Two to Tango: Grandchildren and Balún

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Grandchildren and Balún
Grandchildren (l) and Balún (r) | photos courtesy of the artists

When Grandchildren and Balún appear together, on August 23 at PhilaMOCA, the skronky, harmonious Philadelphia ensemble and the rhythmic Puerto Rico dream pop team bring with them arts, smarts and indigenous sounds on its newest albums: Grandchildren with OK, I’m Waiting, and Balún, with Prisma Tropical. We caught up with them right before they hit Philly.

The Key: What do you two know of each other or the other’s work and how long have you known that?

Aleks Martray (Grandchildren): We’ve listened to the new Balún record about five times this week. It gets better with every listen. I can’t wait to see them live.

José Olivares (Baiún): We first learned about Grandchildren when the show was booked, but we were very curious and checked out their music. It’s definitely a good pairing, we can tell that the audience will have a lot of fun.

TK: Since you haven’t met, how can you tell that this will be a good bill?

AM: We’ve never met in this lifetime, however musically it seems like we may have been besties in a past life or parallel dimension.

JO: Based on their music it seems like our personalities will gel very well. We both share a love for writing pop songs that explore many different genres.

The Key: You newest musical moments on each of your most recent projects — OK, I’m Waiting and Prisma Tropical — how do you feel that it is radically different than the stuff we usually know you from on previous recordings?

AM: Our newest single is actually a revival of one of our oldest songs, “OK I’m Waiting.” Fans will recognize the melody, but it’s been liberated from layers of robotic effects and textural ornamentation. We’re stripping down our sound back to its roots in solid songwriting and sincere audible lyrics. The entire new record forefronts our vocal harmonies with a kind of intimate presence that we’ve shied away from in previous records. Less is more.

JO: The new Balún album differs greatly from our previous work because it speaks to the experience of the Puerto Rican diaspora in NYC. This album shows the influences we’ve absorbed from living both in NYC and Puerto Rico. The dream-pop and nostalgic sounds and lyrics are there, but this time they took on a new meaning because of the amount of years that have passed since we lived in NYC and our appreciation of Caribbean music through the lens of living in the diaspora.

TK: Look at OK, I’m Waiting and Prisma Tropical. What song came first in the process of writing and recording — the one that would come to eventually define the overall tone of the album or push it in one direction? And how and why did that happen?

AM: Our recent singles “OK. I’m Waiting” and “Phantom Pains,” represent the chronological and creative bookends of this album. The former is a revival of an old song that served as a compass for the new record – intimate, moody, sincere. The latter was the last song written, yet first released, representing where that compass led us – a new destination sonically and lyrically. I think with age I’ve outgrown the need to over saturate every song with embellishments and effects. As a writer/producer, at this point I feel less of a need to impress and more of a desire to express something authentic. Stripping a song down to it’s bare essentials and finding the soul or core of the song is the most important aspect of making music, and the best way to connect with your audience. With the addition of Shari (Bolar, their new vocalist) to the band I feel liberated and inspired to embrace the voice of each song through our singing and harmonizing, and let the arrangements work in service of that voice.

JO: For Prisma Tropical, the song that started it all was “Años Atrás”. It was the first song that we consciously decided to incorporate the Jamaican dembow riddim in our songs in the most authentic way possible. That opened up our sound to include other genres that we all love but didn’t have a chance to incorporate in Balún like Afrobeat, bomba, salsa, and Puerto Rican folk music. This is how dreambow, the mix of dream-pop and dembow, was born. We are looking forward to keep developing this sound and adding new elements to it.

TK: Do you dig touring? Does the road get harder or easier — especially considering that for the most part this the principal manner in which you earn money?

AM: Touring is the best. It comes naturally given my nomadic upbringing and lifestyle. I thrive on everyday being a different adventure and being able to do what I love every night. Every tour we expand our network and “extended family” across the country, so many places feel like a homecoming. We’ve also developed a really great chemistry on the road, people know how to give each other space and support each other when needs be. It’s like a family road trip, without the drama. Given that our first tour was booked on Myspace, navigated using a paper atlas, and involved adult chicken pox, a 10 hour drive through zero degree temps, a van break-in and a drug bust, I’d say touring is definitely gotten a lot easier and more fulfilling.

JO: We like touring and sharing our music to new crowds and communities. Once we have the songs and performance on lock it’s all about adapting to the vibes and energy of the audience. Touring is definitely not easy, but it’s the only way for us to share our music outside of a recorded context and getting 1:1 feedback on the art we’ve created as a group. We’re very happy to be back in Philadelphia to share Prisma Tropical and our dreambow. Also, the best part about touring is meeting new bands and hearing new sounds in other cities.

TK: Is there any cool merch that either of you has that you specifically designed for these most recent gigs? And if so WHO designed them?

AM: Our singer Shari designed a fabulous new line of novelties items relating to our alter ego persona’s from our new “OK, I’m Waiting” music video, including: guitar picks, mustache wax, recipe cards, lip balm and rubber chicken key chains….just watch the video and it will all make sense.

JO: We have awesome shirts based on the artwork of the album and tote bags designed by the amazing design studio EyeBodega from Bushwick. We’ve been collaborating with them ever since we started working on the Kickstarter campaign that gave birth to Prisma Tropical back in 2015.

The Key: Will the two of you chat before this show? Is there a plan of attack going into this showcase?

AM: Hopefully we’ll share some drinks and spread some joy.

JO: Yeah! We hope to chat before the show and just chill before we all go on stage and give our best!

TK: How long have you been in the business of music and how do you think that time in has affected what you do, musically and lyrically considering your newest project and this tour….I mean, does it wear on you?

AM: It’s been about a decade. Much has changed yet stayed the same. No matter how much or how little “success” you have, at the end of the day you have to go back to the drawing board, dig deep, and make new music. It’s a lifelong process that never gets old as long as you keep your priorities around the art and not the hype. We’ve gone through the ups and downs of major label deals, industry shifts, and we’re stronger for it.

JO: Balún as a band has been around since the mid 2000’s but some of us have been making music since we were young. Being in Balún and also involved in many other musical projects have definitely influenced how we do things and approach new music. We’ve only know the DIY world, so being able to get better at our craft but at the same time have a good understanding of how the music business operates helps us think better what is best for the band. This is one of the main reasons that we’ve stayed together for so long as a unit. We tend to focus on the songs themselves rather than the whole industry around them.

TK: How do you see your audience? Is there a distinct level of interactivity between you and they, or is there a deep, but passive listenership?

AM: We consider our audience family. We try and connect with them both through and beyond the music.

JO: We hope the audience that comes to see Balún will give in to the dreambow and just go crazy and dance. No one said you can’t dance to Latin dream-pop. Although we sing in Spanish, at the end of the night, the dembow riddim is gonna get you. Hola Gloria!

TK: Is there any trepidation going into an unknown live setting or is that the fun and drive of it?

AM: No trepidation. Every show is the first show of the rest of your life. Carpe diem! Plus PhilaMOCA is like a second home to us. We recorded much of our second album Golden Age there and feel right at home on that stage. Eric (Bresler) and their whole team are the best.

JO: Because Balún is an electro-acoustic group and Prisma Tropical is such a heavily layered album, there is always some danger to translating our sounds into a live setting, but I think we’ve gotten to a good balance of live acoustics and electronics. From Raul’s awesome guitar playing, to Angelica’s sweet vocals, to Shayna’s live electronic drumming, everyone in our band works hard to make the best live version of Prisma Tropical!

TK: What two songs of yours –- perhaps, performed in a row –- are geared toward having the most impact or biggest punch when played live? And why why why?

AM: “Phantom Pains” is our favorite song to play live. We lose ourselves in the moment every time, and the audience tends to as well. It’s definitely one of those soulful journey songs that takes you along for a ride. The song gives Shari a chance to really shine vocally, connect with the audience and typically end up on the floor for the finale of the set.

JO: We have this one-two punch combo in our set where we play “El Espanto” and “La Salida” (a new song) that showcases the grooviest iteration of dreambow we’ve come up with. El Espanto will make you feel like you’re in San Juan dancing to salsa when all of sudden a massive hardcore jungle rave comes through and sends you off to a reggaeton party in the South America. Trust us, once you hear it you’ll understand.

TK: What song are you most curious as to how it will go over in a live setting? What is the greatest challenge of performing it live?

AM: I’m curious as to what would happen if we tried to play covers like the 1998 classic “Closing Time.” The challenge would be that we have no idea how to play that song nor do we know any of the lyrics other than the chorus which is the title of the song.

JO: The album has many songs that feature string arrangements written by our led singer Angelica Negrón. Those songs are interesting to perform because we don’t have the luxury of traveling with a string quartet but we’ve managed to translate the ideas present arrangements into other instruments. Other songs feature mechanical percussion (Bricolo system by Nick Yulman) that we actually use a way to keep in sync, so if we turn our sight away from them things get interesting to say the least.

TK: What will you do as soon as your set is done?

AM: Take a bow, have a drink, listen to Balún!!

JO: Like Alex said, take a bow and hang out with all of our new friends!

Balún and Grandchildren play PhilaMOCA on Thursday, August 23rd. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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