The credits on the Davila 666 bassist's solo album read like a who's who of indie music from Latin America and beyond
Words and interview by Jhoni Jackson
In hip-hop, electronic and pop, collaborations are practically standard procedure. In rock ‘n’ roll, however, conspiring with other artists not officially in your band beyond split 7-inches and side-projects is almost unheard of. It’s so rare, even, that the idea seems a bit implausible. But no conventions could deter AJ Dávila from doing just that. On his debut full-length, almost every track features a guest performer.
For about 10 years, AJ dutifully served as bassist and co-frontman for the rambunctious Puerto Rican garage-punk act Dávila 666. They covered a lot of ground during that time—they toured all over the states, Canada, Europe and Mexico. And, being the fun-lovin’ bunch that they are, the group naturally made a lot of likeminded music-making buds in the process.
“I wanted to do something different,” AJ explains. “I wanted to do music with all the friends that I’ve met through the years in the music industry. When I was a kid, I used to listen all these hip-hop albums that have all these collaborations, so I wanted to do something like that with my friends, and to try something different.”
On February 18, Nacional Records, the California label home to Latin greats like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Manu Chao, will present the result of all those collaborations. The name is a little tricky: It’s AJ Dávila y Terror/Amor, the latter in reference to his collective players, one of whom is Dávila guitarist Johnny Otis. The album is also called Terror/Amor, though. Okay, maybe it’s not that difficult to grasp. What’s more complicated is the kaleidoscopic nature of his troupe. Both in background and culture, they’re an incredibly varied crew.
“Dura Como Piedra” was one of the first couple tunes made public. It’s a woop-woop! laced pop romp with layered vocals courtesy of saucy up-and-coming Mexican electro-trash songstress Selma Oxor. She’s on two others tracks, too—the surf-tinged number “Es Verano Ya” and the hyperactive, dizzying “Noches Negra.” Officially, Oxor is a member of Terror/Amor. The rest of the cameos, though, are just that.
Likely the most hotly anticipated contribution from an outsider is that of Cole Alexander—you know, that guy from the Black Lips. His band and Davila have been bedfellows for several years, so he’s actually not too surprising a prospect. AJ’s signature super-fuzzed production somewhat obscures his vocals, but if you focus closely on the first verse and the chorus of the nearly threadbare, acoustic-based “Michelle,” you can hear him. AJ says he couldn’t handle the second verse, though. The language was too much of a barrier.
“I think I would never sing in English because, I don’t know, I sing in Spanish. I think in Spanish. I don’t think in English,” he laughs. “So for me to be more honest, for me I have to sing in Spanish. But, I don’t know, if you pay me a million dollars, I’ll make you a song in English. If the moneys right, I’ll do it!”
Terror/Amor will sound a lot like Davila to most ears. That’s because AJ was the primary songwriter and sole producer, and he’s as headstrong about his style as he is about singing in his native tongue.
“I wrote the songs in Davila. It’s my production. It’s my melodies. If you go to every single Davila recording you can see the writing credit. I don’t know, it’s my style, you know,” he says. “It’s the way that I’ve been making music for ten years.”
The punchy opener, “Animal,” could pass inconspicuously as an unused selection from Davila’s Tan Bajo sessions. That 2011 LP—their last to date—showcased them at their most infectious, all hyped-up and masterfully hooky. And none of the guys would fault AJ for continuing in a similar vein. They’re all still quite chummy and support each other’s latest outputs—Carlos Dávila is knee-deep in a hip-hop project called Füete Billëte, and there’s also Las Ardillas, the gritty punk act which Giancarlo Cervoni fronts and Sergio Narvaez drums.
“Even with that, I think this [Terror/Amor] record sounds way different than any Dávila recording. It’s going to have Dávila sound a little, but I tried to move away from a lot of things. I think I experimented with a lot of songs that aren’t like any Dávila recordings,” AJ insists.
An exemplary source to support AJ’s claim is “2333,” which builds on thick sax courtesy of Sergio Rotman, a Nacional label-mate by way of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. It’s patiently paced, and the repetition of the title—sung by Mercedes Oller of Costa Rican garage-pop group Las Robertas—affords it a mind-melting, spellbinding quality.
“I had this dream that I was going to die at 33, on a day 23,” AJ recalls. “Everybody can imagine it’s a love song, but it’s a song about a life ending.”
The bulk of the album—about 90 percent, AJ says—was recorded in his San Juan home, which he shares with his mom (awww) and nine cats (whoa!). That’s where all the Dávila tracks were laid down too, so his bedroom setup is not makeshift by any stretch. Still, he wasn’t exactly equipped for Rotman’s visit.
“I don’t have a stand, so he was playing sax and the mic stand was my hand. And he said of all the places he’s recorded, this is the most valuable stand that he’s ever seen, my hand holding the microphone so I can record his saxophone,” he laughs.
Rotman, an Argentinian who calls Puerto Rico home, is on a couple other numbers as well. Another Puerto Rican who got a role in the AJ show is Fofe Abreu, a super-seasoned musician who operates these days as the ringleader of the glittery electro-pop outfit Fofe y Los Fetiches. He brings a bit of that shine and pizzazz to “Ohhh (No Te Encantes).” Another hometown friend, Dax Díaz—a folk singer-songwriter who, sadly, passed in early January—added his helium-like croon above the hand-claps of “Ya Se.” On the same track and bearing a similar aesthetic is Mexican artist Juan Cirerol, who worked with AJ via Skype. On “Lo Que No Sera,” Chilean crooner Alex Anwandter surfaces between spacey zooms of electronic flourishes.
The plan from here, AJ says, is to tour as much as possible. The gang that’ll be with him performing live isn’t totally finalized—for one, he’s not sure they’ll have a saxophonist. Keeping in mind his tendency to not only pick up folks as friends, but also as creative co-conspirators, it doesn’t seem impossible to think he’ll attract a Dávila-loving, tour-ready player with ease.