KILLER CORTEZ: Communicating Ideas and Values

Killer Cortez

Readers may know Boston, Massachusetts prog rock duo Killer Cortez, comprised of Socrates Cruz (guitar, vocals) and Peter Bartash (drums), from our official app where they won the Best Song of April with “Pine Ridge Peltier.” The duo released their great debut album titled ‘Maquiladora’ earlier this year which we reviewed here. We had an opportunity to talk with the band and ask them questions about what inspired ‘Maquiladora,’ and more.

First off, I really love your debut album Maquiladora. I’m still sort of living with it, but it’s very moving and layered.

Thank you! Like most musicians, we tend to err on the side of self-doubt so it’s really encouraging to know you’re digging the album.

Tell me about the creative process that informed Maquiladora and the themes it captures.

We first started working on the songs that would make up Maquiladora about three years ago. At the time we each were going through personal life events that were making us question our relationship with music and how we wanted to communicate our ideas and values to people around us. With this in mind we made a conscious effort to tell stories that we found interesting and compelling enough to share with others. As we started demoing the songs we put a lot of effort and time into developing unique tones and layers to craft what would become our “sound” on this album. Overall we wanted the album to blend our love for and reliance on technology with our interest in social justice and historical events. We ended up making a concept album that contained micro-snapshots of stories we thought were compelling but not very well known. Each story asks listeners to reflect on today’s world by taking a glimpse at some of the most exploitative events of the 20th century.

Maquiladora

What is the message you are trying to give with Maquiladora? How does the album title reflect on lyrical themes and the album overall?

The album’s title, Maquiladora, refers to the US-owned factories along the border that use cheap Mexican labor to assemble products, and then export them back to the United States. The maquiladora model has a long history, but it became hugely popular with the passage of NAFTA in the mid 1990s—the free trade agreement was initially pitched as a win-win for both the US and Mexico. In reality, however, the maquiladora business model led to massive outsourcing of low-skilled labor in the United States’ manufacturing sector, while simultaneously exploiting low-skilled workers in Mexico, and doing very little to elevate the standard of living in either communities. At the same time, corporations that make use of maquiladoras continue to post high profits. It’s a pretty perfect example of how exploitation can be a shared human experience in modern society. Unfortunately it often seems we have all become cogs in a machine that exploits, subjugates, and displaces people of all backgrounds. The album is our way of sharing some of these stories, which we like to think of as “mini documentaries.”

Another element informing the album’s concept, in your own words, “is the reminder that because history is written by the winners we must remember not to overlook the stories of the oppressed.” How did that manifest itself?

We like to think of the album as a “Howard Zinn musical manifesto” of sorts. For those who don’t know about Howard Zinn, he is a brilliant historian and political scientist whose book A People’s History of the United States presents alternate interpretations of American history—often by telling stories that were previously ignored—as a way to learn more about a particular historical era. We usually learn about our past through the narrative and chronology of kings, emperors, presidents, etc; in this way, “history” pretty much merely becomes a series of who was in power and what wars they waged. But what about the common person? When and how are their stories told? The majority of human beings that have ever existed are not those at the top; we wanted to tell stories of people that were screwed over by one system or another. It wasn’t just to depress our listeners, but rather, to inform and remind people that suffering and exploitation are a unifying part of human experience. “Losers” are always made to feel like outsiders, alone, and not worth caring about; but what happens when most of us are losers to begin with?

How did you document the music while it was being formulated? Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?

In most cases we had a pretty clear vision for the basic form and character of a song. We usually tend to not jam too much once a song has been introduced at practice; the song structure is largely intact from beginning to end. We do, however, tweak a lot in order to come up with the best arrangement and groove; this can be pretty tedious but we’ve learned to work like that. Once a song is “ready” (we use that term pretty loosely though), we probably demo a song about 4 or 5 times, each time adding subtle changes to the vibe, ambiance, and character of the song. By the time we are ready for final tracking we have a pretty good sense of how we want the song to end up. There was a ton of listening and sharing—we spent weeks analyzing production, tone, and intent on dozens of our favorite records. This was sort of how we ended up communicating our ideas and developing a shared vision for the record. We tried to treat each song independent of the others until it was time to bring it all together during final production, which may or may not have been the best idea, but in the end it seems to have worked out.

Which bands or artists influenced your work on the release?

Probably too many to list but here are some: Animals as Leaders, Björk, Phoenix, Radiohead, The Dear Hunter, John Legend, James Blake, Biffy Clyro, ‘90s U2, Doves.

Killer Cortez

Describe the approach to recording the album.

About 2 years ago Socrates (guitar/keys/vocals) began assembly a ton of recording gear at our rehearsal space; over time it’s become our personal recording studio. So we’ve been pretty lucky to basically be able to demo and record songs as much as we want on our own schedule. From the beginning of the Maquiladora sessions we knew we wanted to make use of this flexibility in order to tweak as much as we wanted without worrying too much about a specific timeline or budget. If a song wasn’t working for us after a particular demo we would just rewrite or rearrange and then retrack. There actually came a point last year when we thought we were pretty close to finishing the album but the songs weren’t gelling with one another, so we retracked all the drums again… and then retracked all the guitars again… and then redid all the vocals… you get the idea. Ultimately we are happy with the way it turned out, even though while this was going on it seemed like we just kept digging ourselves into a hole.

Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?

We’d like to think so! During some early shows when we were trying out the new material, Socrates started introducing each song with a short story about the characters and their tragedies. At first, we thought people were disinterested but it didn’t take long for us to understand the amount of impact we were having on our audiences. More and more people kept coming up to us after the show and telling us they were amazed at the stories behind the music, and that they were totally drawn in by the connection to the music. Sometimes an artist will refrain from exposing the “true” meaning behind his or her work so that the listener/viewer can form their own conclusions. We are actively choosing to be transparent and the effect is fascinating—people are learning about the hidden corners of their history and translating the themes to their own lives. While it’s a bit sad to look back at all of these tragedies and to realize how little progress we’ve made, we do hope that our music will—in a small way—help accelerate the process of learning from our mistakes.

What are your plans for the future?

We are planning a string of dates in the Northeastern US for summer/fall of 2017 and have already begun working on new material. It’s all about content these days so we need to keep feeding the machine!

How would you define your mission with Killer Cortez?

For us, this band is about cutting through the bullshit and making a definitive statement about our values. We’re both kind of outliers in our “day to day” worlds and neither of us is afraid to share our opinion, but I also think we all tend to shy away from telling people what we really think or feel. Through music we have found a way to break down those barriers and to be completely honest with each other and our audience, even if that honesty is uncomfortable at times. Ultimately, we’d like our music to help people become comfortable with honest communication about themselves, their pasts, and the tremendous impact of those collective histories.

Maquiladora is available now from Bandcamp as digital download and digipack CD here.

Cover photo by Joe Harrington

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