San Lorenzo's debut 7", "Life without mountains," for Essex scuzz-fi label Gringo was described in the last issue of Robots.. thus: "...think Aerial M and the bands that gave rise to them and you won't go far wrong...a mostly instrumental sparse, yet concentrated and vehement, guitar sprawl that explodes into magnificent howling after appropriate anticipation has mounted." Having been mesmerised by the single, I met up with Owen for a couple of pints of mild (the elixir of life) at The Shoulder of Mutton in downtown Blackheath as we returned to our Black Country homes from University at Christmas. A sprawling conversation ensued, covering at its edges Johnny Cash, Photek, Coltrane, Steve Albini and San Lorenzo FC (of Argentina). Promises of a proper interview were exchanged in that casual way that departures from the pub engender and time passed. San Lorenzo released another scalding record ("3 songs for winter" on Sewing Box) and further good intentions were flashed between Leicester and Cambridge. Eventually, six months down the line, I came across the following passage in a book of my Dad's, and the interview began. Taking part: Owen and Liz.
"In the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo, Spain ceded the so-called Yazoo strip of Alabama to the United States and opened up the Mississippi to American traders" (The Mammoth Book of the West, Jon E. Lewis (publ. Robinson), p.33)You had a hand in Yazoo?!?
Owen: I take no responsibility for Yazoo! Good Eighties pop consisted of A-Ha and Duran Duran. We were responsible for Duran Duran.
Give us a bit of band history
Owen: After the decline of our previous band Fused I took Nick and Liz and started San Lorenzo in the summer of 1997. We bummed around for a while getting some ideas together and recorded our debut for the goodly Gringo men during Easter 1998. It was a moderate success and I think we are nearly sold out. The second record came out this year on Sewing Box and was called "Three Songs For Winter". We had a bit more radio play and did some interviews with several high-quality independent publications. In between all these occurences were various exams and the faces of entertained audiences from Colchester to Glasgow. The whole thing is now rolling on like a bad teen drama. I am not Dawson.
I seem to remember you saying Fused were hardcore?
Owen: Our previous band was pretty heavy but not really hardcore. We were more kind of acid rock stuff with bursts of Gorilla Biscuits-style yelling. We did cover an Undertow song though, and that's about as hardcore as you can get. We were called Fused, it was a mixed bag of sounds because we'd all write stuff. We were very young, Nick joined us when he was 14.
What went wrong with it?
Owen: Our bassist left and the whole thing fell apart. He was one of the best bassists I've seen, not wanky but really inventive and powerful. Along with Nick and Liz, I got San Lorenzo together in the aftermath, initially to do more low-key stuff.
Liz: There were five of us in that band and we all had different ideas about the kind of musical direction we wanted to take. At first I think this was beneficial, as it meant, as Owen says, that we had a lot of variety. However, I think in the end it was one of the main reasons we split.
Do you sound now as you intended to then?
Owen: It sounds pretty much as I intended. Of course, a lot of the time I'll write a song on my own and then when we do it with the band it's completely changed, which is good because that's Nick and Liz putting their own parts in. I've never written a drum part or a bass part for the band unless I'll be playing it. When the band started I didn't realise it would be so upbeat at times. I mean "Before They Made The City" is not the kind of thing i imagined us playing. Which is good because it means the band has a wider scope now.
Have you been accused of jumping on some kind of post-rock bandwagon?
Owen: Not really. People who don't know much about where we are at musically compare us to Mogwai and Slint just because we don't have vocals on every song. Post-rock is a sucky term. Bands who openly adopt categories like that usually aren't as good as ones that don't. Nirvana would never have thought of themselves as a "grunge" band, just as Tortoise won't say they are "post-rock".
Liz: Personally I don't like these labels. Post-rock, post-hardcore, math-rock, what the hell??? They mean nothing to me. I just want to play what I want to play, with people I like and if other people can enjoy it as much as we do, then thats great.
So where are you "at musically"?
Owen: San Lorenzo just comes from ourselves, there's no big plan. We aren't trying to copy anyone, just express what we want to. I think what I mean is that people who don't know Karate/Shipping News/Tortoise for example would have only the most well known bands as a frame of reference. I think. I hope this is something that you have to go out and look for, that doesn't go through the normal channels. I hate the word "scene" though.
I tend to think of stuff like yours and, say, Billy Mahonie, as being more like post-hardcore. Perhaps a reaction to the rigidity and convention of that genre but without sacrificing the intensity, just generating it in a different way. Discuss.
Owen: Hardcore is very boring sometimes. It can be great but it can also be very conservative and naive. I think we have a "hardcore" intensity on stuff like "Life Without Mountains" or "For Her Math" on the LP, but there's a lot of other stuff going on too, things to be said, directions to be taken.
Has moving away to university had any effect on the band?
Owen: Liz and I have been at Uni for a couple of years. It does make rehearsing difficult, especially with Nick in doing his A-levels too. You have to work round it, I don't think people realise how much organising it takes and how much it costs for three friends to get together and play music.
Liz: We are quite fortunate to still be based in the Midlands, otherwise I think we would struggle to keep things together.
How did you get involved with Gringo?
Owen: I met Matt Gringo by chance in an Archaeology seminar. We got talking about music and it turned out we were into the same stuff. Gringo had just done the first Hirameka single. They agreed to put out "L.W.M" after hearing a tape. Now we are all friends and live in a big house in Leicester. No kidding, it's like Gringo HQ.
"Life without mountains," you never say whether it's good or bad
Owen: Very bad. Steinhousemuir would not have as impressive a ground and rockclimbers would not be able to say "because it's there"....I always have mountains in mind.
Liz: Actually, there wouldn't be any rockclimbers.
Tell us about the album.
Owen: The LP will hopefully be quite varied. There are songs where it is just me and some finger-picked guitar, but there will be some harsh stuff too. We have a great organ-led track called "Jun" which we do live and that will be on there. We are going to do more switching around in future, with Liz playing guitar and organ on stuff like we do live. It can be a nightmare changing stuff around especially when the guitars need to be put into different tunings.
I hope people will enjoy the LP and be able to take something from it after a few listens. The artwork should be pretty special too. At the moment it is called "Nothing New Ever Works".
Can we expect drum'n'bass or jazz or any of the other stuff we talked about in the Shoulder of Mutton on there?
Owen: Not quite, but some variety certainly. Hopefully a lot of more percussive stuff and some drifts that I've been working with on the guitar. Like, found sounds coming out of the guitar by using stuff like electric shavers on it. I've done electronic stuff before but I doubt that it will be on the LP. It's a money and time thing too, I can't afford samplers etc. The album will be guitar-based sure, but there's still a lot to be done and said with that medium. Even if you think it has all been done before this is our shot. Anyway we all want to rock.
Being a historian, do you think a knowledge of the past is important in creating something new? Or is complete ignorance better, perhaps?
Owen: Knowledge of the past is very important. It gives you a context. There's a song on the LP called "My History is Valid" about this guy who was doing Law and he was going "your subject means nothing in the real world" and that's complete shit of course. The past can inform and change our perceptions about everthing. You can look at the Renaissance and see that if the past had not been rediscovered by historians and thinkers we would have been stuck in the middle ages for a lot longer than we were. Ancient knowledge revitalised the arts and sciences. I do think good stuff can be created with ignorance of the past but an understanding of the development of ideas gives you an obvious advantage. If you are into music you are going to know about its history at least a little bit and this can help you to create.
When we were in the pub, we were talking about Johnny Cash being dead (he isn't yet, quite) and he came on the jukebox. Have there been any important coincidences in the band's career? Liz: At my friend Jenny Harrison's 21st birthday party I met Tom from Cato. I spotted him wearing a Reynold's T-shirt and recognised him as someone in the year above me at school. We got talking and he revealed that he was a member of Cato, a band (among others) that we had played an all dayer with in Colchester - freaky! Not only that, but he is friends with Jenny's brother and my friend Kate's brother and of course, those lovely Reynold's boys. Since then we have played a number of cool gigs with Cato and will continue to do so until death do us part.
Get in touch with San Lorenzo: 20 High Haden Crescent, Cradley Heath, Warley, West Mids, B64 7PD or OT5@leicester.ac.uk
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