On a Thursday night in April of 2014, the now defunct Zaguan Sur, a cult venue of the underground scene in Buenos Aires, smelled like a high school gym — if high school gyms served cheap beer.
I was there to see a friend play in his (also now defunct) grunge band, comically named after a roundly despised Argentine talk show host. I had brought a new friend who had arrived the week before, and it was his first show ever in Buenos Aires. As I looked around the rather empty venue, I was worried that I had chosen poorly — maybe he wouldn’t trust my concert recommendations anymore.
The bar filled up slightly as the opening band finished, and the couple that had been smoking next to me took the stage. They were both slight in stature, the petite guitarist almost dwarfed by her guitar. He raised his drumsticks, counted off, and then nothing mattered — the smell of dirty socks and stale beer, the tepid crowd, the complicated break-up I was going through at the time —they all dissipated in a thunderous wall of sound, shocking in its fury and force, coming from just two slender 20-somethings on the stage.
Now, that new friend is my guitarist (who still lets me drag him to a funky-smelling venue from time to time), and 4 years, 2 full-length albums and various EPs and singles later, Riel is a mainstay of the Buenos Aires underground, thrilling audiences locally and elsewhere with their ferocious blend of noise-rock and pop. They’ve toured extensively, both in Latin America, Europe, and the US, and have even touched upon the big festival circuit, playing SXSW as a showcasing artist in 2017.
This past Wednesday, just a couple weeks after the release of their phenomenal new EP “Paseo Psicodelico,” I caught up with Riel over a couple rounds of mate and masas secas in their cozy Chacarita home to discuss their inspirations, influences, travels, and what keeps them going as musicians.
How do you start to write a song?
Mora: Generally they begin in rehearsal — someone will bring an idea, whether on the drums or guitar and then the lyrics and the voice come later.
And where do those initial ideas come from?
Mora: From playing. Instead of playing an acoustic, I’ll often play an electric unplugged. I just grab it and play — I love doing that. The majority of songs I write like that. If not, usually directly from jamming with German. Sometimes phrases without melody will occur to me, and I’ll write them down because afterwards I won’t remember them. I write them in the notes on my phone. Same with the song ideas — I record those on my phone as well using voice notes.
We try to be as spontaneous and fresh as possible, to keep the spontaneity of the moment. For that reason we try not to delay in recording, and we like to record singles and EPs, and go out playing the new songs. Nowadays there’s a bit more work in terms of production before we show them to the public. But at the same time, playing live helps us finish the songs, as it has a different color, a different energy that can inspire ideas that end up being cool.
What inspires you?
Mora: Totally. Not just to express the dreams we’ve had as songs, but also to create dream-like journeys or situations. I’m a big fan of the narratives of dreams: all the surrealism and poetry that they have while still being an everyday occurrence — we all remember our dreams at least once in a while.
German: Cinema, literature too…
Mora: Right, literature influences me a lot in terms of writing lyrics.
What kinds of literature?
Mora: Well, we have a song called 451 for Fahrenheit (451) by Ray Bradbury. We’re also fans of beatnik culture, of Kerouac…
German: Yeah, more than anything beatnik and science fiction.
Mora: I was always a big fan of Cortázar from when I was younger. I don’t read him very much now but he influenced me a lot. I also really enjoy Bolaño, who I discovered later. Also Salinger and Sabato — the latter didn’t write many but they’re incredible.
Mora: Traveling is also a big source of inspiration. When you go on tour, things happen that can give rise to new emotions and ideas, and when you come back you have to process all of that. I think that every country has given us a song. Some of them more obvious than others, like Monterrey — the entire trip influenced that song but we finished it there.
You guys clearly love traveling — your music draws heavily from you travels, some times have you ever thought about living elsewhere?
Mora: Every time we go on tour we think to ourselves that we don’t want to always live in the same place. We’ve loved every place we’ve visited, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine yourself living elsewhere.
German: There are a lot of things that tie us (to Argentina), but we go to cities like New York and Los Angeles and we love it there. At the same time, it’d be very hard to start your life somewhere else, in terms of paperwork, money and so on. And everything is so different. Maybe that’s why we feel more comfortable in Montevideo, because of language, the people and the proximity. Also it has really nice beaches. It’s a strategic spot.
Mora: Yeah, we love Uruguay and Montevideo. Despite being a city, it’s super chill and pretty.
Who influences you as musicians?
Mora: When I first started playing, my biggest influences were Sonic Youth, especially Lee Ranaldo due to his search for his own sound. They use a lot of weird tunings, open strings — a lot of things that influenced me to make music but not copy them. In fact, I still don’t know a single Sonic Youth song on guitar — it’s funny because I love them and everyone says they notice the influence but I never tried to imitate them or anything like that, it just came naturally.
I’m also a big fan of Pixies — Joey Santiago is one of my favorite guitarists. I’m also greatly influenced by punk rock: when I was younger I was a big fan of Flema and I’m still a big fan of The Clash until today. Joe Strummer influenced me as a guitarist, the way he learned as he went. His stage name came from that, that he strummed everything — I identify a lot with that. Now I do a ton of riffs and I love to arpeggiate but I’m not into solos. A newer influence is Deerhunter — the guitarist Lockett Pundt is the best of the best — a guitarist that has really influenced me. He uses a lot of Jaguar guitars like me. I love Snail Mail, I feel we have something in common. We have a similar style — and she also uses Jaguars. I’d love to play with her. John Dywer of the Oh Sees is also a big influence.
German: Principally, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Stephen Drozd de The Flaming Lips, Charlie Watts of the Stones, and Russell Simins of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Brian Chase of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andrew Ramsey of Stereolab, and Janet Weiss of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and Sleater-Kinney. I think those are the big ones. Also, Diego Fosser of Suarez. It was the first band from here that really made an impact on me.
Mora: As a vocalist, I love Patti Smith, Cat Power, Kim Deal, Kim Gordon. I’m a big fan of Billie Holiday, Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen of Stereolab, Trish Keenan of Broadcast. I really like Sleater-Kinney — as a young girl I put on their videos and played air guitar. Kathleen Hanna as well — I’m not a big Bikini Kill fan but I love Le Tigre. Juana Molina, as a musician in general, as well as Rosario Blefari, who I love because we have similar vocal ranges and I can sing her songs, which is really enjoyable for me. Suarez is a big influence as well. Before we both liked Jaime Sin Tierra, Doris, Fun People and Boom Boom Kid.
German: As a band, there are two more bands that we’re influenced by that I forgot to mention: Holy Wave and Birds. They’re good friends of ours. We were fans of Birds before we met them, and then we really hit it off when we went to New York. We even recorded in their studio.
How do you see your growth as a band?
German: Our sound is always evolving — every album sounds different. There’s always an intent to evolve and better translate the band’s live sound to an album format. With this EP I think we’ve achieved that more than ever before.
Mora: Our first album, the LP, is a bit more traditional, a bit more pop. Later we began pushing more towards the noise side of things, with the use of pedals. Now we’re trying to combine the two — the pop with the noise.
What was the last album you had on repeat?
German: I listen to a lot of Holy Wave and Birds, the bands I mentioned earlier. In fact, I even test the sound of venues with their albums when I’m working. I’ve also been listening to a lot of John Maus lately. Also, The Flaming Lips are always present — I listen to them on and off.
Mora: Broadcast’s Tender Buttons and Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest. Lately I’ve been doing more research — before I only liked two or three bands and I would only listen to those bands. Since we started playing with Riel, I started discovering newer cool bands that are currently playing, like Thee Oh Sees, Snail Mail, Beach Fossils, and HOMESHAKE. In fact, some of them were playing for years and I was totally missing out. That’s what happened to me with Thee Oh Sees — when I discovered them I felt really bad for missing out on them all those years.
What was the best show you’ve seen together live, or at least one of your top 3?
German: I’m gonna mention two shows that are on the same level: Sonic Youth in Montevideo in 2011 and Thee Oh Sees at the Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles in 2017.
Who are some of your favorite local bands playing currently?
What’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed in the local scene in the last 5 years?
Mora: There were a lot of us that had been thinking and feeling a certain way for some time but, thanks to a better organization generated by the recent sexual harassment reports, some of the musicians accused no longer had a place in the scene. The public shaming was very important because what was happening was very serious and some people were trying to cover it up. It’s not something trivial, it’s not just a machista joke, what was happening was really serious and when it blew up, a lot of us couldn’t believe it. From then on, we put all of our strength into trying to end this whole thing. Sometimes it sounds extreme, but if we don’t pay attention to the details, we’re always gonna live in a machista world.
What are your favorite venues to play and why?
German: Because of sentimental reasons, and because it gave us a place to grow as a band, Espacio Cultural Mi Casa. And also we work there.
Mora: We always have a good time at Espacio Cultural Mi Casa, there’s a really good vibe there. It’s almost always packed, or at least it was the last couple of times we played. That’s why we try to not play there so often, because of its limited capacity. But it’s got a very cool vibe, full of adrenaline and chaos, but the good kind. A heated, hardcore energy.
There are some places that are more enjoyable than others because of the sound, like La Confitería, Club Cultural Matienzo, and La Tangente. At Niceto lado A you can also hear yourself really well, but we like lower stages, where you can be close to the audience. We think adds a lot to a venue beyond the sound. That’s why we mentioned Espacio Cultural Mi Casa, because of its human warmth. Additionally, these are all places where you can play loud, which is super important for us — that volume isn’t an issue.
You two live together, work together, play together — do you ever have disagreements over creative direction? What about?
German: Sometimes we’ll disagree about which songs to include in the setlist. I’ll want to do a song from our older albums, or the other way around. That’s the only disagreement I can think of — choosing which songs go on the setlist.
What are you trying to achieve with your music?
Mora: To me, it’s a means of expression— we can’t help it. We love playing and we can’t not do it. We can’t not play guitar or drums.
German: It’s a way of translating what’s on our minds into something expressive.
Mora: Because we have a band and we go out and play, what I’m hoping is to reach people, to accompany them with music. That people can listen to our songs and feel understood or happy — I hope people are moved by our songs.
German: To leave, I don’t know if I would call it a message, but something nice to the world. It’s a way of transcending and leaving behind something interesting. If someone listens to your song fifty years from now and they’re still moved by it, that’s pretty powerful.
Riel is playing Centro Cultural Kirchner tomorrow night (Saturday, June 23rd) at 8pm. There will be a small amount of tickets available 2 hours before the show at the venue.