As part of the release of Digcast VIII, the second installment to focus on NYC music, I’m posting each band in the podcast over the next few weeks.
Follow the link above to listen to James discuss “Ghosts,” horror movies, and one of his favorite places in New York City.
Los Encantados is a six piece band made up of James Armstrong, David Kinniburgh, Ben Mattison, Evan Mitchell, Kevin Rochford, and Jerome Umanos. They just released the third and final EP of the Same Damn Soul series, which was the initial project that brought Los Encantados out of the proverbial river of imagination and onto the land as a living, breathing, touring, and recording entity (that analogy will make more sense once you read the interview, I swear). This large band has a dynamic sound that culls bits of a few different rock styles into an attractive whole. They also put on a great live show – usually dressed all in white.
Drawing upon real experiences, the EPs released in April, July, and last week form a cohesive unit. The narrative arc traces the course of a relationship and its aftermath. Each EP has three songs and all feel like they belong together, but each have their own subtle distinctions. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect to me is how the story seems to be told from multiple vantage points. Sometimes we are in the throes of the joy of the relationship and sometimes we are in the ruminative time after it ended. I almost think a song like “Ghosts” covers both perspectives at once. Of course, not everything has to fit together, and it’s easy to just put on and enjoy. Nevertheless, to take such a nuanced approach and to do so clearly while not compromising any of the musical integrity necessary for a good listen is quite an achievement.
With the use of French and references to foreign locations both specific (St. Tropez) and general (the abbey), there is a cool travel / journey vibe, and that is reinforced musically. The trebly guitar and propulsive drumming remind of surf music and other tropical world genres at various points. The more I listened, the more I found reminders of one of my favorite musicians, Ted Leo. It’s not a dead ringer, but he often uses the prism of time abroad to understand his place in the world, he is excellent at melodic storytelling, and his punk roots give most of his music a stirring drive. Los Encantados evoke all of those things on tracks like “OMFD” with its charging opening and verse figures and “Dusk” with its Celtic-folk guitar and rollicking drums. The band also mixes it up with a lovely acoustic track “Pour Toi.”
Altogether, it’s been great hearing these songs over the installments and I look forward to whatever the band will do next. Each chapter of Same Damn Soul is available for purchase on bandcamp. You can like them on Facebook here and follow on Twitter here.
As of this writing, Los Encantados is playing next week during CMJ at The Delancey on October 17th. They’ll be on at 9:00 and it’s $8 without a badge. More info here. They also have a gig on November 14th at Glasslands. Doors are at 8:30 for that one and $10 advance tickets are available here.
I met James at The Tradesman for our interview. He’s thoughtful and enthusiastic in equal measure, which makes for a great discussion. We talked a little about the history of the band and the Same Damn Soul project, life outlooks, the “Ghosts” music video, some non-musical influences, and more. Check it out below.
TWD – So with the EPs out, you’re getting more exposure.
James – Yeah. It’s funny, though. We started getting things picked up in the States, but now there’s Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Brazilian fans. Most of the people that listen to us through GrooveShark are all in South America. Other streaming stuff has been through in Canada. A majority seems to be outside the States, based on the analytics we get. It’s cool, but we can’t travel out there obviously. It’s expensive. Especially for a six piece band. But the hope is just that more people hear us.
TWD – Did Los Encantados start as your project and then you found people to make a band?
J – Yeah. I wrote all of the songs besides “Maritime” and that was the Same Damn Soul. It was basically me in my bedroom, just a personal project. I play in another band with Kevin; he and another friend, they were the first to hear it. We decided to form a band around it to play the songs. We were going to do one show, play them in order – it follows a story. We were going to do this one thing, but we just liked playing music so much, we’ve kept on going. I was planning on going back to school, to graduate school. I was like “I’ll just do this one show.” That didn’t really pan out (laughs). I’m kind of glad, because things have gone really well. I’m finding a lot more happiness in playing music and continuing to write. It’s really small but there’s some nice, slow momentum. Hopefully it keeps building.
TWD – When was that first show?
J – It was November 2010. We were kind of dormant after, but the girl Heather that books at Bell House and Union Hall, she booked our next show. The whole thing about Encantados, we have disguises because the mythical creatures, the Encantados, they’re from the Amazon. They live in the river and when they come out, they take human form, but in disguise. They’re typically musicians, lovers, that kind of thing. When someone finds out they’re an Encantado, they go back in the river. So we had moustaches and bandito masks and this giant moustache banner. Heather was at the show, she was booking the Beard and Moustache Bash.
TWD – That’s perfect.
J – Yeah. And she liked us, so she booked us on that, this awesome event at the Bell House. So we rehearsed more for that, played that show. Then we didn’t do too much until recording in summer of last year.
TWD – Some of the other guys are in other bands as well?
J – Our drummer is in five right now. Everyone has their own or other projects. Guitarist Ben is in two. Kevin is in two. David, the keyboardist, writes music. I’m in two; Jerome is in two bands, DJing.
TWD – And everyone has a job too.
J – Yeah. Mine is totally related to music, that’s pretty much all I do. Everyone’s working full time, playing in bands. It’s awesome. We’re young, in the city. It’s kind of what you’re supposed to do, or why we came up here.
TWD – That’s always cool to hear about, how things got started. I mean, no one is drastically different, but I always like it. And I don’t think I’ve come across something where so many people are involved in so many things. It’s like Broken Social Scene.
J – (Laughs).
TWD – That’s the only thing that comes to mind that has so many other tentacles. That’s cool. Has that been easy to manage?
J – Oh, we’re just kind of on top of our shit. We use Google, that G Calendar. My iPhone is my Bible. We’re just really organized.
TWD – I guess you’d have to be.
J – Yeah. It makes it easy. It’s like if you’re running a business. Everyone puts in what they are doing: recording, DJing, whatever. Anyone can log in and check it. That way we know what days will work for shows or to schedule practice. It’s the best way to organize something. It’s art, but if you want to have a sustainable anything, you have to.
TWD – And if you want to accomplish a lot, you can’t do that haphazardly. And by accomplish, I mean even just play with people at different times. You guys should make a band scheduler app.
J – A couple of us in the band are a little OCD, like me definitely. That helps for scheduling. I never really did it in other bands before. It helps so much. It’s so fucking stressful to manage with this many.
TWD – Did you say all of Same Damn Soul is in sequential order?
J – Well, the first time we played them in a different order than they are now. They way we played them at the show, lyrically, they were in order. The release of the EPs has been more like pacing a full album. It’s sequenced out that way. The message is still there. There wasn’t that much switching around, but a couple didn’t make sense listening to it that way. And when we played it, we hadn’t recorded it yet. In the studio, recorded, it starts to sound a little different.
TWD – It seems, if not 100%, largely autobiographical.
J – It came from a really autobiographical place. At the time when I was writing it, it was really self-serving. At the same time, I feel it’s relatable. There’s specific things, inside things, you know they mean a certain thing to someone, but if someone else hears them, it’ll mean something completely different.
TWD – Yeah. When I talk to musicians or anyone who’s doing something creative and personal, I find that line very fascinating. It’s not about what’s real, or outing people in that sense of “this happened.” But at the same time, it’s interesting to know what goes into something. You want to keep some of the mystery, that’s what makes stuff so relatable. It’s also fascinating that the more specific you can get, somehow it can be more universal in a way.
J – For sure, definitely. I think so. On a song like “Subways,” which is almost word for word.
TWD – Yeah, that was an interesting one, how it was a conversation, lyrically.
J – Yeah, that was a night in my life, basically word for word, sequentially. That happened. But people like the song because people get fucked up.
TWD – That’s a good example. It’s so detailed; you mention the scarf and 5:17 AM.
J – (Laughs).
TWD – Maybe I don’t have someone with a scarf at 5:17, but I get it. As opposed to saying “You look nice and it’s late.”
J – (Laughs) Yeah, yeah.
TWD – It’s much better to do it that way.
J – To bare it all, basically.
TWD – And even if I don’t know whether or not it happened like that, you get a sense it comes from a real place. It somehow transmits a way we can think of things in our own lives.
J – It’s like having a conversation with one of your friends in a bar, but in a song. I could see maybe hearing the song as like, if your friends and you are having a couple beers and it’s like “Oh yeah, I know what you’re saying, this shit happened to me like two nights ago.”
TWD – Yeah, it is interesting. “Maritime” is a little bit that way in the conversational aspect as well. That’s an interesting way to write, people don’t do that as much, put a few different voices or perspectives in. Anyways, the line that struck me was when you talk about the puzzle and how people might fit together or might not. That seems to be a theme: a person, how they come into your life, and how they aren’t there for as long as you’d want them to be. “This is an amazing person, I wish we could be together” – whether it’s a romantic relationship or a great friend – but people disappear. Intentionally or inadvertently. When you come across those people, do you just accept the moment or try to plan it out?
J – Accept the moment of it. Try and enjoy it as much as possible. Even in your mind, it’s kind of impossible to put end points on certain things because who the fuck knows what is going to happen? So you might as well enjoy it. I mean, obviously you plan certain things, but…
TWD – I think that’s definitely the right way to approach it. Sometimes you meet someone in a situation that’s not normal and it’s like “Where’s this going to go?” But the best thing to do is not think that.
J – Yeah, for sure.
TWD – But it’s hard. At least my personality. It’s freeing when you can embrace that, though, and just go with it.
J – Definitely.
TWD – I think “OMFD” gets at that a lot, the idea of this might not last. That’s the song that talks about the night and the morning. To me, that gave the sense of “Maybe tomorrow it’s gone, but we have tonight.” It’s always worth those moments, don’t you think? Even if you don’t have tomorrow.
J – Yeah, for sure. It’s hard to regret something that you did, if there was positive intent behind it.
TWD – Yet people are very adverse to subjecting themselves to anything emotionally painful. Sometimes it’s like I’d rather just avoid, I’d rather not let it start than deal with the ups and downs. You know what I mean?
J – I guess so. But on the other side of that, if you want to feel an extreme high, you have to be prepared to feel an extreme low. Or you just flatten out. Which is fine. Some people get solace and comfort in routine or knowing “this is it.”
TWD – Maybe the highs won’t be too high, but the lows won’t be too low.
J – Right. Sometimes when you’re in a very extreme low, you don’t know when it’s going to pick back up. It’s also dangerous when you’re so high, you could come crashing down to epic depths. Who knows?
TWD – Was that a way you’ve always felt about your life and experiences? Or have you kind of had to get to that?
J – I don’t know. I’ve kind of just gone with it. Just accepted things for what they were, you know, for better or for worse. I feel like it’s what you have to do. A lot of things are beyond your control completely. I mean, I’ve been totally guilty of getting so frustrated, fucking infuriated, at things I can’t control. I’m not, preaching this “It’s great” (laughs). That’s where some of the inspiration to write comes from, it’s that insane frustration. Some of the happiest songs I write are when I’m feeling my total worst. But it kind of helps me climb back up and make sense of situations. I think it’s worth it to try, to take risks. Calculated ones, mostly. If you’re driven so hard by passion that you need to do something fucking totally insane, it’s what someone should do.
TWD – I agree. And that’s what’s cool about art. It helps people to get there. Sometimes you need to see someone else do it or hear about it. It’s definitely important. I think you bring strong writing of lyrics and music together pretty well. Has your songwriting process changed at all? Is it you that brings it to the band?
J – Yeah, for the most part. I find it, for this specific project, it’s just the way I work best. I’m open to other people’s ideas. I don’t write out sheet music and hand it out. Everybody contributes, but principally I will write the core of the song – lyrics, melody, stuff like that. I don’t really see it changing that much, but I’m sure it will get more collaborative.
TWD – We talk about “Ghosts” for the podcast, but I want to talk a little about the video, which I really like.
J – Cool.
TWD – So that’s definitely Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
J – Yeah. For the most part it’s Williamsburg.
TWD – That’s what I thought. Who made it?
J – Patrick Lawler, this dude from LA. He was the DP and filmed it, another guy named Henry helped. David, our keyboardist, he directed it.
TWD – Oh cool. Yeah, I like it, I think it’s cool how everyone is paired up and doing something different. There’s scrabble, there’s arm wrestling.
J – (Laughs) Yeah.
TWD – Does that say anything about each member’s personality, what activity they’re doing?
J – Yeah. A couple nights before, David, Patrick, and I got together at the Charleston and got really drunk and came up with a huge list of dates. And from that list, we got everybody together and were like “Alright, this is all of what we came up with, for cool dates you can go on with someone.” We would just name them off, “So what do you guys want to do?” Most of the decisions were like immediate. I remember the arm wrestling thing, we were like, “Ok we’ve got X, X, X, and arm wrestling” and as soon as the “ing” was done, Evan was like “arm wrestling, definitely.”
TWD – So he would have done that. Then the kite on the roof, the drinks. The one in the street, that’s just like a street meeting, I guess? Not yours, the other one.
J – Oh, yeah, we were trying to touch on even passing glances. Just some kind of feeling of lust or love. Well not love, obviously, but some kind of attraction.
TWD – Did you know all the girls in the video?
J – Yeah, they’re our crew, our Encantadettes.
TWD – Ok, I didn’t know if you put out a Craigslist ad (laughs).
J – No, no, no. That would have been funny.
TWD – It seemed like everyone knew each other.
J – The girl that I’m searching for, she is my girlfriend. We know everyone, all friends and such.
TWD – Cool. I like how it culminates in the street dance.
J – Yeah. That was a really fun scene to shoot.
TWD – Did you have to avoid traffic at all?
J – We were on a quiet street. Some people drove through, a few cars. That was the first scene we shot actually. We shot it early. It was pretty easy.
TWD – I didn’t know anything about the origin of the word, the Encantados. But you can kind of almost get a bit of that vibe in the video. Maybe because of how you said you wear the costumes and you’re all in white, they’re all in black. Everyone comes together, the street is like a river in a way. The festive vibe. It might be a stretch…
J – Hmm, yeah. That’s cool.
TWD – I love music videos and it always makes me sad there’s not as much of a distribution. But bands are still making them.
J – It’s pretty cheap to make awesome videos. Have you seen Dig!?
TWD – The documentary? No, I haven’t.
J – Oh, you should. It’s amazing. Definitely do that soon. Anyways, they talk about this video they shot, I think it was the first album for Capitol. I can’t remember the song. It looks like they were on a 60s soundstage. I think it cost like $50,000 or $100,000, some stupid amount of money. For this 3, 4 minute video, which is basically shot in one location and there’s nothing special really going on. It’s a fucking band in a soundstage. That was in the early 90s when people were just throwing money away. Now, when talking with DPs or seeing independent record label budgets, you can do something for like 5 grand. You can do a lot for that much. I can’t even imagine what you could now with that budget with all these resourceful people.
TWD – Yeah, there was a lot of waste back then.
J – For sure. We’re storyboarding two more videos now and then there’s another dude from Spain we are going to meet to do another.
TWD – All from Same Damn Soul?
J – No, only one from that. The next two are two songs that we’ve recorded but that aren’t out. They’ll be coming later. I’m really excited about both of them. Well, all three of them. The two we’ve storyboarded, it’s going beyond just walking around streets. It’s fun.
TWD – Yeah, start practically then keep pushing it.
J – I love the “Ghosts” video, I thought it turned out really great. That Scrabble scene is my favorite. We have a bunch of stills and pictures, it was such a beautiful day and the sun was going down. The DP had one of those Red cameras. It was cool.
TWD – You mentioned that film Dig! What other films, tv, books, or other things are you influenced by? Or just enjoying right now.
J – I just saw Frida recently, I really liked that a lot. Robert Burns, a Scottish poet. I grew up around that, my grandmother and everyone singing the songs. I grew up around the poetry so much, and now one of the songs we have coming out was inspired by him. Iris Murdoch, she’s my jam. I love her shit so much. Severed Head, that was a big influence on the end tale of Same Damn Soul and then going into writing new songs. I’ve been watching David Foster Wallace interviews. I wasn’t huge into his writing, I mean, he’s obviously a phenomenal writer, but it didn’t resonate with me as much. But I love watching David Foster Wallace just speak. He’s such an intelligent guy and his ideas are really great. Him as a person resonates a lot more with me than his work.
TWD – I haven’t read any of his fiction, but some of his essays. Have you ever read any of his stuff about tennis? It’s crazy. He’s a huge tennis fan and he wrote this breathtaking take on Roger Federer and I was like “What, this guy?” You know him as this brilliant postmodern literature writer. But he just loved tennis and brought these crazy insights into it.
J – That’s awesome.
TWD – Are you into TV at all?
J – I don’t watch too much. I just finished watching Trailer Park Boys. It’s amazing, I love that show, it’s so good. When I was done I was like “Fuck, what do I do now?” For the most part when I watch movies or TV, I like comedy. Caddyshack. Oh, and that documentary on the F1 driver, Senna, it’s amazing.
TWD – I heard about that. It’s all existing footage, right?
J – Yeah! That was my favorite part about it. It was so awesome. I really liked F1 when I was a kid.
TWD – Did you know of him?
J – Not really. I started getting into it right when he died pretty much. Was it 1994? Right around then I was 10 or 11, I got into it more like 12. It was after his time. The end of that movie is intense as fuck cause they show in car footage of him going around that last corner.