We all know rock'n'roll is a genre that knows no boundaries, but rarely do we witness a genuine collaboration from two disparate parts of the world as clearly (and as tunefully) evidenced by Mountain Sounds, comprised of musicians Franc Castillejos and Tim Hoyt. Their auspicious, eponymous debut is indie in the truest sense of the word - two guys getting together in a room, writing and recording together, distilling both their musical and cultural histories to create music that is organic, unhurried, and blissfully diversified. I had a chance to sit down with co-founder Tim Hoyt to discuss the origins of the project, the new album, and how a furlough in Guatemala changed his perspective.
DG: Apparently, this is not your first collaboration with Franc Castillejos - you were in a band together prior, right?
TH: Yes, the band was called Estates. We started that group in the 90's with a couple of friends of mine from the Atlanta, GA area. I heard an EP that Franc had recorded, and really liked his voice, so I asked him to join our band as lead singer. He stayed with us until his student visa (Castillejos is Guatemalan) became problematic - he was only allowed to stay in the country while he was attending college, and when his studies were over, so was the visa. The band had a good run for about three years, I'd say.
DG: So how much time has lapsed since you last worked with Castillejos?
TH: About three years. The last official Estates gig was in 2008, I believe. In August of 2011, I hooked up again with Franc in Guatemala. He was still without a tourist visa, so the only practical way we could collaborate was for me to come and visit him. Of course, the whole process would've been easier if Franc were able to come to the States, but needless to say, it's gotten a lot tougher now for foreigners to get visas here than it once was. Besides, once Franc's student visa expired, he had no realistic intention of coming back to America.
DG: You quit your day job and uprooted yourself (though temporarily) to relocate to Guatemala for this project. What was going through your mind? Did you have any idea what a major undertaking it would be to embark on something so ambitious?
TH: The major driving force for me to do this came from my wife. She knew me when I was happier, and just sensed that I was unhappy with my present state of being - she preferred the "happier me" to the man I was becoming. I was at this job that was paying the bills, but I honestly did not like what I was doing, and was getting more and more depressed. One day, she just came out and said, "Why don't you go back to making music, hon? You could do something with Franc again." At first, I thought she was only trying to be nice and appease me, but the more we talked about it, the more real a possibility it became. For three months I was there, and yes, it was a little scary. I didn't know any Spanish to speak of, so Franc was the only person I could really communicate with.
DG: Was there a bit of a culture shock for you? Did you get homesick?
TH: I did do my best to touch base back home via Skype calls to my wife, but that was intermittent, as Internet signals are pretty spotty down there. As far as culture shock goes, I visited the country twice before: during the Estates days, Franc had told me a lot about his parent's place back in Guatemala. I always had an interest in Mayan culture, the ancient ruins and what have you, so I did take several trips to take in the archeology, though only for a week at a time. Technically, I was there for exactly 89 days - you are allowed as a visitor to stay for a maximum of 90 days, but I didn't want to push it (laughs.)
DG: What was the intention behind Mountain Sounds - was it to pick up where the Estates project left off, or did you approach it in an entirely different manner?
TH: In the beginning, I thought we were making a very different record from the one we actually ended up making. Let me explain: the demos Franc and I traded back and forth were more in an acoustic, folk-rock vein - to make things easier on the two of us, we shied away from making a heavy, rock-sounding record. The minor-key, acoustic sound on this project is a definite departure from what we did with Estates - with that band, we had a fantastic drummer who really fleshed out the big rock sound, and there was no way we were gonna attempt to go that route, as we both know our strengths and limitations. And yet, those demos between me and Franc were more sparse than what transpired when we went into the studio to record - it took on quite a different shape, and the end result was more of a rock record than neither of us could have anticipated.
DG: Did you guys just flesh out the original demos, or were there some in-studio collaborations as well?
TH: The album's opener, "Lion Or The Bee" was written a few days after my arrival in Guatemala. None of the pieces that were demos were really finished songs, more like song sketches for us to draw from and expand upon. Either songs were completed from those demo sketches, or written from scratch during our sessions, so it was a combination of both.
DG: Generally speaking, who played what?
TH: The vast majority of the guitar parts were played by me - Franc played the piano and drums. He knew a bass player which he invited to play on one of our tracks, and we were both so impressed with his work, we asked him to play on the entire album. He is now part of the touring band, and we're excited at the prospect of having him join us on the road.
DG: And the whole thing was recorded live in Guatemala?
TH: Yes, save for some melodica that was overdubbed from a buddy down in Florida, and added during the mixing/mastering of the record.
DG: What were your musical inspirations going into this project?
TH: Our biggest influence would probably be the work T Bone Burnett produces, like the Robert Plant/Allison Krauss project, Raising Sand - you know, that "intentionally trashy" sound that he does, even though T Bone's in a million-dollar studio doing it. Also, the Cardigans' stuff would be another influence, musically speaking.
DG: I don't know if you'd consider them an influence, but when listening to your debut, I was reminded of The Black Keys, especially given the lo-fi approach, and the fact that you're both essentially recording duos.
TH: We've been huge fans of The Black Keys for a very long time - our keyboard player back in Estates introduced them to us some years ago, so you'd be right. When it's essentially a two-man operation, there are serious challenges in terms of musicianship. I consider myself a pretty good guitar player, and consider Franc a good singer and pianist, but as far as other instruments are concerned, it was essentially a grey area. At the end of the day, we were like, "Well it's just us, what can we do? Let's just figure it out as go along", which helped keep the atmosphere loose and free-spirited.
DG: Would it be presumptuous of me to say, given Franc's ethnic background and issues dealing with the American immigration system, that some of the songs on the album have socio-politcal overtones?
TH: Franc is the chief lyricist of the band, and I really like that, because I get the perspective of someone from a fairly marginalized country compared with America - even if he's writing a song not overtly political in nature, his experience and perspective can't help but inform it lyrically. As a vegetarian for example, Franc is very uncomfortable with the food industry and the methods it uses to bring food to the people, and so he's quite outspoken about that. "When You Have Money" touches upon the subject briefly. If being a part of this band gives Franc a platform to speak more about Guatemala and injustice in general, I'd be more than okay with that.
DG: And what is the climate like in Guatemala for such discourse? Does he have to parse his words and broach subjects gingerly, for fear of reprisal?
TH: There's certainly a history of that, but things seemed to have loosened up a bit of late - it's still pretty corrupt in terms of the political climate, but the environment is better now. It doesn't appear as if the government is actively going after dissidents or anything like that. Franc's dad is an amazing person. He and his wife ran an orphanage on their property for many years, and adopted 25 kids who were orphaned during the civil war there. So his parents were enlightened about the challenges their country faced, and Franc grew up with a sense of social-awareness as a result.
DG: I understand you and Franc used the old orphanage, and converted it to a recording studio.
TH: Yeah. The space had been unoccupied for about a decade before we went in. It seemed the perfect setting - the biggest place where we could make as much noise as we wanted.
TH: I would agree. As I said before, his perspective can't help but inform what he's writing lyrically. When you've been raised in a land that most folks don't care about, and then you come to America, it was always a strange dichotomy for Franc to walk in. In America, we pride ourselves on being the biggest and best country in the world, but in Guatemala, you don't have that narrative running through the national consciousness. Franc lived in the U.S. for nine years, and did his best to balance the tension that having two distinct and radically different homes creates inside of you.
DG: You currently reside in the Portland, OR area. The news of April's Boston Marathon bombing became an international cause celebre. What were your impressions upon hearing the story, and has Portland experienced anything like it in terms of so-called domestic terrorism?
TH: I think everyone here in the States has been glued to their sets as this drama and subsequent details have begun to emerge. I find it distressing that it feels like every few months or so, another senseless tragedy seems to rear its head.
DG: I was privileged to have had conversations with marathon participants a few days after the bombing. The general consensus among those representing countries abroad was, "Welcome to our world." It seems like a harsh assessment, however there is a undisputed truth to that statement.
TH: Well, two years ago, cops thwarted a young man who attempted to blow up the area surrounding our annual Christmas tree lighting here. The press linked him with some Islamic terrorist organization, and it was a minor story on the national news. Luckily, they located and disarmed the device before it had a chance to go off. Portland, like Boston or New York, is very savvy when it comes to protecting public spaces and keeping its citizens safe. I know what you mean, though. I remember having a conversation with a friend whose family lives in Syria, and his response was, "Well, that's tragic, but back home, we have things like that going on every day."