Flor de Nopal's symphonic electronica
Plus: Farewell to Gabi M., new music from Marianne Dissard & La Cerca's latest
If you rub a prickly pear cactus the wrong way, it’ll get its revenge by literally getting its hooks into you. Itchy, sticky glochids will cling to your clothes and get embedded in your skin. But prickly pear will also nourish you, if you’re brave enough to get past the spines. You can turn the pads into nopalitos and harvest the fat, ripe fruit in summer. And in spring, the flowers blanket the desert in glorious shades of magenta and neon yellow, as if nature went shopping for throw pillows in a 1980s mall.
Like its namesake cactus flower, Tucson band Flor de Nopal is vibrant and complex, symphonic electronica with a touch of indie-pop brightness, a sigh of brooding goth, and at least a little bit of neon colored '80s inspiration
Tucson Sentinel: What’s Flor de Nopal's origin story?
Flor de Nopal: “My name is Bea (pronounced ‘beh-ah’) but on stage I go by Flor de Nopal. Flor de Nopal was really born from an explosive need to let out a bunch of ideas, feelings and perspectives that had been building over years. Its roots and origin are really my experience as a brown trans migrant and how I experience those identities. I was able to finally find a way to share my story as a migrant and as a trans person cohesively - the full picture. I always have a hard time describing the sound of my project, but usually I like to say Flor de Nopal is a darkwave, emo synth project.”
TS: How did you discover and fall in love with music in general and electronic music specifically? What led you to start playing and creating?
FdN: “I was always surrounded by music. My dad is an opera singer and so always had musicians in and out of the house. My parents tell stories of the super rowdy parties they would throw when I was just a baby and how I would soundly sleep through them.”
“When I first started making music, it started with singing. Little known fact about me: back in the day I was the youngest member ever of the Tucson Girls Choir. My dad snuck me into their auditions without filling out the paperwork and then they basically couldn’t deny me joining after I passed the audition! I believe you were supposed to be at least 7 to join and I was 5.”
“I’ve always enjoyed singing, but for many years my primary instrument was the cello, which I started playing when I was 11. Growing up, I was a member of all my middle and high school orchestras as well as Tucson Junior Strings and the Tucson Philharmonic Orchestra. Shout out to all the youth orchestra directors that dealt with my insanity!”
“I started exploring and writing electronic music at a time when I was feeling very constrained and limited by life and my relationship to music. My cello and I have always had a super formal relationship - start with warm-ups, move to scales, do some exercises, move to sheet music. I wanted to experience and explore music differently, so I bought a little synth and started making noise. At the time I was living in New Mexico and a friend and I started a noise duo under the name QAF (Queer as F***).”
“I ended up moving back to Tucson after being gone for 10 year and that was when Flor de Nopal was born. I needed to make sense of who I was before leaving Tucson, and who I was now returning. I’d say the beginning sounds and stories for Flor de Nopal come from the friction and beauty of my family’s migration story. Then, you add my queer/trans identity and life long rebellion and you get the dark electric, dancey bits in the sound.”
TS: Thoughts on electronic music? Why do you think this area of indie/new music is beginning to flourish so much? And how much common musical DNA do you share with other artists in the genre vs. where you differ?
FdN: “Thoughts on electronic music, other than that I am obsessed? Haha, yeah definitely obsessed. I can’t say for sure why this area is starting to grow so much, but from my experience and observations I see a couple things: I think MIDI controllers and software like Ableton and Logic are becoming more accessible/common. I also see music elements that we would regularly associated with electronic/house music showing up more in different genres. A lot of the newer hip hop/rap and reggaeton jams have these deep synth basses and arpeggiated riffs.”
“I listen to such a wide array of music it’s hard to think about what the common ground might be! I think I definitely share a lot of common ground with other folks my age, I’m a Millennial who listened to a lot of indie/alt music (Arcade Fire, Aphex Twin, Radiohead, XX, Crystal Castles) but was also growing up on the South Side of Tucson and was surrounded by hip hop culture (50 cent, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nellie, Drake). There’s also a California band called Prayers who self identify as cholo-goths and have really influenced me feeling like there is a space for brown folks in darkwave/synth music. All these artists have shaped so much music in recent years and have absolutely shaped me.”
“I think where I differ most would be in my love of classical music - few things bang as hard as Dvorak chamber music - as well as the influences from my family’s music taste. At home there were always Boleros, Tangos, Trios, Sones Jarochos or some Mercedes Sosa playing.”
TS: COVID-19 has hit independent artists with a vengeance this year. How has it affected your own work? What do you think live performing is going to look like in the future?
FdN: “Covid has really given me time to reflect and think about why I play music. When all of a sudden shows aren’t happening and everything seems so difficult and hard to accomplish, you find yourself asking : why the f*** do I do this in the first place?”
“But that reflection has been good. It reminded me of the whys. It’s also given me more space and time to focus on the detailed bits of my music. This new EP was a slow process, but I am so happy with every piece of the project that I’ve learned a different way of approaching a release and perfecting a mix.”
“I honestly get so overwhelmed thinking about what live performances are going to look like in the future. I just want to play and go to crowded, steamy shows where some stranger sweats on you and/or you make out with them! Hahaha. Not sure when that will happen again.”
“I think we will probably be looking at outdoor, DIY, super distanced shows for the time being. I remember in high school when we weren’t old enough to go to the bars and venues we would create our own pop up type shows.”
“On Halloween, I played this dope show in one of the washes here in Tucson. It was me and a couple of other musicians - we got a generator, set up an impromptu stage and played a sunset show in this wash. So Tucson, so fun. That’s one of the things I have always loved about Tucson - the DIY scene and how we embrace our dirty desert ways.”
TS: Tell us about the EP!
FdN: “This EP! It’s my second release and the one I am most proud of. Each song has such an important story attached to it. It really spans from feeling so affirmed, to feeling ok with the feeling of being lost and having no idea what comes next. I feel like this EP also accomplished a musical milestone - it has my first true break up song, haha.”
“I worked with a friend from New Mexico to produce, mix and master the final tracks and am so happy with his work. He is technically a hip hop producer, but found such a great way to work with my tracks. I love a good bass and his bass sound is so deep and round, I can’t get enough of it. Over all, he really understands the type of soundscapes I aim to make and feel so grateful to have met him and get to work with him.”
“The artwork was created by another friend, this one down in Mexico, who is Queer identified and focuses on mixing modern images and elements with indigenous imagery and elements from nature. I feel so much hope and beauty as well as strife and pain when I see his work and I knew I wanted him to work with me for this project. You can check out more of his stuff on IG: @tuxamee.”
TS: Do you self-record or work with others to produce/engineer? What are your thoughts on solo work vs. collaboration for this kind of music?”
FdN: “I record the basic tracks at home and then send them over to my producer, Luis Rael, for the mastering and mixing. I think it’s great to be able to record at home and lay down some basic tracks, but in all honesty have little interest in really learning all the inner workings of software such as Logic. It is such a good skill to have and takes many years to master. I much prefer collaborating with others on these pieces than doing the work myself. I can send Luis a track and he hears an element in a different way than I ever did, and all of a sudden a completely new door opens. I think this kind of mutual inspiration and growth is very important to me - especially since Flor de Nopal is a solo project, I already spend so much time with this music on my own.”
TS: Favorite current bands and favorite gigs to date?
FdN: “Current bands I can’t get enough of: Boy Harsher, Arca, Yves Tumor, and Bauhaus. My favorite local acts have got to be Jaime J. Soto and Moontrax. Jaime is such a friend and also such an inspiration. He’s been doing this electronic music stuff in town since before Tucson even considered it had an electronic music scene. I have so much fun jamming with Moontrax. They are all so playful and experimental and whenever we make music together we truly have no idea what's gonna come out. Watching the way they blend genres and how they vibe off one another in live performances is also super inspirational to me.”
TS:What does the future hold for Flor de Nopal?
FdN: “It’s so hard to think about anything in the future right now! We’ve just ended of a year of uncertainty. I think that is in a way what I hope will stay a part of Flor de Nopal as time goes by - this ability to let go of expectations and dive into the uncertainty to see what I might find.”
Go, Go Gabi
A couple of years ago, in the newborn days of this column, your humble music scribe introduced Tucson to Gabi Montoya, guitarist, founding member and songwriter for Juju Fontaine, then a fledgling but promising new blues-rock indie duo that was just starting to pop up on local stages. When I first met her, Gabi was warm and welcoming as a person, but taciturn and serious when talking about music. It wasn’t just something she did for the fun of it, it was a craft and a discipline and a challenge she damned well intended to conquer.
Over time, Juju the band grew and matured, with a new lineup and a full and soulful, slightly jazz-infused sound, in the neighborhood of what a guitar-slinging Amy Winehouse might sound like fronting Steely Dan. And, for probably anyone else, that should have been enough. For Gabi, it just meant one challenge was met and the time had come to start another one.
This time, it was a rock band. An all-girl band, to be specific. The surf/garage/hard rock-inspired Taco Sauce. But unlike the early days of Juju, Taco Sauce pretty much hit the ground running, scoring gigs at places like Congress and the Rialto before they’d even had a chance to find their sea legs. Building a solid backbone for a band is hard enough in its first year, but doing so in the spotlight demands a certain combination of grace and stubborn toughness that Gabi and her bandmates possess in spades. Taco Sauce grew into a band that was very different from Juju — fun, edgy and energetic with a little bit of girl gang danger and a whole lot of rock and roll joy.
Now Gabi is on to the latest, and maybe biggest, challenge of her music career: starting over. A recent move to Seattle means new fans to win over and a relaunch as a solo musician. But, true to form, she’s already got a head start on that with a couple of impressive new releases.
First off, of all things, is film scoring. Composed for the forthcoming independent film "La Motochorra," the full soundtrack is still pending release, but a preview is available via Gabi’s bandcamp page including the moodily introspective instrumental guitar track “Awake” and jangly indie pop jaunt “Clocks.”
Also on deck is a collaboration with AZ electronic artist and producer XLUCIFERLUX. “Voyager” is a smooth and dreamy chillwave/trip hoppy spacescape of a song which serves as a fitting farewell to the desert and calling card for a new music chapter in the misty climate of the Pacific Northwest.
Marianne Dissard may have sold her Tucson home and returned to her cozy houseboat in Kent, England, but she’ll always be a “local” artist in our book. And the latest in our favorite expat’s series of reimagined rock songs is a gorgeously weird, No Wave-ish take on Ritchie Valens’ hit “Come On Let’s Go.” Dissard’s interpretation transforms the revved up Chicano rockabilly of the original into deconstructed beat jazz that evokes equal parts Francois Hardy and Suicide era Alan Vega. But more importantly, it’s FUN.
A nice quarantine getaway
Once upon a time, your favorite music writer was but a lowly high school rock fan, scribbling goth adjacent poetry and political opinions in notebooks and thinking up terrible headline puns for her high school newspaper along the lines of “tennis team swings into action.” But, then, senior year rolled around and your humble teenage scribe fell into a funk, afflicted by writer’s block, feeling like it was all just an exercise in futility.
Luckily, once upon that time, I also had some good friends, one of whom was a classmate who played guitar and wrote and sang and seemingly knew every underground British/Australian/New Zealand pop band worth knowing and had introduced us all to groups like XTC and the Church. And that friend happened to be part of a school sponsored writer’s group that met at lunch once a week, and insisted, repeatedly that I HAD to join it. So I did. And things got a little bit better. And at the end of the year, when we were all penning pseudo profound things in each other’s yearbooks, that friend signed mine with a plea for me to not stop writing.
Mind you, I’ve struggled with writer’s block for most of my adult life, so that advice was hard to stick to over the years. Years later, the same friend sold me my first bass guitar, one of a few instances of kismet that helped put me on the path toward writing about music. So, I guess I kind of owe a debt of thanks to that dude.
“That dude” happens to be one Andrew Gardner, frontman and architect of Tucson based psych/indie pop band La Cerca. The bands’ latest release, “A Nice Sweet Getaway” should have been the centerpiece of a cross-country tour last year, but the best laid plans of mice and men are quite undone by a global pandemic and the record didn’t get the usual extra dose of word of mouth traction that a tour usually provides.
But while the band didn’t get a chance to hit the road this year, they did make a record that’s well suited for one’s own socially distanced road trip.
Released on Fort Lowell Records, which also put out La Cerca’s 2014 effort “Sunrise For Everyone,” the new release sees Gardner and company moving beyond the confines of their jangly indie pop past into slightly more ambient and experimental territory. What on past releases might have served as delay heavy guitar solos or bridges or trippy musical interludes within the standard verse-chorus-verse format serve as the main fare here, with instrumental flights of fancy leading the way and traditional song structure sticking its head out the window and enjoying the sunset for a change.
Some old friends try on a new name, a local renaissance woman makes a foray into record craft, more new releases and livestream news and some deeper discussions on accountability in the music industry, the state of recording in Tucson and how to gig safely in a pandemic.