An almost tribal drumbeat has overtaken the room. At the center of the stage is the figure of a girl intently curled, enraptured, over a red and ivory Fender Jaguar guitar. Her red hair sways rhythmically above its strings, over which her hands make quick, precise motions with a pick. She looks up purposefully, addressing the crowd with eyes that feel like they’re looking right into your soul, and starts to sing. A powerful sound comes out of her—a deep, gravelly voice that delivers every word deliberately, with a hint of something greater below the surface. Something barely contained that simmers and struggles, only glimpsed in the few moments when the voice that constrains it erupts in bold and guttural screaming. As she sings, hidden hints of an imminent smile appear in the corners of her mouth, but they are fleeting.
She is Paola Rogue, and her voice is soon joined by the sweet, melodic voice of Jimena Torres next to her, behind her own guitar and with a quiet, intense power of her own. Jimena’s features are vividly rocker-like: red lipstick, nose ring, and dark black hair cut in a dramatic slash that hangs across the right half of her face.
“Say I’m awake, I’m alive! Say I’m awake, I’m alive!” the two sing in unison, their voices intermingling in a full, arresting sound. Their bassist bops in place while the drummer engages his whole body behind his kit and the crowd, which had filled up the room by the end of the first song, moves to his beat.
It was the Los Angeles debut of The Great Wilderness, who one could call pioneers of Costa Rican post-punk-dream-rock-shoegaze (if there is such a genre) and newcomers to Filter Magazine’s 2013 Culture Collide Festival.
The Great Wilderness intends to create a movement. They were there to represent an emerging alternative rock scene in Costa Rica, a country undergoing a musical awakening of sorts after ten years of the sustained popularity of solely 90’s grunge. They had come on a long journey to be there; personally, musically and even physically. The album they are about to release, In the Hour of the Wolf, had been borne of a slow and encumbered process, and a recent turnover of band members included the departure of their founding bassist. Her replacement had problems getting a U.S. visa, so a friend and bassist of a fellow group (Ran D of The Man Upstairs) stepped in to cover for the L.A. performances.
The day of their first L.A. show also marked the release of “Hexagon,” a powerful song from the upcoming album. The album, much like their story, is about perseverance and the sound is often one of both inner and outward battle. “Hexagon” It’s the kind of song you can imagine being growled into a mirror in a dimly lit room.
I caught up with Paola and Jimena the day after their first L.A gig for an impassioned conversation about artistic perseverance and the future of Costa Rican music. Here are the highlights:
MIP: How did your sound and your aesthetic come together? What influences do you have?
Paola: I know there’s a lot going on here [laughter]. I listen to a lot of music; I listen to British pop, alternative rock, bands like The Smashing Pumpkins. I have a tattoo, I have it on my skin, I have proof! [Points to her inner right arm, where “Believe in the resolute urgency of now” from the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” is tattooed in a scrawling cursive]. Every band that we listen to has some input and we try to mix everything up and then add a little bit of our own personal things.
Jimena: My influences are different than Paola’s, not a lot different; mostly it’s still about British music. She listens to a lot of atmospheric bands, I listen to a lot of heavy punk. That comes together in the music in that it is kind of atmospheric. She actually really gives the aggressive part of the music, and then I find a ways to … tone it down.
Paola: She tones me down! I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Creedence and The Cure and all that that my dad would play for me, so I have like this really, really heavy background and she tones me down.
MIP: Speaking of that heaviness, Paola, your voice is totally not what I expected.
Paola: I sing like a guy, yeah! [Laughs]
MIP: You were fierce! It’s this really strong, heavy sound. How did you arrive at that? Did you start out with the idea that you wanted to sing that way or did it evolve?
Paola: It just happened. I sing like a man. I’m tiny and some people say I’m cutesy, but I sing like a guy. I open my mouth and [lowers voice] it’s like this. But, I dunno. I listen to a lot of female singers such as Shirley Manson and Brody Dalle and they have really low voices. I had a low voice and my grandma would tell me that I should not sing because I sound like a man and girls sing high and melodically. In Costa Rica every female singer sings like that, so I thought I couldn’t sing. But then listening to these women, they were really strong women and they were role models for me. Suddenly, it was okay to have a really deep voice, and to scream and to growl. It sounded good. I liked it, and they liked it too [motions at Jimena].
Jimena: Yeah. All the time, she says she sings like a man and I have a very innocent voice.
Paola: She does! So the combination of both vocals on stage is magic, because she’ll be [softens voice] like this and I’ll be [lowers voice] like this.
MIP: You started off as an all-girl group. Was that intentional, was that a statement?
Paola: Not really, no. I actually don’t like all-girl bands. What happened was this: I was in a band – I’ve been doing this for a while, about ten years – it was called Lolita Piñata, and it was two girls and two guys, and the band broke up because the bassist told me to kill myself [laughs]. So, I decided I wouldn’t and I broke up the band. He said “You would be really successful if you kill yourself.” So, that band broke up and the drummer and I were really good friends, so we decided to carry on and then add my best friend from high school. She played guitar and we convinced her to play bass. Then we met Jimena, and she was awesome. She was the piece that the band was missing. The sound was good, but there was something missing, and as soon as I heard her play, I was like “Hi! You wanna be in a band?” But it was not intentional. Or if it was all boys or whatever, I don’t think gender matters in music.
MIP: That seems to actually be a better fit with your feelings and about your voice, that idea that it doesn’t matter.
Paola: Exactly, Exactly.
Jimena: On the first EP, we didn’t write our names, we just wrote our initials and last names on it so that people wouldn’t know we were all girls. Sometimes it can be gimmicky for some bands to be all girls. We didn’t want that when we started.
MIP: What women inspire each of you in your music now?
Paola: Courtney Love, Shirley Manson—I really admire her. Melissa Auf der Maur, I really like her bass playing.
Jimena: Mine haven’t influenced me maybe in the music itself, but more of how I feel about their music. There’s a Canadian musician, her name is Charlotte Oleena and her band name is Sea Oleena; she is my main influence in life! [Laughs] She doesn’t know it because she’s really underground. She released like two EPs like two years ago and then disappeared. I even have a tattoo because of her [points to a black flower on her upper arm and explains that Charlotte Oleena’s CD covers are all of flowers]. Her music makes me feel so much that I want to make music that makes other people feel the same way. I think she’s my main influence. She’s great and she doesn’t know it. Or if she does she doesn’t like the attention, she doesn’t want to be in the spotlight.
Paola: Maybe. That’s respectable, too.
Jimena: Kim Gordon too, she’s great. And Siouxsie, from Siouxsie and the Banshees.
MIP: Where do you see Costa Rican music going? Since you started playing, have you seen a trend among other Costa Rican bands that have been coming out of the grunge phase?
Jimena: Yeah, the Costa Rican music scene is opening and there are all kinds of bands that people would like and love and would kill to listen to, and it’s a shame that no one knows what’s happening.
Paola: The thing with Costa Rica is that it’s a very difficult context, a difficult place to live in if you like counterculture. Everything is very traditional and people like what they’re supposed to like, but there’s a generation coming and this generation has found that maybe if these things are not available you can create them. So, some of us have started to create those things. Five years ago, the biggest thing a Costa Rican band could do is open for an international act, and that would be it. But since then we have been growing and there have been several opportunities for bands to use the internet to apply to festivals outside the country and travel, so there’s some kind of camaraderie between bands, and we’ve been trying – and it’s hard, because you still have ego – we’ve been trying to build up teamwork, because Costa Rica has a potential to be a little musical mecca. Every time a band goes out of the country and then comes back home, we’ve tried to share our experience and work together. We need to work together because what we need is a movement, not just two or three bands coming out of the country and becoming successful. We need a movement, and to let people know that Costa Rica is a place to go and listen. Things are happening in Costa Rica.
Jimena: You don’t have to be super successful to be successful. If your music’s good, the right people will listen to it. And that’s what we want Costa Ricans to do. It’s not about money or fame, it’s just about sharing the art and letting it be alive in other people. That means the world to us. We don’t need money, we just need that empathy. There was a couple, a lady and a guy, who came up to us and told us that they came to the festival yesterday to listen especially to us. We couldn’t believe it! [Motions at Paola] She cried.
Paola: Yeah, I cried. I cry a lot, but really, that doesn’t happen back home. Well, [motions at Jimena] to her it happens sometimes, but to me it doesn’t because I’m a clinical psychologist, I’m not in the art world a lot. I’m in the art world when I’m making art, but most of the time I’m working around people with mental illnesses. So coming here and having people tell me, “I listen to your music, I know who you are, I know you have a replacement bassist right now,” I’m like, “how do you know that? Really? Wow, you know us better than we do!” That’s exciting and it’s a great experience. It’s all about the ride. And the ride is amazing.
MIP: What are you trying to convey to an audience? What do you want people to take away with them from your music?
Jimena: I want them to take a movie. This might sound weird, but I want them to create stories in their minds. I think right now we are part of the battle. Every time we play our set list I feel like we are going to war, and I want people to feel that. I want people to imagine all kinds of things, to create a story in their minds and just to enjoy it. I want music to involve them. For them to get so in touch with the music that they have to stay and listen to the whole set.
Paola: For me it’s different. I know what music means to me, but I just deliver it in a way according to what it means to me. But they can take away whatever they want; they can make a love song out of a song that means pain to me. It’s their own experience. I just want to share it with them, and then they can decide what it means to them.
MIP: I was listened to Hexagon this morning and definitely have my own images associated with it. But, putting aside what I might take away from it, the movie that I have in my head, what went into it when you were writing it?
Paola: It’s like a soundtrack for a movie that starts out in a very dark place where bad things happen to you and they will tackle you and they will bring you down, but it ends with hope that a new day will come and things will be better. The chorus for “Hexagon” says “Say I’m awake, I’m alive,” but the verses are a little bit darkish. It’s about getting up despite the obstacles that might get in your way, and keep going because in the end your life is just there for a limited time. You just have to make the most of it, even if it gets dark and scary sometimes. I think that’s what “Hexagon” is about. It’s about a tense moment when you don’t know what to do.
Jimena: You feel this tension.
Paola: We’ve been through a lot in the last year, and I think that translates into the record. There were moments when we weren’t sure what would happen to the record, but we kept going, and I think that translates to the music. Dark places and getting out of them.
Jimena: It’s very emotional for us, we’ve been through a lot, like she said, and the last verse of “Valley of Light,” which is the last song on the record says: “some of them thought we would never survive.” I believe that phrase is a summary of the whole record.
MIP: How did that line specifically come to you?
Paola: Well… We survived. There have been obstacles, and we’ve struggled a little bit on musical and personal levels, but in the end you just keep going and we survived, even if people—because people do that, don’t they? When you’re struggling people kind of want to see you fall just for the hell of it — even if they think you’re not going to make it, you have to make it, because it’s your personal satisfaction. People, if they want to, can choose to survive. It’s not about drama, it can be about anything. Everyone has their little battles. We want to express that to an audience: it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life right now, you can choose to survive.