Five Days In Mexico With Todd P And Festival Nrmal

Wednesday, March 6

Todd Patrick points out the window of his tiny silver rental car. “Look around at the streets and the people walking around,” he says, as he drives past businesses and office buildings lining the streets of Monterrey, Mexico, a city that has become his second home. “People are convinced it’s the third world, which in itself is racist, and insulting to the rest of the world … This doesn’t look like anarchy. If it were anywhere near as unsafe as it’s made out to be in the U.S. media, that guy over there wouldn’t be riding his bike. There wouldn’t be this highway full of cars. People wouldn’t be able to run these businesses.” It’s late afternoon, and the sun is setting over the mountains that surround the city. Sitting in the passenger seat, I lower my sun visor to block the glare, and marvel at the silhouetted palm trees lining the highway, taking in a history lesson in the evolving sociopolitical climate of Monterrey and Mexico in general.

Todd is an organizer within Brooklyn’s underground arts community, with a hand in the show spaces 285 Kent and Market Hotel, and the all-ages show listing zine Showpaper, amongst other projects. He also curates the U.S. bands for Festival Nrmal, which is about to happen in Monterrey, and is the reason I am in town. Nrmal is a music festival in its fourth year, bringing together artists from across Latin America, the U.S., and beyond. The main event is an all-day outdoor festival at a big park on Saturday, March 9, surrounded by a week of smaller-scale nighttime showcases, which start tonight.

I’ve been in Monterrey for roughly 24 hours, but just now am I truly starting to see the city, as we drive to the airport to pick up Zoe, one of several 285 Kent staffer Brooklynites coming to help out with Festival Nrmal. Driving around with Todd, I start to realize that Nrmal is not just a music festival, but a lens through which to experience the cultural make-up of Monterrey and to dispel the stereotypes about Mexico. Todd is quick to speak out against how Mexico is painted as unsafe in the American media. “It’s just extremely exaggerated,” he says as a local pop station hums in the background. “The U.S. media has this statistic they like to throw around – that 60,000 people have died in Mexico since 2006 because of the drug war. But how many people in the U.S. have been killed related to the drug war since 2006? Almost all gang violence is over drugs. And our country is three times the number of people.”

As we drive around, Todd points out the artful details of architecture and public art that decorate the cityscape: a winding red bridge, the intricate patterns designed into the sides of a hi-rise metallic office building, and a simple open steel picture frame that grows out of the ground at the side of the road to act as a frame for the picturesque view of the mountains.

Todd tells us about the city’s harsh income distribution. We drive past some narrow looking streets; he points out the Spanish colonial district, the part of town where some buildings are still made of stones laid out by Spaniards when they settled here. Now, though, there are many nightclubs in that district, and in recent years it was also the site of massive gang violence where bouncers were murdered. Minutes later, we drive over a bridge and down another highway, and now we’re in San Pedro Garza García, one of the richest cities in Latin America, like “the Beverly Hill of Monterrey.” It’s also where the Festival Nrmal offices are located. Soon we’re surrounded by joggers, a Lamborghini dealership, the Mexican headquarters of GE, a Vera Wang store, to name just a few of the dozens of symbols of wealth we’re bombarded with. The economic inequality Todd spoke of is obvious. It surfaces in the music world, too. Festival Nrmal is a rarity in Mexico for costing only $25. Vive Latino, for example, a festival happening next week in Mexico City costs the equivalent of $150. In general, concerts in Mexico tend to be more expensive than they are in the US, indie rock included. Todd says it’s a sign of the classist elitism that pervades indie culture here – and it’s no different in the US, it’s just more obvious in Mexico. “People don’t realize it, but this whole indie thing is very classist at home too,” he says. That’s not to say that Nrmal is an anti-corporate or anti-profit event; the festival has two main sponsors, Indio beer and Redbull. “I’m not opposed to sponsorship, if it’s tasteful,” he says.

That night, we all check out the first event of Nrmal – a showcase of video art and music at a warehouse venue called 111999555, which I’m told was inspired by Nrmal co-founder Pablo Martinez’s trip to Brooklyn’s 285 Kent. (It does immediately feel oddly similar.) An experimental electronic musician called Vegan Cannibal plays late. We’re introduced to many of the folks involved in Nrmal, as well as international bands who are starting to arrive.

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Thursday, March 7

On Thursday I head to San Pedro to visit the Nrmal offices. Besides the annual festival, Nrmal also curates events in the city year-round, operating similarly to Vice or Fader, Todd tells us. On my first visit to the office, one of the company’s main managers Moni Saldaña gives me a stack of zines produced by Nrmal, where they had visual artists illustrate their favorite albums.

The office space is shared between Nrmal and a design firm called Savvy Studio. It’s on the second floor of an office building that also holds a gourmet chocolate shop and other businesses. It’s a creative high-energy co-working space, and everyone here is young; they work at iMacs and laptops surrounding two big tables, separated by a steel set of shelves holding zines, posters, festival flyers, art magazines, and more. The office is lined by exposed brick walls and floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the vast natural beautiful of the Monterrey mountains.

Todd is talking with his interns about one final email that they are sending to the U.S. bands playing the fest, covering last-minute logistical concerns anyone might have. “When they go through customs, they are tourists going to participate in an art event called Nrmal,” Todd says. “And remind them that Mexico no longer requires work visas for professional artists as of January 2013.” His interns type away.

Later, I’m back in Todd’s car, with Zoe (the 285 Kent staffer) and Ali (my roommate, and a Noisey writer). Todd is taking us to one of his favorite spots in Monterrey, a breathtaking canyon called La Huasteca. We drive 20 minutes away from the city, and suddenly we are surrounded by mountains marked by gradients of gray that look like paintings. “All of San Pedro is on the other side of that mountain,” says Todd, pointing into the distance. Our drive through rock roads is bumpy, but the canyon is mostly empty, serene and quiet. At one point a woman runs by our car surrounded by her four dogs. Some donkeys pass by. Later we spot an elderly man wearing a straw hat, riding a horse. There is also some construction going on in some places, where a paved road is being constructed. We stop the car to shout and hear the echoes of our voices, snap photos, and pick wildflowers. “The Nrmal office is about three miles that way,” Todd says, pointing towards the mountains.

That night, we go to a venue called Sergio’s for a showcase curated by Vale Vergas Discos, one of the Mexican underground’s most interesting young record labels. We rush to get there in time for Selma Oxor, a Monterrey native with a hypnotic fuck-you stage presence, her songs experimenting with cheeky punk riffs and dark dance beats. Another particularly impressive set is by Soledad, a post-punk duo from Mexico City with an energetic standing drummer. (Music by both can be downloaded for free from the Vale Vergas site.)

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Friday, March 8

On Friday, the summer camp vibes start to set in, as more bands from the U.S. and beyond start to arrive at the hotel we are all staying at, the Safi Royal Luxury Hotel in downtown Monterrey. Each night, Nrmal shuttles leave from the hotel to get to the showcases; they are available to anyone who purchases a festival pass. Although the addresses for the shows (some of which are at houses) are posted publicly, some are hard to find without the shuttles.

That night, a showcase at Sergio’s features a line-up of local and Brooklyn-based bands. The first act, Los Blue Devils, are a local grungy psych-rock 4-piece. “I feel like I’m in New York or something,” the singer says to the crowd. Their set is followed by Slonk Donkerson, a Brooklyn rock trio with a similar sound, whose guitarist Parker is also one of Todd’s interns. Brooklyn dream-pop outfit Grand Resort play to a particularly ecstatic crowd – their singer Andres Pichardo is a native of the Dominican Republic who recently moved to New York to pursue his band more seriously. The rest of the night is filled out by an impressive Brooklyn post-hardcore trio Tom Blacklung (one of my favorite sets of the entire festival) and local Monterrey jangly guitar-pop band Husky. Even later, shuttles transport festival-goers to another late-night show at a mansion in the mountains of Chipinque, where Laurel Halo is playing in the enormous backyard, surrounded by a vast panoramic view of the city all lit-up.

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Saturday March 9

Saturday is the main event, the day that NRMAL organizers have worked most tirelessly for. It takes place at Parque del Ferrocarril, a large park with five stages and views of the mountains in all directions. As far as music festivals go, it’s relatively seamless. Sets start on time. Stages are not too far apart. Drinks are pretty cheap; the equivalent of around $6 for 2 beers. The headliners play on two main stages, with more underground and upcoming bands on three smaller stages. Most importantly, the line-up is interesting and experimental, entirely rid of typical festival-circuit major-indie filler bands.

The first band I see is Ave Negra, a Costa Rican duo I met on the first night of showcases and became quick festival buds with. “We just started our band one year ago and now we’re playing this festival in Mexico,” their singer Russell told me on the first night outside 111999555, almost as if in disbelief. Their sound draws on classic 60s and 70s punk and garage influences, but bands like Jeff the Brotherhood and Screaming Females come up in our conversations too. They were supposed to be coming over to Nrmal with Las Robertas, who unfortunately had to cancel last minute.

After Ave Negra, I catch Capullo, a young Mexican 4-piece electro-pop band who I met earlier in the day, while taking a shuttle from Hotel Safi to the festival together. My poor Spanish-speaking skills kept me from talking with them too much, but they offered me some 1pm swigs of Carlo Rossi in the back of the shuttle van anyway. Next, I see Olympia punks Milk Music rip through songs from their forthcoming album Cruise Your Illusion. “This one’s for you!” shouts singer Alex Coxen, as he points up to the sky and dives into their recent single, “Cruising With God.”

Naturally, I try to catch as many of the Latin American bands as I can: San Pedro el Cortez is a highlight. They play with unhindered energy, inspiring the first push-pit I see all day, fucking shit up as they tear through energetic punk-inflicted garage rock. At one point, the singer jumps into the crowd, the guitarist falls over, he throws a beer soaring in the crowd, kicks a mic stand over, and then at the end, the singer moons everyone. Their songs are good too. Protistas (from Chile) provide a much-appreciated laid-back break from the higher-energy chaos, channeling the vibes of early Yo La Tengo or Real Estate but with Spanish singing and the occasional shake of a maraca.

Parquet Courts sing smart post-punk with New York references (“I was walking through Ridgewood, Queens,” goes “Stoned and Starving”), while later on, UK 4-piece Fear of Men play songs reminiscent of early Slumberland noise-pop. “It’s our first time in Mexico,” the singer tells the crowd. The latter play on the stage sponsored by Red Bull, but branding is not overwhelming the way it is at most music festivals; it feels tasteful. And unlike most music festivals, which tend to operate within the safety net of major-indie rock bands, alternately at Nrmal one can see sets by The Dreebs, PC Worship, Dope Body, the Holydrug Couple, Mueran Humanos, Dustin Wong, and other experimental-leaning acts.

Of course there were also excellent pop acts. “I don’t think I’ve ever played for this many people before,” Sky Ferreira tells the audience later that night. “This song is called ‘You’re Not The One’, it’s my next single, I think.” It’s a hooky song in line with the vibe of her Ghost EP, which her set draws from. “This one is dedicated to someone. I can’t see him right now, but he’s here. His name is Cole,” she says, dedicating “Sad Dream” to DIIV’s singer, who sits at the back of the stage throughout the set. They play the same stage next, to a crowd of kids bopping and pogo-ing to their dark guitar-oriented dream pop.

As I walk towards the Black Stage (dedicated entirely to punk, hardcore, and noise, and designed by New York artist Jesse Hlebo) to catch sets by Trash Talk and Mexican metal legends Brujeria, I stop in at the 16-wheeler trucks scattered about the festival holding pop-up visual art installations. At one of the exhibits, the artist tells me I can have any of the large black-and-white prints hanging up. I choose an eerie looking image of a girl laying down next to a skeleton, to bring home to my apartment in Boston. A local Monterrey resident also checking out this art installation and I chat for a few minutes about the burgeoning art scene in this city; he says there is a public image of Monterrey as being dangerous, but there’s more than that: “The city is also deeply cultured. I think it makes sense because most post-war periods lead to that.”

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Sunday March 10

On Sunday, the festival closes with a pool party, set in a similar location to the Laurel Halo show – the backyard of a mansion in the mountains. I sit in a tree house making new friends from Monterrey and watching Kitty Pryde play poolside. Later the evening is closed out with one of the most exciting rock sets I’ve seen in months, by Puerto Rican 5-piece Las Ardillas.

Their relentless garage punk is a perfect ending to festival that felt vital and urgent throughout, both because of the interesting music and the way it seemed to facilitate legitimate cultural exchange between folks who might otherwise never end up at the same shows. The singer of Las Ardillas falls to the ground and flails back up, bangs his mic on his head, spits his beer in the air like a fountain. At one point he shouts, “Viva Mexico!” At that moment, I realize this is really a festival I never want to miss again.