Don’t Encourage the Primos: Interview with Los Cumpleaños

Los Cumpleaños are the band from Brooklyn that’s eclectic as their futuristic avant-garde electro Bullerengue music. They can only be described as friendly if not fun. Genuine music enthusiasts, the small sample size of music they’ve released so far shows that the only reason they wouldn’t run up to you to say “hi, primo!” is because they’re too busy jamming out.

The latest release was “Sonrisa“, a song with an accurate title as much of the Brooklyn quartet’s music will have you smiling. The band consists of Nestor Gomez on lead vocals and percussion, “Lau” Lautaro Burgos on drums, Eric Lane on keyboards, and Alex Asher on trombone. Each one comes from their own corner of the world.

But their differences in background doesn’t hinder their music, it pushes it forward. In true jazz style, each member brings their own influences and fuses it with the rest to create a sound unlike any other.

From Argentina, Colombia, and the United States, this band came together for party and in spirit of their name, make each note a celebration.

Antonio Villaseñor-Baca: The way you all did meet was that you first played together in this capacity, was at a corporate bourbon event?

Eric Lane: I mean, really the first the very first gig came from Alex, and he couldn’t even play it. He had a neighbor that wanted salsa dance, and the gig didn’t pay much. So he said, I’ll give you the number of Lautaro Burgos who plays all kinds of different South American styles. Alex told me, ‘you’ve been wanting to try to play some salsa music, why don’t you transcribe those tunes you’ve been into, and I can’t play but why don’t you get our friend his trumpet player to play’? So I wrote out all the melodies for the trumpet player, and decided no rehearsals and I thought, well, I’ll just play the bass and the keys and Lautaro, I’ll meet this guy literally at the gate and expect him to know how to play all this stuff. I’ll just take his lead. And we realized later on that we really love playing together as like bass and drums and keys. And we came back and I told Alex it was amazing. I was just speaking emphatically about meeting Lautaro. And he was like, ‘oh, man, I want in. I want to form a band’. And Lautaro was like, Well, actually, I have this friend Nestor, I think he’ll maybe sing and play percussion and maybe bring some of these traditional elements that we can start to cover. And that was really the true, true first gig.

Lautaro Burgos: [Nestor] whom I had just met at around that same time!

Eric: Exactly. So the corporate bourbon event, that’s actually kind of a misnomer. It’s kind of false because that wasn’t us playing. That was the first time we played as a trio with Alex, but we didn’t even do any real songs. At that point, we were expected to play second line and, and New Orleans music and we sort of just winged it and played whatever. And by the end of it, everybody was just getting trashed. It was like a day drinking bar crawl event. And we just did our own thing and made music. And after that, Alex said, ‘I have some connections to Barbès and Bembé, two prominent Brooklyn venues that feature in general of all over the world, but a heavy emphasis on groove and dancing. And that’s when we really brought Nestor into the fold and started playing regularly. So I’d say our very first gig as Los Cumpleaños was just over four years ago at Bembé in Brooklyn. And they asked us what our name should be. And they said, ‘by the way, the DJ is playing in between you guys. It’s his birthday, and he’s a local favorite. He’s kind of a local hero, DJ Mickey Pérez. It’s his birthday, so let’s make this one count. What’s your name? What should I put on the marquee’? And I said, I know, being the gringo, the non-Spanish speaker in the band, I said, let’s be Los Cumpleaños. And we got to the very first gig and Nestor looked at us, he’s like, I’m happy to be playing with you guys, but I don’t know, primo. It’s like, we’re gonna have to talk about this name if we’re going to be a band beyond this gig. And somehow after that very first bonafide Los Cumpleaños gig at Bembé, other Latino Spanish speakers started coming to the gigs and they were like, actually, it’s kind of fun. And so then Nestor and Lautaro said they kind of sort of agreed, like, okay, fine, we can be Los Cumpleaños.

Lautaro: It was, I gotta tell you, it was a process. I was like, no way are we fucking going to be Los Cumpleaños and then and then like, people seem to really like respond to it and like it, so I was like, alright. I mean, if I was in Argentina, I wouldn’t name my band Los Cumpleaños but we are here and the impact is completely different. So I was like, just go with it.

Antonio: Well, what is the difference in that impact for you if you were in Argentina? Why is it okay here?

Lautaro: Because in a country where you only find Spanish speakers, nobody would take it seriously. Everybody would call you to play their quinceañeras and you’d be like, ‘we’re trying to play our own songs!’ They’d be like ‘fuck that shit! Play me the traditional cumpleaños song.’ So here it’s really fine, because it sounds already a little exotic. Not everybody knows what cumpleaños means.

Nestor Gomez: I think it complements also with the music and the style of music, the fusion it compliments a lot.

Lautaro: Yeah, it does.

Eric: I think we’ve done a good job of owning it. We have a tradition. we call it. We do kind of somewhere like three songs into the set, we blow up these balloons that have lights inside of them. So we’ve sort of embraced the kitsch, fun, cute, nature of the fact that it’s always somebody’s birthday. People say it’s always happy hour somewhere. Well, it’s always somebody’s birthday somewhere. And in so far that we like to take it to the psychedelic multiverse. You know, we’re gonna celebrate your birthday on a new plane of existence, not just the traditional birthday cake. We’ll take the balloons but everything else is far removed from your traditional concept of a quinceañera piñata. We’re gonna take that and then times it times, you know, psychedelics, and then that’s exactly, that’s Los Cumpleaños.

Lautaro: Yeah. I mean, really at the end of the day, it gave it gave a whole universe of elements and colors and things and things that ended up really being very representative of how visual the language of Los Cumpleaños when we play is. It’s very much about like shapes and colors and things moving and I feel like Los Cumpleaños also gives you that crazy, circusy parade of colors and moves and dancing. Definitely, the palette of options when your name is Los Cumpleaños is very huge.

Antonio: And Eric, you said you’re the only one in the group that doesn’t speak Spanish; Alex, does that mean that you do?

Eric: I meant that I’m not a fluent Spanish speaker. Puedo hablar poquito Español. Si.

Antonio: Okay, cool. And what about you, Alex?

Alex: Yeah, the same, the same. I mean, but we’re working on it.

Lautaro: Antonio, you should see Antonio the process of Alex learning the coros to sing in the back like, letter by letter.

Eric: That’s not entirely fair though, Lautaro, because what happens especially I noticed, like when we’re singing, all the regional styles of Spanish are different. And on top of that there’s a way of putting words together when you’re singing that makes it even more foreign to us.

Antonio: So it was like four years ago that you played your first show. This EP is your first release. How long have you been working on it? What’s the process been for it?

Eric: This has been a passion project for a long time. We didn’t wait too long to start working on original material. But I will say that Nestor brought a bunch of really priceless cuts like different Colombian salsas that Alex and I hadn’t heard before. I think that Nestor did a good job of unifying us by bringing these covers to the table that we played for the first six months. And it brought us all into a similar shared vocabulary. And then he started bringing in little rhythmic fragments and lyrical fragments that he would sing in whatever key and then I would have to figure out what the chords were and Alex would have to figure out what melody he was singing on the trombone, and we started writing collaboratively very early on, but because we’re all teaching music and teaching in the school system and doing various gigs and Lau has been doing off-Broadway gigs, and we’re all involved in lots of different projects.

Los Cumpleaños. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

That’s taken us a long time to get these four humble songs together; we’re super proud of all the work but you know, we recorded the the basic tracks for “Agua” and “Baila La Cumbia” two to three years ago. We completed the video for “Agua” about a year and a half ago or so. The most recent song “Sonrisa” was finished about four months ago when you count all of the post-production that goes into that. So it’s been a very democratic process. It’s been a very push and pull process, and using the studio as the fifth primo. We were very much interested in what we can do in the studio that we can’t do live since we’re only four people. How do we make a sound like six or eight people sometimes and so that process has been a process of discovery along the way. So it’s been a complete, I’d say three and a half years of working on these tunes. That being said, we have an entire ammunition of lots more tunes that we’re ready to record as soon as the pandemic sort of transitions into the new paradigm. We’re going to be back in the studio and the process is going to be much quicker because we found ourselves, we know what our voices are, and we know how to play the instruments and play the studio as an instrument too.

Alex Asher:
Yeah, the pace of New York is not conducive to just chilling and just working on music with your friends all day. You gotta hustle here. Like for this project to even happen, it’s very special because it is totally collaborative. It’s not like one person is writing all the music and like paying other musicians to play with them. It’s very collaborative, and we’re all giving a lot of our time to it in a way that it’s rare in an environment such as New York, where the price of living is so high. I think it’s actually hard to keep a band together in New York than other places. That’s one thing. And then another thing is the fact that we are writing totally collaboratively. That’s been really able to integrate the sounds and integrate everybody’s influences and life experiences. It’s what gives it its uniqueness.

Lautaro: Totally, totally.

Antonio: I wanted to ask, how often do you play shows together? Because obviously like you said, you’re all involved in so many projects. But did you have any plans? And has that shifted for when the EP was supposed to come out? Because it comes out in May, so what plans did you have for the actual EP release and do you have anything planned now, like streaming wise or anything like that?

Ague EP. cover artowrk. Out May 22nd via Clandestine.

Lautaro: The reason that lately with we’ve been pushing the project within the band a little bit more is because on one hand, we found time and also we had a very serious discussion in terms of do we really want to do this? Let’s push it. If not, let’s not be one of those bands that stay together for 20 years and never really give it a fair try. So it’s been it’s been almost a year or a little more that we’ve that we’ve decided to really put an effort into the band and make it work. So there’s the deadlines and the timeline that we have, we’re gonna try to keep it. And the release of the EP can happen, we’re not gonna play live. That’s gonna be canceled and it’s not for sure but we’re kind of thinking about it. There was going to be a tour right after releasing the EP; that tour is going to be canceled. But as far as releasing stuff, all that, that we’re gonna do. All the timelines, we are gonna keep. I don’t know when that situation is gonna resume to play live shows, but also, that’s something that might need to evolve and transform into virtual shows.

Eric: As a band, we’ve always been very good about playing once or twice a month. I mean, when you play in New York, you don’t want to overextend yourself. But we have always had residencies that we’ve kept up on. And that’s kept us in shape with our own language together, and it’s kept us writing together. Now we’re really making an effort to have an online presence because people say, ‘well, where can we find your music’ and so now we’re doing that and we’re making ourselves known to the world, just in an online way and sharing these videos and projects that we’ve been working really hard at, for a long period of time. In the future, if we could support that through touring and playing in the East Coast and making it to the West coast, that’d be great. But for now, we’re just focusing on getting our recording projects out so people can hear.

Alex: And so I would say myself and our booking agent had put a tour together for May and June. Maybe 10 shows and those are not canceled, but they will be rescheduled. Hopefully by late May, we’ll be in a position to at least do like a live stream concert. Mm hmm. So please let people know that we will do that when the EP comes out. And in general, just to echo what they’ve said, we’re in the process of stepping up our outward presence. This is no one’s first band. For me, as someone who does move more of the booking of gigs and organizing like, this was by design, because you can play it play at smaller clubs in Brooklyn and stuff you don’t need to publicize that. Part of it was making the commitment to developing the music. I’ve had friends that start projects and immediately like the first gig, they’re concerned about what the numbers are at the door, which is a horrible way to live your life, like fuck that.

You don’t even know what your music sounds like and you’re concerned about how many people show up to see it. That’s just what I would say is socially irresponsible. What we’re trying to do, get musicians who are not from South America, but who have deep skills in improvisation and an interest in the rhythmic language with African Diaspora on the same page with people who are from these parts of the world, and to create a hybrid music, that’s like, really difficult and needs to be honored. Like half of the bands that play in the style of experimental cumbia, it’s like they play cumbia and then they slap some some shitty synth on top of it. But that’s, that’s basic. Why would you do that? Don’t do that and then say that you’re the cutting edge. Because that’s the first patch on the synthesizer that you bought. And then the next song you press the second patch. That’s not what music production is about. Apply them to the context of value in this rhythmic language to create something new. And so it’s by design. We haven’t put anything out yet because we want to honor that.

Antonio: Right. That’s definitely one of the elements that really stands out, is the influencees and the mixture of estos ritmos y elementos que son Latino Americana pero tambien but there’s a lot of African music and elements. But ultimately, at least from what I heard from the EP, it sounds like the music points in a completely different direction while building off of these themes and sounds. Can you tell me about how the four of you build this sound together, and how you use these influences? How you would describe your sound?

Nestor: Yeah, well, the beginning of the music starts with the rhythmic session. I choose maybe like one or two different patterns and I start building on that and present it to the primos and and then I say, ‘oh, we’ll do this’ and and then they start building on that and Alex comes in with the melody. La does this thing where he takes a rhythm and brings it up a notch when it comes to switching the pattern in a way that it remains the same, but it has this new feeling to it and very modern. And then Eric comes in, throws in the bass and he waits for the feeling of the pattern for the right moment to add what he does, and the good thing about it is that everyone is putting in what they know. It basically that I put the dough on the table and they make the arepas. It’s unique. We’re talking about the cumbia earlier, his type of cumbia that we’re playing, it’s actual Colombian traditional music that comes from back in the colonial times. And it’s a cumbia that has very particular pattern that comes from Barranquia. Bringing in this other element of the synthesizer, drums, with trombone, it’s very special because it’s been done in Colombia, but not at this level, the approach. That’s it. And sometimes I’m even a little bit, not afraid, but step back a little bit on the things that we do because we don’t know how the people from the traditional audience is going to perceive the experiment. And so far as a majority, I guess most of the people have loved the music and they think, ‘wow, that’s so interesting.’

Eric: A couple things I’d like to add to Nestor when he was talking about Lau and the way he brings in some initial rhythms: we sit back and watch Nestor kind of feed it to Lautaro and it might be a part that would be played by two or three people. And then he’s telling Lau how to do it and Lau’s over there laughing like, ‘awww, fuck, primo. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ So I can take all that time, to figure out what my part i going to be, while I watch Lau sort of get pressed to the limits of his abilities. And then all of a sudden when when it clicks, it’s like the two of them are this huge rhythmic orchestra because Nestor, he’s like our secret weapon; he can come in and be like, this is the rhythm. Now primo, split it up between the floor above or a foot plate down here or above or put it on the top. And I watch that kind of play out. In other words, Nestor’s, rhythmic DNA now dictates that I can do this. And I can do that. And it makes my choices clear. I have limitations. I can’t play funk. I can’t play hip-hop back and play something in the cracks. And it’s now something that I know because I’m informed by them. And so now I am the expert at my part because I made it up. And it comes from what they’ve been doing. And so now we’re talking to each other. And then I think that helps move the music in a new direction rather than going to sit here and be a middle music pedagogue about it. I’m just going to bring whatever I can to the table. Now it usually works out and it usually ends up being something pretty fun.

Alex: That is to say, I think Eric and I share a lot of love of Jamaican music and other Caribbean music. I specifically go to New Orleans a lot, my brother lives there. I see all this fluidity. For me, it’s all one language with different accents, even between the music of the United States, the jazz tradition, the funk tradition, hip-hop tradition, as music of the South, of New Orleans, New York. I actually am a little bit more pedagogical than Eric, like I have gone to Columbia. A couple times. I’ve played with other Colombian musicians. I’ve been asking for records from other crummy musicians that I’ve known for years. We’re just trying to find something that sounds good and feels good. For me , it’s the same as Tito Puente, in a lot of ways. I love to compare the big band writing of Mambo and jazz and it’s all flavors of the same thing and I see it. It’s just one big, big spectrum and I’m trying to understand all the parts of the spectrum and honor them.

Lautaro. Yeah, I feel you. I grew up listening to super traditional, the most traditional Argentine folk music, like Chacareras, Sambas from my dad’s side. And from my mom’s side, she was like more open to some classical music and a lot of The Beatles. When I started playing music, I started with rock. So I feel like there’s a there’s an important influence of rock in the way I perceive artists or like the aesthetics of the music world. A little bit is informed by rock, and that being rebellious and it’s always been my quest to learn traditions, but I’m always kind of reluctant to follow everything. I’m very particular. I just want to find my own way of doing things and the moment I listen to myself and I’m like, ‘oh, I’ve heard this from me before,’ I try to move on, like I want something fresh because I’m very critical of myself in in that sense of being original and adding something new. And I feel like all of us in Los Cumpleaños are like that.

Antonio: And then circling back to the plans on an online presence and kind of the way things are kind of digital right now: something that really made me laugh was on your Facebook, you have under the About Me section, Latin Grammy winners until like 2029. Is that definitely in your plans and whose idea was it, who predicted that and put that on your Facebook page?

Lautaro: I don’t know who did, that was probably Alex.

Alex: Like, we have a we’re living under the regime of Trump. So we have to understand that everything is post truth now, so.

Eric: And all of our music currently is sung in Spanish. So we’re definitely open to receiving a Latin Grammy but if we end up playing Residente’s birthday party, I’m happy with that too.

Lautaro: Fuck yeah!

Antonio: Yeah, more seriously, what are your plans? Lau, you mentioned this timeline and t other projects but you want to go full fledge into into Los Cumpleaños.? What are your expectations in the near future, given that this pandemic kind of starts fading away?

Lautaro: I don’t know. I feel like a lot of a lot of the ideas that artists have in general of like ways of presenting their work or in AI are gonna definitely change a lot. I feel like we’re on this breaking point where everything was already very much online and virtual, but hat’s gonna go to a different level. And that means reinventing a lot of ways you present things. For now, the plans like short term are going to be release all the songs that we have recorded. So once we release all that, we have a bunch of new tools that we’re gonna record. And everything is very much linked to visual stuff. So our visual work is gonna have a lot more detail.

Eric: Yeah, we’re visually driven too. We’re very proud of the way we’re finding our voice with regards to using the technology and integrating the technology, whether it be synthesis or guitar pedals on the trombone, or samples and electronic drums. We’ve always been interested in pushing the sounds and we are a very visual band. So we’re going to be investing in ourselves in a way that’s production value. We’re all producers in our own right. And we’ve been demoing and making our own music just within the comfort of our own homes and getting better and better at that so that when we do enter the studio, we know exactly how to talk to one another. It’s not just like B flat or C major or G major anymore. So I think you can look forward to a lot more output from us that that sounds poignant and well thought out because we spend a lot of time being concerned with those elements.

By Antonio Villaseñor-Baca

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