The literati who first perused Franz Kafka's stories might have liked Languis. And who knows? Maybe the band could have played one of Flannery O'Connor's mysterious literary soirees. Because they would have fit in just fine—like a lot of great writers, Languis deals in enigma.
Their upcoming album, Untied, is packed with feedback and noise, but it's somehow quiet enough to meditate to: they're pop songs that sound like soft rain pouring through a fuzzy satellite transmission; they're noise dirges that sound like nightclubs hidden underneath giant, deserted hallways. Usually lumped in with electronica bands, they avoid the puns, the casual provocation and the dance beats that characterize the genre. LA Weekly twice nominated Languis for best instrumental band, but they don't even fit in that category: they sing on a lot of their songs. And Alejandro Cohen and Marcos Chloca, the 27-year-old Argentine expats who make up Languis, aren't much help explaining, either.
"It's melodic," Chloca says. "Sometimes fairly simple . . . sometimes fairly complex."
With a crusty old mixing board, a guitar, a bass and a computer (which could be gently called "antiquated"), they create soundtracks for quiet but exotic paradises. But the humble gear also tells a pretty straightforward immigrant's story. In their case, these enigmatics immigrated in search of freedom and a better life, but it was a freedom only an artist would seek: the liberty to find your own creative community, the freedom to carve your own niche.
Like teenagers worldwide, they did their time in high school. There, Cohen and Chloca played in a rock band that took inspiration from American and English groups: My Bloody Valentine, Jimi Hendrix and Seattle grunge rockers, to name a few. Probably one of the best descriptions of the duo comes from DJ Hoseh, the first DJ to spin Languis' debut single, "Homesick," on his KXLU radio show, Headspace, in late 1997: "It was like My Bloody Valentine and Aphex Twin smoking a joint and listening to the Beach Boys," he muses. "It had a very good sense of electronica music and pop music."
But it was really tough to get a gig—or get taken seriously, says Cohen. "We never clicked with the in people—we were never able to make good friends," he explains. "It doesn't mean the whole scene sucks, but everyone was trying to be the Argentine version of whatever was big in America or England at the time. They seemed clownish to me"
They didn't try too hard to be the Argentine Blur or Rolling Stones because it wasn't much use trying. When their high school band broke up, they found they had nothing left to do in Buenos Aires. So they sold almost all of their gear (except the crusty mixing board, guitar and bass) and bought plane tickets to Los Angeles in late 1996, merely hoping to check out Southern California, maybe make some of those connections people are always making. LA didn't receive them as the second coming of Guns N' Roses, of course, but they didn't anticipate it being so rough. They mailed demos of their rock songs to scores of labels and DJs, but absolutely no one wanted to hear them.
"It was some of the worst music I ever heard," says DJ Hoseh with a sigh. "I have a reputation for being a mean guy, but I'd rather avoid somebody than tell them their music sucks. So I avoided them."
But after traveling so far, they had nothing to do but hang out in the Altadena home of their friend Dorian Burry. This, Burry says now, was a very good thing. "Right off the bat, they didn't jump into the Hollywood scene," he says. "They stayed in Altadena, kept their minds musically open."
They couldn't write rock songs anymore, of course—they simply didn't have the instruments. So instead, they made this mysterious mix of their old rock and the new electronica music they were beginning to check out. This time, DJ Hoseh was blown away. He played it on Headspace and whenever he deejayed live. Then the rest of the rock and electronica DJs on Loyola Marymount University's KXLU were spinning Languis. And then people were calling up the station to request the song. The buzz was so heavy that the Languis climbed to the top three spots on KXLU's charts.
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But success was short-lived: they overstayed their visas, and the INS found out. They were going to have to go home—unless they figured something out. Argentina's economy was taking a nosedive, and they had a feeling they wouldn't be helping their homeland's gross national product.
"We found a good group of friends. We felt comfortable; we had a life. We had a sound that was personal," Cohen says. "[That and] the fact you don't have a job and most likely won't get a job is not a good incentive to take a plane back there."
After months of upstream struggle, they got resident alien cards—and then it was back to just trying to make it as musicians instead of citizens. After being dissatisfied with the politics of tiny indie labels, they built their own label, simballrec. Dissatisfied with everybody else's music, they keep a punishing schedule, releasing four CDs in only four years. Maybe that's why they have such a hard time explaining what exactly it is that they do—at this pace, they can't afford to sit down and think about what it all means.
Languis play with Athalia, Dntel and DJ Nobody at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Sat., 9 p.m. $5. 21+.