Desert Collage: Tacoma's J.R.C.G. on Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ajo Sunshine, and the Intergenerational DIY Spirit

Interviews, Sound and Vision
Dusty Henry
photo by Anthony Beauchemin

Justin Gallego has been a mainstay in the Pacific Northwest DIY scene for nearly two decades, both as a musician and a visual artist. He’s constantly pushing limits — both in loudness and experimental approaches.  His work is bold on the surface and carries deep conceptual themes. His band Dreamdecay is a perfect example. Their 2017 album Yú was a noisy, electric meditation on being stuck between two cultures. The title itself merges the English word “You” with the Spanish word “Tú.” 

Dreamdecay has grown from being just a band. Now, they’ve become a larger collective they’ve dubbed Dreamdecay Music Group. It’s a way to support each other’s artistic projects that fit outside the sonic boundaries of the band. Gallego himself has branched out with a solo project called J.R.C.G., named after his own initials.

Last year, Gallego released his first solo album, Ajo Sunshine, on Castle Face Records. Gallego wrote and self-recorded the music from his home in Tacoma, but he performs it live with the help of Dreamdecay Music Group. The album is a sonic collage, veering from heavy-garage rock bangers to jazzy, ambient interludes.

On October 7, JRCG will perform the album at Beacon Theater in Seattle. It’s not just an audio experience, though — they’re playing right before two screenings of the film, El Topo. It’s a cult classic from Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky. I talked with Gallego about Ajo Sunshine and the parallels between his and Jodorowsky’s work. We also found a mutual connection in our hometown DIY scene and the importance of punk culture.  

Listen to the Sound & Vision interview or read an extended version of the conversation below. Audio production by Roddy Nikpour. 

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.) 

KEXP: I've been aware of your music, Justin, for a while and for longer than I actually realized I was. Today I realized that I actually remember seeing you play with the Hellen Killers and Valley of Dinosaur back in the day.

Justin Gallego: Oh wow! That's a super throwback. That's crazy.

KEXP: Yeah, like the Kitsap County D.I.Y. scene.

JG: Yeah, that's amazing. That's, like, really far back.

KEXP: Yeah, it is. I was curious, just thinking about that and your start in music and what inspired you to perform and get into this DIY scene and all that? 

JG: Yeah. I mean, honestly, that was right around the time that I moved to the northwest from Tucson, Arizona. On a whim, some friends that I met at school, invited me to a show, and I saw a bunch of bands that were around on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap scene. I was already involved in music through school and stuff like that. But I was kind of dipping my toes in the idea of like, "Oh, what would it be like to be in a band?" Seeing that around like right before high school, it was super influential. But yeah, definitely like just totally jumped into the deep end of like D.I.Y. punk culture and specifically the Kitsap County scene that was thriving back then.

KEXP: Yeah, totally. That was super influential for me too, just to see people around there doing that sort of thing. 

JG: Oh yeah. Shout out to Holy Ghost Revival and Justin Maurer from Clorox Girls. Those are all like those were the old heads from that time that really ushered us young people into the game of figuring out how to rent out grange halls and booking touring bands. Good stuff. That's really cool that you have that background.

KEXP: I was tripping out when I was looking researching you and I saw Hellen Killers come up. I was like, "Whoa, hold on a second." But yeah cool to think about how you've kind of carried that on,  through your career and to now. Would you say you're still into the DIY punk scene in a way? 

JG: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, that's the thing too, you know, I'm well into my thirties now and have pretty much toured consistently since I was 17, 18. Even being older, it's like the people that you know and as I get more professional about it over the years, the relationships that stick are the ones that you've met through like DIY and punk culture. The people that I met on the first tour – or some of the people that I met on the first tour – when I was 16 that ever went on are some people that I still work with now today. And, you know, I don't know what that means. It's just like everyone's just kind of grinding it out that really young age and those relationships kind of just stick. But yeah, it's definitely still embedded in everything that we do, you know? It's more so out of necessity now because it's just, it's just like whether we like it or not, it's just a part of our background as artists and musicians. It's better to embrace and to, uh, than to be mad at it, you know? 

KEXP: Yeah, right. You got to lean into the community that naturally comes up because it's hard out here to be a musician. 

JG: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Definitely feel that, especially now. You know, there's a lot of there's just a lot of movement within the DIY space and people like relocating and I'm old enough now to see it kind of go through waves and you know, it's more active and less active and people are moving away, people are moving here. You live through the ebbs and flows and you kind of learn like, you know, the important aspects of just sticking to your stuff and also like embracing and like feeding into the community and, you know, doing your best to kind of like do your part to maybe allow it to thrive. 

KEXP: I love the community I observe in your sphere in particular. I have a question around that too about the distinction between J.R.C.G., Dreamdecay, and Dreamdecay Music Group. Could you shed some light on what those things are and how they overlap? 

JG: To me, the music group is like the collective, basically. That kind of is an umbrella. It's a title that can branch out to our other endeavors, whether it's like events or booking. I think that like, you know, being in this and kind of hustling it out on our own, we've figured out as a group our strengths and the things that we're all into and we're kind of just building that out. And I think the Music Group is kind of a way to sort of like categorize that as like this morphing sort of like umbrella that like it can be a band but can also be like, you know, whatever we need it to be. But I think J.R.C.G. And Dreamdecay are just both separate art projects that we have underneath the umbrella if that makes sense. With the Music Group too, we're able to broaden it out. You know, Dreamdecay as a band has been around for quite a long time now, and it's just also a chance to sort of build our like community and our reach and how we can support the other people who aren't necessarily in our band. 

KEXP: Yeah, totally. It kind of feels like you have this own, like, multiverse within yourselves, you know, different phases to explore. And the Dreamdecay Music Group, they perform with you live for your J.R.C.G. material, right? 

JG: Totally. Yeah. As far as the live aspect of J.R.C.G. Goes, it's a collective effort. Everyone has sort of like worked together to figure out a way to perform that in the best way. It's been really fun for me because... J.R.C.G., those are my initials and it is technically a solo endeavor but it has been so rewarding to be able to take that and shift its energy towards a collective effort and share it with some of my best friends and the people I respect the most, to be able to bring it to life in a completely different way than I ever thought it could be. 

KEXP: Totally. And so when you started working on this, this latest material, what made you feel like it was a solo project as opposed to a Dreamdecay project? 

JG: I think, you know, originally, like I think the biggest thing is that Dreamdecay is, you know, a very collaborative, like, creative sort of like the way that we write, the way we do everything is all, you know, between the four of us. And then there's four different, you know, taste and like inputs kind of coming into play and it's filtering through each of us equally. And, you know, that's a completely different thing than, you know, me being kind of the only sort of call maker. And, you know, I think it was a really good exercise for me coming out of that really collaborative sort of atmosphere to be able to like test my own sort of tastes and opinions creatively and yeah. So, you know, totally different in that way, specifically ages. 

KEXP: I'm curious about the album's title, Ajo Sunshine. In the description on Bandcamp you talk about the field recordings on the album being recorded on Ajo Way in Tucson that your father recorded. Ajo also translates to garlic, which is a very visceral phrase for a very visceral album. What does it mean to you and how did you land on that?

JG: The album to me, it means a few different things. My family being from basically the outer area of Tucson, Ajo Way. I come from a line of cowboys and ranchmen. And, you know, I kind of grew up within that world. You know, there is like a sort of funny kind of correlation with like DIY culture and punk culture that I like grew up in. But that was kind of based around like, like Mexican American rodeo culture, you know, that was like basically the equivalent of like a house show. People, including my family, you know, housed these rodeos out of their on their property. And that was kind of a huge part of my upbringing. I think that like, specifically, like my grandfather started that and Ajo Way is the epicenter of that and like what it means to our background, our culture, and our family. It was kind of like a way for me as someone who grew up within that but is also not involved in that at all anymore. To be able to sort of relate and also just draw, a sort of like direct line from my art to their art in a personal way. But I think also like the record, you know, to me, I like the 'garlic sunshine" as a symbolism in itself, because I think it kind of stands on its own as it's like kind of like mystic epic, you know. And I think that it doesn't necessarily have to be listened to with my family in mind by any means. I think that to me it's just kind of like this almost like manifest destiny sort of statement. That's at least how I read it.

KEXP: I love that. I think that's like. That's so interesting to think about ideals or practices they carry up from generation and how they can, like, shift to something that looks or sounds so different but has some sort of like common spiritual center to it, if that makes any sense.

JG: Oh, absolutely. You know, these rodeos that I was talking about, it's like the most like punk in practice thing can [of]. It was funny how it kind of just dawned on me like how much they were similar in that, you know, you have like family working the concessions or you have family... And when I say concessions, I mean like, you know, like handing out, selling like burritos, out of the kitchen that's on the property or like, you know, family running the announcement over like the loudspeaker for the rodeo. And, you know, I think that like being able to see that and see how it's kind of resonated in my like later life within like punk music or DIY and it's just like it's really, you know, special. I think. It's like, I think that other people can have their own sort of similar kind of callbacks to whatever their first kind of like experience with something similar could be. But, you know, that's just what mine is. And happy to have found it. 


KEXP: Sonically, the record has this heavy, psychedelic, garage rock sort of feel going on with it, but also super experimental, some really cool sonic textures, almost ambient at times even. I was curious what the writing or recording process was like for you? I believe you did most of it yourself. And what sort of like sonic palette you were trying to capture? 

JG: It was recorded right here where I'm sitting at my house. And with the exception of, you know, a couple of parts, like you said, my father's contribution. But yeah, like, I think that as far as the writing, I think it's kind of maybe in the simplest way, it's just a lot of like a lot of layering, a lot of almost collage kind of style where I'm kind of just piecing things together as they come and as things kind of work out. You know, they'll stick around and as things new things come into, they affect older things that were on the recording and maybe they get, you know, exchanged with it's a kind of a constant, sort of like, um, taking things in, you know, putting things and taking things out, you know. And I think that like understanding, like my flow as an artist, it, it wasn't really surprising. I think that that's kind of just how I work, even like visually with stuff. This is kind of like I'm it's kind of more of a mess than it is any sort of organized practice, if that makes sense. 

KEXP: You've talked about [the album] being a collage, like snapshots of scenes without a complete picture. If you had to put it in words, what picture do you think the album creates? 

JG: Yeah. You know, there are a couple of different things that like really resonate with me. And I think that along Ajo Way, there's like these massive mountain ranges that kind of just basically lead you away from Tucson and to Ajo, the border town, and it kind of ushers you away and kind of leads you towards the sunset. Basically, it feels like you're just heading straight into the sun and you're driving across like the desert and Saguaro National Forest is around you. And I think that like to me, like kind of heading that direction, you know, it's not a still, but it's sort of like an energy and it's like kind of abstract as the desert is and fast-moving, but has it a larger vibe and spirit attached to it, if that makes sense? I don't know. That to me just kind of resonates the most. But yeah, no, that's the kind of image I have. And, you know, I think that on a sonic level, you know, I think that I, I kind of always kind of imagined a quartet, like playing in a small room, you know, there's horns on the record, there's drums and there's synthesizers. And I kind of just imagine what it would be like if this was played, like, you know, in a very small club, like a jazz club, you know. I think with the way that the recording begins and ends, you can kind of at least I can kind of imagine that sort of energy and being inside a room like that.

KEXP: Yeah, totally. Now that you say, I have a very clear image in my head of that. 

JG: Yeah. This is the first – maybe this is getting too into the weeds – but this is definitely the first time I ever used a visual mood board while making music. Pictures that kind of depicted that sort of energy was definitely like a really big thing that I kept coming back to. 

KEXP: Yeah, I was curious to ask about that because I am a fan of your music projects, but I'm also a big fan of your visual art as well. And I was curious how those intersect for you.

JG: Well, you know, going back to what we were just saying about like the collage, how I'm arranging music feels kind of like it is like messy. I think that going into that and understanding that, like that's just kind of how it is for me, I already knew that that's kind of how I approach like visual art too. So I think that there's a bit of understanding going into it that it's going to be a mess but I'll like weed through it and I have faith that something I'll like and that will be cool come out of that. That's kind of the biggest way that I can see them kind of connecting. It's just the process is kind of similar. 

KEXP: You have this upcoming performance at the Beacon Theater. You're going to be performing before a screening of Jodorowsky's 'El Topo.' Can you talk a little bit about that performance and what people can expect from the event? 


JG: Yeah, definitely. Well, you know, the beacon is a really special place that like, you know, everyone in Seattle should take note of. And it's a pleasure to be working with them. But, um, you know, as far as the night goes, yeah, there's two showings and um, we were basically going to be opening up for the screening and for our performance. There will be a live projection, live film projection by Matt Schoenfeld, whose done a lot of film work and done a lot of, um, projects with a lot of amazing bands and musicians from the Northwest. And he himself is a really talented filmmaker, so he will be doing live projection for both of our sets. And um, yeah, we're going to be performing Ajo Sunshine and then El Topo will be playing after. It should be a really fun night, a really special one. I'm so excited to be working with The Beacon. I think going back to what you said earlier too about working within DIY and establishing these relation long-lasting relationships at such a young age. The Beacon is such an example of that, just because those people have been immersed in that culture forever. I've known Casey Moore, who's one of the co-founders, I've known him from playing music from when I was 20 years old. And here we are now still working on projects together, as older people.

KEXP: That's awesome. I love those full-circle moments. 

JG: Yeah, it's like you said, just investing in the community and trying to instill those connections and build upon them. 

KEXP: How did this particular event come together? Like, did you have any say in picking the film? Is this a regular series? 

JG: The Beacon has done a few different sorts of pairings with musicians and bands in the past. This is something not specific to El Topo, but just in general that Casey and I have been talking about for a while. And I think that schedule-wise and everything, it just kind of worked out to where the time was now. And yeah, you know, I told them a lot about the music I've been playing and Ajo Sunshine and everything, and they put together a list of what they were thinking as far as like what to pair it with. And El Topo was at the top. And we just thought that that would be an interesting pairing. I think that like that, that movie in particular, it's like history is kind of something that I can kind of relate to as like underground artists where... I'm not too detailed in the history, but from what I know it basically pioneered the midnight movie blockbuster. It was also known as these spectacle events that would happen and would oftentimes even be paired with bands opening for it. I think we as a collective and myself as a musician fall into this kind of outsider art category sometimes. And I think that Jodorowsky definitely is a cult director as well. And it just kind of felt like a nice pairing in that sense and the history behind the bands opening up for it when it came out and its original run and it just seemed kind of like a fun thing to do as far as like, you know, pay homage to that history and have a small, personal kind of investment in that.

KEXP: Did you have any sort of like relationship with this film or Jodorowsky's work in general? Is that an inspiration for you? 

JG: Oh, Jodorowsky's work in general for sure. Like just growing up I think that.. I don't know. Just like, you know, I remember the first time I saw 'Holy Mountain' and probably every time after that too. But I think that like just the spectacle of it and also just like, yeah, I think that his work has definitely been inspirational. You know, he is a Chilean filmmaker, but, you know, coming from being a Mexican-American myself and having that movie come way of Mexico, I think is also kind of inspirational. I think there's a lot of things that I draw sort of lines to with his career, but, you know, I wouldn't say anything too explicit, but definitely have always respected and um, and admired a lot of his work.

KEXP: Totally. And like you said, Jodorowsky is probably the most punk director I can think of. That's cool to see that sort of other generational [idea] carrying over as well. 

JG: Yeah, definitely. Someone in my band – maybe that's too deep of a reference – but categorized him as the Swans of filmmaking. Like the band. 

KEXP: Yeah, that's a great parallel. 

JG: Yeah. Definitely off-putting for a lot of people. But I don't know, a lot of good art is, I guess. 

'Ajo Sunshine' is out now via Castle Face Records. J.R.C.G. performs at The Beacon before two screenings of El Topo on Oct. 7. The band will then embark on a North American tour. See the full list of dates below.

10/07 Seattle • The Beacon
10/13 Chicago • Subterranean
10/14 Toronto • Monarch Tavern
10/15 Montreal • Cabaret Foufs
10/17 Boston • O Briens
10/18 Brooklyn • Union Pool
10/19 Brooklyn • Union Pool
10/20 Philadelphia • Unitarian Church
10/21 Richmond • The Warehouse
10/23 Nashville • DRKMTTR
10/24 St Louis • Off Broadway
10/25 Omaha • Petshop
10/26 Denver • 7th Circle

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