LUIS AND THE WILDFIRES: DOESN’T SOUND ANY BETTER SOBER
Before they were Luis & the Wildfires they were Lil’ Luis y Los Wild Teens, a band built then as it is now: on rock ‘n’ roll too Wild for American ears. Now, as Luis & the Wildfires, they have more than earned their spot on the wall of Pasadena’s Colorado Bar alongside the Rolling Stones. They will play Saturday with live Mexican wrestling (and you can win tickets here!) so enjoy this reissued interview by Lainna Fader.
You’re both quitting your jobs to play music full-time at a time when people line up for blocks for the shittiest of shitty jobs. Are you scared?
Luis Arriaga (vocals/guitar): Oh yeah—there’s a big fear factor there, absolutely. But I think it’s one of those things where you have to make the leap. You have to take some baby steps before you make the leap. I think at my age I’m well aware of that but I am frightened for the struggle. I’m very lazy.
What baby steps have you taken to prepare yourself?
LA: I don’t know—what do you think, Victor? I think for the first time as a band we’ve been prepared, musically, and with that came the mental aspect of it. Plus there’s the fact that we’re getting fucking old! Might as well do it now while we’re still able to move!
I’d say you have more than a few years left before you’re unable to move.
LA: Sweetheart, the life that I live—Jesus!
What’s something about recording at Wild’s studio that can’t be reproduced in any other studio?
LA: I think the camaraderie. There’s a bit of respect between all of us because we all started together and since it’s such a DIY label. You can be goofy and it’s okay. You can possibly make a mistake and be encouraged.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?
LA: Recording for Wild. Just kidding! Reb, I love you. I’ve had quite a few fumbles but I wouldn’t necessarily call them mistakes. Quite a few fumbles where I’ve possibly been way too inebriated to even record—and the evidence is completely there on record!
What’s the drunkest you’ve ever been in the studio?
Victor Mendez (bass): Well, Luis can handle his alcohol really, really well. No matter how much he drinks, he’s usually OK. And when he records, it doesn’t affect him at all. He does OK.
LA: That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said about me.
VM: Well, you don’t sound any better sober.
What’s the one instrument or piece of equipment you’d love to put in the Wild studio?
VM: An organ. That would be something I would love to have. A really cool Hammond organ.
Would you bring those sounds into the Wildfires? Would it have to be saved for another band or a solo project?
LA: Our sound at the moment is entrenching on being eclectic. We’re experimenting with different sounds, expanding to different types of sounds. And I think actually an organ—if this man is playing it. He can play anything.
I saw that YouTube video of you playing Lady Gaga on the piano.
VM: Ugh! It was when I was drunk. We were just messing around. It was like 4 AM, and we were going to Europe, so we were staying up all night.
LA: This guy’s got a talent to actually hear a song—a random song on the radio—walk into the studio, and just start playing it. And he doesn’t even know what it is. He’s like, ‘I just heard this on the radio just now.’ I’m like, ‘What?!’ It’s unbelievable.
Are you the same way with books? Can you remember everything you read as well as everything you hear?
VM: No. I’m a retard with books. I don’t want to talk about myself!
I’m interviewing you! The point is for you to talk about yourself.
VM: When I hear notes in my head—like the music playing right now—I can hear the chord progressions and just know where the song is heading. When I was a really little boy, my mom bought me a little keyboard. I started learning songs on my own, like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Old MacDonald.’ I started thinking about the notes that I was playing. I got this, then I got that. When I was like 11 I would play these little songs, and I already knew where the next note is.
Can you see the future?
VM: No, no. Somebody taught me after that—the basics. After that, I just picked it up from there.
What’s the first instrument you feel you ever completely learned?
VM: Piano. The other day at work I actually wrote a song in my head. I literally wrote it in my head. I already knew the chords and stuff and the melody. Back home is the only place where I have a piano. In my opinion I’m a very mediocre musician. I can play music but I’m not an amazing musician. For somebody to be amazing, they need to have everything there is to know. The technical stuff.
LA: Who do you like that has the technical aspect?
VM: That’s the thing—I don’t know! I’m not into music. There’s tons of them. That’s the weird thing about me. I love music, I really do. But never in my life have I ever gotten into music. I love all the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll rockabilly type stuff. That’s what I love. I’ve been listening to music for over ten years now and this is the only kind of music I’ve ever played. But at the same time I’ve never been the type of person to learn about things. I don’t know anything about rockabilly. I cannot tell you—
LA: He loves the infectious beat and that’s it.
VM: Yeah! I hear music and I love it but I won’t go read a book about it. I honestly can’t sit here and name tons of bands I love but I’ll hear a song and say ‘Oh, I know this song, I love this song, I can play it for you right now.’ I’m weird. I’m not like everyone else.
What instrument have you never touched but you know if you picked it up you could totally kick ass?
VM: Mandolin. I picked up a violin because Reb wanted a violin on a song. So I went out and bought one and learned it. I did a full violin line through the song. It doesn’t just come naturally, I don’t just pick it up—
But you did! You just did!
VM: But it takes time. I can understand an instrument. As soon as I pick it up and sit there for a little bit and figure out where the notes are, I can pick it up after that.
What does it mean to understand an instrument?
VM: When I hear music, when I play music, no matter what instrument I learn it in—when I play it in my mind, I always see weird things like mountains and the sky. Ever since I can remember, when I was like 11 and a half or 12, it’s been that way.
LA: It’s funny that he said that because we just had this conversation. I see colors. Every chord is a color. That’s how I learned how to play. I’m not skilled in any instrument very well. I can pick up and strum my guitar, but nowhere near the skill of this man. But the way I learned, I saw people’s fingers, and for me to remember that key or chord, I gave it a color representation. Like an A is green. Whenever we write a couple songs, I’d be like, ‘Man, we have too many songs in red.’
Does the band know what you mean by that or is this Luis-language?
LA: Roughly, yeah. We are on a similar wavelength. If you were to sit in when we’re building a song in a rehearsal and trying to communicate musically, it’s the most pathetic, stupid way of communicating but we understand each other. If anybody else were to step into the conversation, they’d think we’re monkeys. Basically this band here, it’s been me and him, and I think we gel really well. He’s got the technical aspects and I’m more easygoing. I’ll bring an idea to him and he’ll fix it up and I’ll put the bow on it at the very end. Kind of a duo here. The new Lennon-McCartney here. Just with worse songs!
What do other chords look like?
LA: They’re all represented by the key that they’re in. A G is red. A is green. C is yellow. D is white. B is brown. F is black. Flat keys I don’t really see colors on those but people tend to not play flat keys anyway.
What would be a beautiful song in black?
LA: He would have to hear it and tell me what key it’s in. Then I could tell you. ‘Beast of Burden’ sounds like it’s in black to me.
You do some covers on the new album—which singer, Tom Waits or Ian Curtis, felt weirder to step inside of? Which felt more at home?
LA: I don’t think I thought about it that way. We decided to do these songs because they have a bit of meaning to me. I don’t mean anything specifically—not like they pulled me out of a hard time or anything—but they somehow caught my attention and stuck with me. One lyric or a melody. I think it was very easy for me to try to fill those shoes, though of course that’s impossible—even attempting to lace those shoes up, because I’m a huge fan of both of them. It became really easy for me to follow them. I don’t know if I do any of those songs justice, and I’m not necessarily concerned about that.
Are there any covers that you wanted to do that didn’t make it on the record?
LA: No, I don’t think so … We kind of prided ourselves on never doing covers, always doing our own material. But again, this record allowed it to be half covers because they weren’t typical to what we played before. We enjoyed playing them so that’s why they’re in there. But everything we wanted is in there.
Why are you ready now to sing other people’s songs?
VM: I’m just a bass player—this one’s on you.
LA: Son of a bitch! On the spot. I think it goes back to what I said before. The fact that we were expressing ourselves differently with different songs. There were some songs that were very attractive to me and then I brought them to the band and said, ‘Wildfire it up!’
What does it mean to ‘Wildfire it up?’
LA: Not play it as good at the original!
VM: Downgrade it!
What’s the longest conversation you’ve ever had with a stranger in a bar? Who was it with, and what did you learn?
LA: Everybody here. The Wildfires’ first album is actually hung on the other side of that wall there [in the Colorado Bar]. Every single person in this bar I’ve sat down with and spoken to for hours and hours about everything in the world. I spend a lot of time here. They’re very supportive of the Wildfires. They even have a Hives album up from when the guys were in town doing Dragtones stuff and they signed it. Wildfires and the Hives are up.
Are you in good company?
LA: Well, they have a Bob Dylan record and the Rolling Stones. I think I just spend a lot of money here so … I earned my spot.
VM: Somebody else had paid for a drink for him too. Remember that? When we were at the other place, someone walked in here, and paid for a drink for you?
LA: Oh yeah, that’s right. Yes. The owner called me up to see if I got home safe, or if I was nearby—if I wanted to come back cuz somebody wanted to buy me a drink. He said, ‘Where is he? If he’s here, I want to buy him a drink, or if he’s coming later, of if he comes in and I’m not here, tell him his tab is on me.’ Maybe he thought I was looking dry.
Who was this guy?
LA: I have no idea. It could be any of the usuals. I don’t like to drink alone. Even if it’s a stranger, I’ll buy a stranger a drink and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And sometimes I don’t even want to talk necessarily. I’ll buy someone a drink if he looks like he’s in need of one. ‘Hey, I want to buy that man a drink. I don’t care to talk to him. Don’t even tell him it’s from me.’ It’s the old alcoholics code.
VM: I gotta go to bars with you more often.
LA: That’s how it goes. Alcoholics code.
You don’t even want to know who’s buying you drinks?
LA: I’m curious, but I’m sure it’ll pay it forward again. I’ll do it to someone else in the future. Or maybe I’ve already done it for him. I don’t even know. Maybe I’ve stupidly picked up his tab before. Maybe that’s why I don’t have any money. I go picking up people’s tabs!
It’s pretty cool that you’re finally able to quit your job to do what you want to do full-time. Most people can’t do that—ever.
LA: I think we’re in a position where we’re ready to be bruised up. The old 9 to 5 isn’t quite working for old Lu anymore. I have to make a change and why not something I truly love and enjoy?
You seem confident about it.
LA: Oh no, I was in a ball crying outside earlier. ‘Are we really doing this?’ I was holding on to Victor and he was just sitting there with his arms crossed. I take some convincing. You always have to confide or talk to the special people in your life and they usually can encourage you the right way.
Who are the special people in your life right now that encouraged you?
LA: These women shall remain nameless!
What has being in the Wildfires taught you about love?
LA: Actually—that question can be answered without being about the Wildfires, for me. I thrive on love. I thrive on passion. I don’t just mean carnal passions, even though that’s very amazing. Anything I do in the band, anything I do outside of the band, I do with passion and love. Love is the key phrase, always. I’m an extremely limerent person. I actually drown in limerence—
Where did you learn that word and how did you know it applied to you? You’re the only person I’ve ever known who’s described themselves that way.
LA: I don’t know. There’s no specific moment where I said, ‘I’m limerent.’ I don’t even know where I ever heard that word. I don’t know. Maybe I heard someone say it and looked it up out of curiosity. I probably saved it in the back of my head and as I got older and older and then through the down and outs of love I slowly started applying it to myself. It wasn’t just overnight, just after years of some pains and some sufferings, certain happy moments and certain sad moments.
What woman has taught you the most?
LA: My mother. Stubborn woman.
Is that a good quality or a bad quality?
LA: I was going to say it was a very bad quality when I was growing up. As I get older, I realize there was truth in what she was saying.
What was she saying?
LA: I don’t think I have enough drinks in me yet. We’ll get there. Hold that—one for Victor, I’ll be right back. Shots anyone? I’m getting my favorite tequila.
What is it?
LA: It’s called Teteo. Aztec tequila and it means ‘of the Gods.’ I think that’s a very appropriate name.
I think you’re my favorite person to have a late night drunken phone call with.
LA: I think I’m everybody’s favorite drinking buddy.
Who’s your favorite drinking buddy?
LA: Myself! You wanna know why? Cuz I never say no! ‘Cheers to you, cheers to me. Friends we’ll always be. And one day if we disagree, fuck you and fuck me.’
This is good tequila. How’d you find this?
LA: I used to live behind this bar. And when I lived there, I didn’t know there was a bar here till I told some friends where I was living and they said, ‘Oh, right by the Colorado Bar.’ I said, ‘What the hell is the Colorado Bar?’ So I ventured out to those beautiful golden doors. It’s been a love affair, me and this place. This place is haunted actually. Pete comes and visits now and then. He’s a ghost.
How do you know there’s a ghost here?
LA: You hear him. See him sometimes. Sometimes he touches you.
Where’d the ghost touch you?
LA: In the restroom. Where most men touch me! It’s true, actually. There was a regular here—this bar used to be open at six in the morning—and this guy used to be such a regular here that he’d never leave. He was such a bum that they gave him a job. ‘Since you’re always here, just pick some shifts up—we might as well pay you!’ That’s basically what happened. He’d come in at 6 AM and stay til 2 AM. The man never slept. He was slowly killing himself. He passed away a couple years ago and shortly after we started hearing some noises around here.
How did he die?
LA: I think he had a heart attack. He was already in his seventies, and he was an alcoholic. That’s just how it goes. First time I ever felt him was when he was in the restroom. I got chills up and down my spine. ‘Pete, is that you?’
How did you know it was him?
LA: Because of what I was told. Some random strangers were like, ‘Hey, I think there’s a guy standing over there. He looks a bit confused.’ But nobody was there. ‘What did he look like?’ ‘An older man, with a white shirt on and jeans.’ And I think it was Pete. He continues to come around. I tell him, ‘Hey boy, this was yours, and now it’s mine.’
Whose ghost would scare you?
LA: I think if I saw Elvis walking through that fucking door! He’d be 73 now and probably look like a zombie and deteriorating already. The thing that would probably scare me is my best friend who passed away in my arms when I was a teenager. I think that would scare me the most, above any other friend or family member. We were involved in a drive-by shooting and he got shot. I held him until he took his last breath. And that was that. That happened when I was 16.
Keith Morris was saying younger bands can’t make great music because they haven’t accumulated the life experience to have anything to say. What do you think?
LA: I do agree—to some extent. I think it’s really hard for a 16-year-old kid to write about heartbreak when the only thing he’s ever had is a girl who’s stolen his lunch ticket. But you also can’t immediately disregard younger musicians for not being talented enough. I mean—you got a savant right here that could do everything ever since he was 9.
In terms of writing a good song, what’s more important—technical skill or lived experiences?
VM: Maybe experiences. Those are two things you’re talking about there. The technical part has nothing to do with personal experiences. But if you’re talking about writing a meaningful song with meaningful lyrics, the experiences are important.
LA: Since he’s the technical one, and I’m more the punching bag, the one that takes the most emotional blows … He can make his upright bass gently weep and write a beautiful ballad if he wants to. For me, I would strum three chords, in very bad rhythm, and probably out of tune, but I’d probably sing something that really hurts to repeat—because it makes a song that represents what I’m feeling.
Do any of the Wildfires songs still hurt to play live?
LA: Well—performing is an absolute rush, and I do lose myself. What did I just do? What did I just say? But I’m using all the emotions from when I wrote the song when I perform it. Everything’s written for a specific reason and I use those feelings to get lost on stage. When I’m done I’m either drunk or really tired.
What would make you happy?
LA: I’m a puzzle with many missing pieces. What they are, I don’t know because I haven’t seen them. I might be placing them in upside down or something. But there are pieces missing. It doesn’t necessarily mean love or a specific person. I don’t know. I think that’s the reason why I drink so.
Yes, me too.
LA: Thatta girl. Anyone want another drink?
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