Kansas City might strike you as an unusual hometown for an Afro-Cuban indie rock band that sings largely en español. And you wouldn’t be the only one. Even the producer of Making Movies’ second full-length couldn’t believe it, either. “To be honest, a pointy-headed intellectual like me was kind of shocked you could find something like this in Kansas City, of all places,” says Steve Berlin, said producer, who also happens to be the keyboardist and saxophonist for a little band called Los Lobos. “I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
Well, Berlin wasn’t dreaming: there is a band in the Midwestern United States that makes the kind of music you might expect to hear in the American Southwest, or perhaps Florida. And it does quite a good job of making that music, too. Making Movies, who takes its name from a Dire Straits album, is sort of an indie rock-world equivalent of a Santana or a Los Lobos, in that the members keep their heritage front and center in their music—but not too front and center to become a distraction. There’s actually quite a bit going on with their new record, A La Deriva (or Spanish for “adrift”, and, yes, there’s a movie out there with that as a title, too): there’s some straight-ahead indie rock, there’s some singing in English, and there’s some hand-drum percussion that will get you moving your rump in your living room, should you be inclined to do so. What makes this band even more interesting is the fact that the band members don’t all hail from Mexican heritage, which you might expect upon first blush: Enrique Javier Chi, lead singer and guitarist, and his brother Diego, who plays bass, are actually Panamanian. (Percussionist Juan-Carlos Chaurand is the lone Mexican, and Brendan Culp rounds out the band on drums.) So there’s a lot that’s quite unexpected about Making Movies, let alone where they call home.
What makes A La Deriva particularly intriguing is how the band subtly shifts song structures, hiding some of the best material in the latter half of their songs, which might be entirely different in tone and structure from the first half. “Cigeo Sin Querer”, for instance, starts out with a basic guitar riff and some light percussion before erupting into sonic euphoria with a guitar solo that simply shreds and peels the paint off the walls in the best Santana-like tradition. It’s the longest track on the album at 5:42, and my personal candidate for the best. Album closer “Chase Your Tail” begins as a straight-up indie rock ballad that you’d hear on any album by any hand-wringing hipster with a beard and glasses (Bon Iver, maybe) but morphs into a Spanish rave-up that wouldn’t be out of place on a Los Lobos LP. “Te Estaba Buscando” starts out with cymbals being raked before a Latin percussion rhythm kicks in. Quite the stuff to sash-shay to, but then the song takes a mean turn into something dark and foreboding and rockist. This is a band with quite a few tricks up its collective sleeve—and no problem hiding some real aces at the end of its tunes.
While half the songs are in Spanish, vocalist Enrique Javier Chi has a smooth and seductive voice that will keep you captivated, even though, as in my case, you might not understand what he’s singing due to the language barrier. In fact, the English lyrics aren’t something to write home about as they rely on clichés about trophy wives, love, and the ilk. They’re not bad, either, but nothing quotable really leaps out at me—you’d almost prefer he stuck to the Spanish, though doing so would probably undercut the band’s aspirations to be taken seriously on a national scale. Still, Chi is most distinctive when he’s singing in what is, to many, a foreign language, and he feels stronger and more comfortable when he’s working in what I would assume is his mother tongue.
The 11 tracks that make up A La Deriva are generally compelling, though there are things about some of them that suggest that the band is still working on its material. In fact, the record was recorded in a ten-day stretch at Berlin’s studio in Portland, Oregon, and the producer did make suggestions to the band to change up some of the songs so they wouldn’t all sound the same. While Berlin’s fingerprints are naturally all over this statement, you can tell that the band might have moved too far in a particular direction to satisfy the guy behind the mixing desk. “Lo Que Quiero”, in particular, takes a 90-degree turn during its chorus, as though the song suddenly became different from the verse that preceded it. It’s an awkward move. And there are some elements that, while celebratory and obviously reflective of the band’s background, are a little goofy and—dare I say?—silly to English ears, which is an odd criticism to make considering the fact that I like this band best usually when they’re operating in Spanish mode. Opening cut “Cuna De Vida” features some “coo coo coo” background chants that reminded this listener a bit of the theme to the Mackenzie Brothers’ “Great White North” sketch on SCTV. Not exactly the kind of reference you might be expecting, though, I should say, after a few listens you get used to it and might find yourself humming the bit while walking down the halls of your workplace.
All things considered, A La Deriva is as refreshing as a tropical breeze. Unless you’re particularly entrenched in the Latino music scene, chances are that you’re not going to hear music like this often. You have to award points to the group for effort and for trying to make a certain brand of music palpable to American audiences by incorporating some English material into the mix. Whether or not America and beyond will embrace this with open arms in what can be a sometimes xenophobic society is another issue altogether, but Making Movies are going about their business, doing things their way, which suits this critic just quite fine. There’s a lot to be taken in with Making Movies’ panoramic widescreen approach, particularly on cuts such as “Deriva”, and it does sound like these guys have fun together and enjoy making music—that much becomes quite apparent from listening to this record. So do yourself a favor and check these guys out (particularly live, as I’d imagine they’d blow the roof off the joint). A La Deriva is a great step forward for the group, and I can only wish them the best in capturing audiences’ attention—particularly as they’re coming from a bit of a musical backwater in terms of the songs being sung and preformed.
Kansas City might not be the first place you think of when you think of Latin music being made in America, but Making Movies are doing everything they can to make sure that it’s not the last place you think of. And they largely succeed at just exactly that.