Álvarez says Los Pirañas works in two layers, with bassist Mario Galeano and percussionist Pedro Ojeda creating a bedrock of shifting rhythms while he lays sometimes radically unpredictable guitar lines on top. Photo by Mariana Reyes Serrano
The bands you mentioned are older bands, from the 1960s or ’70s. So you’re being influenced by this older music and pairing it with modern guitar sounds, turning it into this futuristic version of the past.
As a jazz guitarist and rock guitarist, I jumped into that older music in order to build a basic style, and then I put something abstract in it, which is the elements that come from computer programming. I am very into electronic music, but more in an abstract way—not in the social or cultural way. I’m not playing raves or parties or being a DJ. I’m mostly into programming sounds with computers. And so I just combine both.
How did you get into programing?
I studied composition. In the 2000s, I was into electro-acoustic composition and I was more like a classical composer. I studied classical guitar. I’m a trained classical musician. I still compose pieces for orchestras and ensembles, but not that much compared to the work with the bands.
In classical school, I learned to do all sorts of electro-acoustic music, programing, interactive installations—all kinds of soundscape techniques and composition. I studied that in Denmark and I was living there and doing all that stuff, but, at one point, I realized I could join all this electric guitar stuff with the signal processing and synthesis I was working with.
Tell us a bit about your process.
I program in Max MSP. There are three lines of electronic music: signal processing—all the ways of processing the signals; synthesis, which is the way to produce signals electrically; and sampling, which is recording of all those signals and playing them back together. The ramifications are infinite, but studying these three techniques, you can start to build your stuff in whatever means you want, so I experimented with everything.
To be simple, I just have tons of signal processing patches into Max. I just alter amplitude, frequency, and phases. These are the three things you can alter. I’ve built several processes into these three functions. Then I go to pedals. I use the pedals because some pedals sound much better than the computer—mostly distortions and some delays that have a particular sound. But everything is pretty much common stuff. There is nothing weird on my pedalboard.
When I see people using Max to process their guitar signal, they’re usually making noise music or ambient music, and the guitar ends up being this really expansive thing. You don’t hear it much in a more groovy, note-based setting.
People usually think that those programs are made for noise, for massive atmospheres or sound art, but you can be very simple with those programs. This is the beauty of it for me. You can just get an oscillator and make it do something that your imagination puts into it.
Since we are working a lot with traditional music, there are a lot of melodies. The melody is very important for us. Noise music is something foreign to traditional music, unless it goes into the percussive layers. So I just put the noise into the rhythm and put it in a role that fits with traditional music.
What is the order of operations in your rig?
I’ve tried everything, but now I do guitar, computer, and then pedals. Sometimes, if I have enough room or enough cables, I do a split and I put the computer in the middle of the rig in order to be able to process the first part. For example, when I’m sampling the guitar live, maybe I want to sample some part of the processed pedals and then have the sampling being processed by the pedals afterwards. I’ve tried everything. On tour I go with the simplest things, but in Bogotá, when we play, sometimes I do small experiments. I’m always changing.
What kind of amp do you usually use?
I’m not very specific about amps. I just have shitty amplifiers. I don’t bother with that. I just play with whatever I get. But through the years my favorite is the Fender Deluxe—the reissues or the old ones—because they have a lot of attack. I’m very obsessive with attack because we play so rhythmically.
How do you differentiate between this band and the Meridian Brothers?
I really try to put each band in an independent drawer, because it’s very dangerous to end up mixing all the styles. Right now, I have four bands, so I’m very into separating those styles.
Los Pirañas is very guitar-oriented, and I’m trying to get the guitar into all kinds of boundaries I can cross. Meridian Brothers is mostly a composer project, experimenting with different cultural clichés of mostly Latin America. Recently, I’ve been doing a kind of punk-style salsa. Then I have Chupame El Dedo, which is a kind-of satanic metal band with synthesizers. And I put out a new project, El último Meridian, that is mostly like reggaeton, trap-oriented. I divide a lot and I really try to put a wall between the way I approach composition and styles.
The guitarist’s signal chain runs through both a laptop using Max MS software and a modest pedalboard that always includes an Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini, a Maxon AD-9 Pro Analog Delay, and a Moog MF-107 Freq Box, among other goodies.
Describe the scene you’re a part of in Bogotá.
It’s a small scene with tons of bands, concerts, and parties. For me, the good thing about it is we are enclosed. Sometimes it gets too much enclosed, but the good thing is that it is a kind of a feedback loop of musicians and artists doing parties every weekend, two or three times a week. For me, it’s healthy.
We used to have very healthy local record industries. We had a lot of presses and record labels that were doing local music. It was sold locally. But in the ’90s, everything was destroyed. Everything was global and now it’s even worse. We don’t have a healthy economic music industry here. We have to go outside. We have to go to Europe or to the U.S. to play. You cannot live off of music. If you are a teacher, you can. But you cannot sell your records. You cannot get royalties. Concerts don’t pay well.
We are exposed to globalization or standardization. The taste that is developed is a taste that belongs to cultural development. People here sometimes refer to the global icons of the music industry, such as Pink Floyd or Nirvana or whatever. But small collectives are putting music out and throwing parties. They are very into a taste that developed in the last 15 years, which is a combination between global influences and people looking back to musicians such as Pedro Laza, a very traditional, important musician here, or Andrés Landero, or whatever. The references are this local taste instead of the global standardized icons. That makes things rich. People are dancing to champeta, to reggaeton, to cumbia, to salsa—and that's cool. These small collectives are talking through their own blood, not through standardized icons, which the big industrial complexes of music are trying to do.