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BALTHVS's Balthazar: "I mean, even though they're thousands of miles apart, the Colombian musical heritage is so close to the African musical heritage. So I dig Zambian rock bands"

Interview with Balthazar from BALTHVS
by Dani Bandolier at 17 January 2021, 2:29 PM

After a near total 6 month quarantine lockdown and the resulting madness that isolation can generate in a social creature, Metal Temple writer Dani Bandolier was finally able to get out, travel and attend to some music business of my own in Bogotá, Colombia. While there,  she caught an early evening pandemic music set at a hip venue called A Seis Manos in the Santa Fe district where BALTHVS spun up ‘Cosmic Vibes for the Creative Mind’, performing their music from their new album “Macrocosm” which was released September 4, 2020. BALTHVS is Johanna Mercuriana (Bass), Balthazar Aguirre (Guitar) and Santiago Lizcano (Drums). She sat down with guitar-slinger Balthazar the next day and chatted with him about BALTHVS – past, present and future in a wide ranging conversation that touched on music, culture and the BALTHVS music business.

Hello … testing … 1, 2 …

Balthazar: we got a signal?

 Yep. Let's start at the beginning - recording “Macrocosm”. So when did you record the tracks and where?

Balthazar: We recorded during quarantine at my parents farm. This was talking about April. And I finished in June. And we pulled it out in September.

And everybody (in the band) was at the finca with you?

Balthazar: Joha (Johanna, bass player) was there … and Santiago the drummer, he wasn't there. He was my old drummer from my previous band which I disbanded in August 2020. I wanted to slim down my project, down to a trio. It was a six-piece back then …

Really? BALTHVS ?

Balthazar: No … My other band was called Aguirre Cosmico (dani note: this band is also on Bandcamp). And it was like a frenzied, psychedelic Santana, two percussionists, a drummer - Jam band.

Right on.

Balthazar: It was very aggressive, very fast, but not metal aggressive - but I mean frenetic, intense, like Fela Kuti - that type of vibe. But that collapsed, it was personal things and not sustainable in Bogotá, on the on the gigs - on the national gigs. It's not sustainable to hold out.

You guys were here?

Balthazar: Yeah, we were here. I'm born and raised Bogotá, Rolo 100%. Yeah. And so after that, I thought of a three piece. I met Joha, we got together. She's a musician. And Joha said to me - I know you're making music and you're doing it for three pieces and you don't have a bass player yet, do you think I could learn it and I just do it? And are you sure you want to do that? It's not like … I'm not like trying to play around. I really want to pull out something really cool. And I thought - Yeah, let's do it. And so we basically went into bass boot camp at home, that was the end of 2019. We got a drummer. We're all set for 2020 maybe one song, a couple of covers then COVID messed up our plans. My parents got a farm like 200 kilometers away from here. So we grabbed whatever we could fit in a car and went up to the farm with my studio stuff. We recorded that stuff non stop for three months - very ascetic type, wake up at 6am do some yoga, jog and then studio time until 8pm. And I did that until June when it was finished. And then we came out like September for the release date.

Johanna never played bass before another band?

Balthazar: She's a musician. She's a music type. I mean, she played Charango, she played Cuatro … very ethnic, sort of Andean music type. Yeah, but she's a musician. She picks it up quick.

She got a good groove. Something you can't teach people really…

Balthazar: No, no, no … She got it. I knew it from the beginning. You know what, that's why we clicked so fast because we both got it. So you know it. And we met at a gig, at my band - my psychedelic rock band was right after her during our little festival thing here in Bogota. She was doing her little Folky thing on her own telling poems and stuff. And then we were there. And it just clicked. I mean, we're both musicians. And I was looking for somebody that understood the lifestyle because it's a weird lifestyle moving around doing stuff, so … so yeah, we're both vegan too, and that was a big plus for both of us. Because we're both in that state that we wanted something. We don't want to complicate matters with the diet and now but that's another story …

So when was everything written, 2019?

Balthazar: I had two songs in December last year (2019), it was two songs … so the other eight songs came at the farm.

What are your influences as far as this project goes?

Balthazar: I mean, yeah, totally. I mean, I'm not gonna hide it or anything. One of the reasons why she felt so attracted to bass was because she heard this song called ‘Friday Morning’ from a new band called Khruangbin from Texas, a trio - hot chick on bass called Laura. And she just fell enchanted by those videos … and they even came here to Bogotà on Stereo Picnic music festival last year. And we saw them.

How were they?

Balthazar: They were good. I mean, they're a trio like us. That's been our blessing and curse for a while. But anyway, she heard that song and she felt wow, this might be my thing - because I dig the hip swaying, the mellow psychedelic vibe they're putting out and I saw she was trying to learn the song. She just grabbed my bass in my studio. And I said, “let me give you a hand.”

But I'm just tired of being compared to that, because I feel like I am a musician for almost 13 years, I have my own set of influences and stuff. And the easy way to dismiss us as a band is like, Colombian Khruangbin or something like that, you know, so right now, I'm just, I want to go again and try again. But the album was great. I mean, it set up a blueprint, a style, it turned Joha into a groovy bass player. And it made me a better guitar player too, because I always had backup. I always had a pianist, I always had a guitar, rhythm guitar behind me. You really need strong melodies to make the band sound big. Otherwise, it's not gonna work. And, and yeah, that's where we're standing right now.

So moving on from what you did this year with your release “Macrocosm”, what do you think would be the the future for your music direction and songwriting? What would you like to see your next release evolve into?

Balthazar: We're going back to the roots. Going back to our country.

More Colombian influence?

Balthazar: Yes. Champeta influence. Cumbia influence. I mean, even though they're thousands of miles apart, the Colombian musical heritage is so close to the African musical heritage. So I dig Zambian rock bands and Afrobeat and they play electric guitar. And when you listen to that African music, it's no different from the early Champeta that you heard in Cartagena. A lot of Fela Kuti’s releases were here in Cartagena, in Barranquilla actually, they were doing all the vinyl there when there was an industry before it collapsed in the 70’s. I like those types of music and I want to incorporate that, along with a psychedelic guitar. And here in Colombia, there's no psychedelic stuff, as a scene or anything, so we're pretty much on our own. I think that's where it's gonna head.

Have you heard Simone Mejía’s (Bomba Estereo) new disc called Monte?

Balthazar: We're talking about Li (Liliana) too?. No, that’s Bomba Estereo.

Yeah - no, it's Simone. But it's his solo thing. I think Li is on maybe a couple of tracks, but it's not Bomba Estereo. It's recorded tracks of bird song from Colombia. He recorded some birds singing and also some chanting from indigenous people while putting on some dance beats. It's not a dance record, but there's some dance beats some … like electro-tribe stuff. It's brand new. It seems the Colombian artists that I know, they all have that Colombia thing - they pull the Colombia thing in one way or another.

Balthazar: Yeah, totally. We don't …

No, not that I see. Not right now.

Balthazar: No, no - we're outcasts or foreigners here. I am, I mean - I wasn't raised on Colombian music. My dad was an airline pilot and he was just dragging vinyl home from his trips, listening to classic rock. We listened to the Police, Talking Heads, Santana. So that was my life basically until I got a social life on my of my own. So I wasn't raised on any Colombian stuff, you know. I was watching TV in English. I mean, I'm a strange case here for a Colombian. So it's been my quest sort of to go back to the roots but I'm still a guitar player, I'm an electric guitar player - a rock and roll player. So that's why I don't want the futuristic electronic sounds … because I'm not a computer player or a DJ. I'm a guitar player. So I'm just going to grab like the surf I'm picking from the early 60’s from the US, also I'm going to pick from the 70’s and come up with something new, something I can jam to and have fun on stage. I think that's the most important thing.

I noticed last night you guys are a jammin’ band and you can hear it on your release. Have you listened to the Grateful Dead or anything like that?

Balthazar: I am the only Dead Head in this country.

I've seen Colombian bands jam but they do it … kind of salsa like Joe Arroyo. They're not that psychedelic rock thing …

Balthazar: Psychedelics are stigmatized. People here have a very narrow view of drugs and they all see it in a negative light. Even though the famous Vallenato players, they were all down in alcohol and cocaine but with us (Colombians) to psychedelics, that was never here. This is such a psychedelic country, you know, you got ayahuasca, you got yajé, you got every single drug available here. You've got the mushrooms, you got the acid, bad acid. In my early 20’s my soundtrack was the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, all the 60’s psychedelic rock bands and obscure 70’s records. You know (for me personally), the psychedelic aspect matured more into yoga and meditation but that spirit is right there in the music and outside the music. I love talking about Jerry Garcia.

Yeah, he was a real treasure, really ended in a sad way … you ever listen to The Jerry Garcia Band?

Balthazar: Yea, they're more folky, more bluesy, more … more straight ahead, I guess. I love the Grateful Dead. I mean, they shaped me as a musician.

What kind of guitar do you play? I was trying to figure that out last night.

Balthazar: It’s unique. It's a luthier from Bogotá. His name is Barrera. One of his apprentices wanted to do a PRS replica type of thing. So they grabbed three unique Colombian woods, jammed them together, the three of them and put it in that kind of PRS shape. It's 24 frets long; you can really reach those frets comfortably. That's what I really wanted on a guitar. And I found it on a shop on the Novena over here completely abandoned. It had shitty electronics so it's it sounded like shit, but I kept looking at that shape of that guitar. I was like, Huh; so I just bought it, tossed out absolutely everything and I just bought everything. I got Lindy Fralin pickups, Twang Masters, they replicate single coils, a lot of that twang sound, but having my humbucker configuration. I got Hipshot locks on the tuning pegs, I've got a german Les Trem tremolo system, which is a more sophisticated version of the Bigsby, far more. With the Bigsby you really have to go for like one-fourth of a tone (bend). There's no between one fourth and the tone. This one you can just touch it … it's so sensitive and I like that. I can go really wild - maybe not Van Halen wild but I can go wild enough. And I can also be super subtle and just add a little vibrato to my notes, and I love it. So with the hipshot the tuning stays well playing .11 flatwounds, just like the bass … just flat flats flats and getting a really cutting sound. Now that was my rig. I just did a Rig Rundown, right?

What does Joha play? What's her bass?

Balthazar: It was a fretless Washburn bass. She tried going fretless and she was good. She's got a good ear - but singing and playing fretless is fucking hard. I have tried myself … and she sings a lot so I figured, let's not complicate stuff so much. Let's just fret it. We picked it because it's a Poplar wood and it's lightweight. I mean, we have a maple bass a Drew Bakker, like kind of boutique, entry boutique bass at home for the studio. It's too heavy - Maple is too heavy for her. She is a slim girl, small frame and she has to be there one hour 30 minutes with heels. So I figured let's go for convenience - get a poplar bass and I switched the pickups for Standard Precision pickups and a Fender Jazz pickup. They're all Fender electronics, passive … just a direct box. 90% of the times we go direct. Yeah, trying to slim down things.That’s what I learned from my other band which wanted to be like the Colombia Grateful Dead - too much gear man. Too much gear. Too many amps. Too much stuff. So ideally, I mean, I don't want to do a festival circuit with all that shit. I just want to go on down, be the best friend of the sound engineer and set up everything real quick. And we go direct. We don't need any amps. We don’t need backlines. I mean, if there's a Fender Deluxe I'll definitely go on the Fender Deluxe but if there isn't, it's no worries - I can still pull it off. Santiago has a Ludwig Breakbeats set - very jazzy, 16 inch kick drum so we can move it around so easily. And that's where we're mobile. We're a mobile band. We just carry pedal board, guitar, bass and the drums and that's it. And we are ready to go.

That's your goal - you want to do some international touring.

Balthazar: I want to live in another country. Yeah. I mean yeah, I just want to be gigging. I'm a musician. So we signed up with this label called Stereochip. They're Mexican. And they are doing PR and booking for us in Mexico. So here in Colombia, we've maybe got one interview and one journal note about our album and in Mexico, we've got like 15; like 15 websites and seven interviews. Our latest release was covered like in all the big hipster journals, things like Indie Rocks Mexico, their big magazine over there. There's a big psychedelic scene there unlike here in Colombia. There's actually a lot of psychedelic bands in Mexico. And that's our tribe right there. That's our nice place to start. And they actually do big, big psychedelic festivals like Normal … Hypnosis brings big name bands from the US to Mexico. And from Mexico, we can start moving towards the stage … we need a festival, a festival that can allow us to get our P-1 visa which will allow us to work as professional musicians for up to a year. And if we get the P-1 visa through a sponsor and festival invitation, we can just start rolling around.

Have you explored Brasil at all?

Balthazar: No.

You've got a good scene in Brasil. You guys can play with it.

Balthazar: I mean, if there's a festival thing, but i'm not … it's funny because we're rather close (geographically), but we're very far apart because of the language. I don't feel there's a connection between all the Latin American countries. I think Brazil is its own giant.

Well, it is except for the music part. I think the music makes that bridge for you.

Balthazar: That's true.

It does. I mean, Brasil doesn't have a lot of people speaking Spanish over there. But they've had some some government programs for Brazilians to learn Spanish. I had a girl living in my house who was here on a beca (scholarship) from Brazil to learn Spanish along with another friend that came for the same reason. I know another girl from São Paulo that went to Argentina. So there's some of that going on. A little bit of movement, culturally. And also, they know English too. BALTHVS sings in English as well so …

Balthazar: Yeah, totally. I mean, I'm just mentioning it that way, because we hadn't had any connection. Otherwise, we would be down. But right now the country that's been pulling us the most at the moment is Mexico. Followed by the USA.

Mexico is a good scene. They like (pop) music. They like non-indigenous type of music. You don't have to play Ranchero there.

Balthazar: Exactly. Our audience is there: you look at our Spotify numbers or social media, the people who write to us, the people who buy our CDs, buy the digital album - is not Colombians. It's 90%, American 10%, European, perhaps 5% Mexican, and maybe 1% Colombian - very, very low. So we know where our audiences are and where we got to go.

You got any sales numbers?

Balthazar: Sales numbers, I mean, maybe one K (one thousand units)  from Bandcamp.

That's respectable.

Balthazar: Yeah, it's cool. Its physical CDs, posters, t-shirts. That also includes the digital album from there. I don't have any boxes of t-shirts in my house. I just drop ship everything. So I request to make one (unit) and ship it to Germany or Finland or Colorado. That's been our sustainable thing. Spotify is also bringing good numbers. We had 11,000 listeners last year with The Wrap, you know, they have a summary of your year, like 85,000 streams, 11,000 listeners, most of them from the US. And uh yeah, it's been a good year despite the hardships, I guess. Just waiting on the live scene to come back because that's what I'm in for in this business too. I'm a live musician. That's what I like to do. I'm not a studio guy being … I don't like that. I don’t like being stuck in my studio. It's like I have to so I can play more songs live with my band.

How often do you play here in Colombia?

Balthazar: I'm playing something like six gigs a month. We're working on like anyone else in this country…

So where are you playing outside of Bogotá?

Balthazar: That's been a difficulty you know, we haven't yet - we haven't. But we want to.

When do you play Medellín?

Balthazar: I love this really kind of weird place there called Palacio Egipsio (in Medellín). You might have heard of that one … a crazy Paisa architect that wanted to make a replica of an Egyptian temple, and he made an Egyptian temple in the middle of the city. I've seen the pictures and I love it. I would picture a couple of our songs being played live, like a live session – that will be amazing.


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