Ask guitarist Ruben Cortez of Whittier's the Littlest Viking to deconstruct his music and he'll flash a boyish smile and tell you he simply writes pop songs.
"I could play all of our songs as pop-punk versions," he says.
Never mind that the music is instrumental, and laden with math rock sensibilities, vacillating between angular rhythms and sugary sweet melodies sandwiched between as many thematic changes as one song can reasonably be expected to hold, leading me to suspect that Cortez might be speaking with an overly glib tongue.
I should mention at this point that I've known Cortez for more than five years, and as someone who has played music with him in the past, I have witnessed first hand Cortez's ever expanding drive to write songs of increasing complexity.
But perhaps what is most remarkable about the Littlest Viking's presentation is that the band with the kaleidoscopic pop songs is comprised of only Cortez, 26, and drummer Chris Gregory, 26. And the two men manage an attack worthy of a seven nation army, albeit one much more varied than that other twosome famous for their minimalist approach.
"It'll be like a full-on musical assault so people won't get bored," says Cortez.
Boredom indeed--it seems to be the one thing that he fears most, as evidenced by the attention deficit inspired nature of his tunes. But mention the music's complexity, and he remains modest.
"Chris is really the one who makes it sound difficult," he maintains. "I just use a lot of pretty chords."
Gregory, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, utilizes rhythms reminiscent of the mathematical tapping of Don Caballero drummer Damon Che. And much like Che's percussive work, Gregory delivers his material with the pinpoint precision of a morse code transmission.
Cortez, meanwhile, cites a slew of '90s emo bands including the Promise Ring, Braid and Mineral as his main influences. The resulting synthesis is a unique hodgepodge of sounds that straddles the line between a science experiment and a love letter.
The band formed in 2006 when Gregory, who grew up in San Diego, responded to a Craigslist ad posted by Cortez who was looking for a drummer.
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The two hit it off quickly, recording two demo's followed by a full length album, the 2008 self-released Labor and Lust.
While neither has been able to quit their day jobs, (Cortez, an English major at Cal State Fullerton, works at Lovell's Records in Whittier, and Gregory serves subpoenas to deadbeat dads), they have experienced hopeful glimmers of success. The band was recently approached by Mountain Man Records and given the opportunity to release their album on vinyl. They've also toured across the country twice. Yet when pressed about his hopes for full-blown success, Cortez demurs.
"I'm skeptical because of the way rock & roll is right now. We're reaching the height of what rock & roll can do. It's going to be stagnant. And if I worry about those things, it'll complicate my writing," he says. "I honestly don't think I'm going to make a living rock & rolling till I die. But if some kid finds our record 40 years from now and it blows his mind, then what else would I want?"