Members of Hello Seahorse! are, from left, Jose Borunda, Lo Blondo, Oro… (Nacional Records )
First of all, what's up with that name: Hello Seahorse! (Yes, exclamation mark included.)
Don't expect a simple answer regarding its meaning from the Mexico City indie rock band, whose songs often are as unpredictable and enigmatic as its appellation.
"We didn't even know what it means," said Denise Gutierrez, a.k.a. Lo Blondo, the band's lead vocalist and lyricist, speaking by phone earlier this week. "It's weird, because we never know what to say when people ask us that question."
But a few seconds later, Gutierrez added that "Hello Seahorse!" is what you might exclaim if you happened to come face to face with an exotic aquatic equestrian — or, for that matter, another of life's serendipitous surprises. "I think it's like improvising in life, not taking things too seriously."
Life these days is going swimmingly for Gutierrez and her bandmates: Oro de Neta, née Fernando Burgos, who plays piano, keyboards and bass; drummer Bonnz!, born Gabriel G. De León; and lead guitarist José Borunda, who goes by "Joe." They're currently on tour in Southern California, and Saturday night will land in Los Angeles for a gig at the El Rey Theatre.
Long-cherished by alt-rock cognoscenti across Latin America, as well as stateside listeners attuned to the current volcanic soundscape of the Mexican capital, Hello Seahorse! broke into broader pop consciousness last year with the release of its second album "Bestia" (Beast). Infused with melancholic vitality and cerebral lyricism, the disc earned two Latin Grammy nominations and a nod from iTunes Latino as best new artist, among other accolades.
That paved the way for this month's release of its follow-up album, "Lejos. No Tan Lejos" (Far. Not So Far) on Los Angeles-based Nacional Records. The title, Gutierrez explained, alludes to the record's guiding theme: the need that sometimes arises to detach oneself — from lovers, relatives, material objects or whatever — in order to move forward in life, however difficult that may be.
"We had accumulated a lot of things in 2009, and I think we were about to explode individually," she said. "Getting together was a way of releasing what was in our heads."
It was one of the album's producers, Money Mark, of Beastie Boys renown, who suggested that the band members get out of Mexico City and spend a few weeks jamming together and trying to write songs. Once Hello Seahorse! had retreated to the picturesque pueblo of Avandaro, new material started flowing, Gutierrez said.
Among those anticipating the new disc's release is Nic Harcourt, the KCRW (FM 89.9) disc jockey and curator of new website Livebuzz who hosted Hello Seahorse! on his radio program last year.
"The first thing that I heard was 'Bestia,' and it just struck me as a really fun, upbeat song and it didn't matter that I really didn't understand the lyrics," Harcourt said. Then, as he continued listening, Harcourt said, he found new levels of meaning and craftsmanship in the songs, and myriad influences in the band's overall sound.
Unafraid of eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse structures, Hello Seahorse! glides on its new album from the space-age, bachelor-pad pop of "Casa Vacia" (Empty House) to the spooky soul grooves of "Perla Blanca" (White Pearl) to the wailing, pulsating reproachful-ness of "Me Has Olvidado" (You Have Forgotten Me).
Similarly, when the unexpected opportunity arose to make the record with not one, but two, simpatico producers, Money Mark and the band's longtime collaborator Yamil Recz, Hello Seahorse! surged ahead, trusting that the record would be coherent in the end.
"One of the things that's excited me about Latin alternative music for 10 years," Harcourt said, "is the willingness to incorporate lots of different musical styles, to throw everything into the pot."
For Gutierrez, making the new record involved journeying into the past. "Ginebra Dulce" (Sweet Gin) is based on her memory of a beach trip years ago with someone with whom she was having a relationship. "Oro y Plata" (Gold and Sliver) was inspired by her family's close connections to the silver-mining town of Taxco in Guerrero state and the artisanal community that has existed there for centuries. "My songs are mostly experiences," she said.
Born in Van Nuys, Gutierrez was a child when her parents decided to move back to Mexico City, where it maintained certain U.S. cultural traditions, such as Thanksgiving. Gutierrez also credits her New York-bred grandmother with helping her preserve her roots in two countries and idioms.
"In my family we talk a lot in English and in Spanish, so we combine the two languages pretty badly," said Gutierrez, an opera-trained singer.
If translating her feelings and ideas into words is challenging, it's also a process she relishes. "I love making words from other words and how words can have more than one meaning. It's like a puzzle, and there's no limits when you have music next to it. There's nothing you can't do."
The band's origins, in 2005, were modest. Burgos, who'd previously been in hip-hop and hardcore industrial bands, put an ad on MySpace seeking a vocalist. Gutierrez responded.
Virtual strangers who lived at near-opposite ends of the sprawling Mexican capital, the pair spent two weeks hanging out together, playing music and listening to songs while tentatively building a friendship. "It's really hard to make music if you don't have a connection with another person, no?" Gutierrez said.
For Hello Seahorse!, connecting to other people, listeners included, can happen as readily in English as in Spanish — not surprisingly, given that its lead singer is Mexican American and two other members hail from the border city of Juarez.
"Why should we think cultures are enemies, or languages are enemies?" Gutierrez said. "We were brought up with no cultural limitations in that area. I can't choose one of them. I like them both. Why not have both?"