Plastilina Mosh: Alejandro Rosso and Jonas.
One night this summer, as the city of New York endured the kind of tropical heat more familiar to folks south of the Rio Bravo, the Monterrey-based alterna-rock band Plastilina Mosh—a self-styled mix of “’60s sleazy listening, ’70s disco/funk, ’80s punk/new wave and ’90s hip hop”—took the stage at the Prospect Park bandshell as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series. They played a set of rock-infused party songs that sampled everything from the beep-beep of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girl” to the metal chords of AC/DC. This interview with band members Alejandro Rosso and Jonas (who both seem to be aged anywhere between 15 and 30) was conducted at a makeshift beer and sangria stand immediately after their performance. As Rosso and Jonas signed autographs and caught up with other regios , as the folks of Monterrey call one another, I asked them about their music and what we should know about what’s happening in Mexico now. I followed up with them later by phone, a few days after September 16, Mexico’s Day of Independence, which, because of the explosion of Mexican immigrants arriving in the city, also finds full-throated expression in Manhattan with a grito to commemorate Father Hidalgo’s cry for Mexican independence from Spanish rule.
Erasmo Guerra At the New York show you held up a sign that read “P. Mosh loves New York because New York loves P. Mosh.”
Alejandro Rosso People could think that’s cocky, but we think it’s funny. We don’t take ourselves seriously.
EG What about your audience? Do they take you seriously?
AR We haven’t done a lot of shows here, but every time we come it’s like a really warm—¿como se dice recivemento?—welcoming? The only problem I find is that when you play in a park they usually keep the sound level low. One time in California we did a show and we were actually whispering. It’s better when you have more punch to it. But people here have been great; it’s like a party vibe. You know, it’s Friday night, and everyone’s trying to have a good time, and hopefully we showed a good time. I love New York because the people are really open to hearing new stuff.
EG How does your music play in Mexico?
AR See, that’s a weird thing with us. We play some shows where the age varies a lot. Sometimes we play for old guys like ourselves, having a nice glass of wine. And then we play to little people like this as he signs an autograph for a 10-year-old. So we never know what to expect. When we go to Cleveland or New York there are more young kids, but if you go to New Orleans, it’s like 30 and up.
EG When you play in Monterrey, is the crowd older?
AR No, in Monterrey it’s kids, from 18 to 25. Mexico City’s a little older. Guadalajara, too.
EG How young were you when you started going to see live music?
AR A real live show? The first time I was barely eight. Jonas and I were at this school, a Pan-American school, and, in the middle of class, when it was really boring, probably around noon, they took us outside, all the kids from different floors, to the center of the patio, and there was this rock band formed by some teachers. It was called Crazy Lacy. That had a really huge impact on me. That’s also true for Jonas. That was also his first show.
EG You met at that concert?
AR No, we actually found out later that we were both there. I’m older, like three years older, so he was in a different grade.
Jonas That was the first time I saw an electric guitar.
EG And? What did you think?
J To be honest, I didn’t give a shit about it. (laughter)
EG They were just frustrated musicians?
J I think so. I mean, one of the guys playing was my teacher. I still respect the guy.
EG What did you give a shit about?
J Moon Patrol. Galaga.
EG Video games.
J You remember that game that was about an ostrich—Joust? ’Sta’a ’uenisimo.
EG Those were coin-operated games. Where’d you get the quarters? Or did they work with pesos?
J The games were made for US quarters, so you had to buy tokens. Near the grade school, there was a place called Burger Boy, and in front of that was the video arcade where we played.
EG When did you start playing musical instruments?
AR When I was like three or four years old, my dad bought a piano. He was a plastic surgeon and another doctor owed him money, and he paid him with a piano. It was there, just sitting around. I turned on the stereo and played along with the disco tunes I heard on the radio—
EG Donna Summer?
AR Something like that.
EG Roller disco.
AR Yeah, yeah, yeah—roller disco. It caught my parents’ attention, and they put me in piano classes. I went to the conservatory and studied concert piano. Then I studied composition and saxophone at the university. Then I went to the US, to Ohio, to take an audio engineering course.
AR Yeah. In the middle of nowhere, a crappy town. Which was actually really good because the only thing there is the school. You can’t party.
Live at Amnesia Disco, Houston, Texas, October 2005.
EG As far as what you’re doing now with music—composing, writing songs—how is the work divided?
AR Well, there’s no real protocol. If I know Jonas is onto something and has a good idea of what he wants to do, I just follow him, go with the flow. And he does the same with me. Sometimes we just start thinking about something funny and we say, “Hey, we should call a song like that and see what happens,” and, “Yeah, maybe the chorus could be this.” We work through the song together, but most of the time I have some ideas and I actually know what Jonas would probably put into it, so I leave space for him to work around it. Then I go to the writing charts or to the studio and let them know what I want to hear. Jonas is more of an on-the-instrument composer, so he does play a lot.
EG How do you decide what you’re going to do on-stage?
AR We don’t have a set list.
EG Who decides what to play next?
AR Most of the time, I do. But if someone in the band has an idea—“Hey, let’s play this one next”—I go with it, because if they’re excited about it, maybe it’s because they are having more of an interaction, feeling the vibe or the people. So we don’t even know what the first song is going to be. I think it’s cool when it’s a big improvisation; then you can actually have those happy little accidents with all the fun stuff. We never rehearse. We don’t rehearse or do sound checks. It’s not the way we are. We get bored.
EG You mentioned earlier that you guys don’t take yourselves seriously—why don’t you?
AR There is a difference between taking yourself seriously and taking the music seriously. If you take yourself seriously you believe the crap they say about you. It’s not good. It’s not healthy to be an influence on yourself. So we laugh about the stuff we obviously do wrong. That gives us the ability to relax and think about different musical styles and ideas that would be interesting for us to experiment with. That is also really interwoven with humor. It’s what makes us different, our humor. I think it shows up in the music.
EG How many incarnations did the band go through before it became Plastilina Mosh?
AR For my part, I probably went through eight bands. Falsos Prophetas was probably the first. I was 14 years old or something like that. I also played in a band called Acarnienses. I don’t have a clue what it means. It’s probably a Greek thing. It’s crappy. I’m ashamed, but what can I say. Then I had this thing for a while by myself where I would play instrumental and electronic stuff. And then another band—I can’t remember that name—but I actually played a lot with that band. Jonas, he only played in one band before Plastilina: Koervoz de Malta.
EG How would you translate that?
AR It’s like this saying about the crowds in Malta, but misspelled on purpose. It was a crappy name, too. They were a power trio: Jonas playing guitar and singing, a bass player, and a drummer. The drummer was Omar, who plays with Kinky right now.
EG Tell me about the happy accidents that happen in your music.
AR If you are flexible, I think you benefit more. We understood that with our project from the beginning. We only had three songs. People were calling us to do shows in different cities, and we were like, “Wow, man, when we played in different bands, it took us years to get noticed and get invited to play.” We only had three songs, what the fuck are we going to do, but they’re like, “You just come and play. If you have three songs, you play those three and we’ll pay you.” It was a real lesson that if you enjoy what you’re doing, other people will probably like it, too. After a while this guy from EMI sent us a really interesting contract.
EG What do you mean by interesting?
AR We knew how the contracts were done; we had friends who were in bands. Everyone sends you the same crap. A friend of ours, who was actually our first manager, called us and was like, “Hey man, I want to help you out because this contract they are sending you is really interesting. Let’s do it. You guys can sign and do your albums.” So we talked about it, decided it was a really good deal, and we went through and did it. Actually, when we recorded the first album, most of the songs—about 80 percent of them—we did in the studio.
EG You created them on the spot?
AR It was like, “Okay, You have three days to make these songs and record them—and mix them.” We didn’t know how it was going to turn out. We really enjoyed that process. Even to this day, we enjoy doing it that way, not giving a shit and just going there. “Hey, do you sing?” “No.” “Okay, sing a track.” In every one of our albums, we have someone that has his or her debut as a singer. It’s interesting to try that type of experiment.
EG Critics compare you to Beck, the Beastie Boys, and other groups. What do you think about what they say and how do you handle the critics?
AR Well, it’s fun to hear different opinions, but they’re just opinions and we’re glad that they compare us to those guys because, in a way, they’re an influence. I mean, they do cool stuff, but I don’t actually think that we base our philosophy of music and life on any specific person. We just go around absorbing. Even the stuff you don’t like influences you. I don’t take it personally if they say, “Oh, you sound like shit.” I’m like, “Good.” Or if they say, “You sound great,” or whatever, it’s the same.
EG Jonas, how is Plastilina Mosh different from bands like Ozomatli?
J We’re really different. I don’t think that we can compare our music with Ozomatli. Those guys are going back to their roots; we are trying to learn from other countries, or other continents, or cultures. I really respect the work of those guys, but I don’t think we’re doing the same thing. All styles are valuable. There’s room for everybody.
EG Alejandro, you mentioned that both you and Jonas are very flexible, and you absorb everything around you musically. What’s happening in Mexico right now that you are listening to that you think the rest of us should be listening to?
AR I love this band called Los Fancy Free. They are from Mexico City; the lead singer is an Amish guy.
EG Amish? No te creo!
AR Yeah. He went to Mexico City and left his German parents in a ranch in Chihuahua—or I don’t know where they live—but he went down to Mexico. His first album is kind of electronic. I don’t dig it as much. But his second has more of a rock-eclectic feeling, with guitars and bass and drums—it’s really cool. His albums are released by Bungalow Records in Germany. There’s also a lot of new stuff coming out of Monterrey from a label called Happy-Fi. You can go to happyfi.com and read about the artists: Mario, Goma, Sport. Actually, I have a side project with them now. I would say that Nortec, from Tijuana, is really cool, another electronic drum and bass thing with a lot of local, ethnic, folkloric samples. Those are the bands that interest me right now.
EG Do they play only in Mexico, or are they crossing over into the United States as well?
AR For now they are only playing in Mexico. They have a cult following and they play this thing called HappyFest where all the Happy-Fi artists play. In a house. A thousand people show up. They have done it in Mexico City a couple of times, and it’s big in Guadalajara.
EG ¿Y de los antepasados? Who did you listen to?
AR I would say I was a really big fan of the first—only the first album—from Kaifanes. I think it’s a great album. The first album from Maldita Vencindad; the name actually was Maldita Vencindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio. They were big. Then also Botellita de Jerez. Everything that was the basic rock en español, but early on. El TRI, the first album from El TRI, they were called Three Souls in My Mind—amazing. Now they suck. The songs are kind of crappy and watered down. At the beginning, in the early ’70s, it was really cool. But I’m not really into rock as much as Jonas.
EG What are you into?
AR Piano from Bach to Bill Evans. I love Thelonious Monk. I love Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Chopin, Ravel.
EG Jonas, who are you listening to?
J Del la Nova from Guadalajara. The girl sings, and she has a really sweet voice, and the other two guys sample and do the programming.
EG I thought only mariachi came out of Guadalajara.
J No, there’s like a new wave of people making a lot of interesting music. Also from Guadalajara is Suzie Four, which has a cabaret sound mixed with house beats. There’s another band from Monterrey called Mendoza. For a long time in Monterrey there wasn’t a real rock band, there was just electronica, hip-hop, or some kind of fusion. We forgot real rock. Mendoza—these guys fucking rock, with just a guitar, bass, drums and a guy singing.
EG Y de antepasados who would you listen to?
J There was a band in the ’80s in Guadalajara called Impersonnel. They were punks. They got sick from AIDS, and they died. A real shame.
EG When did you first hear their music?
J It was in the early ’90s. A friend of mine from Guadalajara brought me the record. They weren’t mainstream. They were an underground band with a big fan base. They had no airplay, but people knew them from voice-to-voice—people told you, “Y’know you have to hear this band!”—the word of mouth. Also from that time I used to hear a lot of Enemigos del Silencio, Maldita Vencindad y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio—those guys were amazing. They still play. I saw them four months ago here in Monterrey and they still rock strong onstage. They look a little bit old, but they still rock. A friend of mine always told me, “Hey, these guys are gonna play and we should go and see them, because maybe it will be their last tour.” I asked him why, and he told me, “I dunno, maybe one of them will die soon. So we should go and see them now. Antes que uno se muera.”
Live at Amnesia Disco, Houston, Texas, October 2005.
EG You guys come from the same northern state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, where my family comes from, which we visited on summer trips in childhood, so we had a very distorted romanticized view of Mexico. How was growing up in Monterrey?
AR When you get a chance to see different countries and different cities, even different cities in Mexico, you get to know what’s special about your upbringing. You have the ability to be the person you want to be, choosing from different things instead of being concentrated, formed by the one culture where you live. In Mexico City, they take their Mexicanity more seriously. That’s cool, but I’m not like that. But I’m also not—I don’t think—influenced too much by the US. Our upbringing is peculiar in a good way, and I think that we now appreciate it.
EG What do you like most about being Mexican?
AR Mexican wrestling. I think it’s better than US wrestling.
EG Favorite wrestlers?
AR Pimpinela Escarlata. In the next album, he’s going to be on the sleeve.
J It’s so fucking funny to see this guy, ‘cause he’s a tall guy with a lot of muscles but he’s actually gay.
EG Is he really? Or is it just to scandalize the audience?
J No, he’s really gay. It’s amazing ‘cause he’s fighting and so tough and stuff, but at the same time he is kissing the other guy. He’s from Monterrey and we have seen him in restaurants, and he is actually gay.
EG How do the crowds take it? Is he one of the good guys or considered one of the bad guys?
J He’s one of the bad guys, but everyone loves him.
AR What I don’t like about Mexico is the bureaucracy, and the roads are really crappy.
EG ¿Y con “El Cambio”? Wasn’t the new government party going to change things?
AR ¿Qual cambio? No mas cambio los rateros. Es todo lo que hubo.
EG How did you guys spend el dies-y-seis?
J The Day of Independence? We played a club here in Monterrey. It’s the new hip place. It’s called Uma.The name is something Arabic. We played that night and made a deal with the owner of the place. We didn’t earn money, but he promised to give us a free bar tab from now until—
EG Until the day you die.
J Whatever dies first, the place or us.
EG But you must have been hechando gritos: “¡Viva Mexico!” They have a grito over here in Spanish Harlem and they also hold the Mexican Day Parade each year over on Madison Avenue.
AR Everyone who lives outside Mexico takes it even more seriously.
EG It’s the nostalgia. You get a piece of that way of life you left behind.
AR Yeah. A lot of people I have spoken to about it feel that way. When we play in the US, and someone hears a couple of songs they knew when they lived in Mexico—“I remember that song!”—they get all excited. It’s cool.
EG So tell me about the first time you crossed the border and what that was like.
AR Monterrey is really close to the border so it was not a big deal to go to Texas a lot. Since I was one or two years old, it was a common thing, going across. I do recall, as a little kid, going to the music stores in San Antonio, Laredo, McAllen—
EG I must have seen you at La Plaza Mall.
AR I went to Spencer’s, the music stores, whatever they were called. I wasted all my money in the video game machines—las maquinitas.
EG Along the border there’s not much difference to the south and to the north. It’s a region unto itself.
EG Jonas, when did you first cross the border, and how was that experience?
J I was a kid, like six years old. But the first time I came over on my own I was playing with Plastilina Mosh. I was 20 years old, and it was in LA. It was the first major city I had been to in the States. The other cities that I knew from the US were the ones on the border. After a while it lost its charm a little bit. But I really like New York and Miami.
EG What happened on that first trip?
J At the time we were doing the first record, the label sent us there to do the production. It was funny because we stayed in West Hollywood, and we didn’t know it was a gay area. All the clubs were gay clubs. We were so fucking lost at the time. It was fun anyway. I had a really good first impression of the city. Now, it seems like a really restricted place: you can’t smoke, you can’t drink after one o’clock, you can’t even cross the street in the middle of the block. I always tell Rosso that there’s no freedom in the land of freedom. The US is a really weird place.