Photo by Pat GrahmCollecting dust in the corner of Washington, D.C., quartet El Guapo's practice space is the world's loneliest accordion. The poor thing: for a short time, it lived the high life—shining under the bright lights, commanding respect from the front of the stage, poised at the brink of joining the melodica and vibraphone with a new life inside indie-rock culture. But alas, if this oft-maligned instrument is ever to break free from its suffocating association with all things polka, it will no longer be by keyboardist Pete Cafarella's hands.
"It's very hard to amplify an accordion live," bassist Justin Moyer explains. "How can an instrument designed to serenade lovers strolling in Vienna compete with a full drum kit?"
The answer? Not well enough, apparently. Still the effort's indicative of the only constant among El Guapo's ever-shifting array of members, instruments and sounds since the band's inception in 1996: change. But you guessed that, right? Because by the time El Guapo's first full-length, The Phenomenon of Renewal, was released on Resin Records (co-run by former Black Eyes drummer Mike Kanin) in 1998, founding members Moyer and Rafael Cohen had already grown out of their fractured art-punk phase, moving into a hybrid of free jazz and electronic experimentation. The two live sets documented a year later on the band's second LP, The Geography of Dissolution, captured them at the peak of their improvisational period, but between the time of that record's recording and release, El Guapo had already reinvented itself once again—this time, as an avant-garde dance band.
So: Electronic dance rock? Not exactly the kind of music the D.C. area is known for producing, but for El Guapo—arguably the most enigmatic band currently on Dischord Records' roster—it's a logical progression. Perhaps more significantly, it's a sound they've decided to stick with for the long haul. Since joining Dischord in 2002, Moyer, Cohen and Cafarella have steadily chiseled away at it, applying their artistic sensibilities to the genre in order to keep things as intellectually stimulating as they are, well, ass shaking.
"Super/System, our first Dischord record, included a lot of improvisation, loose song forms, messing around in the studio," Moyer says. But with their 2003 follow-up, the unabashedly danceable Fake French, the band continued tightening up the song arrangements and placing an increasing emphasis on electronics. Now a four-piece after adding Orthrelm drummer Josh Blair to the mix and with another full-length of electronic dance-punk in the works, El Guapo's live performance has had little trouble adapting to their constantly evolving sound.
"Five years ago, we'd be like, 'All right, for this part of the set, play a lot of long tones, and I'll play a lot of short stabs and make a scratchy sound on the guitar,'" Moyer says. "Now, it's like, 'Cue up that backing track on the iPod.'"
Flailing about the stage, making as much of a spectacle of himself as possible, Moyer, at times, is almost vaudevillian ("The way I see it, rock shows are cabaret," he explains. "When someone comes to see me, I'm going to perform . . . not just stand up there and play"). But there's still enough D.C. art-punk left in Moyer to keep the spectacle respectable.
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"I try not to be too stupid," he notes. "I've reserved huge supplies of idiocy for my solo project, Edie Sedgwick." (Kim Coletta's DeSoto label will be releasing the Edie Sedgwick LP next spring).
It's not the typical formula for band success, but so far, it's one that works. Usually.
"We've received everything from blank stares in Denton, Texas, to screams for encores in Sicily," Moyer says. Sicily, huh? They're gonna be pissed when they find out there's no accordion anymore.
EL GUAPO WITH ERASE ERRATA, Q AND NOT U, AND THE PROCESS AT CHAIN REACTION, 1652 W. LINCOLN AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 635-6067. SUN., 7:30 P.M. $10. ALL AGES.