When I heard instrumental progressive group CHON was touring across the United States- and alongside the unforgettable Animals As Leaders, no less- I felt that if I missed the Atlanta show, I’d never quite forgive myself. And I believe that to be true- even though this show happened two months ago, and I’ve been buried in work and studenthood ever since, I’ve thought about the show for awhile.
There were many great things about the show. For starters, I got to meet some fellow Sputnikers- contributor Matt Harrison (YourDarkAffected) and user Daniel Davis (Paradox1216.) We went out for drinks afterwards, and had a fantastic time just talking about music. And the show itself, for which there was plenty to discuss.
The concert headliners, Animals as Leaders, introduced many of their newer tunes with an energy I didn’t quite expect of them live. After all, you hear the stories of their live performances being a little messy and/or lethargic, but I certainly didn’t witness any of that. Tosin and company were having a blast throughout the occasion, and even played jammer “Physical Education” live for the first time. Even if the band’s music gets a bit tedious after about ten songs live, it was still a spectacle to see them perform their instrumentally taxing songs with such agility onstage.
You know who else killed it? CHON themselves. These kids aren’t exactly used to playing huge shows with even huger bands, but it was a classic moment to see Mario Camarena and friends having a blast playing music they like. CHON also easily sounded better than any of the other performers that night. Their grounded style of jazz-rooted progressive lent itself well to the acoustics of the venue, and on top of that, many of the band’s downfalls in the studio were virtually non-existent at this show. Their programmed drums, which has always been one of my biggest qualms about their sound, were replaced by Mario’s brother Nathan playing drums live- and going hard in a way that reminded me of Thomas Pridgen himself. CHON sounded like a fully realized band on this night, which was a delight to witness.
And on top of this, I was able to spend some time with CHON’s guitarist Mario Camarena and bassist Drew Pelisek after the show. He’s a loving guy: humble, laid-back and armed with some interesting stories to boot. Being able to interview him was an enlightening experience, because I got to see how the band functions when they aren’t onstage. I was able to experience that synergy that makes CHON tick, and as a fan that made me appreciate their music so much more. Hopefully you guys enjoy reading my conversation with Mario and Drew, and it shapes you in the same way it did me.
I’ve been listening to the new EP for awhile now, and it’s really exciting, man. There are some pretty significant changes- obviously, there’s a song with vocals, which a lot of people are going to be caught off-guard by. I know I was when I heard it. So what has been different about this EP in comparison to what you guys have done in the past, if anything?
Mario: It’s been the same with the writing process, for the most part. We’re still writing stuff we think is cool. I guess what changed the music is what we’ve been listening to. We’ve been getting into some different artists, so that transfers to the music.
Yeah, totally. I’m not sure if this is what you guys have been listening to, but the EP definitely has more of a jazz-fusion influence.
Drew: And Mario has been listening to jazz fusion for a long time, so it’s kind of always been there.
What are some of the fusion influences that you guys have been listening to?
One artist who really influenced this latest EP is Tigran Hamasyan.
Yeah. We’ve been wanting to go less metal, basically.
Because people associate us with… I mean, look at the kinds of shows we’re playing. *gestures hand to After the Burial playing not-so-gently in the background* A lot of people throw the ‘metal’ tag on our older stuff, but we’ve just been wanting to transition away from that label, of being a ‘metal’ band. But everything’s still being made the same way; it’s just a transition. Because that music’s like six years old. *laughs* We were, like, fifteen at the time.
So for the record, how old are you guys? I tried to find out, but there’s just not a lot of information about CHON- and I felt like a shitty interviewer *laughs*, coming into this interview without knowing your age.
Mario and I are 21, Erick is 23 and Nathan is 17. And Nathan is Mario’s younger brother.
I see. I also couldn’t find a lot about the origins of CHON- could you share that story with us?
Well, Erick and I met pretty much as soon as I started playing guitar, and we just started writing music right off the bat. We eventually got to writing CHON songs, and we decided we wanted to play shows, so I taught my little brother how to play drums and my other little brother how to play bass- and we played a bunch of shows. We were a family band at first, plus Erick- who was pretty much a part of our family at the time anyway. But not anymore. *laughs* Just kidding.
So like an alternate version of the Jackson 5?
Yeah, except we didn’t have a crazy father making us do it.
I guess so. *laughs* I understand you guys had a demo, which was your first release as CHON. I just remember when I heard about you guys, I was told that CHON wasn’t a thing anymore. What role did your Kickstarter play in the revamping of the band as we know it today?
Newborn Sun was not a result of that Kickstarter. The Kickstarter did not go through, and we just ended up working a lot and saving up the money to be able to record it. So it was kind of a failed attempt at a Kickstarter, but I’m kind of glad it didn’t work out, because I feel better not having depended on other peoples’ money to do that, and the fact that we actually worked to put out a piece of music that we enjoy- it feels better.
And how is it being able to get onstage and play these songs for people? To be able to take a song like “Wut the Poop” – and I say “song,” but it’s not even really a song. It’s more of an idea that it always seemed like you guys wanted to do something more with, and you guys were able to play it live and then expand it into a full tune. Is that not the coolest experience for you guys?
It’s the coolest thing ever.
It’s fun to witness, too. I can’t even begin to imagine how you guys feel about all of it.
Yeah, the last few days have been completely overwhelming. Touring with Animals (As Leaders,) and just- the amount of people that have been here. Clearly, Animals is going to have a huge crowd, but the fact that so many people are here to see us play, and they’re so excited to see us play- it’s so weird.
And it’s cool, because you guys cater to a sound that the average Animals as Leaders fan would be fairly fond of. You guys don’t particularly sound like Animals as Leaders, and they don’t exactly sound like CHON, but somehow it just works out. And I at least came here mostly to see CHON. I also have a few friends that came here mostly to see you guys, so there’s definitely a crowd of your own out there. So it’s cool to see you guys catching on.
So more about touring- are there any qualities to this tour that have caught you guys off-guard over the last few days?
It’s been better than in the past. The last tour we did was our first one, which was just eight or nine shows over almost two weeks. We took my SUV with a U-Haul trailer on the back, and we had no room to do anything. There was no room for comfort- it was the four of us and the merch guy, and then all our suitcases and other things in the trunk, and then gear in the U-Haul. If anything, this time it’s been a bit more comfortable.
For the first week, it was just the four of us with, like, the two benches in the back and the two seats in the front, and we were just able to kinda lie down. But now, we picked up our merch guy in Tampa two days ago, so we have a little less room but, still. There’s nothing that’s been too hard for us to get accustomed to, other than just driving every day and playing every night- but that’s weirdly easy to get used to. There’s so much downtime that you end up looking forward to playing every night more than anything. It’s way more rewarding than I would’ve expected.
It definitely seems like you guys are having a great time. So are there any songs on the new EP you guys are fondest of?
My favorites are probably Knot and Suda.
I really like Super Potion. Even though it’s just the acoustic intro, it’s just beautiful. It [Woohoo!] was just going to be a five-song thing, and then the guy who produced the album- his name is Zeb– short for “Zebulon”, which is one of his middle names-
I didn’t actually know anybody, like, actually received the name Zebulon.
*Laughs* He has three middle names. One of them is, like, Compassion. His parents were super hippies. But Mario has his acoustic song on the EP, and Eric was just messing around with acoustics, and said “hey, you need to record that.” And so he recorded on something, and then he pulled out the 12-string baritone and said “try it on this,” and it was just the best-sounding thing. I think it’s the perfect intro for the EP.
Once this tour winds down, are there any artists in particular you guys would just die to open for?
I don’t think it’d ever happen, but it would be cool to open for Flying Lotus, Thundercat-
Yeah, Thundercat. Robert Glasper, Meshuggah…
Meshuggah would be insane.
What about you, Nate? (Drew asked as the band’s drummer, Nate, walked into the room)
…Toro Y Moi!
Yeah, Toro Y Moi.
See, that’s so interesting to me, because there’s so much electronic music happening there, you know? What is it about electronic artists that make you want to be a part of their shows?
It’s just the music, man.
Yeah, aside from Hamasyan, Toro was the next biggest “influence,” I guess, on the EP. Especially for songs like “Ecco,” we listened to a lot of his stuff- vocal melodies, and little things like that. He’s got a cool vibe, and he’s really poppy, so we like his stuff a lot.
So what exactly happened when CHON went off the grid awhile back? I remember hearing a ton about you guys, and then being unable to find out what y’all were up to in the meantime.
I don’t think CHON was ever not a thing. It just wasn’t ever too much of a priority, so-
It wasn’t a real band, it was just Erick and me writing songs when we had the chance to. And then we’d get together to practice, like, the day before a show.
Yeah, which we still kinda did up until this tour.
Now we’re like an actual band.
And that must be pretty cool to make that transition- from seeing CHON as a side project to eventually being able to devote this much time to the band.
Yeah, and I do feel it was kind of stupid to not be doing that before. We just didn’t focus on CHON, which was weird.
It’s what all of us have been wanting to do.
And one thing I’ve been trying to do is to help, in any way I can to get you guys a wider audience- I mean, I think it’s easy to forget how much of an impact music sites can have on a band, and I’ve loved covering you guys to get that name out there.
I’ve been reading Sputnik stuff for probably the last three or four years.
And see, I’ve noticed a lot of people on the site are willing to go out of their way to check out interesting music. I’m glad you guys may have reaped the benefit of that.
That’s another thing I’ve always liked about Sputnik, that you can’t pigeonhole the site to anything in particular. There’s so much music all across the board, to where anyone can go on the website and find stuff they like- or even in other genres that they think they’d also like.