The Rise of Femina-X
By Luis Linan
In 2017 it is becoming trite to describe a band’s sound as “spacious”, “expansive” or possibly worst all “big”. Not that you would be wrong in you using those adjectives when discussing artists like Radiohead, M83, Nicolas Jaar, or Explosions In The Sky, but certain artists are typically already playing in large venues: amphitheaters, arenas, festival fields etc. It is conceivably easier to fill a “spacious” or ”expansive” venue with music that sounds like it was perfectly made for that environment. However, what if you are a band playing “big” music at smaller scale rooms like clubs and bars? Getting an arena to feel intimate is difficult, but getting a club to feel like an arena? Well, that could prove to be just about impossible, right?
Creating that atmosphere is something that San Antonio-based Femina-X has consistently done since they began in 2014. Now with the release of their upcoming full length, Multiverse, on March 11th and subsequent tour, the band will now likely grow out of the smaller venues and allow the expansion of the spaces that they perform and the crowds that follow.
The 5-piece are made up of Daniela Riojas (vocals), Alex Scheel (guitar), Jeff Palacios (bass), Darian Thomas (violin), and Jai Roots (drums), and we recently sat down with them to discuss the process of their song writing, origins of the band, and what they how they are evolving.
First I would like to first talk about your latest single, “Cosmos”. I saw that it is a song that goes back to at least late 2014, is that right? The roots of the song existed one way or another?
Daniela Riojas: Yeah, so it was originally supposed to be for a solo set, so I made it really quick and then I showed it to the guys. We were practicing the songs and then our drummer at the time started playing a drum and bass beat on it, then Jeff started playing a bassline on it.
So it grew organically out of a simple song you made?
Daniela: Yeah, and I think that was around 2014, November.
How does it feel to finally have it out and recorded?
Daniela: Good, it feels really good. It’s a little strange because we recorded that stuff last March at Sonic Ranch and we didn’t have Darian in the band or Jai. So we’re still working on that stuff to get it out but there’s all this other...
Alex Scheel: How to integrate it now into sets or just being able to it play now. Or I guess our sound is evolving so it’s figuring it out how to put it together. But it’s cool, it’s good.
You have said before that lyrically you write from creating a world from wherever the band is at the time. In this song you say “I want to be one with the cosmos” a lot, where was that coming from? Was it coming from a spiritual place or another?
Daniela: Yeah, I guess so. We watched all of the Neil deGrasse Tyson “Cosmos” series and that was a huge influence. Then we got way more into it and we went back and watched a bunch of the Carl Sagan ones.
So back to the original Cosmos?
Daniela: Yeah, and I just think them, as people, as philosophers, as scientists... It was really inspiring because they seem like artists too. I guess [it’s] the way they think of the possibilities of our universe and they are always about how you question everything. When people tell you something, you question it and I think that is our job as artists too. We get put in a position where we mediate between a lot of different worlds where people think things are a certain way, and so you say, “Oh well I can imagine it this way,” and it’s your job to deliver that and show people different ways of looking at everything. But I guess from a personal, spiritual point of view, “I want to be one with the cosmos,” I think is wanting to reach a different level of awareness or consciousness or knowing yourself or knowing what really is out there.
So just reaching a higher state of consciousness?
Daniela: Yeah, so there is a lot of yearning in the song. It’s a little bit sad actually because you’re not quite there yet, you’re kind of always searching for that next evolved person that you want to be.
Now I read in a previous interview that you did, you said you like electronics because, “Humans can do things that electronics can’t and vice versa.” Is that still true in you all’s songwriting? Does it still a role in how you write songs?
Daniela: I think so. Like I’m writing some new songs and first thing I do is go to my laptop, mainly because I don’t play guitar so I don’t have that writing tool aside from a laptop. But then even so, Jeff wrote a new song for a concert that we did recently and it was all on his laptop. Darian has another band called Saturn Skies and it’s all electronic composition. And Alex is playing tonight with this other band Xes Xes, it’s him and Jai and the core of it is electronics with live drums on top of it. So I think all of us in some way need that outlet. It comes down to that core, “you play guitar and it’s a guitar,” but when you go into the electronic world you can turn anything into that, sample anything. You can make a snare out of a cah you know? You still get to play with the same instrumentation and compositional elements. You know he [points to Darian] has a background in orchestra. I grew up listening to a lot of classical music too, so sometimes when I hear a string part or something you can transfer that to a synth part instead. So a lot of the ways that orchestral composition works are very tied into the same thing with electronics, except the sound banks are way more diverse. You can create all kinds of different worlds.
So do you use it to further inspire creativity, and use it as a tool to further expand your music?
Darian Thomas: With the power of synthesis you can do anything you can imagine and then some. Whereas, like she said, I studied classical composition, so there is a certain limit. You can push instruments really far, but there is an end to what that can do. So for me it is really exciting to switch over to electronics because there is no limit, but there is also no beginning point. I can start at a bunch of different start points, whereas with a trumpet there is an established trumpet tone and technique and then you kind of go off from there, the same with strings. But with electronics you can start with the sine wave, square wave and build that up to whatever you want, whether that is a string path or some sort of weird arpeggiated thing that can’t happen in the real world. It’s nice, it’s really expanded.
Jai Roots: You can also layer stuff. Put these instruments on these unlimited tracks and create symphonies.
Alex: [points to Jai] We’re two people [in Xes Xes] but we’re making 8 people’s worth of sound.
Darian: Same thing with Saturn Skies. There are two of us, but we approach it very orchestrally and create this wall of sound. That being said, Femina-X has gone more with organic sounds, or at least organically triggered electronic stuff. Because we still have [Alex’s] massive pedal board and I do a lot of delay work.
Alex: The sounds are inspired by electronic sounds but our hands are doing more. Our rhythms are not based on a midi clock, they’re based on the heart clock. Trying to give electronics more feeling.
Jai: Let electronics play with us now. We were playing with electronics for a while, but now electronics are playing with us.
Daniela: There’s unlimited possibilities with electronics, but at the same time it is still a machine and that can affect the possibilities of how we can work together. A lot of the songs changed when we took that midi clock out; the songs developed so much more because we got to play and see where they go.
So obviously you guys pull from a lot of musical influences, so I was wondering if, for example, if Darian brought the orchestra and Alex brought the electronics, but it sounds like it is much more organic. You all dip your feet in more collectively than you each bring something separate to the table.
Daniela: Well I think [Jai] has a good way of describing it, in terms of our diversity and where we are all coming from this place of unity.
Jai: It’s in the music. When you play together and you just appreciate him for what he brings and she appreciates me for what I bring and vice versa. We just appreciate each other. When you do that and you play together, then nobody is really playing wrong. We don’t set out for a sound like, “we’re going to make song more carribean or more of this,” because then you stay pure to what you know is Carribean. All you have got to do is be yourself and everybody is pretty much themselves and that’s what makes us pretty badass.
Daniela: Well, we all like a lot of different things. We all like common things but different things and showing each other a lot of new music.
Jai: Learning from each other
Daniela: Yeah, learning from each other. Like Alex, he has another band called Pop Pistols, so they have their own world. Like the way he has developed his guitar playing [with them], it finds its way in of course, which kind of paints our group canvas with that certain brush stroke. Then Jeff, I would say you’re into a lot of soul and R&B, but he likes a lot of different kinds of music and that somehow finds its way. And Jai, he has lots of Caribbean, African, Latin roots coming from the Virgin Islands. He’s going to play a specific way because that’s just his blood.
Daniela: Darian is the same thing, he has classical elements but he can improv like a motherfucker.
Darian: [laughs] Yay!
Jai: Which is rare for a classical musician.
Daniela: We all kind of in our different world, but we created our little world together.
Daniela: We all kind of in our different world, but we created our little world together.
And that’s the Femina-X world?
To wrap things up, we always like to ask this question, because people forget artists are fans too. So what are some bands you’re listening to that have you super stoked or excited?
Jeff: Umm… I’ve been listening to James Blake, Menahan Street Band, Adrian Young, and let’s just go with that.
Alex: It’s not really evolved too much [for me]. It’s kinda like, I like this new Gaussian Blur, it’s like this minimal electronic album. I... it’s called Gauson Blur.
Daniela: Gaussian Blur.
Alex: Something like that.
Daniela: It’s a kind of blur in Photoshop
Alex: Then there’s like exciting artists, I don’t listen to them a lot but they’re good. I like FKA Twigs as an artist, but I don’t just put it on. Then there’s certain songs like Alicia Keys’ song is really good.
Jai: He just bumps it over and over.
Jeff: [imitates Alicia Keys singing]
Alex: If there’s something really good I’ll listen to it.
Jai: Like that Usher song.
Jeff: Yeah, after listening to that Rihanna song, that one popped up and I was like “Damn, this is a good song.”
Jai: So wicked, yeah, it’s just well made music.
Alex: Yeah we listen to a lot. And you know you go through your Led Zeppelin wave, Radiohead, all that stuff so it’s hard to say that they are influential, but they’ve always been influential it’s hard, it’s really hard. I’m waiting for the good rock and roll band to just wow me and make really interesting music that is undeniable, but mostly hasn’t been out of that realm. But I’ve been waiting for it. There’s so much music, but I guess I haven’t been looking hard enough.
But that band always pops up eventually that makes people say, “Wow, guitar music is great again.”
Daniela: I’m looking at my Spotify right now. Well I know for sure Jonny Greenwood came out with an album and it’s called Junun, and it’s like he produced this band from I think Afghanistan or Pakistan, but it’s super amazing. I’ve been listening to that on repeat. I love Santigold a lot.
Alex: Bomba Estereo?
Daniela: Bomba Estereo a lot. Too much? To where it’s unhealthy maybe. I got into another phase of Sade, it’s hard to watch just one video. You start going [deeper] because they’ve been around for so long, so you want to know where they came from, and then at this point when they released this album and what did they sound like then, so I’m redoing that.
Alex: “I’ve been going through a Kate Bush phase. You could say that she is influential, but that phase was three months ago.” So you don’t feel like you’re in that phase right now, but it’s still there. It’s still like whenever you’re having a show and you’re trying to embody some kind of thing and you need a little help, a little strut.
You channel your inner Kate Bush?
Alex: You channel Kate Bush.
Daniela: Pretty much. What about you Jai?
Jai: Stromae, Jamiroquai. The vocal and composition that was insane. Alicia Keys. Interpol. I just got turned on to them two years ago, they’ve been around forever so...
They’re one of my personal favorites too. They’re really cool.
Jai: They’re badass.
Darian: A lot of Baths like always, because I love him and will marry him happily. La Lune (?) which is a cool pop band that is lead by one of the top 40 under 40 composers in the world right now. She’s in New York doing really amazing things, she has a set really nice electronic pop stuff. Message to Bears, it’s really calm soothing and beautiful music. As well as Shapes and Sizes, which is a fun band from Canada. And Battles, I like Battles a lot.
When you need a little experimental math rock?
Daniela: Yeah, it’s the classical stuff. The mathier you get, the happier I am.
Find out more about Femina-X Here