“The Path to Success Is to Be Consistent With Something:” An Interview With Sonic Emerson

Raghava Lakshminarayana speaks with one of Mexican rock music's busiest talents about his new solo project and being a musician during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By    July 15, 2020

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Time is Sebastian Neyra’s worst enemy. Or at least that’s what the mustachioed redhead says on his Bandcamp page. Be that as it may, he’s finally putting out music of his own after spending years playing as a backing musician for other Mexican underground bands. His stellar debut, Si Tan Solo Supiera Por Qué Estoy Aquí, addresses the fibers of existence and mortality over tunes of modern psychedelic bliss.

Neyra has toured the world with Mint Field—a shoegaze act from Tijuana—and has toured the Americas with Los Blenders—one of the leading underground bands from Mexico City. He has also put out music with Jóvenes Adultos, an art rock project that fizzled out of existence due to creative differences. But as Sonic Emerson, he sits alone in his room, in a cozy San Miguel Chapultepec apartment (close to downtown Mexico City) and jams out. He usually works off of main melodies and builds layers and layers of noise and psych.

As a lifelong music fan, he’s most inspired by krautrock and post-punk. Bands like TOY, Ulrika Spacek and early The Horrors are some of Neyra’s biggest influences. When asked about the TOY influence, he jests that the Sonic Emerson stuff sounds like a third-world TOY, which may seem true for the lazy listener, but it really means that he’s a fully capable musician up to par of the Brighton greats.

His debut album is packed with mantra-like proclamations on existentialism. On “Reflexiones,” Neyra sings, “es la vida castigándome por inconsistente” (it’s life punishing me for being inconsistent), over a perfect dose of clean psychedelia and kraut basslines. There are very few lyrics on the album, but most of them look inward to these pressing questions. Neyra later says that he’s often very intrigued by that period of time right before you fall asleep, when you’re lying in bed and your body is dead tired but your mind won’t stop going. It’s something that we’ve all experienced; Neyra masterfully snips it from his own restless nights and sticks it into his psych-filled maze.

Musically speaking, the album is a must-have for any psych record collector. On songs like “Contratiempos,” we’re given a vocal treat by Estrella del Sol (the mastermind behind Mint Field and also Neyra’s girlfriend), over six minutes of bumping basslines and noisy riffs. On “En Algún Punto” and “El Eco,” we get massive bursts of energy and reverb— think early King Gizzard or early UMO. This is modern psychedelia at its finest.

Neyra never thought he’d be a full-time, touring musician. He admits that this has all been very bizarre but he’s learned how to manage it — mostly by not smoking or drinking too much on tour and learning to stay disciplined. When he’s not on the road, he’s either working on his own music or working on other people’s music (while also working at a local cafe).

Before the virus gobbled up normality this year, Neyra spent the spring in the north of Mexico, in the desert city of Hermosillo, Sonora, helping Margaritas Podridas — a loud, local shoegaze act — and Señor Kino — a fun, jangly group — record music. He later says that he likes helping out other bands, especially if he’s enjoyed them live (as was the case with Margaritas Podridas, who had shared a bill with Mint Field).

Neyra’s debut album is aptly titled Si Tan Solo Supiera Por Qué Estoy Aquí, which means, “If I only knew why I’m here.” It once again ploys at those mind-bending questions that one may experience before bed or during a bender. Thankfully, this album plays perfectly for either of those situations and for countless others as well. The world may never truly settle after the sourness of 2020, but at least Sonic Emerson gets it and is making music for that occasion, whichever one it may be. — Raghava Lakshminarayana

The following interview was conducted in Spanish and later translated for this piece.

Can you tell me a little about the project?

Sebastian Neyra: I started this project when I was playing in different bands and there were some ideas that I had that weren’t ad-hoc for those other bands. So I wanted to record those ideas and put them out. That’s how it started a long time ago. But a little while back, I had a lot of songs that I’d put vocals on and I felt like they were ready to see the light. I feel like it’s a project where I get to vent creatively and musically and I record all that in my room.

Do you remember what year it was when you started?

Sebastian Neyra: It must have been 2015 or 2016.

And what about this album, did you record it altogether?

Sebastian Neyra: No, I recorded it over the lapse of half a year. I would put one [song] out, then another and then the next week another. I then recorded the drums and took a while longer. I mean I first recorded digital drums like with MIDIs and then I showed [the songs] to my cousin who’s a drummer — he’s recorded a lot of elaborate drums, while I’m just a very amateur drummer — he learned the songs and we recorded them and they came out really nice.

Did anyone else help record anything?

Sebastian Neyra: No, I recorded everything else. There’s one song in which Estrella sings the choruses but I recorded everything else in my room.

Can you tell me about the name of the album, Si Tan Solo Supiera Por Qué Estoy Aquí? It’s also something that I constantly ask myself.

Sebastian Neyra: Me too. I sometimes have these existential crises and making music — well, when I was growing up, I didn’t think that I would end up making music and I [now] think it’s strange that I spend so much of my life dedicated to music. I was thinking about that and playing with words and came up with [the name]. I also try to not take myself too seriously.

Did you come up with the album title after recording the album?

Sebastian Neyra: It was one of the last things that I decided on. It was like the cherry on top because I had all of the songs mixed and mastered and I needed an album name. It was also when I made the first song on the album, which is also called that.

Can you talk about the lyrics? They mostly follow the same existentialist narrative as the album name, right?

Sebastian Neyra: I think, in the end, everyone is free to have their own interpretation to the lyrics. I’m guessing that you’ve had this moment when it’s late at night, you’re in bed and you’re really tired but then your head attacks you with everything — bad things, challenges, worries — in your life. [Also], I realized that in life, the path to success is to be consistent with something. [laughs] I feel like a psychologist. But I was growing up and didn’t really know what I wanted and I’ve changed a lot.

Can you talk about your process for writing lyrics?

Sebastian Neyra: Every time that I think of something cool for a lyric or I’m inspired, I write it down and then I add it to the songs. I first make music — maybe I’ll have a melody, but I won’t add lyrics to it because I feel like I take a long time to find the lyrics. So I just have a lot of written lyrics and somehow, I join them [to the songs]. I don’t think I have long lyrics either.

Can you talk about your main influences for this project?

Sebastian Neyra: Let me think back, I recorded this in 2018, I think it’s rock-y. I feel like that period of my life was really agitating, rockstar-y, quick — which I like. But I don’t know, I really like TOY, krautrock, post-punk, I don’t think I could define this in specific bands. But at the time, I would think about playing these songs and how they would sound live. I wanted to accomplish that energy when playing them live.

The first thing that I thought when you sent me this was that this could be another TOY album.

Sebastian Neyra: Laughs. But in Spanish.

Can you talk about your experiences in other bands and how they’ve influenced this Sonic Emerson project?

Sebastian Neyra: I think that the most I’ve learned from playing with other people and bands is about the dynamics of live shows, rehearsing and making music.

You’ve now been a musician for six years right?

Sebastian Neyra: Yes, I think it’s been five years. I guess that I’ve learned a lot by having to deal with a lot of people. Having a band implies a lot of responsibility, stability and patience. I also wanted to do [Sonic Emerson] because I didn’t want to sound like the other bands that I’ve been in.

Can you tell me about that massive Mint Field tour, you guys traveled the world right?

Sebastian Neyra: It was really fun. It has been one of the best tours. Those memories are really special to me.

Any favorite memories that you can talk about?

Sebastian Neyra: We toured with Ulrika Spacek and it was fucking great because I really like that band and I got to meet them and be friends and listen to them live every night. It was really valuable to me. But what I most understood is that you have to be “in shape” to do those tours. You have to execute impeccably every night and give it your best. You’re also excited to be discovering new cities and new people — new everything. But you have to be good for the show and not drink too much or smoke too much. They give you a lot of things — I think you need a lot of discipline to deliver [a good show].

Do you think that you’ll tour the world with this Sonic Emerson project?

Sebastian Neyra: Well, I haven’t played this project live. I first hope to—before the year ends and if things get better with the pandemic—play one or two shows in Mexico City and if I get a chance to play in other countries, it would be cool. I hope so. But I try not to think about it too much. If it happens, let it happen, if not, then no.

Two songs that I most enjoyed on the album were “El eco” and “Contratiempos.” Can you tell me about what went into the making of those songs?

Sebastian Neyra: “El eco.” That’s the fun, crazy, rock-y one. I made that song one day when I woke up with a lot of energy. I wanted it to sound simple, minimalist and rock-y, so that when played live it could be [played] quick.

And what about “Contratiempos?”

Sebastian Neyra: I made that song a really long time ago. I think it was the first song that I made for the album. It has evolved so much and I’ve re-recorded it around 10 times. I would change small things. I molded it for a long time for it to end up like how it did.

Did it always have those vocals by Estrella?

Sebastian Neyra: No, that happened when Estrella was once listening to it and I asked if she wanted to sing and she said yes. I guess I also liked that sound from the red UMO album, the second one, noisy guitars…

Let’s talk about this year’s underlying villain. How have you adapted to the quarantine as a touring musician?

Sebastian Neyra: It’s funny. There are a lot of pros and cons. The bad thing is that when I’m not on tour, I work at a cafe and it’s good to have that extra income. But I think that I’ve been doing fine, I’ve been making a lot of music. I was also lucky enough to — before the whole pandemic thing — it has been my first year recording and producing for other bands. I got paid and I think that I’ve been able to survive barista unemployment and no tour dates because of that.

Can you talk about that? What bands did you work with?

Sebastian Neyra: I recorded Margaritas Podridas from Hermosillo. It’s two girls and two guys. They have a nineties-ish vibe —kind of noisy, a little kraut, garage. I really liked them when I saw them live, Mint Field [and Margaritas Podridas] played together and I told them that if they needed any recording or anything, that I’d like to do it. And they wrote to me like three months ago and we set it up. We went to the Onda Sonora festival in Hermosillo. I lived there for almost a month.

What was Hermosillo like?

Sebastian Neyra: I like Hermosillo, it’s cool. I also recorded Señor Kino there. They’re also from there. It’s funny, I went there on the Mar. 9 and I was supposed to go on tour to Tijuana and the United States with Mint Field. But two weeks into recording the [Señor Kino] album, quarantine started and our tour got cancelled. So my objective then became: finish the album and then escape back to Mexico City.

What are your thoughts on these new ways of consuming “live music” during the quarantine? There are a lot of bands doing live sets on streams etc.

Sebastian Neyra: I think it’s going to be hard to get used to if it’s going to be like that forever. I mean, even if the stream has good sound and video quality, you could have a cool experience but it’s nothing like seeing a band in the flesh and feeling what they’re playing. There isn’t any lag between what the band is playing and what you’re experiencing [at live shows].

But I think it’s better than nothing.

Sebastian Neyra: I agree 100%, it’s a lot better than nothing. But massive festivals—how are they going to happen unless they find a cure? I think I saw a Stereogum article where they talked about a show in Sweden: everyone was there in their cars. Laughs. That’s weird.

Well let’s hope that they find a cure so that we can go back to having concerts.

Sebastian Neyra: Yeah. At the start of the year, they were telling me, live shows won’t be back till 2021 and I though nooo, that’s a long time, it’s the end of the world…But then, now that a few months have passed and I’ve seen the reality of this situation, it makes sense.

So let’s go back to the album, are you satisfied and happy with it?

Sebastian Neyra: I’m satisfied, I’m happy with it.

Are you nervous?

Sebastian Neyra: I think I already was pretty nervous. I’m good, I’m at peace with myself. I’ve had this album for a long time and I’ve wanted it to come out. When I started to think about that and how when I started it, I wanted to be done with it, I now understand the passing of time and the effect it has on your work.

And what do you think about Sebastian Neyra finally putting out his work?

Sebastian Neyra: If you say it like that, then I’m nervous. [laughs] But it’s good. It’s good to be nervous. I’m grateful.

This is also coming out on the Arts & Crafts México label. It’s your first time working with a label right? How did this work out?

Sebastian Neyra: I put out a few singles last summer and a few months went by and they wrote to me. They asked if I had unedited music and I told them about the album and they heard it and liked it. So I went to their offices. It was cool, they’re nice.

Lastly, can you tell me about the name “Sonic Emerson?” What does it mean?

Sebastian Neyra: I don’t think it means anything. That’s a real question—it’s hard to name your project-band-business. I came up with this name in high school. To be honest, I don’t remember what was going through my head at the time but this was the result.

Do you think that you go into a different mental space as Sonic Emerson?

Sebastian Neyra: Not really. I think of this as being experimental and to keep on learning and discovering new territories and going back to old ones. I don’t think there are any rules.

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