Nortec Collective: Chameleon Colors

WITH DECEIVING SOUNDS AND STYLES AND THE BLINKING LIGHTS OF ATYPICAL GEAR ALL AROUND THEM, NORTEC COLLECTIVE'S BOSTICH AND FUSSIBLE CREATE A WHOLE NEW TIJUANA SOUND
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When Bostich and Fussible (Ramón Amezcua and Pepe Mogt, respectively) were growing up in Tijuana, Mexico during the 1980s, one thing connected them to kids the world over: ice cream. Where the average American child knew the Mister Softee truck had arrived by its ubiquitous music-box melody, the local Tijuana ice cream car played none other than Hot Butter's 1972 smash, “Popcorn,” originally recorded by synth pioneer Gershon Kingsley (Music to Moog By, 1969, Audio Fidelity). Call that recontextualization marker No. 1.

Fussible (right) and Bostich
Photo: Checo Brown

“I was so inspired by ‘Popcorn,’” Mogt recalls from his home in Tijuana. “It was very popular here in Tijuana because it played on the ice cream car. So I used the Future Retro Revolution R2 to re-create the ‘Popcorn’ sound for our song, ‘The Clap.’ The Revolution has two knobs, and when you move them it makes a ping-pong sound. I put a sequence similar to ‘Popcorn’ into the Revolution, and then by moving the knobs I came up with a totally different thing. But it reminds you of that ping-pong sound in ‘Popcorn.’”

Years after chasing the ice cream car, Mogt grew up to become a computer-science engineer, and Amezcua would become an orthodontist before merging disparate sounds as members of the Latin Grammy-nominated Nortec Collective. On its 2001 debut, Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 1 (Palm Pictures), the group — which also includes Clorofila (Jorge Verdín) and Hiperboreal (PG Beas) — mixed dark, brooding samples of native Norteño music against throbbing techno beats, aka Nortec.

STRANGE GEAR, HERE WE COME

Mogt and Amezcua step out on their own to recontextualize even wilder terrain on Nortec Collective Presents Bostich + Fussible: Tijuana Sound Machine (2008, Nacional). Beyond simply joining Norteño with techno, Tijuana Sound Machine is a full-on party riot where myriad cultures get their groove on courtesy of modern and near-ancient technology. Drawing from Norteño, Banda, Ranchero and other Mexican folk styles, Mogt and Amezcua sample live tuba, mariachi trumpet, upright bass, accordion and clarinet over madcap oom-pah beats that would seem to better exist at a German beer hall than a Mexican hacienda.

“We played in Berlin, and they don't know Nortec,” Amezcua explains from Chula Vista, Calif. “They thought we were playing German music. Because of the accordion and polka rhythm and tuba, they asked us where we were from. The same thing happened in France. They hear the accordion and think we are French. This is a fusion that doesn't tell you it's Mexican. It's like Herb Alpert's music. Herb Alpert tells you it's from Tijuana, but you can't say it's Mexican music.”

When music has the ability to totally change your perspective, as well as entertain, you call it innovation, and Tijuana Sound Machine fulfills every requirement that originality demands. Not only do B+F's culture-clashing tracks surprise listeners the world over, their productions emanate from some truly radical old- and new-school technology. Mogt and Amezcua use a variety of tricked-out and freaky sound machines: EMS VCS3, Analogue Solutions Vostok Matrixsynth, Future Retro Revolution R2 and Mobius sequencer, Orgon Systems Enigiser and Modular synths, Monome 64 and Yamaha Tenori-on, to name a few. These modular synths and new touch-tone toys bring a sense of hilarity and fun to the native Banda, Ranchero and Norteño sounds. From the Herb Alpert mariachi romanticism of “Norteña Del Sur” and the Daft Punk-worthy vocoder effects of the title track to the itchy-squeaky brass and Banda blowout of “Mama Loves Nortec” (complete with dizzy call-and-response brass and clarinet), Bostich and Fussible mix it up like mad.

BANDA-TECHNO BLOWOUT

Typically, Mogt and Amezcua initiate compositions by creating a sequence on one of their modular synths, looping it, then asking local Banda or Norteño musicians to jam along with the electronic spew.

“We rehearse with the musicians in our studio in Tijuana,” Amezcua says. “We put the sequence playing the loop for 20 minutes, and the musicians will jam over that [into a Røde mic and Focusrite pre], or maybe a 909. After that, we cut and evaluate takes for the best lines, then we process it in Ableton Live to come up with the most interesting versions. Maybe we'll effect the loops to make weird sounds [using the Triwave Picogenerator, for example]. Then after processing in Ableton, I go back to Pro Tools to finish the tracks.”

Using toylike machines such as the Yamaha Tenori-on and the Mono me 64 with funky old modular synths like the EMS VCS3, Orgon Systems Modular, EML ElectroComp 101 and the Sherman FilterBank QMF filter makes for some fantastically deranged listening. Bostich and Fussible are nothing if not total gearheads. Just hearing them discuss the pieces can be enlightening.

Case in point: The Vostok Modulator Matrixsynth appears on “Rosarito.” “Remember that synthesizer that Pink Floyd used, the VSC3?” Mogt asks. “The Vostok is like that, a portable modular synthesizer. We use a lot of modular synthesizers because the sound is not very perfect. When we brought the musicians in and they tried to emulate this belching modular synthesizer, the result was very interesting. I just put a mic into the accordion and then put it into this Vostok synth, and the blending of the two is what gives Nortec this strange ambient sound. When we asked them to play with the Vostok, some of them thought we were joking, or they were scared. They had never heard these types of noises. When they applied the Norteño feel to these noises, it became something very different.”

Mogt and Amezcua own one of the world's very few Orgon Systems Modular synths, which they use on the tracks “Tijuana Sound Machine” and “Norteña Del Sur.” They like the Orgon for both its superlow frequencies and overall warmth.

“That was built in the UK. I think there are only 10 of them in the world,” Amezcua reveals. “It has plenty of oscillators and LFOs, and the filter on the Orgon is the one we love a lot. This filter has a very fat, very hot and warm sound. We were using a lot of the Moog and Oberheim filters, but the Orgon modular has a very nice-sounding filter. And also the oscillator, the frequency range is a very low sub frequency. Sometimes you are not listening to it but you can still see the speakers moving. We make sequences out of the Orgon, and they are like melodies from outer space. They can sound very microtonal, and that can inspire you to build something from that. You can start putting on top of that some of the acoustic sounds or make a beat out of that. Even though the modular synths are not so practical for a concert or to create a full song, we use them more like an inspirational tool.”

Bostich and Fussible are also some of the first musicians to use supernew machines such as the Yamaha Tenori-on, Monome 64 and Future Retro Revolution R2. These small boxes (or UFO-shaped pods in the R2's case) have an array of illuminated buttons and tiny knobs for tweaking. Pushing the buttons or rotating the knobs generates random displays of twinkling, playful melodies and rhythms.

“The most interesting thing about the Tenori-on is its random mode,” Amezcua says. “You can have an idea for a melody and you can change that melody and sing the melody with different notes. You can MIDI it to convert the sequencer and control other equipment. It's only able to sample a one-second note, though; it's like a toy. We use it on tour for quick ideas; it is battery-operated and has speakers. I also use it with a Monome 64. You can touch the buttons and trigger the sounds, and in solo mode you can play melodies in the same tempo as the song. It is very fun and intuitive. Anyone can play it even if you don't know music.”

MACHINE TUNES

Bostich and Fussible's unerring skill at upending sounds and destroying expectations is a constant on Tijuana Sound Machine. “Mi Casita” merges two-beat polka with farting accordion and looped clarinet, trumpet and a wacky tuba solo — at least that is what it sounds like.

“I use the Triwave Picogenerator there, with a violin forming the loop,” Amezcua says. “The drum machine is a TR-606. I filtered the 606 with the Picogenerator and the Sherman Filterbank QMF, which is a big, modular filter. The violin is a country-music style; it repeats the same pattern. Then in the middle I add the EMS VCS3, the weird sound you hear. It sounds like feedback. And then the Banda tubas, trumpets and bass line come in that I recorded live. This is a weird track — the only time where I put more analog synths with live musicians. I cut up and processed the tuba solo in Ableton Live, which allows me to cut and paste different melodies with the original sounds that I record. That is my favorite song.”

On the other end of the spectrum, “Jacinto” recalls a blissful siesta. Liquid-sounding accordions loop and delay, and upright bass ascends gracefully with distant children's voices, only to be threatened by nasty guitar distortion and bass drum and cymbal smacks. “The watery sounds are the Oberheim 4-Voice,” Mogt says. “The acoustic bass guitar is one I put in the Future Retro R2, a line that one of the Norteño musicians played. The vocals are some local kids that I brought into the studio. Those big drum hits are an acoustic drummer who I sampled into the Sherman Filterbank. When the drums are hitting, they might sound like an electric guitar, a distorted guitar, but it's the same rhythm: bass drum, cymbal and snare, feeding back through the Sherman Filterbank. At the end of the song there are some backing vocals; that is the kids again, arguing about what colors they see in Tijuana.”

The rollicking “Mama Loves Nortec” recalls a mad techno boffin mixing a kazoo band, dub rhythms and a dueling trumpet/tuba chorus with a traditional Russian high-stepping military dance.

“That song is the most acoustic of all the songs,” Amezcua explains. “Most of the sounds are processed using only the Sherman Filterbank QMF. One of the samples is from Nortenian Banda music, and the drum machine is a 909. It is more acoustic overall with a traditional trumpet or charcheta playing the harmony and upbeats. I did that entire song in Ableton Live. The call and response between the trumpet and clarinet is hard-panned left and right, cut and pasted in Ableton to create another melody. The breakdown sounds like a string machine, but it's really a reverb effect in Ableton Live 7. It's only a plug-in. There is also sampled timbale, from a live Banda band, cut up in Ableton Live…then another clarinet that sounds like a synth, again in Ableton.”

By recontextualizing the way we hear Mexican folk music, Bostich and Fussible bring myriad cultures together though Tijuana Sound Machine. Germans think the duo's two-beat polkas are all the rage. The French think these two accordion-sampling DJs are as native as Francois Trauffaut's The 400 Blows. And as of this writing, U.S. radio and press have caught the Bostich and Fussible bug, too.

“Here in Tijuana we have a lot of hills,” Mogt says, “and the antennas from radio stations in San Diego and Los Angeles are here. So we grew up listening to Kraftwerk's ‘Autobahn'' and disco music like Giorgio Moroder's ‘I Feel Love'' (recorded by Donna Summer). That music and the funk music like George Clinton, and Banda and mariachi — it's all a mixture of different cultures and sounds here.”

“The way people think about Tijuana is changing,” Amezcua adds. “We are very proud to help change the image of Tijuana. This is a new sound, and we will continue working with this sound. We have other projects, but we will continue to make this Nortec music. For years if you told someone you were from Tijuana, they thought you were a drug dealer. But it's shifting because there is a cultural movement happening now that is changing how the world sees Tijuana. Now this is our sound, part of our music.”

TIJUANA SOUND SYSTEM

Computer, DAW/recording software

Ableton Live 7 software

Apple iMac computer

Digidesign Digi 003 Rack, Pro Tools LE software

Mixer

Soundcraft LX7ii 24-channel mixer

Synths, sequencers

Analogue Solutions Vostok Matrixsynth

Analogue Systems modules

Cwejman Modular synth

Dave Smith Evolver synth

Doepfer MAQ16/3 MIDI analog sequencer

ML ElectroComp 101 synth

EMS VCS3 synth

Future Retro Revolution R2 synth, Mobius sequencer

Korg MS-20 synth, SQ-10 sequencer

Monome 64 MIDI controller

Oberheim 4-Voice synth, Mini Sequencer, Xpander synth

Orgon Systems Enigiser, Modular

Roland SH-3 synth, TB-303 Bass Line

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synth

Waldorf MicroWave synth

Yamaha Tenori-on digital musical instrument

Mic, preamp, EQs, compressor, effects

4ms Pedals Triwave Picogenerator

Analogue Systems RS310 Reverb/Chorus

Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer,
Deluxe Memory Man delay/chorus

Focusrite Platinum OctoPre preamp

Frostwave Sonic Alienator alias frequency generator

Korg Kaoss Pad digital effect/controller

Røde K2 microphone

Sherman FilterBank QMF Quad Modular Filter

Solid State Logic Channel Strip

Vermona Engineering Retroverb analog spring reverb

Samplers, drum machines

Akai MPC4000 sampling workstation

E-mu Drumulator

Roger Linn Design LinnDrum

Roland TR-606 Drumatix, TR-808, TR-909

Vermona Engineering DRM1 drum synth

Monitors

Alesis Monitor Ones