Puerto Rico’s
electropop underground

Jhoni Jackson

Los Walters playing at Baby's All Right during last month's Latin Alternative Music Conference's Solo Dame Indie Pop showcase. Photo by Jorge A. Rodriguez Mazzini.

There is a history lesson attached to virtually any genre of Puerto Rican-made music.

To start, there’s the island’s long culture of reggae, and later reggaeton, both of which have thrived unwavering here for decades. Since the 80s and 90s, the punk and metal scenes have been vibrant, and to date the straightedge hardcore scene is still active. People caught on to trance, house and other EDM in the late ’90s and never let go, as evidenced by the long-running, multi-city Electric Daisy Carnival, which has been filling stadiums here for six years. Puerto Ricans had a major role in the early days of hip-hop in New York, but back home, there wasn’t much of an independent scene to speak of until the ’90s.  The spectrum of independent scenes on the island is now vast, each having developed organically, happily removed from the global music industry’s trends and expectations.

Yet, somehow, there has never been much of an electropop scene here. In the past few years, though, a handful of groups heavy into synths, drum machines and other electronic instruments have surfaced. It’s a new aesthetic for Puerto Rican music, and a community has only just started to find itself.

“You know, Puerto Rico is a small place, and it’s like a high school. People are with their mini-groups,” says Luis López Varona of Los Wálters, a new wave-tinged electronic pop outfit. “The punk scene is really united, and those guys play a lot. And they’re actually supporting Los Wálters and wanting to play with us. But we’re just now learning these other bands that are more our style.”

Luis’ band was originally a duo, and isn’t exactly stationed on the island. Their 2011 eponymous EP debut was the result of long-distance collaboration—he was studying in Barcelona part of the time, and the other Wálter, Ángel Emanuel Figueroa, was living in Philadelphia. Now Ángel is settled in Miami, and travels often as part of his consulting job at a software company, making brief trips to San Juan much easier.

“Now we’re having the opportunity to get a little closer, and we’ll be playing more on the island,” Luis says. “And we’ll be playing with these other bands, too.”

Particularly since last year’s sophomore LP, Verano Panorámico, Los Wálters are pushing a distinct, well-defined aesthetic. It’s ’80s reminiscent, but decidedly muffled, like it’s been melted by the Caribbean heat.

The band’s visuals are an extension of their minimalist sentiments: their flyers, photos and videos are all marked by cohesive, low-key retro visuals. By day, Luis is an art director and copywriter at a local advertising agency—and those skills have a crucial role in Los Wálters.  “I think that’s really important for us, the visual part. I think that’s what’s helping us grow,” he says.

When they perform at La Respuesta, a sizable music and art space in the increasingly arts-centric district of Santurce, they typically see a full house. A few months back, Luis says, the owner told them hundreds of people were turned away because they’d reached capacity.  “We drove by and saw the line [and thought], it looks like we’re doing something good,” he laughs.

Some of that frenzy could be due to the scarcity of performances but, regardless, Los Wálters are at the forefront of San Juan’s burgeoning electronic pop scene. Elsewhere, these sorts of sounds can be heard in the music of Furry Vowels, the solo project of Ferdy Valls, who is also a member of Los Walters. Before fully going solo, he was in GRLS, an electronic project co-piloted with friend Derick Joel. It’s mostly been abandoned in lieu of new pursuits, and has since performed live as Furry Vowels plenty. Recently, however, he’s almost always paired with a newer act, Mau Lynx—aka Josean Alicea.

“I got asked to play at the Feria de Cultura Urbana, it was this show in [multiple] train stations,” Ferdy recalls. “Then basically I had this other band where Josean just became the drummer—Dogos. And then I told him, let’s just play the songs there.”

Josean notes it was last-minute, so much of their set was improvised—and even spilled over into a late-night party at El Local when the tail-end of the fest was rained out.

“We did this guerrilla show, out of the blue, for free,” he says. “We started playing at 12:30, they stopped at 1:30, and then from 1:30 to 3 a.m. we were playing. But it was really fun.”

The two artists have become frequent collaborators. If they’re listed on the same lineup, you can bet they’re playing together onstage—Josean with a sampling pad and a floor tom, sometimes singing, and Ferdy on synth and guitar.

“We have a little inside joke; we sometimes call ourselves the Furry Lynx,” Ferdy laughs.

Neither actually likes the nickname, but they’ve yet to come up with something better. And in the meantime, they’re trying to get a full band on deck. A joint EP, though, is firmly in the pipelines.

“We have been sitting down and mastering the songs together, and adding the drums and stuff like that. There was basically skeletons of the songs, and now we’re perfecting those songs,” Josean says.

Ferdy and Josean agree that it’d be a strain to claim the existence of an electro and synthpop scene in San Juan. They consider a slew of electronic projects, like Dead Hands on a Piano and Matotumba, but admit they’re decidedly more experimental than melody-driven. Labajura, the alter ego of their Dogos bandmate Derick Joel, somewhat fits, albeit in a blissfully warped way, and with a bit of a disco-funk sheen. The electropop groups sometimes perform with noise and avant-garde artists, but the former’s penchant for danceable melodies is a distinction that unarguably separates them.

Another act more closely connected to the electropop scene comes courtesy of ‎José Iván Moreira, who uses his surname as the outlet for a vaporous type of hypnagogic pop. He’s also in Salvajes, along with Gerardo Segarra, which opts for an enjoyably clamorous approach akin to electroclash.

“Gerry, he always tries to make it more dark and noisy,” José Iván says. “We have a good balance, because sometimes I make something that’s really, really pink, like pop, and he says no, we have to fuck it up a little bit. I like it, because when I’m by myself in Moreira, I do everything I want. That’s why Moreira is so melodic—I try to be ethereal with synth sounds and lots of reverb. With Salvajes, you have to dance, but you have to dance angry, you know?”

Just recently José Iván rented a space in Río Piedras, a historic neighborhood not far from the largest public university campus on the island, that he’s dubbed La Colmena. For now, it’s a practice spot bands can use for an inexpensive hourly rate—”Thirty bucks now because we have air conditioner,” he jokes—but eventually it will include a studio that caters to budget-conscious artists.

“We have a huge space which can be used for different kinds of sound art,” he adds. “We want to make sound performances and sound installations that in some way relate to the expos that happen in [adjacent independent workspace and gallery] Taller Secreto. And we also want to have…live performances, like sporadic performances, once a month or something like that.”

La Colmena is where he’ll soon record the first Salvajes EP, then later what will mark his second Moreira release. The latter will include more live guitar and bass than its electronic-based predecessor, he says, and he’s got his reasons. José Iván thinks the electronic pop scene is slow to swell in part because people aren’t used to taking anything but a traditional band setup seriously. They’re getting there, though.

“We have a lot of equipment, and we’re not looking at the people because we’re totally into what we’re doing. Or if we look at the people, it’s to sing, then we go back to what we’re doing. I think that ‘s interesting for people because you see the work of the musician,” he says. “I think…it’s starting, but I think the people that are doing their job, playing electronic music—like us, Rebecca Kill, Jean Nada, like Ferdy—we just have to stay doing it, and getting better at it. And playing with bands. We have to play like a band. I love shows that there’s three rock bands and we play at the end, because it’s another band act. Tenemos que comenzar a ser percibidos como una banda,” he stresses, which means We need to start being perceived as a band.

José Iván actually isn’t alone in that thinking. Los Wálters already perform with a full band, and Ferdy and Josean both want to incorporate more live instrumentation. So does Rebecca Kill, another electronic pop artist based in San Juan.

Rebecca Kill. Photo by Elias C. Quintana Matias.

Rebecca Kill. Photo by Elias C. Quintana Matias.

Leslly Almeida recorded her first single under that moniker in 2012, but didn’t fully realize the project until moving back to Puerto Rico after a stint in New York. There, she played with an improvisational jam group.

“I really wish I had a band, but it just doesn’t work like that for me. I have to play everything, I have to record everything,” she says.

That inaugural track was “Care Too Much,” a moody, subtly avant-garde number for which she made an equally dark, yet oddly engrossing, video. Since returning to San Juan, she’s been performing that track and a slew of newer ones, including “Visión Nocturna,”a Spanish-language cut that’s like a warped and water-logged riff on ’90s pop. Of that era, Leslly says she specifically admires the production work for Michael Jackson and Madonna.

“I just really like the producers, [their] stuff is so peculiar,” she says. “There’s a lot of people doing that right now, like bringing back the ’90s and the ’80s, because there’s new technology out there and you’re able to reproduce anything very simply. Maybe that’s why so many people are doing it now. But I think it’s a very complex kind of production in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of sample-based music and kind of a new way of thinking at that time. We’re supposed to be more advanced by now, but I think we’re a step ahead even though we’re being nostalgic.”

As the sole writer and producer of her music, Leslly’s working to build her own arsenal of sounds. A car drives past while we chat—that could be one, she says, adding that she even samples bees.

When I ask if she feels like she’s part of the developing electronic pop scene, she says yes. But we both agree that her idiosyncratic style means she’ll forever be the wild card.

“I’m always the oddball in everything,  yeah. I’m always out of it, I’m always with my head in the clouds,” she laughs.

About a week later, Leslly tells me she’s formed a live band. Kevin García, a member of Las Abejas, and Gerry, from Salvajes, will perform alongside her at future shows.

“We have a rock ‘n’ roll culture right now that’s totally established, and it’s harder for original electronic making musicians to go out there and say, ‘We’re here,'” explains José Iván. “But I think it’s starting to happen.”

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