hello seahorse feature that never was

January 15, 2011

Can’t let a good story go to waste! Wrote this, but it was never published as intended, so here it is in an unabridged form.

It could be said that Mexico City-based Hello Seahorse! is what happens when first-world indie rock meets electronic-tinged experimental rock en español, but the band’s singer, Los Angeles-born Denise Gutierrez, wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.

“We are part of a new generation of bands in Mexico that are playing stuff that isn’t pop or traditional norteno,” Gutierrez—who is also known as Lo Blondo—said, “but all these genres being thrown around—I just don’t feel part of it.”

Isolated from much of the mainstream music culture that inundates the lives of many Westernized teenagers, Gutierrez and her bandmates—including Fernando Burgos a.k.a. Oro de Neta, Gabriel de Leon a.k.a. Bonnz! and José Borunda a.k.a. Joe—instead drew from their upbringings in Mexico to create music that is both personal and yet effortlessly universal.

“We as a band grew up listening to Mexican romance ballad singers—like José José—and people that aren’t from our generation,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a geographical thing, though. Wherever you are standing and whatever is happening around you—it can be new or old—is going to be an influence for you.”

And the result of the band’s geography-specific hodge podge is a constantly evolving sound that defies labels with every release.

After forming as teenagers through a Myspace ad in 2005, Hello Seahorse! released …and the Jellyfish Parade, an album of cutesy, mostly English-language songs about heartache and mixtapes. 2007’s Hoy a Las Ocho—originally released as a seven-song EP through their Myspace—brought more of the band’s bubbly hooks and whimsical lyrics, but hinted at the change to come.

In addition to featuring more Spanish-language songs than its debut album, Hello Seahorse!’s Hoy a Las Ocho also ends with “Universo 2,” a song whose fuzzy guitars and electronic overload is such a departure from their previous efforts that it might as well have been another band.

Bestia, the band’s 2009 breakout album, expanded on the experimental sounds of “Universo 2” (a remixed version of which ended up on Bestia’s final track list) by abandoning the sparkly Architecture in Helsinki vibes of its early days and capitalizing on its members’ maturing craftsmanship. Gutierrez’s classically-trained voice, Burgos’ electronic whimsy and de Leon’s complex time signatures culminated in ten tracks of English-free songs that thrust them into the Pitchfork-fueled indie spotlight and garnered them international airplay, a Stateside tour, a Latin Grammy and praises for being a more-passionate Mexican version of Canadian sweethearts Metric.

But that was the old Hello Seahorse!. And for a band that embraces sonic change as much as most rock bands avoid it, that means another reinvention of their own wheel.

Bestia really opened a lot of opportunities for us,” Gutierrez said, “but it got to be too much. We weren’t prepared to have everyone was falling over us. We were so young. We had to grow.”

After promoting Bestia, Gutierrez said, the band snapped. She and her bandmates took a much-needed break, escaping to a friend’s studio in the woods an hour outside of Mexico City to jam out the emotions pent up from a year of instant success. Though they were supposed to be there for a month, the band returned to the city after only a week and quickly decided to tell their label they were ready to record a new album.

“It would have been really sad to put those songs away and forget about them,” Gutierrez said. “Other people thought we were crazy and that we were going to make something terrible, but this was a new year and we were new people with new ideas—it was just something we needed to do.”

Despite the fact that the entire album went from jam session to mastered copy in less than four months, Lejos. No Tan Lejos—which translates to “Far. Not so far away”—is the band’s most artfully composed and musically adventurous to date.

Full of dark synth melodies and lyrics dealing with themes of detachment and separation, Lejos—which was released on iTunes in the United States Tuesday—doesn’t get stuck in your head like previous albums, but that’s exactly the point.

Scaling back from the band’s previous spritely hooks, Lejos’ mellow electronics take a more somber tone and it is here that Gutierrez’ voice shines. Acting as an instrument unto itself, her vocals soar above cloudy beats, communicating emotion that the music cannot do alone. Like an opera singer, Gutierrez’s vocals express feelings beyond the all-Spanish words she is singing so that her message is clear to even those who haven’t met their foreign language requirement.

“It’s actually more fun knowing you have to prove to yourself that you have to be so expressive that someone who doesn’t speak your language is going to understand your emotions,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a double work for you, but it’s really good experience.”

Instead of trying to appeal to certain fan bases or waiting for record label approval of their ideas, Hello Seahorse! lives in the moment. Gutierrez and her bandmates find no shame in changing their style—it’s part of their growing process both as individuals and as a group—and she’s the first to admit there is much more to learn. For them, each album is like a diary entry, forever encasing their attitudes and feelings of a particular time and place. For listeners, it’s like hearing a new band each time.

“I think a lot of things have been done already,” Gutierrez said. “but we’re always looking for something different.”

 

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