Armando Perez, of Esso Afrojam Funkbeat: Something Else! Interview

We caught up with Armando Perez as the Chicago-based funk band Esso Afrojam Funkbeat prepared to release a 2016 remix of Pueblo Unido on Sonic Octopus Records. He discussed this new project in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, along with his early influences, the formation and future of Esso Afrojam Funkbeat and how the issues facing immigrants shape their work …

PRESTON FRAZIER: Esso is very active in the discussion regarding immigrants’ rights. How does the struggle impact your music?
ARMANDO PEREZ: We all come from somewhere else. We are all immigrants. America is built on this premise. This diversity is key in understanding others and developing tolerance and solidarity. These human struggles give us a foundation and a purpose in our band’s message. It’s not just immigrant rights; it includes human rights. We aim to convey these passions in our music, live and recorded. It moves us. It anchors us. It gives us something to believe. It feels amazing to write and sing a song about unity and empowerment. It feels like we are being true to ourselves and doing something right. It resonates on two levels: mind and body. We all believe things can get better.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Esso’s self-titled debut came out last year. Where the songs written specifically for the album?
ARMANDO PEREZ: The songs on the debut were not written specifically for the record. It was a conscious collection of our developing material through our first year and a half as a live band. The songs were “road-tested” and we felt ready to debut a complete record. I will say that each song has a “sister-song.” It helped us focus our sound very much!

PRESTON FRAZIER: Where was it recorded? How long was the recording process.
ARMANDO PEREZ: It was recorded at Belmont Electric Studios, a recording studio space I built in a garden apartment in Hermosa, Chicago. The recording process took a solid year. We recorded on our own time and refined elements until everyone was happy with their takes. We then mixed with four different engineers — unheard of! — and mastered at IV Labs in Chicago, Illinois, with Rollin Weary.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How does Pueblo Unido differ from your initial release?
ARMANDO PEREZ: Pueblo Unido is different because it is a collaboration of a different kind: instead of multiple musicians, we have multiple producers. It is the remix album of the same songs on the debut, but re-imagined through the minds of several influential and prolific DJs and producers in our Chicago scene. I sent the stem files of the original recordings and asked the DJ/producers to remix the songs for the record. Also, we are giving it out as a free download to thank all the supporters who’ve encouraged and helped us along the way. Pueblo Unido is essentially an exercise in collaboration and craftsmanship. It keeps us busy as a city, as a scene; it keeps us interested in possibilities and helps push us to make more new music. 


PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell our readers about your background.
ARMANDO PEREZ: I was born in Chicago, Illinois, to hard-working immigrant parents from Zacatecas, Mexico. I am the sixth of seven first-generation Americans who were raised in a Spanish-speaking household, but learned English in the school system. My musical upbringing was a series of influential bursts — lessons in music style and genre — at different times in my life. As a child, I listened to a lot of romantic Spanish stuff through my mother. She would hum and softly sing along to the songs playing on the radio. I was then introduced to ’80s new wave, electronica and pop through my older brothers and sisters — the Cure, Depeche Mode, radio hits, etc. In my late grade-school years, I discovered rock music through the Seattle sound explosion of the early ’90s. Chicago was involved in that scene via Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and Urge Overkill. I asked my parents for a guitar, and my father bought me a second-hand Sears telecaster copy. I started a Guitar World subscription, and played along to my favorite radio stations and albums. I never took formal lessons, but friends taught me basic riffs and scales. 

I started writing songs shortly after learning power chords via punk rock influences in high school. During that time period I also discovered hip hop, and a deep love for creative poetry and lyrics. My college years nurtured a more expansive musical appreciation. New favorites in the realm of world music — reggae, dance, Latin, blues — made a strong mark on my style through personal study and travel. I moved to San Francisco in my 20th year and DIY focused on studying jazz fundamentals. I eventually found myself in the production seat, after my interest in songwriting and recording expanded my horizons to include proficiency on drums, piano, bass, beat machines and studio recording gear. I always had the support of my parents, who didn’t understand what it meant to make or write music, but knew I was passionate about it. I discovered later, during my father’s retirement years, that he was an accomplished harmonica player and singer — although he never composed or recorded. He worked so hard to support his family, he never really had time to pursue his passion for it. 

PRESTON FRAZIER: When did you start performing publicly?
ARMANDO PEREZ: I began to perform publicly in high school. I formed a band with friends, and we played a local bowling alley turned punk scene stalwart called Fireside Bowl. I must’ve been 15 years old. We played garage parties, basement parties, and dives all around Chicago. 


PRESTON FRAZIER: Is that when you met Esso Afrojam Funkbeat co-founder Kevin Miller?
ARMANDO PEREZ: I met Kevin Miller in my late high school years. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Dan Tobiaski. We played in a short-lived fusion outfit called Erbis Rhombus which played in a basement cafe called the Nervous Center. That too was a hub for young creatives searching out a place to share ideas and collaborate on art. Kevin and I went on to collaborate on a live hip hop outfit called Freeform Sessions, one of the first live bands to play in traditionally rock venues around Chicago.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us more about Esso Afrojam Funkbeat’s early years.
ARMANDO PEREZ: Esso Afrojam Funkbeat came to life in 2013 after I was asked to host a monthly jam at Underground Wonder Bar, a downtown Chicago live music venue. I was already performing with Jugo de Mango, a Latin fusion band formed by me and Juan Lugo, around town at restaurants and special events. This particular opportunity at Underground Wonder Bar demanded late hours — from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The Jugo de Mango guys couldn’t commit to those hours. That’s when I reached out to Kevin Miller. He and I hadn’t made music for several years, due to general life schedules. We’d reunited at Lollapalooza earlier that same year serendipitously. I asked him to work on a new project with me and he agreed to it. My concept for the night was a Latin-based Afro Caribbean rhythm heavy jam session, which would include all our musical friends we’d worked with over the years. The first line up included me on guitar, Kevin on saxophone, John Heinze on drums, Alec Oroza on bass, Bernie Brooks on keys, Juan Lugo on percussion, Dan Lieber on percussion and Domenichi Morris on trumpet.

As the first year passed, the band’s work ethic became stronger and the concept solidified. Several members were focusing on multiple projects at once, and new members were always being introduced to the stage with us. The lineup was always in flux, depending on the show date. This made it really interesting and fresh from show to show. With the addition of vocals by influential singer-songwriter Vivian Garcia, complete songs were being written and recorded. By the time we finished recording our debut record, Esso Afrojam Funkbeat included over 16 collaborating members. In general, Esso has an elastic lineup. Currently, the live and touring band includes: Me (guitar, vocals), Kevin Miller (sax), Dan Lieber (drums), Ezra Lange (bass), Diana Mosquera (vocals), Lessic “Puerko Pitzotl” Franco (percussion), Matthew Davis (trombone), Jess Anzaldua (percussion), Logan Lu (poet) and Julian Harris (trumpet, though not on the current tour).


PRESTON FRAZIER: How would you define your role in your musical partnership? How is the music composed and arraigned?
ARMANDO PEREZ: My role in this musical partnership is songwriter, vocalist/guitarist, producer, manager, record label. I take on all the roles of band leadership and the “hats” that requires. In my years in the music industry, I’ve learned legal needs, as well as communication techniques to advance the band professionally and (most importantly) foster an open, all inclusive forum where all the musicians feel a sense of ownership in the music we create. We give each member the chance to speak their mind in all aspects of this project. 

The music is composed and arranged by process of elimination. There is a spark to start a song, an idea, a riff, a lyric, simple but conceptually strong. The band jams and fleshes each song out. This is where each individual member’s strengths shine. ESSO is a collective. Our music sounds the way it does because of the diverse and multifaceted members involved. We will explore a song idea until it truly excites us! As a songwriter and producer, I have the tools and capability to record everyone in parts and focus on each members contribution. I can then edit, arrange, add ideas, etc, in Pro Tools and send demos to everyone via email or burned CDs. We are constantly in group communication online with gig opportunities and rehearsal/performance schedules. We rehearse as a full band once a week minimum.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Do you write on guitar?
ARMANDO PEREZ: I do not write primarily for guitar. As a producer, I listen for the complete song. This approach really helps me carve an idea out with everyone’s contribution in mind.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How has Chicago influenced your music?
ARMANDO PEREZ: Chicago has influenced my music in many ways. The scenes I’ve been involved in: punk rock, hip-hop. Latin, global, classical, pop as well as the DJ culture in the city have truly nurtured what I would consider a well-rounded appreciation for all genres. The house music scene, the Chicago blues, the local jazz were all strong frameworks for me in my goals as a musician. It was when I realized — in my high school years — that punk and hip-hop are basically the same thing: youth music, rebel music, expression of emotion, intelligent creativity in action. So, I began to fuse elements in my songs. Music quickly became an open channel for expression and emotion. I respected it, and began to appreciate it in a new way. Chicago, as a city, plays everything you’d want to hear. As long as you can find it, it is happening somewhere.

PRESTON FRAZIER: List for our readers your top 5 favorite albums.
ARMANDO PEREZ: That is a tough question for me, truly. I have so many transformative, life-changing albums that have affected me at different important points in my development. I’ll give it a shot! When I think of the best records I’ve ever resonated with, the ones that really touched me, off the top without thinking about it too much, I’d say: Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Depeche Mode’s ViolatorBuena Vista Social Club, Los Lobos’ Del Este de Los Angeles and Peter Tosh’s Coming in Hot.