music," concurs Chetes, singer and guitarist for Zurdok, one of Monterrey's best alternative bands, which lists the Beach Boys, Flaming Lips, and Black Sabbath as influences. "We grew up on MTV and Twisted Sister. When we go to buy music, we go to McAllen or Laredo."
It seems strange that while Rock en Español bands in the U.S. like Ozomatli are rediscovering their Latino roots, many bands in Monterrey are eschewing traditional Latin rhythms. But for bands like Zurdok and Pulsion, playing rock is a form of rebellion in a country where rock music is still very much part of the underground.
Yet while many Monterrey bands are unapologetic about co-opting their influences from El Norte, there are still bands like El Gran Silencio, Cabrito Vudu, and La Verbena Popular that are fusing more traditional Latin rhythms like vallenato, Norteño, and cumbia with hip-hop, rock, and ska. Cabrito Vudu, a six-member band that blends Norteño, ska, reggae, and rock, are veterans of the Monterrey rock scene.
"Eight years ago, this place was a desert," says Vudu saxophonist/singer Chucho Lozano.
In the past, Lozano says, it was difficult to get shows, and the scene was much more segregated along class lines. In San Pedro, the richest district of Monterrey, working-class bands like Cabrito Vudu couldn't get gigs. Modern rock bands like Jumbo played San Pedro's Club Nirvana, but not Cabrito Vudu. According to Lozano, Club Nirvana was strictly for fresas (Mexican yuppies), who were more interested in music from the States and the UK. Recently, however, the band played a show there.
"It's changing now," acknowledges Lozano. "Things have really opened up, and it's much more diverse, from working-class to rich fans."
Though things are much more mixed in Monterrey today, divisions still remain.
"There are two classes of musicians in Monterrey," says La Banda Elastica's Enrique Blanc. "There are the upper-middle-class kids focused on music from the U.S. and Britain. Then there are the working-class kids like Cabrito Vudu and El Gran Silencio that are more in touch with the traditional folklorico music."
The heart of Monterrey's music scene resides in a downtown working class neighborhood, at the recording studio Cuatro de Control. Run by Control Machete DJ Antonio "Toy" Hernandez, the studio functions as a meeting place for musicians, DJs, and artists. Today, inside the plain, garage-like façade, things are humming with activity. Cabrito Vudu are having their photos taken downstairs, roadies are busy loading equipment, and Pulsion is in the studio working on a demo.
Monterrey Sound Machine
When he's not on the road with Control Machete, Toy Hernandez is here. A self-professed record junkie, Hernandez says he started working in a record store at age 10. Now 24, he has put most of his Machete earnings into this state-of-the-art studio, which he's been building since 1996.
"I started without anything, and I've been dreaming and planning this for years with my two partners," says Hernandez. "Everything I've made has gone back into this studio."
Hernandez is happiest, it seems, behind the soundboard. The rap group La Flor del Lingo sits across from him on the studio couch, and Hernandez puts on a new rhythm track he's mixing for a Cuban rap group. He cranks it up and the heavy rhythm and bass wash over us. La Flor del Lingo smile, nodding their heads in approval.
Control Machete, signed to Universal Latino, has probably traveled the furthest and sold the most records out of all the Monterrey bands. They were the first group to bring a producer down from Los Angeles (Jason Roberts) for the group's Mucho Barato, released on Universal subsidiary Manicomio in 1997. The album, which went platinum in Mexico, shook things up in Monterrey. Until Control Machete, no one had thought to call L.A. or Seattle to bring a producer to Monterrey, says Genitallica manager/Cuarto de Control partner Ricardo Haas.
"Bands ask me, 'How did you get Jason Roberts and Barrett Jones to produce your band's records?'" he says. "I tell them, 'I picked up the phone and asked them to come.'"
The 1997 arrival of Roberts, who engineered the first three Cypress Hill albums, opened the door for other producers such as Barrett Jones and Peter Reardon (Coolio) to work with bands in Monterrey. With the construction of Cuarto de Control, Hernandez says it's no longer necessary for bands to leave Monterrey in order to make a quality record.
"We don't need to go to L.A. anymore, because we can get the same sound here," he says. "You can call us the Monterrey sound machine."
Monterrey's music scene is an example of what a Latin American middle class is capable of, says CMJ's Enrique Lavin. For many, life in Monterrey is livin' la vida rica, evident in the number of expensive SUVs and upscale nightclubs that line the streets of Barrio Antiguo.
Politicas and Greenbacks
"Plastilina Mosh are affluent kids," says Lavin. "They certainly have never been in want [of anything] and they have all the technology that they need at their disposal."
"I was surprised by the wealth there," says Jason Roberts. "There's a much bigger middle class than you see in the rest of Latin America. Musicians there have a luxury I don't think they realize -- they can practice the guitar all day instead of taking out the garbage."
Unlike many bands in Latin America, groups here don't dwell on political oppression or corruption in their lyrics. Ask most musicians in Monterrey what they think about politics and they'll roll their eyes with cynical knowing.
"Music isn't the answer to Carlos Salinas' stealing," says Pulsion's Cerda. "This culture has been stepped on for 500 years, and right now politics is not the answer -- let's educate the people first about what music is, then we'll worry about politics."
Cerda says many of his musician friends are critical of bands that sing about politics.
"Since Chiapas, it's become fashionable to sing about the political problems there," he explains. "For instance, the band Leprosy, which used to be a death-metal band, suddenly starts singing about the struggle in Chiapas. It's obvious they're just using Chiapas to sell records."
"Plastilina Mosh doesn't have political lyrics," notes Lavin, adding that for many musicians, making a living off their music is struggle enough. "They aren't interested in being part of the social protest movement. How many rock bands are making a living in Mexico right now, maybe three? It's enough for bands like Plastalina Mosh to generate attention in the pop music machine."
When asked what influences their lyrics, the Genitallica boys look puzzled. Finally, singer Gerardo "Gallo" Olivares smiles.
"Sometimes I go to a club and see a beautiful girl, but I can't talk to her," he laughs. "That's what I sing about."
The rest of the band members grin and nod in agreement.
On our last night in town, we go to see La Verbena Popular at Café Iguana, one of Barrio Antiguo's most well-known and laid-back clubs. Formed less than a year ago, the band already has a big fan base in Monterrey. La Verbena Popular, which can be loosely translated as "street party of the people," typifies the scene's close-knit vibe with their changing cast of guest musicians.
No Sleep Till Austin
Judging from tonight's performance, the band likes to cultivate a party-like atmosphere with their onstage antics and crowd participation. They're also one of the only bands in town with female members. Monterrey has yet to foster many women musicians, other than the infamous Gloria Trevi.
The acoustic guitar player, Meliza Hernandez, is the sister of Tony and Cano, the two songwriters for El Gran Silencio. Until recently, Tony's wife Veronica Lazos also played guitar for the band. Like El Gran Silencio, La Verbena Popular mixes more traditional rhythms like vallenato and cumbia with reggae, rock, and ska.
Tonight it seems like every band in Monterrey is here -- El Gran Silencio, Plomo, Sofa, Cabrito Vudu, and even the boys from Genitallica. Each of them takes a turn onstage with the band as the crowd goes wild with dancing and applause after every number. The club is packed, and the crowd shouts out their favorite songs.
It's nearly 2am, and La Verbena Popular, the third band of the night, has just started. The last two nights we stayed up until at least 5am. No one, it seems, has time for sleep in Monterrey. My companions are nowhere to be found; they're either up front getting a closer look at the band or propped up against a wall trying to get some sleep. None of us want to be the first to go back to the hotel and risk missing anything. Suddenly Beno, one of Genitallica's singers, is standing next to me.
"Well, what do you think?" he asks.
I tell him I love the band, but can hardly keep my eyes open after three days of loud music, constant partying, and no sleep. I begin to ask how he and his friends can do this night after night before remembering that Beno is only 23. If the brash young men of Genitallica do indeed conquer the United States next, they'll have a world of late nights ahead of them. He smiles.
"It's still early in Monterrey," he chuckles softly, looking a little sorry for me. "Don't worry. You'll get used to it."