For the past five years, Dos Santos have been injecting a vibrant amalgamation of cumbia, salsa, jazz, psych rock, and Mexican folk into their musical home base of Chicago. The quintet — which includes members Alex Chavez, Peter Vale, Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo, Jaime Garza, and Nathan Karagianis — have masterfully synthesized their penchant for disrupting and transforming the conventions of genre in their newest LP, Logos released this June on the Chicago-based label International Anthem Recording Co.
To be able to invite versatile, stylistic dissonance into a collaborative project and come out the other end with an impressively cohesive whole is no small task — and, in the case of Logos, the pay off is great. The exceptionally energetic 11-track release proves that the group is on an exciting trajectory as musical visionaries in a social moment so often mired by inflammatory discourse about where our borders, physically and ideologically, begin and end in this country. KEXP was lucky enough to sit down with all five members of Dos Santos to chat about the evolution of their newest album, how improvisation serves as a touchstone for their creative process, and what they’re learning from sharing their music with an ever-expanding audience.
KEXP: As you approached writing and recording Logos, how did you anticipate this album to be different from previous Dos Santos releases?
Alex Chavez (vocals/guitar): Often times you make records and you’re just documenting — like you have material that’s road-tested and you just go in and document it. But this time, because we were working with International Anthem for this record, we had this really wonderful added privilege and element of time. We really got to incubate ideas for several months... we went in there and through the process of collaborating and incubating, we came up with things that just didn’t exist prior. That improvisational process really captured a moment, captured a sentiment, captured a kind of energy. I think that process in and of itself was super different than before so in some ways, I think the record inherently ended up sounding different because of that.
Nathan Karagianis (guitar): With regards to the writing, I think it was much more organic from the start — it all originated from Daniel’s basement at the time. We had the idea that we should start on some new material and we all sat around. Alex was really good about introducing some new themes and ideas to bounce off each other. I feel like we got to work rather quickly and it seemed to come around a lot easier than before. It’s definitely in the spirit of what’s going on with the label that we’re working with as well.
To that point, can you tell us a little more about what it was like working with International Anthem, a label known for primarily representing Chicago jazz artists, for this album?
Chavez: Even though folks might not put us in the jazz camp, I think that what ties us together to all the other artists on International Anthem is that at the heart of what everyone is doing is something highly improvisational. As we understand jazz, at the center of it, is improvisation and at the center of a lot of the things that we draw inspiration from and is foundational to us is improvisational music. And so that’s definitely a shared vocabulary that we have with the label. We collaborate with a lot of the folks on the label from Ben LaMar Gay, Makaya McCraven, Nick Mazzarella — a lot of the jazz cats on the scene, and other cats in the past that are beyond International Anthem. There’s always a spirit of collaboration and wanting to really explore the territory of where music can go. I think [International Anthem] saw us as a fit and we feel very comfortable there in our own skin because yeah, we’re from Chicago, and yeah, we draw from all of these wells of influence, and yeah, we’re an expression of Latin American Chicago — but it’s always about crossing those sonic boundaries and not really caring about how that’s going to come out at the end because there’s a kind of excitement about that.
You have talked in the past about Dos Santos itself representing a melting pot of different cultures and geographies from Panama, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the United States. How did you go about building a shared sonic vocabulary for the music you make?
Peter Vale (congas): We each have our own history in Chicago playing with different bands. Alex has played with a huapango group, Nathan has played with a pop-rock group and also some jazz, Jaime is known for playing son jarocho, folkloric music, and in the Latin punk scene, Daniel grew up in Panama in the punk scene and came over, teamed up with Nathan, and I was heavy in the salsa and the folkloric Puerto Rican scene. That melting pot of styles allows us to have a bigger palate of what to choose from for the music or whatever kind of beat or expression we want to put into each song. Everything we bring to the table is respected amongst the five of us and so it’s a very democratic process when we create each song.
Chavez: We initially did have something quite purposeful which was a connection to — as a foundation — Latin American song and rhythm. How we were going to distill that ultimately was an organic process of us then trying to come at it from our different perspectives and see like, well, we have that foundation but then, what would that end up being? I think those two axes were definitely part of building that sonic vocabulary — having some sense of fidelity to what we know is traditional or foundational but having little fear about doing whatever we want to do with it. We’ve never had a conversation that’s like “you can’t do that” or “you shouldn’t do that” — if anything, it’s a question of how do we push the integrity of something to its edge. There’s something quite tensive about that and I think we really love being there and opening that up for people. And we have fun doing it.
There are some fantastic artist collaborations on Logos, including a spoken word section from poet Roger Reeves on the track “sole party” and the incredible Antibalas horn section featured on the title track “logos”. How did these collaborations come to be?
Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo (drums): It happened naturally because Alex was already in contact with Martín Perna, who is the orchestral director for Antibalas, and they’d been talking about how we’d love to have him over and play baritone sax for us on the next album — just him. He said, “Of course, let’s do it!” but surprisingly, when he came, he came with the full horn section of Antibalas — and it was great. They had a show in Chicago and the label set up a mobile studio across the street from the venue at 606 Records. They came over with the full horn section and Nick Mazzarella, a well-known jazz player here in Chicago, did the arrangements.
Chavez: They recorded in three hours. It was in between soundcheck and when they went on for their show. They just went across the street and knocked it out! And then Roger Reeves — he’s a poet and professor of English who I’ve known for a long time. For years, we’d been collaborating with him in live settings… he’d come up on stage and just spit fire. It’s pretty symbolic because I don’t think we see enough Black-Brown artist collaborations in Chicago, to be honest. When it came to the record, “sole party” was a song that we wrote collaboratively. We were vamping out this section, not really knowing what would happen, and we thought we should invite someone to do something with it — and we thought of Roger. We sent him the track, which was totally unfinished, and he wrote that piece specifically for the song and then I wrote my vocals and my lyrics based around his poetry.
"When you’re born Chicano or Puerto Rican in the United States, or Mexican American, you’re born being political."
You recorded this album during the summer of 2017. Alex, you’ve spoken in the past about how those months felt like a very intensified moment in time between the racial violence occurring around the United States and the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In these urgent political and social times, what role do you think artists and musicians play in encouraging communities and individuals to band together in support?
Jaime Garza (bass): One of the things we try to do is not to be so black and white. I think the art that we do speaks for itself and we’ve never had to scream or yell out our political views. We believe in the people that listen to us. So we’ve always focused on that, on not being so obvious and not being so “black-and-white” political — but our message and our lyrics and our music have a very political undertone. When you’re born Chicano or Puerto Rican in the United States, or Mexican American, you’re born being political. It’s something that’s so obvious that we didn’t have to push it. But we do stand for the righteousness of things. I think there are a lot of things that are super wrong right now… but I think that with our art we try to rise. To create beautiful art — meaningful, long-standing, and timeless — I think that’s something that picks up the spirits of all people going through these struggles, some more than others, but we’re all kind of in the same boat. So I think that by creating this art, that’s how we lift spirits.
Chavez: I think everything Jaime said is right on in terms of that connection between art, music, and politics. There’s something so violent and vitriolic about the language about our communities that is trying desperately to struggle to be all defining — “anchor babies”, “rapists” — all the rest of it, all that ilk. It’s a language that basically tries to define what your community is, who you are, what that all represents… and I know we do take pride in this notion that, through our art, we are making a dignified statement that counters all of that noise. Because all that language tries to do is deny you of your humanity. If you don’t have humanity — however you want to define it — you don’t have any sense of dignity, so anything you try to do as an artist has no inherent worth. And so, when you make statements artistically that are creative and made with care, and that do have something to say, it negates that language, you flip it on its head. You say, “you inherently attempt to deny me of my self-worth, but here is a meticulously-crafted, artistic statement that is intellectual, that is artistic, that is political.” That, in and of itself, is a counterargument.
You’re currently on tour for this album — what is like playing your music for new audiences in different states?
Villarreal-Carrillo: Playing in different states is always a journey and it’s always exciting to show our music to new audiences. It’s new people that have never seen us, who don’t know about us, and we just come in and do our thing. Luckily, the reception has always been good. We’ve been lucky.
Garza: One of the things about touring and showing your music to other cities and states is that people find stuff that they gravitate to. Certain parts of our show, of our music, they recognize as their own. Because the band is so diverse, and the music is also diverse, they gravitate to either to the jazz element, the improvisation, the rock, cumbia or Latin American flavor of it. We get a very interesting reaction from people because they feel it and they recognize it as something from where they’re from or how they grew up. It’s also super cool to see that in the expression of dancing. We’re so grateful that the audience has open minds, open hearts, open ears to accept our music, who we are, and what we do. We love it.
What cool things have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
Chavez: We listen to a lot of podcasts on the road. People think we’re nerds (laughs) … and which, we are.
Vale: When we’re on the road, whoever’s driving grabs ahold of the radio. I think what I look forward to the most when going on the road is that I never know what band I’m going to discover based on these guys’ taste, and it changes all the time. I listen to a lot of podcasts when I’m driving with Alex, I listen to a lot of old salsa when I’m driving with Daniel, I listen to a lot of folkloric music when I’m driving with Jaime, and I listen to a lot of weird — and I mean weird in the best way — a lot of weird stuff when I’m driving with Nathan. What’s inspiring is that I’m able to vibe with each and every style — which is a testament to the kind of music we’re playing. We bring together five very different viewpoints, coming from five different parts of the world, different cultures, and backgrounds — and we’re able to make it work.
Logos is out now via International Anthem Recording Co. The band plays Thursday, December 13th at the Metro in their hometown of Chicago.