Uneasy Pop From dios
There's a long tradition of soft, sunny California pop, and, at first
listen, Hawthorne-based dios (the band's name is never capitalized) appear
to fit right into the line that stretches from the Beach Boys to Jackson
Browne to Grandaddy. From the slow, keyboard-lit choruses of "Nobody's
Perfect" through the whispery harmonies of "All My Life," there's an uneasy
pop vibe to the self-titled debut, a bittersweet dalliance between melody
and alienation that recalls Elliott Smith, Neil Young and Beck. Early buzz
on dios made much of the fact that the band hailed from the same hometown
as the Beach Boys, and to be fair, they do swipe a chorus from Pet
Sounds' "I Still Believe in You" in their song "50 Cents."
Still, it's not hard to sense a bit of frustration in dios guitarist Joel
Morales at yet another Beach Boys comparison. "Before we were in any kind
of serious band, we had a little collective of artists, writers and
musicians that were all infatuated with the Beach Boys, and also proud of
the fact that we came from the same area they did," he admitted in a recent
phone interview. "But even so, it can be weird when people try to compare
us to the Beach Boys. We're not writing surf songs. We're not carefree
and lackadaisical. In fact, I'm stressed out and upset most of the time."
The band includes the two Morales brothers, Joel and Kevin, who both play
guitar and write songs, as well as bassist John Paul Cabellero, keyboardist
Jimmy Cabeza DeVaca and drummer Jackie Monzon. All are Latinos who grew up in
the Hawthorne area, a South Bay community with a distinctly gritty
side. "Hawthorne is in Southern California and there's a beautiful
coastline," Morales said, "but you know, we also have poor cities and urban
parts. It's also the birthplace of Black Flag and SST. There's still
some energy and liveness in this area."
Morales says that while the band admires Brian Wilson's willingness to
experiment, he draws inspiration from a wider range of artists: Pink Floyd,
Radiohead, Beck, Neil Young, Nirvana, The Beatles and the Plastic Ono
Band. And though the band's self-titled debut may at first sound as soft and
tightly harmonized as a '60s AM radio love song, a closer listen reveals acerbic
lyrics, edgy sound experiments, hidden dynamic shifts and more than a dash
of punk attitude.
Morales says that he and his brother Kevin (who also plays guitar in the
band) grew up on hip-hop, only making the switch to punk and hardcore after Nirvana appeared on the scene in the early 1990s. And, though it may
seem counterintuitive, both genres left their mark on dios' complex
sound. "The main thing with hip-hop is the really cool drums and samples,"
Morales stated, citing The Chronic and Cypress Hill as early
influences. Now, with the addition of drummer Monzon (who did not
appear on the album), he hopes to add bigger beats and more intense rhythms
to dios' sound, and to continue to expand their use of samples.
"We're already starting to use more samples live," he explained, adding
that the experimental use of electronics and keyboards on tracks like "You Make
Me Feel Uncomfortable" and "The Uncertainty" are, in some ways, a tribute to
another band that made an impact on him and his brother.
"We used to like Nirvana when we were growing up, because of the way they
would go from loud to soft and back," he remembered. "So in the album, we
weren't stomping on any fuzz boxes or distortion pedals, but our dynamic
was going from soft to loud, in a sense, just by filling up the space [with
keyboards and electronic manipulation]."
dios recorded their first album, as well as two tracks for the EP
Arboles, at the band's practice space in Hawthorne in a matter of
days, going back to that space and to bassist John Paul Caballero's
basement studio to remix the tracks. "It wasn't anything dramatic," Morales said. "I
sat down with my brother and said, we need to get an album out. I'll pick five
songs and you pick five songs, and then we'll each
pick a cover, and let's just start tomorrow. So the next day we went in
and he laid down all the drums and then we just recorded it in our practice
space, all the basic stuff."
One of the covers chosen for the album was Neil Young's "Birds," a
haunting, country-influenced ballad with a fragile but soaring
chorus. dios' version makes Young's influence clear, adding a pedal steel
twang to the mix. The other cover was supposed to be of The Beatles'
"Long, Long, Long," a little-known cut from the White Album, but the
band was unable to obtain permission for it. dios also included a song
written by friend and former bandmate Miguel Mendez in "You Got Me All
Wrong," and its insistent rhythms, wistful lyrics and glowing keyboards
make this track one of the disc's highlights.
From dios' bare-boned beginnings, however, the band has lately begun to
raise its profile considerably. The band kicked off this year's Coachella,
and they recently opened for Morrissey on his sold-out, five-night stand in
L.A. "That was pretty frightening, actually," admitted Morales, who said
that when dios went to the venue to load in at 4 p.m., ticketholders
many of them decked out in '80s gear and Smiths T-shirts were already
lined up to get good seats. "I love Morrissey and The Smiths, but I was
afraid of playing in front of their fans. We were the one thing standing
between the fans and their idol, so it was kind of scary that way, but it
went pretty well."
As we spoke in mid-May, dios were one day away from embarking on a 17-date U.S.
tour with Beulah. (That tour, now completed, turned out to be Beulah's final
one.) Check the group's Web site for
news about upcoming shows.
Morales cautions that anyone expecting mellow, pop-friendly love songs at
dios shows may want to invest in a pair of ear plugs. "We do rock 'n' roll
when we are in shows," Morales said. "We're not laid back. We're
sometimes pretty confrontational. My brother and I have more of a punk-rock spirit."
That translates into a rowdier, more rocking show than
dios might indicate, and maybe even a few Cali-punk
covers. "Sometimes we cover a local South Bay band called FYP," he said,
citing a semi-legendary band whose Dance My Dunce is considered a
classic of late-'90s punk. "They've got so many good songs, but if you
played them on acoustic guitar, you would think it was just a really good
Acoustic punk it's an interesting and self-contradictory
concept, but maybe what dios has been doing all along. Jennifer Kelly [Monday, June 28, 2004]