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"They are going to be looking for home-grown
cultural images that reflect where they are coming from."

An Interview with Chris Gonzalez Clarke

Part 2 - Son del Barrio

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Santa Clara, California

Chris Gonzalez Clarke.
Chris Gonzalez Clarke. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Part 2

Chris Gonzalez Clarke is a member of the musical group Los Otros. He co-produced their debut album Radio Chon with Cesar Rosas, plays guitar, sings and writes some of their songs. With Gina Hernandez he co-founded the Son del Barrio recording label. This interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke on January 10, 2000.

Cesar Rosas

In Motion Magazine: You want to talk about the production of Radio Chon?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: We recorded the record at Cesar Rosas's studio in L.A. One of our first hopes was to get a producer who we all wanted to work with. We thought we had some good material but we also knew the role of somebody outside of the band is really important and helps to shape and make or break the record.

We thought "let's aim high". We know Cesar. We know the people in Los Lobos. We had the feeling that they would be supportive of this project. We asked him and he was willing to do it. He invited us to come down and we saw his studio. It was just a matter of planning it out and finding out what dates would work with him.

We recorded it quickly. We spent two long weekends down there. We did overdubs and other vocal parts up here in the Bay Area, then the studio. We spent seven to ten days adding to the recording then we went down and mixed it at his house. That was the whole process.

In Motion Magazine: Can you feel his history in the way he produced it?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: Absolutely.

In Motion Magazine: How would you describe that? How did he talk to you? Was he a hands-off guy or hands-on guy?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: He's basically hands-off. Everything he tells you is a suggestion. He'll tell you, "Well, I don't want to tell you what to do, but don't screw this song up". He would tell you in the most polite way if you are overdoing something. He's generally the kind of guy who doesn't like to do things twice. If it's good the first take, he wants to leave it. If he likes the way you played a part, sang something the first time, versus going for perfection and doing something over and over, he'd have that first take and the energy that is there. Even if it's a little bit rough.

He helped us get to the heart of the songs in a lot of cases. We had songs which just had way too many ideas in them. He'd say "Just cut through the clutter. Here's the song write here. All this other stuff you can do without." That was really good.

For example, So far from God was a completely different song when we went in to record it. It had a different time signature, the chords were different. He changed it entirely. But it was neat because he sold us on the concept. He said "Here's what I hear of this song. It's going to sound like this. This is what I think you can do with it. It's cool, the melody is really nice, we won't mess with that, but what if we put into it a country kind of feel. " We were trying to force into it sort of a jarocho form and mix the drums with a 6/8 rhythmic pattern. He said I think you should save that, just use that in the chorus. Let's not overdo it. It sounds a little too forced. This song sounds to me like a folksy song. And it worked. It turned out to be one of the better songs on the recording. We were all willing to go there because we knew what they had done and we were all familiar with their work and the effort they put in to working out these ideas. How to incorporate this traditional music into what they were writing.

He played on a few pieces which was cool too. He played some rhythm guitar on a couple of songs. It was great to see someone completely comfortable, an incredible player, an incredible musician. That was satisfying.

In Motion Magazine: What are the musical histories of the other band members?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: Russell Rodriguez and BJ Lucero have played mariachi music for ever. Russell grew up playing folkloric music, I think primarily jarocho, and huapangos. Later he became a mariachi and did that professionally for ten to fifteen years. I first met him when he played in the group that accompanied Stanford's Ballet Folklorico in their spring show. Charlie, Chris and I were doing a few norteño songs in the same show. More recenly Russell went back to school.

BJ's dad played mariachi and BJ has taught mariachi at the local junior college. He's from New Mexico. He grew up in that tradition and has been performing in mariachi ensembles since he was a kid. He founded Stanford's mariachi with Russell's help.

Mario Barrera Prospero is from Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. He also comes from a musical family. He studied in Morelia at the university and got his degree in music and dance. His dad is a musician and played in one of the bandas in Morelia. His dad played on the same bandstand as Perez Prado. When you go down there and see his house he has the posters of all the shows his banda did. They won a national competition in Mexico City in the '50s. He played in that band for something like 35 years. Mario comes from that family and he brings to Los Otros a background in Cuban and Mexican music and a lot of formal study.

Jon Costalupes is our bass player. He's been playing bass for a long time. He teaches bass at a local music institute. He's a Bay Area guy. He comes from outside this tradition but he is fascinated by it. He comes from a funk, R&B, jazz tradition. Since he's been in the band he's spent a lot of time studying the music that we're into but we always encourage him to bring his own thing to the table, musically.

Recently we've added Roberto Rangel on congas, timbales and other percussion. He comes from a tradition too, his dad Eric has been the timbalero for Conjunto Cespedes and a bandleader for many years.

In Motion Magazine: How would you describe the music of Los Otros?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: We call it Chicano Groove.

Chicano Groove

In Motion Magazine: Where does Cesar Rosas fit into the Chicano Groove?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: The Lobos are for me the starting point. Cesar Rosas is a vital member of that band. The band itself inspired a lot of us to pursue our own musical voice. In coining the phrase, Chicano Groove, I think we're talking more about a musical scene versus a particular sound. It is the scene of southwest-based, U.S. Latino, mainly Chicano, musicians developing original music. Stylistically it is all over the place, but there is something there that holds them all together. And we always play together, listen to each other, support each other one way or another. And the Lobos and Cesar have been doing this for almost 30 years now.

There have been other folks who have done similar things like Santana, but for us the Lobos have been the pioneers, them and their spin-offs, the Latin Playboys, and Cesar's work. They have been able to seamlessly combine these distinct influences and in doing so create a unique body of work that could only have come from Chicanos.

Their material, their albums have been inspirational for us in terms of wanting to push ourselves to develop similarly.

In Motion Magazine: What's always blown me away about their work is that the music is not only rich in the traditional ways, but it also incorporates sampling and tape work. It's as new as anybody, or newer.

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: Yes. They are using whatever is around.

They may write a song which uses a traditional Cuban form, like a rumba but also they are using samplers and drum machines and the strange recording equipment that they have at their disposal. When they do this music they are not trying to be like anybody other than themselves. And that's one of the things that comes across. It's not forced. It sounds very organic. It sounds very unique. It sounds like their own voice.

In Motion Magazine: What are other bands within the Chicano Groove?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: Contemporary groups. Ozomotli is probably the other band that is well known on a major label. Most of the bands are on independent labels like ourselves. Ozomotli comes at it from a much more urban angle combining hip hop, a DJ and MC, a horn section. They have a very young audience. They definitely listen to Lobos as well. They've played on their album as well.

Quetzal, which is also on our label. They are incredible with a developed voice. They've been working at this sound combining various traditions in a way which is elegant and sounds unique.

There's probably a couple dozen bands in L.A. who are Chicano groups writing original music. Blues Experiment. Aztlan Underground. which is much more in the Rage Against the Machine vibe. Lysa Flores. Grito Serpentino. Quinto Sol. East LA Sabor Factory Also David Garza from Austin, a British pop Chicano guy. He fits in there somehow.

Home Grown Cultural Images

In Motion Magazine: Where do you think Chicano Groove is going?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke.
Chris Gonzalez Clarke.
Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Chris Gonzalez Clarke: I don't think these bands think of themselves as related to the "Latin Explosion" but as a result of the Latin Explosion many of them are going to get looked at sooner than if it hadn't happened. I think it benefited Ozomotli.

Chicanos are the overwhelming majority of the U.S. Latino population. You have to think that there's going to be a successful group from the West Coast which becomes a successful cross-over into the mainstream. At least I do. I think it's just a matter of time.

It has to do with the shift in demographics that everybody has been talking about. Especially in California. The interesting thing about it is a lot of people have thought of the Latino population as being mainly an immigrant population, which over-18 it is, or at least about 50-50. But the group of people under 18 who are going to be the folks buying many of the records in the next 10 to 20 years are almost 90 percent U.S.-born. I think less and less will they be listening to music from south of the border. They are going to be looking for home-grown cultural images that reflect where they are coming from. That's going to happen musically, and eventually in TV and movies as well.

But if the Latin explosion is a big deal now because three of four artists are making it big I think it's the tip of the iceberg of what kind of shifts we may see culturally in the next twenty years.

Son del Barrio

In Motion Magazine: Tell me about the recording label Son del Barrio.

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: Son del Barrio exists to develop this musical voice of Chicanos which we think will speak to a new generation of folks.

We've done the Otros project. We are going to put out another CD by Quetzal. We are supporting and selling works by bands like Grito Serpentino, the Blues Experiment, Lysa Flores and Aztlan Underground. We are interested in producing people who are writing new material and trying to develop it. Having people develop their voice.

We are planning a series of shows for next fall, "Pochopalooza." We hope to get some of the bigger acts out there and bring out some of the up and coming groups.


In Motion Magazine: Why do you explore different types of guitars?

Chris Gonzalez Clarke: Some of it is a function of learning all the different folkloric forms. A lot of them have developed as the instruments that are particular to a region because it's humid and you have to have a certain guitar to stay in tune.

We've been really interested, for instance, in Cuban music and in music from Veracruz. There are very specific instruments that you use as part of getting those sounds. You have to, there's no way around it. While we use them for a particular music we also try to incorporate them into the music that we are writing. There, we aren't trying to write songs that fit a certain form. We aren't trying to copy the jarocho form but are trying to use some of the elements that are in that form. Such as playing a rhythmic pattern and putting it into a different context.

So, while we are incorporating these kind of elements into the music, it makes sense to carry that to the instruments as well. To bring in the acoustic instruments and drums.

It is easier to do that in the studio than it is live. Live it can be kind of hard to carry off. There are a lot of technical issues that we have to deal with live. It's part of working out these different forms of music.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 9, 2000