Pop & Culture

This Band Deconstructs the Sounds of the Tropics

Camila Alvarez/Fusion

What do Danish fables, Syd Barrett and Silvio Rodriguez have in common? Mix those references with tropical genres and a classical music training and you’ve got Meridian Brothers.

The legend of Meridian Brothers goes back to the 1990s in Bogotá, when there lived a preternatural teenager named Eblis Alvarez. Like any other pubescent boy, Eblis’ entire existence revolved around going to parties to hook up with girls. But there was something else. In his bedroom, he spent countless hours mastering the guitar, and when the guitar wasn’t enough to satiate his musical curiosity, the young Eblis started playing folkloric instruments, drums, percussion. He started recording each of the instruments separately, laying them over each other, and recording the outcomes of his experiments on cassette tapes.

His musical ambitions took him to Denmark, to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and at the DIEM (Danish Institute of Electronic Music). In 2009, back in Colombia, Eblis released Meridian VI, an album that harkens back to the tropical sounds of the 60’s and 70’s in Colombia, under the local independent label La Distritofónica. He had recorded Meridian I-V, but did not think they were good enough to be released. But now he was ready. The bedroom project then turned into live shows with a full band called Meridian Brothers.

Sostengan y Alimenten al Ángel Entusiasta from Meridian VI:

Two years later, Eblis released Meridian VII, where he continued his experimentation with distorted tropical sounds, some champeta, jazz, surf guitar and an altered voice warbling some sort of urban fables, stitched together with the perfect mix of mythical creatures and political irony— amalgams that would have inspired someone like André Breton. That same year, Meridian Brothers went on their first European tour.

El Jazz del Chupasangres from Meridian VII:

In 2012, while on tour, Eblis met the people from the British label Soundway Records and gave them a copy of Desesperanza—salsa à la Meridian, an album that had been previously released in Colombia. One week later, Miles Cleret, owner of the label, called Eblis and told him he wanted to release it.

Since then, Meridian Brothers’ ancestral psychedelia has reached thousands all around the globe, creating a solid fan base of people who can’t help but to shake their shoulders and hips while they give in to the magical weirdness of the colorful apocalypse painted by the Eblis. Besides being the brainchild behind Meridian Brothers, he also plays in Los Pirañas, Ondatrópica, and Frente Cumbiero, some of the key bands in the underground musical scene in Bogotá of the past decade.

Meridian Brothers’ new album, Salvadora Robot, experiments with, of all things, reggaeton and vallenato, and comes out June 16 on Soundway Records. Get a first listen to the entire album over at NPR Music. I spoke to Eblis in Bogotá about Salvadora Robot and the genesis of Meridian.

Meridian Brothers Live-Salsa Caliente:

Fusion: Why Meridian “Brothers” if in the beginning it was just you recording all the instruments?

Eblis:I love pseudonyms, people not knowing who is making things. Maybe it’s something I inherited from metal, in the cover art of metal albums they always had something the band as a whole wanted to say. And Meridian is the name of a hotel I used to go a lot with my friends.

Fusion: And you keep recording all the instruments by yourself?

Eblis: Yeah, I’ve always done it. The band plays with me when we play live, but I record the instruments for the albums. That’s the project I started when I was little, that’s what I used to like and that’s still what I like. I enjoy it; it’s like a toy lab.

Fusion: When did you have your first encounter with the aliens?

Eblis: [laughs] Why do you say that, because of Guaracha UFO?

Yeah, they say Desesperanza is extraterrestrial salsa, but it isn’t really extraterrestrial, it’s very mundane. I’ve always been a fan of academic music, that’s my school. It’s always been a search for the most classic stuff— how to use the melody, the harmony, and the rhythms in an innovative way. And that has been an investigation that I did in my career as a classical composer. I developed a series of systems to make music and I implemented them in Meridian Brothers.

Fusion: Yeah, I read that you loved playing with textures and rhythms to find weird outcomes…

Eblis: Exactly. I never paid attention to lyrics. The first times I recorded I used random lyrics. And they were horrible. I was interested in the voice, the communication channel of the song because that was something that took me out of the academic environment that I used to live in. I thought it was so limited…but my real interest has always been musical, purely musical.

Fusion: That’s crazy because even though I love the music, I also love your lyrics. They’re very political, but so abstract at the same time. They’re like urban fables. What do you read?

Eblis: I’ve only read a few books, but there’s one from a Danish Author, Benny Andersen. He created this character, Svantes, who is a run-of-the-mill man, a loser. He is not with the woman he loves and he is not in the country he wants to be either. And he took this to many dimensions of quotidian life, and then they were musicalized by another guy called Povl Dissing. Many of my lyrics are inspired in that book.

I’m also inspired by the lyrics of Silvio Rodriguez, Syd Barret, vallenato lyrics. I’m a fan of vallenato, that’s my favorite music.

Fusion: And now coming back to the textures and the rhythms…can you tell me what happens there?

Eblis: They’re really technical things, but there’s a composer who influenced me a lot— György Ligeti. He has a very interesting way of working with rhythm, and he had a student from Puerto Rico who introduced him to all the Latin rhythms. Ligeti is Hungarian, dictating class at the conservatory in Stockholm, and this student introduces him to all these rhythms, and he starts understanding the tumbao of the salsa, of the son, and he starts creating very interesting things based on that because he does it from a very outside perspective. His way of working with rhythm and with musical structures obsessed me a lot for a while. I analyzed his music, especially his piano studies to see what was what he did, and I started designing my own system of melody and rhythm. That’s what I use to make my music. That’s what all composers do, they create their own system.

Fusion: Meridian Brothers is many things, but what is NOT Meridian?

Eblis: Even though it doesn’t seem like it, Meridian is a very classical band. It’s very purist. It goes to the classical styles, studies them, plays with them, and gives them a new shape. Meridian is not a combination of tendencies. It’s not about taking a little bit from there and a little bit from there. For example, in Salvadora Robot, our new album, I studied reggaeton, I copied its tendencies, its style. I copied the way they produced it, analyze its sounds, the way they express themselves. And then, after all that process, I come up with a new proposal. It’s more about that than about mixing reggaeton with salsa, for example.

This new album is labeled as tropical, and also has some elements from Desesperanza, but in essence, it is a very different album. There are some experiments with reggaeton, with vallenato. There are songs that are inspired by specific styles, such as [cumbia legend] Andrés Landero and [popular vallenato singer] Diomedes Díaz.

El Gran Pájaro de los Andes from Salvadora Robot:

This post is part of La Sopita Series: sounds, beats and clicks from the Colombian underground to the world. My goal with this series is to function as a bridge, connecting emerging Colombian artists to American audiences. La Sopita, like homemade rich, yet simple soup, will give you an intimate taste of the different indie delicacies being concocted in the underground musical kitchens of my bloody, yet beautiful country of Colombia.

Check out our first La Sopita installment featuring Mitú.

Find Camila Alvarez on Twitter at @CamiAlvarez7