Monday, May 14, 2012

INTERVIEW with Daniel Saks of DeLeon, May 3, 2012

I got a chance to speak with the founder of the band DeLeon via phone prior to their upcoming show this Thursday at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, MD. This is yet another excellent show as part of the 13th annual Washington Jewish Music Festival.
David Hintz -  So how are you doing today?

Dan Saks (of DeLeon) - I'm doing good.

DH - And where are you right now?

DS - I'm in Mexico City.

DH - Wow, ok... great. Are you playing some shows down there?

DS - No, I live here. I moved down here about nine months ago.

DH - Oh, no kidding. So how is it going down there?

DS - I like it very much, very much.

DH - Gosh (showing surprise by channeling Burt Ward). So, is the altitude a problem?

DS - You know, when I first moved here, I definitely felt it. I admit I tried jogging and it lasted just a couple minutes before I found myself gasping for air. You know, you feel like you are trying to climb the pyramids or something. And when you're cooking, actually it's hard, and with some baked items... But now, I think I've gotten the hang of it.

DH - Yes, baking is a real problem. For years, I lived in the Rocky Mountains at 8,000 feet above sea level.

DS - Oh yeah, then you know.

DH - Yeah, they even give high level baking instructions for up to 6,000 feet which doesn't help the rest of us (laughter).

DS - Exactly. I look for recipes on line and I am in a whole different stratosphere.

DH - Great... So what brings you up to the states? Are you going to do the (DC Jewish Music) Festival and some additional shows?

DS - Uh, yeah. That's where I'm from and where my friends and family are, bandmates for that matter. So I find myself there with some frequency and so when something is there, I try to schedule a few shows around it. So we've got the Washington Jewish Music Festival show in Maryland and a show in New York a few weeks later and some recording I am going to do in between and rehearsals with the band and some visiting of some haunts.

DH - OK, let's talk a little bit about your band DeLeon who I've done a little research on and I have learned something new concerning the Sephardic Jewish tradition going back to the Iberian (peninsula) area. Is that the core of what DeLeon is about?

DS - Well that is kind of where it starts. The songs we play are all kind of based on that tradition--they are old folk songs. But from there we reinterpret the songs to a more contemporary sound. Some times the melodies may change. The lyrics, I'll translate into English if I like how they sound better in English... so we take some creative liberties with these songs. But that is the idea.

DH - How about the rest of your band mates. Do they have different backgrounds that they bring to the table?

DS - They certainly do musically. I am not sure I ever had the option to have a band with people who were interested in Sephardic music as I was, let alone play it a modern format. But the band all have their own influences and when we play live, they are kind of blending their own Known influences to that sound, which I think is the strength of it. The whole idea is that these songs are songs that are worth hearing and together we mold them into a shape that makes sense hearing today.

DH - OK, now you have played with some bands that I have reviewed CDs previously... Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello. And what you are also describing is something similar to when 16 Horsepower took Appalachian music and rocked it as Bordello does. So do fans from those bands gravitate to your sound and is this something that is becoming more popular?

DS - You know, we have been lucky to be on some really great tours with bands, where maybe our sounds are not exactly the same like those bands and Os Mutantes... All these band that are not exactly world music.

DH - Right.

DS - There is some sort of disparate influences used to create something that feels very 'now'. Like the Gogol Bordello tour, for example, was a fantastic tour. There fans really did take to us. I think they were responding to the exoticness and the beats and the melodies and just the energy of the band. It is going to be a roomful of people that are open to that sort of thing, you know, come ready to dance. Same goes for Balkan Beat Box crowds. So those were great tours and we had a lot of fun and we definitely picked up some fans along the way.

DH - Good. I am glad you mentioned Os Mutantes, a great band, and I love the Tropicalia bands...

DS - Yeah. Oh my God, that was a dream come true that we got that tour.

DH - That goes back to where... technically it may have begun, where world and psychedelic and rock music together in a big way.

DS - Yeah, sure.

DH - So how does DeLeon operate these days living in different parts of the world? Like you say, you will come up now and then, but do you get together easily enough for recording and do you see longer tours/shorter tours or what?

DS - Ever since I moved here, I have set up a studio. Part of the inspiration of moving here was plain inspiration, new sounds, and new influences. So I set up a recording studio in my apartment here, and I could afford a much larger apartment here than I could in New York and I have spent the last six or seven months working on our next record. And during this next trip to New York, I am going to meet the guys in the studio and we are going to lay down more stuff, vocals, some keys, trumpets, and some things like that. But the recordings about 80% finished. It's good, too, I think.

DH - Excellent. Do you have any other side project bands or solo work?

DS - I have been in a bunch of bands over the years. I have two current side projects... one is kind of on hold. I have played in a band called the Macaroons, which plays Jewish children's music. It is very part time as we are all in different bands, but we play a few gigs and festivals throughout the year. And then I am working on putting together sort of a Mexico-edition DeLeon down here, so I can have a group of musicians and continue playing shows while I am living here locally.

DH - How is the music scene down there? Have you seen many local bands?

DS - I have and I know a lot of great musicians here. I am actually going to write my back after this conversation and meet a new guy who is looks like he is going to be great to work with. The scene down here is... strong, it's very vibrant. A lot of musicians tell me that there is not the infrastructure here that there is, say in New York, between bands and small labels and blogs and things like that. But there are a lot of great bands playing in the few clubs there are. There is also some lousy ones. The traditional music scene of Mexico, you know like the Mariachi and Banda. I love that stuff. I try to surround myself with that as much as possible.

DH - Well I will monitor your efforts, because I know a lot about South American music, although it is mostly historical, but yeah, the Mexican scene does not get a whole lot of play to me, for whatever reason.

DS - There are some are some good music festivals here and this promoter, Todd P. who does a lot of things in New York is putting on a music festival in Monterrey (MtyMX), which is pretty ballsy, and will combine South American and indie rock bands and Mexican indie rocks bands... I mean there is definitely good stuff out here, it just needs a way to break through.

DH - Yes, like you said the infrastructure is so essential. So when was the last time you were in Washington DC and what club did you play?

DS - The last time I played there was the Rock'n'Roll Hotel? But it changed... No it was the Red & Black, a place upstairs.

DH - Yes, which is now the Red Palace.

DS - Yes, the Red Palace, exactly.

DH - Yes, they have doubled the size and it is a lot nicer.

DS - Yes it is, I know. We actually had a good show previously in the smaller room, too. But it is a lot better now.

DH - Especially for the touring bands as there was only so many people they could fit in before the expansion. Well hopefully some of your fans will show up for your festival appearance. I am curious if you have toured the world at all?

DS - Well, we have toured the US extensively and have played some shows in London and here in Mexico and Canada, but mostly going back and forth across the US about a million times--which is great, I don't complain about that. I can't wait for the next tour, whenever that will be.

DH - Well, I won't talk to you in a middle of a car trip, where it's fair to complain (laughter) or when you're pumping up with gas.

DS - Yeah.

DH - Next plans?

DS - Right now we are focusing on finishing up the new record and we have a link to get assistance via crowd-source to track list this new record. The basic concept is to reach out to fans of this type of music to create a playlist on Spotify, with their favorite Sephardic folk songs or songs they want to hear on our next record. Admittedly, this is a small demographic, but with people that are compassionate about Sephardic music and also technologically savvy enough to have Spotify on their computer pretty much looks like two distinct circles (laughter). But we got about 20 submissions and we recorded most of them. And we have just launched a kickstarter (kick start it below) to help fund this next album. I should add our record label went out of business right before I moved to Mexico.

DH - Ah, my next question.

DS - So this will be our first release since that and we are going to try the kickstarter thing and see if we can some support for funding it.

DH - Well yeah, good luck with that. I just got a kickstarter request (from a local band) about three hours myself. (resigned laughter). Yes, it's common. Being independent, whether you want to our not, is common these days it seems.

DS - Yeah. I thought a lot about how do it before we started the project and I think we came up with a good campaign. I didn't want to sit and be a musician just moaning.

DH (laughter) Right.

DS - So I think we went about it in a creative fashion... ... Yes, I am familiar with DC, I grew up there. It's been a while, but I still try to keep a foot in DC.

DH - Good! I have been a recent resident and lived here one year in 1987 and before that was into the midwest punk scene where I developed the indie spirit.

DS - It is an interesting music town. I don't know too much what is happening there now, but I grew up there during that punk scene aware, but too young to be going to shows. Then when I got older, the go-go scene was really strong and I went to a lot of go-go shows, which was one of my favorite areas for live music. It is still very mush like the punk ethos, very much of a DIY kind of scene.

DH - That's a great point. Chuck Brown is such a legend here, sadly with some recent health issues. But yeah, it is interesting that the punk bands from other cities do not seem to do as well touring through here, but the ethos of the scene is strong as ever. There are tons of bands, most of which have jobs, not too many that break out nationally. But the quality is really high, where covering it is so much fun. Anyway, I'll leave it with that and see you at your show.

DS - Sounds good. Take it easy.

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