“The Minutemen have a song called ‘A Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,'” says José Márquez, one-half of Bay Area electronic outfit Pepito. “It was kind of a joke, because they were political punkers. But I’m thinking, if you could actually marry the gracefulness of Michael Jackson with the lowbrow philosophicalness of the Minutemen — who were slamming cheap beer and coming up with some kind of existentialism — what a beautiful thing that would be.”
With a curlicue mustache and a ’50s flash art tattoo (a light bulb blooming out of a rosebud) on his neck, José looks like a visual representation of Pepito’s artistic raison d’être of American pulp meets traditional Latino styles: two forms the band has amalgamated gracefully enough to earn comparisons to Sonic Youth, Tortoise, and the Postal Service, while sharing the stage with Dealership, the French Kicks, Orixa, and Los Scarnales. The impulse to cross borders and blend cultures may have something to do with the artists’ scattered history. José was born in Havana but grew up mostly in New York; his partner, Ana Machado, hails from Tijuana but attended high school in Buena Vista, California. The two met in San Francisco in 1997, made a love connection, and thus gave birth to Pepito.
Perhaps the idea that most informs Pepito’s live performance is something along the lines of “move your mind, and your ass will follow.” José and Ana look a little out of place for what they’re doing, like art history graduate students who suddenly found enlightenment in distorted guitars and burping digital samples. Performing live at a recent Oaklandish Gallery show, they scuttled between their various instruments: two keyboards, a guitar, a bass, a sampler, and a vocal processor. Ana slid and boogied across the stage, popping muscles honed from seventeen years of ballet, tap, jazz, and modern dance. Adding a genteel gloss to motions calculated to “resemble the sounds of a synthesizer,” she might be the centerpiece of Pepito’s live show, were it not for the duo’s eye-grabbing video visuals, composed of images that José and Ana mostly drew by hand and adapted with pixel-by-pixel animation. Block-lettered Spanish words flit across a blank slate, and burn onto your mind’s eye right as the singers onstage utter them; at other times, cartoon palm trees, bottles of rum, and suitcases stand in for Tijuana, Havana, and the United States respectively.
The struggle between Latin America and Bush’s America seeps into everything Pepito says and does. Having two cultures at your fingertips can be enabling and liberating — especially if fluency in two languages allows you to move between communities. Yet José notes that the immigrant experience also can be very isolating. “There are a lot of things I enjoy about American culture, that are just as much a part of me as they are a part of you: skating, Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Public Enemy, Three’s Company, the Incredible Hulk, Star Trek — you know, the list goes on,” he says. “At the same time, there are limits to my ability to participate in the youth culture here, and be a rebel in that way. I can’t say that Che Guevara is my idol, because he’s not. I rebel against different things; I define myself differently.”
He thinks about this stuff a lot. “We tend to have a romantic fixation with mixed marriages,” José adds. “I mean, everyone loves their peanut butter and chocolate, right?” But he also concedes that packaging and selling such a marriage musically can be insanely difficult: “Anyone who can successfully market a hybrid, good luck to them and god bless them.” On the day we meet for a lunch of pink, oily fish and fried garlic string beans at the SF “Szechuan Trenz” restaurant Spices II, Jose and Ana are still a bit crestfallen about a recent show at San Jose’s Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA). The lineup, which also included Fax and Murcof — two fellow acts on the Tijuana-based label Static Discos, to which Pepito signed in 2003 — featured groups who, cultural heritage notwithstanding, still have little presence among Latino music fans in the United States. Despite adequate street-teaming and heavy publicity in San Jose’s Metro, the show failed to draw more than a handful of people, a double bummer for Pepito. After all, the duo had counted on San Jose’s sizable Latino population (about 300,000, as opposed to San Francisco’s 110,000) to help them break out of an insular — and disconcertingly “white” — electronic music scene. While this is, indeed, music made by Latinos, it’s not recognizably “Latino” in the collective sense of the word.
“We thought the numbers really meant something — you know, that critical mass,” Ana notes. “But I guess next time we play there, we’ll have to perform with a rock en Español group, something to which people are a lot more accustomed.”
Ana and José speak effusively about their desire to have a wider currency in Spanish-speaking communities, joking that they want to — in José’s words — “break out of the white-bread hipster ghetto” that has embraced them in San Francisco. Yet they approach Latino identity with their own ambivalence and their own personality. Listening to the often-abrasive, intentionally not-pretty sounds of Pepito’s first album, Migrante, you get the sense the band isn’t so concerned with drawing in a larger Latino fanbase as it is with sanctifying its own outsider status. The contradiction of desiring a Latin-American homeland despite having grown up in the United States is less the glue that binds Pepito with larger immigrant communities than it is the submerged tension that keeps José and Ana a little outside of every community.
That tension dominates the album, which was recorded for less than $2,500 during a dark and stormy Thanksgiving weekend that Ana and José spent holed up in their apartment, diddling on their computers — they’d downloaded emulators for drum machines and synthesizers, and were using the software to simulate melancholy guitar chords and crusty snare beats. The two realized that, by mish-mashing these digital sounds, they could create their own landscape.
Like any slatternly indie-rock teenager, the album has accidental moments of beauty — the beginning hook on “Salyut,” the gloomy guitar chords on “Historias de Amor” — but it does everything it can to interrupt and conceal them. “Salyut” begins with Ana singing plaintively about a Russian astronaut traveling to the moon to find food for his children: Sergei se fue para la luna en busca de pan y de queso/Los ninos rusos pasan hambre/No entienden del nuevo comercio (Sergei left for the moon, searching for bread and cheese/The Russian children are hungry/They don’t understand this new system of commerce). But then José crankily butts in with spoken English: What? I don’t get it/This song is about a Soviet cosmonaut with a really thick French accent, but the whole time, she’s singing in Spanish! We have the makings of a quaint populace tale, except that it deliberately mocks and undercuts itself.
The theory is that Pepito’s new record, Everything Changes, won’t take you as long to embrace. “We wanted to move away from the superficial experiments on Migrante and develop more subtle and intimate surprises — basically, to create more meaningful challenges and rewards for our audience,” José says. “So I guess, on the whole, our new record will sound more polished and less immediately difficult.”
What José describes as “subtle and intimate surprises” are, perhaps, the synthesized gurgles and purrs that insinuate into what is otherwise a sweet, starchy indie-pop sound. Whereas Migrante seemed hell-bent on its own deconstruction, Everything Changes — with its dulcet melodies and occasional disco loops — is more concerned with pleasing the listener. Granted, that doesn’t mean it’ll draw in more Latino fans: Pepito still brings immigrant identity to the fore, but more in the service of embracing contradictions than pandering to a particular audience. For all the time the two devote to theorizing their own position, the “Latino experience” seems, ultimately, to be more of a muse than an agenda.
So is Pepito compromising its more complicated elements to draw in a wider audience? José refers to a parable about taking a cane away from a feeble old man: “You can’t just take the cane away unless you give him something better.” The cane, presumably, is pop music — the stuff we use for pure escape or enjoyment, even if it’s ultimately a very limiting art form. A better analogy would be Pepito’s simple desire to take the listener to a place he’d never been before: “I’m not just gonna pick him up and drop him on BART,” José says. “I’m gonna put him in a car, get him on the freeway, take him to the space station, put him in a ship, give him a Coke, some cookies, put the TV on, ‘How you feeling?’ ‘Good.’ Then we take off, and eventually, when he ends up on Mars, he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s how I got here.'”