How Mexican Summer Spent Ten Years Changing Indie Rock
Ariel Pink: "Tell them Ariel Pink said to say Ariel said this was the tenth anniversary."
Launching in 2008, just as “chillwave” pulled a Stuxnet on the discourse, Mexican Summer interrogated, over the intervening decade, a hypothetical: What if an established record label cloned itself as a lifestyle brand, fertilized solely by vibes?
Focusing the critical eye beyond the pure-aesthetic bokeh in the coming deluge of spiritually bankrupt hypnagogic pop, the A&R bigwigs at the Brooklyn-based firm opened the aperture wide enough to capture diverse and enterprising intercontinental artists of vast acclaim: Ariel Pink stationed in Los Angeles, Pill hunkered down in NYC, Tonstartssbandht enduring Orlando, Dungen operating somewhere in Stockholm, the antipodal Connan Mockasin skyping in from New Zealand for royalties reports—and this with the Colombian heritage of head honcho Andrés Santo Domingo also notwithstanding. Rekindled from Domingo’s philosophically and aesthetically unmoored Kemado Records, Mexican Summer, ten years on, feels more concise, refined, and focused than Kemado ever did.
On a Saturday night in November at Pioneer Works, the multivalent Red Hook, Brooklyn arts hub, a birthday party saw the sprawling Mexican Summer footprint localized in music-festival miniature, the aforementioned acts (minus Mockasin) and more displayed the live prowess of the label’s roster. Dubbed A Decade Deeper, the night italicized the October release of an eponymous compilation LP that features 13 tracks from label luminaries. And, what’s more, the programming displayed the space Mexican Summer carved out for itself in the last ten years.
On that aluminum anniversary compilation, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma contributed a brief distillation of his expansive practice, bridging cuts between Robert Lester Folsom and Dungen. Despite dozens of releases on labels too various to list, Cantu-Ledesma made headway with the 2015 ambient masterpiece (and first for Mexican Summer) A Year With 13 Moons. As citrine sunset rays cut through the windows of Pioneer Works, Ledesma’s early evening set conjured that breakthrough record, cleansing the psyche, an herbal tonic on the palate of worldly stress.
A centrifugal force of Bay Area ambient and drone, Cantu-Ledesma placed a reel-to-reel tape machine on a chair front-and-center, like the guest of honor at a musique-concrète coffee date, propelling lo-fi kick drums and barely-there hi-hats into the dusk. Live, this music takes the shape of its container. Cantu-Ledesma and a second guitarist summoned impressionist harmonics and overtones so subsuming, so spiraling that the very rafters three stories above refracted with prismatic sound.
That expanse presented a disservice to Drugdealer, the Los Angeles-based project of Michael Collins, formerly of the fever-dream psych project Run DMT. The impending winter solstice hastened a disquieting horizon; Collins took the stage with a six-piece backing band, just as the sky went fully black at the suspiciously early time of 6 PM. A Decade Deeper—the comp and the concert alike—sold out well in advance, but the bodies trickled in with no urgency whatsoever (except for Collins’s father, a guest of honor, who saw the concert, front to back, from a perch in the loft). The echo of the less-than-full huge stone hall posed an on-stage listening challenge, Collins told me later.
But, despite the bandleader’s understandable concerns, Drugdealer’s precisely languid baroque gutter pop sounded tight, nuanced, and powerful, exuding classic-rock confidence and grit. At one point, a bearded singer, wearing a floral Technicolor kimono and a massive ushanka, brought an electric-blue Melodica to the mic. A bonafide capital-G fang-toothed Guitar Solo prowled through the end of the set, a Steadman sketch of Thin Lizzy jaywalking Abbey Road.
Between songs, Collins inadvertently presented the night’s thesis: “Can I get some more reverb?” A Decade Deeper already echoes through the cosmos, as in: ten more years of musical particles reverberating indiscriminately through the infinite void. The spirit of the night felt inclusive and laidback and adventurous and universal and—sorry—vibey. Typically sluggish episodes (set changeovers) felt effortless, while generally ephemeral moments (performances themselves) felt positively endless.
David Smith, the creative force behind the dreamy LA-based dulcet power-pop project called Part Time, echoed Collins’s request for echo.
“Reverb, chorus,” he conjured on his line check, his shoeless feet in imperial purple socks. “Where are you, reverb? Where are you? Reverb, chorus, where are you?”
Despite Smith’s eye-catching stockings, Part Time’s bassist stole the sartorial show, dressed like a perverted Mariachi or a bouncer at a Flipmode-powwow-turned-Mary-Kay-meeting: leopard-print boots and matching blouse, little pom-poms dangling from the brim of a bolero hat, tassels and fringe and ornamental buttons all about the ‘fit.
“We put out our first two albums on Mexican Summer,” Smith introduced, “so we’re just going to play those tonight.” He, with a quartet backing him, launched into robust versions of What Would You Say? and PDA, released in 2011 and 2013 respectively. “It’s really nice to be here,” he effused, having toured the East Coast only a few times before. “I didn’t know so many people cared.” Indeed, eight or nine diehards elbowed to the front of the stage, singing along to every line. Though the songs dropped years ago, they sounded fresh and effortless—except when Smith strained his voice toward the upper register.
“I’m old!” he told me later. “And, with those recordings, I speed them up, I slow them down. What happens live is a totally different thing.”
The skronky post-punk of Pill came off as punchy and as polished as their recordings. One of the most-active bands in New York City, they’ve also emerged as one of the most-consistent. Their new LP for Mexican Summer, Soft Hell, provided the bulk of the setlist, save the compulsory, penultimate “Naked Muse.” With its circular bassline and Bad Moon Rising monologue, it demonstrates exactly the mutant SuperFly kinesis manifesting ever-more overtly in the band—and it’s a welcome inflection of Funkadelics.
“That song was on the ten-year comp,” multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Jonathan Campolo announced to the crowd, referencing the celebration’s companion LP. A fan near the stage asked what he was talking about. “The comp,” Campolo explained to an unresponsive face. “It’s what we’re celebrating. The ten-year comp.” It didn’t seem to register.
Pill closed with the hypnotic “Pina Queen,” their best cut, perhaps, and certainly a New York post-punk classic in waiting. The benchmark recording appeared on last year’s Dull Tools Tapes—titled for the Parquet Courts-affiliated indie label that released the CS. While frontperson Veronica Torres wore a black-sequined cocktail dress for the occasion, Campolo wore a white T-shirt with “I BELIEVE YOU” hand-lettered in black magic marker on the back, the O elongated with a downward tail, turning the vowel into the feminine icon of Venus.
“Tell them Ariel Pink said to say Ariel said, ‘this was the tenth anniversary,’” Ariel Pink told me before the show. Ariel—who wore knee-high, black-leather riding boots, a rust-and-cerulean plaid button-down, and reinforced khakis—had two more requests: “Put six or seven sets of quotes around that. In fact, can you make that the headline?”
For years, Pink luxuriated in the expressionist/isolationist release of cosplaying wonked-out musical narratives to the private audience of tape recorders—manifesting crooners, lounge singers, balladeers, and whole choirs—amassing hundreds of hours of home-recorded tape, an underground contemporary of Wesley Willis or Gary Wilson or R. Stevie Moore. He then dropped one of the greatest songs of all time, “Round and Round,” bringing him the attention that cult followers always insisted he deserved, the over-the-top production values clarifying what the heads had been saying for years: Ariel Pink writes downright gorgeous songs.
That anthem of anytime, anywhere (play “Round and Round” at my funeral, please) emerged via 4AD, on Pink’s first real studio record, 2010’s Before Today. But the knotty infrastructure of the Beggars’ imprint seemed lacking of the elasticity and reflex best-suited to the intensely mercurial Pink—an artist who doesn’t shapeshift so much as he inhabits multiple psychological aspects concurrently. This manifested most fruitfully on Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, the fantastic tribute album he and Mexican Summer released last year.
The leaner operation of Mexican Summer offers a more-intimate, safer space, even as Pink’s presaged deconstructions of cherubic-diva-cosplay manifest disingenuously in mainstream pop. (See also: Ariana Grande defeating the Wheel of Musical Impressions. It may behoove Mexican Summer to explore reissuing any portion of Pink’s massive back catalog at some point soon, before the monocultural novelty of rubber face wears off again.)
His live performance still baffles and delights, equal parts midway freakshow and Flip Wilson variety hour. The live arrangements never lack for satisfaction, each song transcendent and bizarre on its own virtue. Categorically, is it soulful witch house, or yacht rock on the River Styx, or an electro-skiffle combo inventing love songs in the dark? The answer is: yes.
Stage right, a character with heavy eyeliner, a massive ushanka of his own, and a T-shirt reading LISTEN TO THE GERMS (“available anywhere Impact Media is sold,” he told me) Don Bolles sang backup as a perfectly animated Los Angeles Pixar punk baffled by snow conditions. Bolles—he spelled out his last name for me: “ Body Odor eL Lower East Side”—would have stolen the show, if the band weren’t such a strong-and-balanced ensemble.
And yet, Ariel made several on-stage references to this being the last performance of the group. Consider his willingness to explode a successful project like The Haunted Graffiti just for legal standing and hope—for the sake of the music—he’s just flexing his intuition, here. His seamless setlist reflected this sensitivity, with the narrative arc surreptitiously building toward heavier rock numbers near the middle, inciting mosh pits at the climax, and then gliding cooly back down through his wonky brand of R&B.
The programming of the day followed suit, with the lineup organized not-so-much for stature but for continuity. So, after the wild, Top-of-the-Pops indulgence of Ariel Pink’s mainstage set, the more-intimate side stage provided a welcome, mantic respite. The Orlando-based brothers Edwin and Andrew White performed the musical ritual they call Tonstartssbandht, a brief excursion into their lifelong collaboration.
The duo displays telekinesis, a mutual intuition of unseen charts and unwritten languages, developed in tandem only in the way a covalent bond shares a center. Simply: that intuition is brotherhood, and Tonstartssbandht are one of seldom bands to indulge the joy of that relationship successfully (Noel and Liam Gallagher explore an emotionally inverse version of this bond).
The greatest, most-effective live rock act maybe since the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tonstartssbandht face the consistent difficulty of capturing their brand of supercharged live charisma and pressing it accurately to wax. Because, there is no doubt: anyone who sees the Whites perform accepts their casual virtuosity, psychic entanglement, and pure heart. Mexican Summer’s most-tenured band, the brothers keep searching to capture that magic, releasing album after album, from both live and studio recording sessions.
Maybe they have captured it, but their spiritual quest keeps pushing them forward, their keystone set on Saturday proving, once again, that nothing compares to their live show. Weaving in and out of jams, solos, mantras, incantations, fugues, war drums, complex vocal harmonies, and electrified American Primitive riffs, they fused all this into the band’s rock-solid art-pop. So, when Andy announced they had one more song to perform, it got a bit of a laugh, as they hit a grand total of somewhere between two and four immense, glittering, labyrinthine compositions. Less than leaving the listener with a melodic takeaway, Tonstartssbandht always imparts a feeling of peace, as if the listener just completed a sojourn—after all, how could one possibly carry a diamond-encrusted anaconda from the center of the maze? You can only tell return with the story.
That sense of adventure carried over to the night’s “Secret Guest from Sweden,” the painfully obvious secret more likely a technical elusion of arcane US work visas. Had the Kraut-rock stoner-psych quartet Dungen declared their incredibly badass top billing at the border, surely some international customs fees would be imposed for rocking way too fucking hard. Dungen’s post-rock sludgey take on the night’s common themes provided a soft, dissociative comedown—before the after parties kicked into high gear upstairs.
As I watched, from a loft high above the hall, the Swedes worked out a real mad groove onstage. I heard a stranger over my shoulder say: “The first time I did coke was with my dad,” and I turned around to see the line delivered by a leather-clad adonis pouring bumps onto the fleshy part of his friends’ hands—I took this as my cue.
But, on my way out, I bumped into Mexican Summer Label Manager Warren Konigsmark, taking in the music with his six-months pregnant wife in tow. “We’re prepping him musically,” she joked. Konigsmark seemed just as excited about the party as he did his expectant child.
“For me, it’s about being able to watch bands manifest their vision and to be able to be a vessel for that and deliver that to an audience is a rewarding and satisfying feeling,” he told me.
And that’s the real choice: you can age in chrysalis, ignoring the actual passage of time, and before you know it, you wake up, and you’re a decade deeper, doing bumps off the back of your paw with your pops. Or, you can mature as you’re meant to—refining your craft, honing your skills, and expanding your support network—bring your son to work day. Imagine if, across the next decade, we committed to anything the same way Mexican Summer has committed to the vibe.
Dale Eisinger is a writer and photographer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.