Evan Jones First off, how about some basic information? Who are you, where are you from? Those sorts of things.
Joao Da Silva My name is Joao Da Silva. It’s a very common Portuguese name, like John Smith. I was born in Sweden, but have lived in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Hawaii and New York. My maternal family lives in Santiago, Chile; which is where I lived from age 13 until my early 20’s, so it’s where my roots are. I find it very hard to pinpoint where I’m from exactly. I’ve never really felt like I belong to any particular place nor group of people. I currently live in Brooklyn, NY with my partner and our cat and this feels like “home” to me.
EJ What have been listening to lately?
JS That’s tough because I’m really all over the place when it comes to my listening habits. Some of my current go-to records are by Älgarnas Trädgård, a Swedish psych band from the early 70s; a recent reissue of Tribo Massahi’s only record. They were a “rough around the edges” Brazilian samba ensemble. MGLA “Exercises In Futility”, a metal band from Poland; El Mahdy Jr’s “Spirit of Fucked Up Places,”; the gorgeous drones of Catherine Christer Hennix and the different ensembles she’s recorded with under different names; some of the recent Coil reissues. Locally, Bob Bellerue’s “Damned Piano” and Ariadne’s “Tsalal” albums are some of the best music I’ve heard and both have also provided some of the more interesting live performances I’ve seen this year.
EJ And how do you like living in Brooklyn? Spent some time in crown heights a couple months ago. Interesting place.
JS Actually, I live pretty close to Crown Heights, just further south. I’ve been here since 2008 and love it. I first lived in a very non-residential part of Brooklyn called Gowanus, which has since very rapidly been gentrified because it’s pretty close to Manhattan, and a few years ago my partner and I moved even further into Brooklyn seeking out better quality of life for less money.
I love my current neighborhood. It’s still affordable, clean, quiet, and has plenty of trees and access to green spaces, unlike Gowanus. I live in a quasi-suburban section of Brooklyn called Kensington which is just south of Prospect Park. Most of my neighbors are families from Poland, Bangladesh, India, and Mexico so there’s no shortage of great food and small grocery stores with imported products, spices and even beers that I wasn’t familiar with until moving here. I also play and book shows at a venue called Prospect Range which is about half-a-mile away.
EJ Nice, will definitely check that out if I'm ever in Brooklyn again! So when did you start making music?
JS I’ve been playing and performing in one way or another since age 15, mainly as a guitarist and vocalist. I took an interest in guitar because I was heavily into what we now call “classic rock”, metal, and later grunge. Grunge was my gateway to punk, hardcore and underground music generally.
EJ Classic rock seems to be a gateway for a lot of musicians. How did you end up making the switch to ambient music? Didn't care to be a rock star I guess? I read in another interview that you got tired of the traditional rock and blues song structure. For what it's worth, I'm very glad you did.
JS I always tended to seek out and enjoy the “stranger” elements of even the most mainstream music that I had access to. You know, I appreciated the raga-like parts of “The End” by The Doors over the more straight-forward rock songs like “Break on Through” for example. The Velvet Underground were probably the first really “weird” band that I got into, and this was around 1991 while I was living in Santiago, Chile where you were not as likely to walk into a coffee shop and hear VU or The Stooges playing in the background as you are today.
I then got into punk and started a band around 93-94 and pretty much kept playing in punk or punk-influenced bands on and off until about 2009. I got a kick out of the cathartic energy that you could create in a small room with a bunch of like-minded people. I was a left-wing atheist straight edge kid and so loud/fast music was my church and my drug of choice. But even within the limited range of what hardcore-punk music was I always liked the “in between” sounds. You know, the leftover feedback, the sound of reverberating strings, etc. The intro to Bad Brains “Big Takeover” is a perfect example of that. Some of the older kids I befriended also had musical interests beyond hardcore so they made me of aware of stuff like Einsturzende Neubauten, Swans, The Ex, Flux of Pink Indians, Rudimentary Peni, a lot of free jazz, etc. I didn’t immediately take to all of it but I kept mental notes of things to look out for.
I had done some treated guitar experiments on my own and made home recordings as far back as the late 90’s and I was blown away by the sounds you could get from loosening strings, putting springs between them, hitting them and scraping them with objects, etc. By the time I got to college I also had the opportunity to do an audio-visual installation and performance piece for one of my more interesting professors.
I think what tired me of being in bands was really having to compromise what I want to do for the sake of others. The last band I was in was really just a passion project for everyone involved and I couldn’t relate to my fellow band members' need to make everything sound just right and perfect live when none of us were doing it as a career nor to try to appeal to a mass audience. I mean, on our best night we were lucky if there were 20 people in a room and no one was about to quit their jobs to go on month-long tours. I didn’t see the point in writing perfectly formed songs, nor making everything sound the same so I started doing things on my own at home.
That is pretty much what the first Luciernaga tape was: me testing things out with different effect pedals, gadgets and techniques. I was trying to use the guitar in ways that were radically different from how I was used to using it. There’s only one piece I used a synth on that tape, everything else is made up of sounds extracted from one of my guitars. I probably, inevitably, bring in rock-ish or blues
elements into my music because I do listen to a lot of rock and blues, especially early 20th Century folk and blues.
EJ And I guess to continue that thought, how does a piece of your music come into existence? You certainly use some interesting techniques to get your sounds. Let's take, for instance, "Wandering June", (which I couldn't stop listening to for quite a while).
JS Some of it I just record directly into a Zoom H2 recorder as I play. Sometimes, although this has become a less frequent practice, I’ll have different recordings of the same idea or theme that seem to fit together and I will combine or mix them on recording software until they turn into something more cohesive. "Wandering June" was done in one take and it’s basically a loop of me bowing the guitar with an actual bow, and then generating these soft squeals with an e-bow on the sixth string. The original recording is about 12 minutes long and a slightly longer version than the one now available will appear on 7” vinyl I’m doing.
EJ Can't wait for that! So what are the field recordings you use?
JS I actually haven’t used all that much, except for on “Land of Four Corners”, which is mostly just warped field recordings. But I’ve recorded the subway, people chatting on the street, the sound of the dryers in my building’s laundry room, the Islamic call to prayer in Istanbul, street drumming in Chile, a violin player in Budapest, church bells in Vienna, etc.
EJ So you made the pretty radical change from punk bands to ambient music experimenting with guitar sounds and things. This project seems to have come from a really honest place. What does this type of music mean to you? I mean that as vaguely as it sounds.
JS I’m not sure if I can exactly place it. I really need to be in the right head-space to sit down and play. I can’t do it if I don’t feel like it. And when I do, I usually sit down for a few seconds or minutes, and try to tap into what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling. Then I just let it go. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts until it starts to feel like its working, other times it’s instant. I guess it’s the closest I can get to “meditation” because I’ve never learned how to meditate.
EJ That makes a lot of sense, actually. And something nice about Luciernaga is that it always seems to be moving forward. Even your longer pieces compel you to keep listening. Obviously you wouldn't set out to make boring music, but that can't be said of all music in the genre. That's something that you pay attention to, or is it more of a bi-product?
JS I do try to pay attention and move forward because I need the piece to move forward and challenge me. Even when I’m performing live, if a piece gets too “pretty” or too “chill” I always feel the need to break off from it even if it’s awkward or may sound ugly. I really dislike new age music and what that stands for which is basically background music while people do yoga, fuck, or read self-help books. If I have to play live, I want to challenge myself and also keep people’s attention. I’m still not very comfortable playing live because I don’t think I’m very good at it, but I practice when I can, and I hope to get better with time.
EJ I think it's fair to say, too, that there's darkness to be found in your work. Some of it can be downright unsettling. And yet there's also a lot of light. Some of your B sides stand in contrast to their darker counterparts. And even the sounds you use contrast each other so that there's a balance between the grit and the "prettier" elements. The project's title, Luciernaga certainly suggests that you are aware of that balance. You were consciously trying to draw a contrast there?
JS Yes. I’m an incredibly fortunate person in that I have a partner who loves me and who is incredibly supportive, a loving family and really good friends. So life for me is generally good. But I also have a pretty complicated past that involves my family, a military dictatorship, and some rough things I experienced growing up. I am also very aware of my surroundings and what is going on in the world and that impacts me in many ways.
I think we live in very dark and terrifying times. I grew up hearing horrible stories in Chile and in my work I’ve worked with survivors of torture, people experiencing severe mental illness and poverty. I don’t have a positive view of the world and I’m not particularly optimistic about our future, but I think there are still a lot of really beautiful moments in our lives. Even when you’re going through hell, there are moments of light. So the music I make is a reflection of how I’m feeling in the moment. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I’m able to make what I find is really uplifting music.
EJ Let's talk about that a little more. How did your experiences in Chile shape your political ideas, and your relationship with the US?
JS I warn you, it’s a long one…
I think my relationship with the U.S. has always been one of appreciation for its people, its culture, its landscape and diversity, but I'll always have a healthy distrust for its government. I believe the U.S. government has, for many decades, functioned as “the enforcer” for major corporations throughout the rest of the world, and rarely for the benefit of its own people. You see that in what drove the U.S. to overthrow President Arbenz in Guatamela at the behest of United Fruit Company; Allende in Chile on behalf of ITT, Anaconda, Kennecott; or more recently, supporting successful and unsuccessful interventions in Honduras and Venezuela. Two countries whose governments posed no threat nor whose removal would in any way improve the lives of most Americans.
I lived in Chile during two different periods, the first was from 1981 to ’85, and the second from 1991 until ‘04. During the early 80’s, Pinochet was in power and although I was a just a kid and was mostly interested in playing and watching cartoons, I remember being afraid of the military. Men in green and gray uniforms with guns were everywhere. There were also constant blackouts, curfews and massive street demonstrations that would be met with a harsh response by the police, who in Chile are part of the Armed Forces. I didn’t know much about what was going on or what had happened, not only because of my age but also because it really wasn’t reported by the official media.
In the mid-70’s my mom was a student at the Catholic University and had been involved in the Izquierda Cristiana party which was the left-wing of the Democracia Cristiana (which was then a Catholic center-right party). After the military coup in 1973, she was kidnapped from her home in Santiago by agents of Pinochet’s secret police and was held at one of their more notorious concentration camps, a place called Villa Grimaldi (aka “Cuartel Terranova”). She has told me that while detained she was constantly in the dark and that when they took her out of her cell to be interrogated she was always blindfolded. She didn’t find out, until many years later when she was asked to be a witness in a human rights case, that she had been held in Villa Grimaldi.
At some point, and probably because she had no useful information (although that didn’t stop them from making other people disappear) she was taken out, blindfolded again, driven in a vehicle and then dropped off in the outskirts of Santiago where some local people helped her call one of her sisters. She then sought asylum at the Swedish embassy which resulted in her moving to Sweden which is where she met my dad and I was born. He had lived through a much harsher experience in Brazil, and unlike my mom, had been involved in armed resistance against the military dictatorship. I didn’t learn about this until my mid-teens, and only because I started asking questions.
When I returned to Chile, in the early 90’s, the military was no longer in power but the environment was “cautiously optimistic” to put it mildly. I remember thinking that the military could take power back at any moment since most of the people involved in the original coup were still active and things got especially tense when civil society began investigating past human rights abuses and tried to bring military officials to trial. I was living in Santiago (the capital) and I remember thinking how strange it was that most of the people you saw out and about were always dressed in dark shades of grey, brown and blue, rarely smiled and did not look very happy. Santiago looked and felt like it was ten years behind the rest of the world. Which it actually was, on every level.
Radio was mostly 80’s crap (Men At Work and Phil Collins) and TV was all old or cancelled sitcoms and soap operas from the U.S., Mexico and Venezuela. The cars people drove were mostly old and bulky looking models from European brands like Lada, Fiat and Citroen. It was 1991 but it looked and felt like 1981. With my bright-colored gringo clothes and Reebok Pump high-tops I looked like I was from the future.
My family in Chile lived pretty comfortably. They are part of the rare (for South America) mostly well-educated middle class which rose during the early 20th Century. Both of my grandparents came from solidly middle-class European immigrant families. My grandfather worked for the mining industry and made a decent living. He had also been in the Chilean military, in fact he came up with Augusto Pinochet. They were about the same age, attended the same Catholic school and went into the military together. He was pretty conservative, pro-military and tended to call himself “apolitical” (which to me has mostly always basically meant “right wing but I don’t want to argue about it!”). He was quite a character. He could go from being a total grouch to being extremely sweet, especially towards his grandchildren, and I miss him to this day. Anyways, I bring him up because he didn’t find out about what my mom had gone through until many years later.
My political education, or the moment when I started to become more aware of social issues, really came about because I liked to read a lot and was always really interested in history. I had some background but without my own interest, it would have gone nowhere. While my grandparents were a tad more conservative, my mom and her sisters (I only have aunts) have all had careers mostly in social work or teaching and so a concern with socio-economic issues was there. Life experience, family history, going to college, my involvement in punk, and later working on human rights and social justice issues all played a role. I’m also a first generation immigrant to the U.S. via my mom and watched her work her ass off on my behalf. She had degrees in social work and psychology from a respected university yet her first job in the U.S. was as a gardener at a hotel; unskilled labor which is what most immigrants do for us in the U.S. She eventually got certified and started working as a social worker, but we went through some rough times. When I came back to the States in 2004 I had to start all over as well and did all kinds of odd jobs: from working briefly for a moving company, pet-sitting, as a bar back, line-cook, DJ, etc. all while sleeping on friends floors and couches until I found a room to rent with friends.
To this day I find it difficult to identify with any specific political party or ideology. I think most people in the U.S. tend to see everything as if there were only dichotomies: Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, West Coast vs East Coast Hip Hop (kidding). But there are no absolutes in life, we’re all much more complex than that. Although I definitely lean towards some form of left-anarchism I have a general distrust towards people who purposefully seek individual power or aspire to hold some level of authority over others. I believe in social movements, not in one political party or another. I think that the way our societies have “professionalized” politics is bizarre and counter to the idea that government is by and for the people. You can be a social conservative and still wish for a more equitable distribution of wealth, or you can be a socialist and be a complete misogynist asshole (I encountered a lot of those in Chile).
You can purchase and download Luciernaga tapes on Luciernaga's Bandcamp, and keep up with Luciernaga news here.