With the launch of their debut LP Berlin Synth Punk Trio Mexican Radio talk to Splendid Berlin…
Portraits by Nora Heinisch, Live Shot by Resa Neupert
Interview by Splendid Berlin
Are you big Wall of Voodoo fans? Why did you choose the name ‘Mexican Radio’?
The Wall of Voodoo song ‘Mexican Radio’ is catchy and great, but our connection to it runs a little deeper than just liking it. Wall of Voodoo wrote that song in Los Angeles, where there is a lot of Spanish-language radio. For the recording, they randomly sampled a broadcast on a Spanish-language radio station. Our singer Nathaniel’s late father was a prominent Mexican DJ, and coincidentally, Wall of Voodoo happened to record snippets of his program. A family friend recognized his voice on the song ‘Mexican Radio’ and mailed Nathaniel and his father a copy of the LP, with a note attached saying ‘you are on this!’ When choosing a name for this project, Nathaniel suggested Mexican Radio – it felt natural and organic to continue the psychic connection between the two parties.
How long have you been playing together?
Mexican Radio actually started as a German-language Fall covers band called Der Sturz. We played a few shows along with a guitarist and bassist, translating our favorite Fall songs into German and trying to capture some of the raw energy of The Fall in their prime. The guitarist and bassist had to depart due to other commitments, and the three of us looked at each other and said, ‘why don’t we keep playing together, only now writing our own songs?’ After living and breathing Fall songs for a few months, our songs naturally took on a similar post-punk style. As a three-piece, we’ve been playing together for about 10 months.
Where did the idea to use synthesizers come about? And what is ‘synth punk’?
After the stringed instrument players left Der Sturz, we only had synthesizers and drums. Rather than seek out a new guitar and bass player, we decided to experiment with what we could do within our new limitations. That really became the basis for a lot the band’s philosophy: set limits and adhere to a strict set of rules, and explore what can come out of that constriction. ‘Synth punk’ is what we called the sound we came up with – it’s more aggressive than synthy electronica, but it also deletes the guitar chromosome from the standard DNA of punk rock music. It’s a new amalgamation of the two genres, greater than the sum of its parts.
After that first ‘limit’ yielded something cool and different, we set other rules: we only record live and analog, and we work and appear exclusively in Mexican Radio uniform (white shirts with a large red lightning bolt splayed across the front). Whenever we make a decision as a group, we ask ourselves ‘would synth punks do this?’ If it fits into our self-constructed synth punk dogma, we do it. If not, it goes by the wayside.
Your album is 20 minutes long. Why the decision to go with a shorter album format?
The record was originally intended as an EP, but when we were in the studio we kept adding songs. If you’re going to record 6 songs completely live to tape in two days, why not record 7? The addition of the seventh song made it ‘technically’ an album according to our distributor. At first we were worried that it would be too short for a ‘proper’ album, but then we asked ourselves whether synth punks cared about making a ‘proper’ album. The group answer was a resounding ‘no’, because synth punks don’t care about propriety, they only care about making lean, mean bad-ass records.
You have a song called ‘White Trash’ and the chorus to the song is ‘what ever happened to white trash?’. Can you explain how this song came about?
When Nathaniel and I first moved to Berlin from California, we were fortunate enough to be engaged as weekly resident DJs at the former White Trash Fast Food on Schönhauser Allee. Every Saturday night was like a living Hieronymus Bosch painting – chaos, indulgence, and wild collective insanity. It was a blast. The staff were always lovely, and really made us feel welcome in our home city. When White Trash moved and then not long afterwards closed down, we really felt like a branch of our Berlin family tree had died. The song is a fun attempt to memorialize that time, and to let those people know what they meant to us. Also, there is a line that Nathaniel sings, “someone owes me a tattoo.” That’s because he won a voucher for a free tattoo in a contest there one night, and never had a chance to redeem it before the place closed. Who knows what could have been…
Can we expect a follow up song called Festsaal Kreuzberg?
Maybe if Festsaal Kreuzberg had never been resurrected after it burned down a few years ago. We only write songs about dead venues.
What comes first? The lyrics or the music?
We deliberately try to keep the music as simple as possible – synth punk songs never have more than two parts, and sometimes not even that! Once we find a groove we like, Nathaniel matches it with words. He seems to have a mental storage locker full of lyrics for songs, about characters in books he has read, artists he admires, historical events he can’t get out of his head. He picks a lyrical concept that complements the groove of the song, and we play it over and over until it sounds cool.
You have a radio show called The Mexican Radio Radio Show. Why did you start doing a radio show?
After we rehearse, we often find ourselves sitting in our practice space (which also happens to be Hannes’ childhood bedroom in his parents’ home in Heinersdorf) drinking Berliner Kindl and listening to music loudly on the PA. All three of us are incredibly enthusiastic about music, so the conversation gets quite lively. We had the idea to let people into those listening parties, so that we could share our love of this kind of music with others who enjoy it. Taking the concept of a radio show further, we had the idea to interview musicians at gigs we go to – I’ve gotten to speak with David Nance, Ian Svenonius, Ezra Furman and Alex Kapranos, which has been really amazing. The radio show has made our ears for this kind of music even sharper, which makes us better songwriters as a result.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
We’re going back into the studio in June to record a second album, which we hope to release before the year’s end. Synth punks put out two albums a year. Other than that, play as many shows as we can and put out the monthly radio show, hopefully getting more and more people to take an interest in the world of Mexican Radio.
What’s in your refrigerator right now?
Lots of hummus.