Posted April, 2012
What does the Guadalajara area of Mexico have to do with rock and roll? Well, I can’t say that I would blame you much if the only answer you could come up with is that Elvis sang the song, “Guadalajara” in that movie, Fun In Acapulco.
What isn’t known here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. is that in a small village just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico, a brother and sister were born, raised on rock and roll and learned to speak English – perfect English . . . better English than I speak – and grew up to form an incredibly success rock band that literally blazed its own trail of success.
That trail is fifteen years long and marked with 1.7 million albums sold and will be marked with a lot more in sales with the release of their new album, See Us Spin and a tour that will wind up hitting the U.S. in the near future.
Oh, yeah, the band! The band is called ELAN (spelled with all caps) which also happens to be the name of its beautiful and highly talented lead vocalist (and keyboardist), Elán DeFan. Her brother, Jan Carlo, is the lead guitarist for the band and they are joined on drums by Michel “Cheech” Bitar DeFan, Jan’s wing man on guitar, Maurico “El Pato” López, and, on bass is Carolos “Charlie” Padilla Maqueo. Together, they make the latest 15 year long overnight sensation to hit the U.S.
I recently received an advance review copy of See Us Spin (as well as a copy of their Retrospective 2002 – 2012 2-CD set) and I became an instant fan. It’s great rock and roll in all its varied beauty. Hard. Soft. Bluesy. They’re great. Really great.
Naturally, when the opportunity arose to interview Jan Carlo, I jumped at the chance. He called me from his home in Mexico and, if I do say so myself, I immediately felt as though I was talking to an old friend. Not the kind of old friend to whom I’ve owed fifty bucks to for the last 30 years but you get my point.
As I said earlier, Elán and Jan Carlo were raised on rock and roll so I asked the guitarist to fill me in on some details of that starting with who his biggest musical influences were.
“Well, actually, it was Mom and Dad. My father and mother had a really beautiful – actually, they still have – a really beautiful vinyl collection. It was a very big one. You have to understand that we grew up in a little town on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico, so radio and television were kind of rare. The radio signal did not get there that well so we grew up kind of isolated from what I think now would be called Modern Music. So, for us, the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Zeppelin III and all those records that are cherished for us were our cornerstone. I mean, that’s what we knew. That’s the music that we liked!
“So, I think when we got a little older, technology advanced a little more and we actually had a chance to listen to “modern music” and we didn’t really know what was going on. We were really turned off by it.
“My first acoustic guitar was my father’s first acoustic guitar – which I loved to death. My mother played the piano a little and I think that’s what got us going. Between the Stones – to us Sticky Fingers was really modern. It sounded really new. So, when we finally got radio, needless to say, we kinda had a consistent case of explosive vomit! We really didn’t like the way things sounded. This must’ve been ’86, ’87 – that’s when I first became aware of music on the radio. It was a very shocking time for me . . . because the vinyls that we listened to had emotional impact. I felt that and I feel that now more than ever.
“I feel that people really have this need to be liked. When you write a song for radio – the concept of a single, to me – I try to comprehend but I just do get. How do you write something so that somebody else will like it? You can’t do that. Either you write and you play because you love it – and, I mean, you hope that people like it but you can’t do it so they like it because it has absolutely no class. It has no honesty to it.”
Regarding other influences, DeFan added, “If you listen to the Allman Brothers and then you move into Skynard, when you realize that Warren Haynes walks on water, that’s when you understand guitar work. That man! It doesn’t get much better than that!”
While listening to Jan speak, I was struck – confounded even – by the clarity of his English. As I wrote at the beginning of this interview, his English is much better than mine. At the risk of offending him, I asked how was it that he was able to speak such flawless English. His answer is a testament to the wisdom of the child-rearing skills of his parents.
“Basically, we’re really bi-cultural. Our parents made sure that we spoke both languages without any accent and they used to do it with vibrations. You can actually pick up accents with vibrations – cheek-to-cheek or hand-to-cheek. You can pretty much pick up any accent that way.”
My daughter has said a time or two that, because of the music, she feels that she was born about 25 to 30 years too late. Because of Elán’s and Jan’s love for classic rock, I asked DeFan if he felt the same way.
“To be honest, we feel so disconnected from – I love how people say ‘the music scene” – we’re so far away from that. We’re so disconnected from it. I wouldn’t know how to describe where we’re at regarding that thing because we’re just not part of that ‘music scene’. So, I definitely feel – oh, god, if we could only go back to those times, things would be really, really good!”
My next question pertained regarded if there was a particular one who turned Jan on so much that he knew that he wanted to pursue a career in music. I expected an answer that included – oh, I don’t know, say, the Stones or Janis Joplin, judging by the incredible sounds that he, his sister and the band produce. His answer surprised me but it was a great one.
“To me, I think that there was a more modern band that, to me, was very modern but they didn’t sound modern to me which really gave me an uplifting hope which were the Black Crowes. When I heard the Crowes, I thought – and I had a chance to hang with them for a little while – the Crowes were very, very key. There’s a buddy of mine that I had a chance to record with, he’s been a very dear friend for many years, Nathan East, who plays the bass for Clapton. He made me feel that it didn’t matter when you were born, you had to make the kind of music that you love and everything was going to be okay.
“So, I think between the Crowes being a younger band that was playing real music – they still had slide guitar and Rich (Robinson) really cared about the sound and the lyrics still mattered. After some years passed I realized that it didn’t matter the age, what mattered was the fact that they had something to say and they didn’t care what other people thought of them. That was a cornerstone for me.”
The band is almost single-handedly responsible for blazing the concert touring trail in Mexico, playing wherever they could – from small cantinas to large venues. DeFan shared the story with me. With a laugh, he said, “We call it a ‘paper route’. We figured out how to make our own paper route and we’re very proud of it. And, yes, we still do it to this day.
“You have to carry three of everything. Whatever guitar you’re going to use with a certain tuning, you have to have three of them because if one breaks down. I read articles all the time and we meet bands from other countries – especially the States and England . . . and a little bit from Australia – and they complain so much about how tough it is to tour. We just look at them and we laugh our butts off. They have no idea how hard it is to tour.”
So, does ELAN still run into surprises that they have never anticipated?
“No, no, no, no, thank goodness. After success comes, you start having a crew and you start needing guards and you start needing chauffeurs and all that stuff. After awhile, you’re travelling with a whole bunch of people – really nice people. We’re a big circus family! The checklist started maybe eight years ago so now that’s all taken care of before the tour starts. Things just run smoothly. All we have to do now is step on stage and have a good time!
“We do most tours on land. The whole flying thing has become a real pain in the butt. We travel in vans now. We can’t do buses because the buses can’t get through the streets in some towns so we do a van caravan. We’re not very high maintenance. We’re very easy to maintain. We have a couple of bottles of Jack and tequila every night and everybody’s happy!”
With the release of See Us Spin, the band’s attention is now focusing more in other countries in addition to Mexico. While they’ve had exposure overseas, Jan and the band realize that keeping the buying public’s attention is very, very tough. In talking about previous attention in Australia, DeFan said, “These days, people’s attention span is so short. People now – they don’t read and everything’s Twitter, which is 140 characters. So, they might like you one day but they’ll forget who you are the next. The way we do it, we try to do it the Rolling Stones way. We record once a year and then we’re on tour all year long because, if not, they’ll forget you in one second flat!”
As for formulas for success, I shared something with Jan that Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company shared with me three years ago. It had to do with the fact that, when BBHC was starting out, there were no classes, training books, videos or anything else to help them. They were inventing the sound from their heart as the went along. Jan pounced on that.
“That man really knows! I don’t know if we’ve really got a formula and I don’t know if we’re going to be successful but something that was true with Janis and Jimi and the rest of them was that they didn’t really care if they were successful. I think that’s important for us because we’ve had this conversation many a time when we’re re-evaluating things. We realized that we really don’t care. We’ll do this for beer or for money. Nowadays, when we get paid to do this, it’s amazing to us. We would’ve done this for free if someone wouldn’t have told us differently.”
Since Defan is coming with the whole band instead of by himself, I wondered what he’s anticipating while in the U.S.
“I’ll be honest. I’m really, really excited about the south. If we get to play Texas, Alabama, Louisiana – if we get to go to Jacksonville, Florida, I’ll pee myself twice! Other than that, we’re just excited to be playing in front of a crowd that speaks English! At the beginning, that was a tough call for us (singing and recording in English). It wasn’t like we were trying to do something so that we could sell records. Everybody now, these days, are very calculating. Everybody calculates everything. If you make this kind of music, it will be this successful. The only thing we were calculating was if we get paid enough beer to get drunk and, if we were really lucky, we would have a bottle of Jack. That was, basically, the biggest calculation we did was that!
“We hear a lot of ungrateful bands. We’re really grateful! We’re really grateful to be alive. We’re really grateful to keep on playing music for a living. The fact that we now get to play in the states – we just can’t wait to play in front of a crowd that speaks English. Down here, you have to try fifteen times as hard because we chose the kind of music that we know how to make. I think that God and destiny and life allowed us to play the kind of music that was kind of hard to translate to other people. When people are playing pop in Spanish and you’ve got all these guys singing and dancing and then you go up there with a slide and my sister gets up there with that fantastic voice and yelling into the mic, it was, I guess, shocking, to some and disappointing to others.”
Jan’s comments begged the question of whether or not singing in English caused them any problems such as people wanting to beat them up or anything along those lines.
“Well, people love us here, we are kind of a source of pride now. But of course you get in a little hot water! The good thing was that our parents put us into martial arts when we were young so, before we had body guards, we could just get down, you know? but truthfully we are so loved down here . . . we have had tons of support. And there are mean people everywhere but they are very few and far between.”
Shifting our conversation to the subject of how ELAN approaches recording an album, DeFan said, “Let me put it this way: I don’t want to sound like a snob. I need you to understand this part. For us making an album, it’s a process of putting down, on tape or hard drive, one year – a chapter of our lives. We do it every year. They’re all our babies.
“We do it, number one, so that we can get it off our chests so that we can move on with the memories and the stories. Number two, I think we do it so, next year when we go on tour for another eleven months, that we’re happy to play some new stuff so that we can mix it up a little bit. The way we do it, we usually do three takes as a band with Elán gone. But, usually, she blows it out on the first take. If it takes more than three, we skip the song and it doesn’t go on the record because we figure that, if we can’t get it down in three takes, we’re not really going to get it down live.”
Like many other artists, Jan just said that the band’s songs are like their babies. Even so, I asked him if he could pick one song that he would like Boomerocity readers to listen to that he thinks would make you want to buy See Us Spin, which song would it be.
“To be honest, my sister’s voice on Stranger – you know, she doesn’t do two or three takes. With Stranger, there’s something about it. We always have Dad come to the studio and take pictures. He’s an amazing photographer. I looked over. My sister was belting it out. I remember looking at my dad and seeing tears coming down his face. So, I think Stranger would be the one for me if I had to pick one.”
Since Elán’s and Jan’s parents were – and are – rock and rollers, I was curious what they had to say about ELAN’s music.
“Just to clarify, we also had classical music shoved down our throats, too. We also listened to a lot of mariachi and a lot of flamenco music. My dad flamenco. He made me and Pato – the other guitarist – he, Charlie the bass player, we’ve all be friends since we were eleven years old. He (Mr. DeFan) made us study flamenco. He said, ‘If you want to study guitar, you can’t play like Keith if you don’t study flamenco.’ So we studied flamenco for a little while. I only went to one class because I’m not very good with school or authority figures so that didn’t work out very well.”
Then, with some emotion, DeFan continued answering the question. “To be honest, now that you mention it, they’re proud. It’s kind of touchy to even think about it now. They’ve been so supportive for so many years. They weren’t the typical parents who wanted us to be doctors or lawyers. They’re just two of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. What’s weird is today, when everybody get divorced 16 times and nothing really matters, they come from an age where, if there’s something broke, you didn’t throw it away, you fixed it. I think they passed that on to us. I’m in such awe that two people can give so much love to five other people – actually more – that pride makes us work harder.
“It’s weird because we really come from a country sensibility - familiar with family ties. I think it’s a southern sensibility – ‘good day, sir’, ‘good evening, Ma’am’, ‘yes” and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I think that they gave us a foundation where you’re grateful for everyday regardless of what you do. Sometimes it rocks, sometimes it rolls but you smile every day and you’re just thankful for what you’ve got.”
As ELAN begins to make forays into the U.S., I asked Jan what he hopes the American audiences take away from their shows and how they view the band.
“To be honest with you, I hope for the same thing that I hope for every night. When you decide to become a musician, there’s a couple of things that my grandma asked us to do and our parents asked us to do which is your problems are secondary to everyone else’s because, basically, you’re soul doctors. You go to that night and people get to get drunk off their butts and forget about their problems for a little while. It’s tough sometimes. We’ve had two recent deaths close to us in the last year and a half. My grandma being one of them. We had to play the show, go to the wake and then fly to the next show. We have to do that because that’s what we do.
“So, what I hope is that they enjoy themselves at the show and that we take a little pressure and weight off of the life we all have to live every day. Times do get easier, they get tougher, the economy gets a little tighter and the government gets a little crazier. That’s the way life goes. Hopefully, they’ll come to the show and they can forget about all that crap for an hour or two and we’ll enjoy each other’s company, get down and have a drink together and tell each other stories, move on and become better people.”
In his career, DeFan and the band have collaborated with the likes of Slash and David Immergluck. I asked him if there is anyone he still wishes to work with. His answer came in the form of a great story.
“One day, I was at Capitol Records, mastering a record. The gentleman there who used to be our mastering engineer – an amazing man by the name of Mark Chaleki – tells me that we have to go down to Studio C where we’d recorded before. He wanted me to help him put up a mic, which I did. Then he said, ‘Now we get to hang out here and meet George Harrison’. I said that I couldn’t do it. The best way to put is how Jim Keltner put it – an amazing drummer and I had the pleasure of working with him. He’s seen so many people come and go who have died from all the crazy stuff but he’s very straight forward. We were having lunch and I asked him what John Lennon was like. He said, ‘Exactly the same person that you think you know through his music. That’s who he was.’
“I didn’t want to meet George – Mr. Harrison – because I didn’t want to have that changed. So, I never shook his hand. But, to be honest, when things happen naturally and when you meet somebody and you both laugh and you’re both having some drinks and things flow like they had with Slash or Dave or any one of those guys we’ve had the honor of working with, that’s wonderful. But when you get all these labels, these money people and bankers who need you to do something with somebody because they think it will sell more records, it makes me want to puke. So, if we’re lucky enough to work with people that we meet or we love and admire, that’s wonderful. But if we gotta do it forcefully and it’s gotta be done because you want to be liked – people just got to stop trying to be liked! People have to go and do what they think is right and if you me for it, great, and if you hate me for it, then that’s life and you move on.”
When asked if he thinks that ELAN’s music has the message and passion that the music he and his sister grew up with, Jan replied with an very insightful answer.
“There’s something about being born Mexican is the Spanish, sadly, when they came here, they instilled a thing in the local tribes that I don’t think is very good called humility. I think respect is wonderful but the brand of humility that was installed in this country was not a very good one because it basically means that you have to look down on yourself. You can’t get rid of that with a song.
“I would love to say yes to your question but we’re not trying to carry on a torch because I don’t think anyone in the 60’s were carrying a torch. They were free enough and they were educated enough where they were going to say what they were going to say. Sometimes it was a beautiful thing, sometimes it was a horrible thing to say. But I think that amount of freedom alone allowed them to do the best they could with what they had. All I know is that we’re truly trying to do the best we can with what we have. I don’t know if it’s a big thing or a small thing but it is what it is. I’d love to say yes because I’d love to feel that we are part of that musical family – part of that generation that had the audacity of being honest – the audacity of being who they were. I think only time will tell that. The only thing that I can say is that we’re not going to stop until our heart stops ticking.”
As for the band’s plans for 2012 and their goals five years from now, DeFan said, “Number one, we’re going to try not to die. Number two, we’re going to be on tour for the entire year and, hopefully, we’ll bring out another record like we’ve done every year. I don’t think we’ll stop until one of us is gone. I think it’s going to be our version of Groundhog Day.
“Five years from now? We’ll have recorded five more records! Ha! Ha! To be honest, I’m not that ambitious. I don’t think any of us are. We’re so truly happy to do what we do every day that I honestly believe that, if life gives us a chance to keep on doing this, we’ll hopefully be in the exact same place and continue to tour.”
While Jan Carlo, his sister and band mates presumably have a long and prosperous career ahead of them, I asked him how he hopes they’ll be remembered and what the band’s legacy will be.
“Wow! I love it! I hope we go down as boozers and brawlers and womanizers – and ‘maninizers’ in my sister’s case, I guess – I hope that we’re known as good sons and daughters and pretty good brothers.”
Then, getting more serious, he added, “I hope that we’re looked at as amazing friends because when you look back at the records, you realize they’re not just musicians, they’re your friends.
“I remember the first letter that we got from this boy from Canada of all places. He wrote us a very nice, kind, long letter saying that his mom had cancer and that one of the last moments that he had to share with her was with our music. I realized then that we have a really interesting career because we get to take a little weight off of people’s shoulders if we do it right.”
Then, with a sincere humbleness that permeated our chat, he concluded, “We’re just really grateful and hopeful that we’ll have the chance to continue that.”