Apart from the songs, which are quite good (more on that in a minute), the most notable thing about Making Movies' second LP, A La Deriva, is that Steve Berlin produced it. Berlin has played saxophone and keyboards for decades in East L.A. Chicano rock band Los Lobos, and he has produced records for Leo Kottke, Rickie Lee Jones, Chuck Prophet and John Lee Hooker. He also played on the Replacements' All Shook Down, R.E.M.'s Document, and Paul Simon's Graceland.
In other words, Berlin is a respected guy among people who make great records. After he caught Making Movies at Knuckleheads in September 2011, when it opened for Los Lobos, he asked the band members if they'd be interested in his producing their next record — a vaguely fairy-tale-like proposition for the Kansas City group.
"I mean, it was a game changer. It was a huge turning point for our band," says singer-guitarist Enrique Chi. "Things had been going fairly well. But to have him step up and decide he wanted to be involved changed everything for us."
Record-producing credits have become a little bit like movie-producing credits. Sometimes it's a hands-on effort on the part of the producer, but sometimes a big-name producer just lends his or her name as a promotional tool and collects the cash. Chi says Berlin was of the former camp.
"I have a handful of friends who have worked with big-name producers, where they literally don't even show up," he says. "Or at least they don't even step foot in the studio. They just send notes from afar. And there's a middle ground, too, which I think is the most common, where you have a producer who listens to a couple things, gives some suggestions, then leaves and comes back a few hours later. That's kind of what I expected Steve to do. As it turned out, he was there 12 hours a day with us for the 11 days we recorded with him in Portland [Oregon]."
"It wasn't just that he was physically in the studio," says Diego Chi, bassist. "He was mentally engaged in everything happening, always giving instruction. He was always pushing in one direction or another."
"Down to very small stuff," Enrique continues. "He would listen to an overdub that would last 15 seconds of a song, and he'd say, 'Change the tremolo settings,' or whatever. It was awesome. We couldn't have asked for a better experience. And it was inspiring to me because I sometimes wonder if you do anything for long enough, you get burned out on it. Like, I know I want to do music for the rest of my life. But will I be stoked in 30 years to make music? Will it still be fun? And from him, we learned it can be. You can stay fuckin' stoked about waking up and making music every day. That's his attitude."
One thing that Berlin possibly saw in Making Movies is that it's a Latino rock band with ambitions beyond the genre of Latino rock music — not unlike Los Lobos. Chi and the band, which is rounded out by percussionist-keyboardist Juan-Carlos Chaurand and drummer Brendan Culp, also recognize this. In addition to soaking up Berlin's musical knowledge, they looked to Los Lobos as a model for how to break out of the ghettoized world of Latino music.
"Here's the thing about Latino music and Latino venues," Enrique says. "On one hand, it's cool because there's a built-in draw. A lot of people will show up to a gig just because they want to see some entertainment in their own language. Even a buzzy Pitchfork band has a hard time drawing at RecordBar on a Tuesday, but you can usually get 40 people to come to a Latino music venue without even knowing who you are most nights of the week. The challenge is that the talent pool is usually pretty amateur."
"A lot of bands we end up playing with on those gigs are kind of like high school bands," Culp says. "They all tend to have the same sound, which is basically Latin music influenced by the Cure or the Smiths or something. And it's been that way for about 25 years now."
Within the Hispanic community, Enrique says, there's a lot of variation in the music-fan demographic. Low-income immigrant workers gravitate toward more traditional rural Latino sounds. But there also are Latino kids with better educations who come from a higher socioeconomic background, and media and marketing groups don't quite know how to reach them.
"It's like the difference between somebody from rural Alabama and New York City," he says. "It's just drastically different backgrounds. These kids might be into indie bands. They might be Buzz listeners. They might be into hip Mexico City bands. So there's this weird gap that we're trying to fill, and part of the challenge is to get the mainstream music business to not see you as only part of Latino culture. A traditional venue sees us on the edge there and says, 'Well, you wouldn't make sense opening up for whatever buzzy indie band.' When in fact we would and we have, and it works. We've done it.
"So one big lesson we've learned from Lobos is not to be afraid to try new, weird ideas," Enrique continues. "Lobos toured with the Clash. They functioned like a punk-rock band. It was a do-it-yourself, book-your-own-gigs, trade-shows-with-bands type of thing. That's how they started, playing with the Blasters and the L.A. punk scene. That's what we try to do. We play underground shows here in town at Club Moustache, and we'll play with punk bands on tour in San Antonio or whatever. Or we'll play a Mexican festival and just not give a shit that we're different than the other bands and just let whatever happens happen. To me, we're a fuckin' punk band. We're outside of the music business. If people like what we're doing, fine, and if not, fuck 'em."
Listen to A La Deriva and you'll quickly pick up on some of the fiery confidence that Chi's hinting at there. On Making Movies' 2009 debut LP, and last year's Aguardiente EP, there are some Anglo-pop moments, but largely the songs hew to familiar Latin rhythms and cadences — the salsa, merengue and cumbia records that the Chi brothers absorbed from their mother's record collection growing up in Panama, with some modern-rock flavors sprinkled in.
There's no mistaking that A La Deriva is rooted in Latin music — more than half the songs are sung in Spanish, and Chaurand's inspired Afro-Cuban backbeat is a constant — but there are plenty of moments when you wouldn't think to file Making Movies under any genre except plain old rock. Or, yes, punk: "Pendulum," a highlight, snarls and chimes like a London Calling track, and Diego's dirty, restless bass turns it into something irresistible. "Ciego Sin Querer" is sung in Spanish but has guitar tones like you'd hear on Radiohead's Hail to the Thief or In Rainbows. "Ready for the Rain" shows some new range; its gray soar has echoes of a slow-burning My Morning Jacket ballad.
It's a big step forward musically. I was a casual fan before, but after hearing A La Deriva, I'm kind of a believer. I'm not alone. In recent months, NPR and CNN Español have run segments on Making Movies. The band is getting strong play on KTBG 90.9 (the Bridge). And to get the word out about the album (out officially March 5, though you can pick it up on CD at just about any record store in town), Making Movies is doing a long run of dates that includes trips to Panama, Puerto Rico and a month through the American Southwest. Riding a strong new album and a publicity push, the group hopes to see significant added turnout on tour this year.
"It's market by market," Enrique says. "Chicago is getting good. Texas is getting good. Los Angeles and Bakersfield are really good. It's little pockets we're trying to open up and expand."
At the same time, there's a certain charm to being a struggling touring band. "We're still constantly having strange but great experiences," Enrique says. "You're in Burtonsville, Maryland, and the place has a bad PA, and the sound guy doesn't know how to work a DI box, and you're in the back of a Mexican restaurant or something and you're just pissed off. But then some girls show up, and they know your songs just from looking up the band on YouTube. And you're like, 'OK, I'm being a dick right now. I get to play music here tonight. I should just relax.'"