Donde Estamos – Interview

The music of Donde Estamos has a great groove and is memorable. In addition, one thing that really makes this band different is the strong message that comes from this talented group of musicians. Vic Gutierrez, has something to say and is using the music to say it. He is a chiropractor by day, but has been living and breathing music since he began piano lessons when he was 5. His band, Donde Estamos, has become a force in a seemingly short time, but he has been working on it his whole life. He works hard so that people will hear his music and speaks openly about what he’s doing to make that happen. He is inspirational and talented, and I’m sure we will be seeing a lot of Donde Estamos. Click here to view their insta page.

Interview by Fredda Gordon. Photo courtesy of Vic Gutierrez.

Fredda Gordon: Tell me a little about Donde Estamos?

Vic Gutierrez: We formed when Trump was running. I was very open minded. Trump was just Trump before he announced that he was running. I remember it clearly. It was in his hotel, Trump Tower, Trump Plaza, one of those, and he mentioned the Mexicans. But what got to me and my friends was when he said “They’re sending their worst rapist their criminals,” and when he said “I suppose some of them are good people” … Oh! That got me ticked! So I started writing a song right there on the spot. A patient of mine, who was a drummer at Berkelee in Boston said “Oh, yeah, I play.” He’s from El Savador. and I [said] ‘Ok, want to form a band?” Our first rehearsal was in my practice. The first song was about Esa Negrita which is a very affectionate term referring to a black girl. In South America that’s a compliment. It’s not like here when you talk about someone’s skin color, that’s taboo. Esa Negrita, it drives me crazy. It’s an allegorical song. Which, really, La Negrita is an immigrant’s love letter to his government. So, La Negrita is representative of the government. All my songs have a hidden meaning. I believe that if you’re going to say something, make people think. Give them some fodder for thought. Why not? And, if they’re dancing at the same time, that’s fine.

FG: Did you write music before this?

VG: Yes. I grew up playing piano at age 5 in a Latin household. If your parents are going to shell out big bucks for an upright piano, all the kids are going to be playing piano. So, my older sister, thank God, wanted to play piano and then, of course, I had to follow suit. In kindergarten I had this great teacher and since then I’ve been playing piano and writing songs. Which, by the way, is the best instrument to write songs. Because you have the bass and the treble going at once. You have a full orchestra. Whereas guitarists or oboe players or flute players, bass players, drums, they don’t have the songwriting knack as much. They are dealing with the melodies coming from their head whereas when you have piano it’s trial and error. Hit those chords on the left and then find a little dancing melody on the right and you’re good to go.

I believe in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory. It only takes 3 hours a day for 9 years to become an expert. I tell my little girl that and she [said] “When you break it down like that, dad, I think I can do 3 hours.” But you have to be passionate, it can’t feel like 3 hours. I come from that school of thought. The piano was my friend growing up as a kid. On the weekends I could play 4 or 5 hours straight without thinking of anything else. I love that instrument.

FG: Who else is in your band? You mentioned the drummer.

VG: Yeah, him, and then there’s Max Melise, he’s going to school because he wants to be a teacher and he wants to teach music for the rest of his life. That’s his calling. Then James, our lead guitarist, teaches choir. He was teaching at a couple of churches and is a musical director. My guys are always living and breathing music which is kinda nice.

FG: How did you meet them?

VG: Max and I were in an experimental band. I bet you countless bands have formed over the following question: “Hey man, do you like The Mars Volta?” which is a very progressive [band]. We started talking about that and when I started this social-political band I called Max, ‘Hey, Max, listen, if you’re not doing anything do you want to join this band?’ and he was like “Yeah, absolutely!” And he brought in the other guitarist. We’ve been playing together since. We’ve gotten good reception. Two people from the Latin Grammys nominated us in the first round for best new artist.

FG: Before writing for this band what kind of music were you writing?

VG: I was doing progressive stuff. It’s fun, but if you grow up Latin you don’t necessarily hear salsa or cumbia, I’m first generation from Peru, but it’s always inside of you. You are forever infused by that vibe, by those beats, because your parents played it when you were little. The cumbia’s inside of you, the salsa’s inside of you. When he went after Latin people, I said, ‘Alright, I have an education, I have a voice and I have medium for music and I think I can do something great.’ We did rock music, infused with cumbia, with salsa and we get a good response.

FG: What are your goals?

VG: If you ever studied The Beatles, I’m a big Beatles fan… I remember as a kid, just watching John Lennon and Yoko Ono doing the protest from the bed. I was like ‘What is that?!’ I remember seeing pictures of it as a kid. ‘Oh, this guy was a protestor and he tried to change the world.’ Well, you know something, the “me too” movement is a perfect example. We had known for years that women were being mistreated. We knew for years that women were getting the short end of the stick, and then just one little hashtag changed all that. Now, sure, we needed a villain like Harvey Weinstein who kind of looks villainous but still, we can’t stop talking. One day these words will stick and that’s my point. That’s my goal, to keep putting light to social issues, to political issues. You never know whose going to be the one who actually made a difference. That’s my goal. I like uphill battles. It makes life much more interesting.

FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?

VG: When you play piano you do concerts as a little kid. So, I had a catholic teacher and she would set up these little shows. Building public speaking and playing in front of people is a great thing. It builds the nerves up and you realize that the reason why ‘I’m so freakin nervous right now’ is because I really care about what I’m about to do. If you get that from an early stage, it’s no problem. We played Sony theater a couple of weeks ago and it literally was like ‘Oh, we’re about to go on in a minute. Ok, let’s go.” Heart rate still staying at 80 beats a minute, blood pressure, because we’ve been there and done that. Also, at that point when you’re a musician, you playing so much that you’re just playing by muscular roteness. Y’know, [how] when you say something by rote you’re not thinking? Well, it’s almost the same thing. You’re just playing, going through the motions, hopefully having a good time.

FG: Is there a specific meaningful concert that stands out in your mind?

VG: When we started our band we would get asked to play, for lack of a better term, white crowds at college places. And, we’re like “What? What do they see in us? we’re just playing latin stuff.” I didn’t think that ‘I’m only going to play in front of Spanish people’ but I quickly learned within the year that people love all types of music. When we played Rutgers, we played a song called “Botaron El Presidente” which means “They got rid of the president” and we saw these boys moshing to our stuff, and doing that circular dance they do at punk shows. And, I’m like ‘Woah! we got something here. We got something in our sauce that translates to other people, to all genres and to all races.’ That was cool, it empowered us big time.

When we play in NY, there’s a great bar called Mejanadas. It’s a Bulgarian bar. We would play our stuff there. We would see these drunk European boys just going at it, moshing, and ‘Oh, yeah, definitely, this is what we saw over at the university in Jersey.’ That was very memorable. We’ve been around for 2 years so we’ve had a very short time but it feels like a long journey.

FG: It does seem like you’ve come far in a very short time.

VG: Every band knows each other and they always ask me “What are you doing? You just got here?” and I tell them, I wake up every morning and [think] ‘What are the other bands not doing to further themselves?’ and I just do that. I’ll call you [InFocusVisions]. Y’know who I called? Remember the Village Voice? One of the best newspapers of all time. So, I call them up and [they say] “Yo, we dig it, we’re coming to your show.” I remember talking to the head hancho and him hooking me up with a writer. Between that conversation and the show they went out of business, belly up. I’m like ‘Oooohhh, you don’t understand, to have been in the Village Voice would have been to …’ it’s almost like playing in front of tens of thousands of people. You and I have both checked out bands just because of the write up.

That’s what I do. I’ll go to radio stations, I talk to djs in other parts of the world. Throw us a little time. By the way, I heard a good story of motivation. Do you know who Residente is from Calle 13? He’s the Eminem of South America. I just saw him a few weeks ago, he spoke at LAMC (Latin Alternative Music Conference) in New York City. He said “Y’know how I got my contract? I went up to the record company and they refused to open the door, so I just rapped at night into the security cameras all night and I did it for months. And, then eventually they’re like ‘This kid has great lyrics’.” And I’m thinking, that’s one thing I still have to do. Isn’t that a great story? Thinking outside the box.

FG: A lot of people make it by persevering.

VG: I call it being crazy. Here’s a little story. At Princeton there’s this TV show and they invited us to go down there. I want to tell your audience to just be a little crazy. Because when you’re crazy you’re rattling the cage. Only new things can breathe from those thoughts. You’re not thinking the norm. When I was in Mexico with my band earlier this year we were driving by the stadium and Malatov was having their homecoming at the stadium. The stadium holds 20,000 to 30,000 and I’m like ‘Listen, call them up, I want to open up for them because we are going to be there that same week.’ We were in Mexico. My manager said “Dude, you’re nuts!” But I’m persistent, and I [said] ‘No, call them.’ I flexed my muscle a little bit, ‘C’mon, call them.’ So he’s like “ok, fine.” Eventually we got a call back from them, because I was very persistent, crazy, and they’re like “Sorry bud, but we’re doing an acoustic show and we don’t want any openers.” But, the happy ending was they remembered us and we opened up for them just a few weeks ago in New York City. It was because of me being a little bit nutty and not respecting the rules of etiquette. I don’t care, I just do what I have to do because when you believe in something that’s right, that’s what it is, it’s right.

FG: I know you said you just go out there and perform but do you do anything else to prepare?

VG: A musician will play 10s of hours before a show to play for 35 minutes. Isn’t that ludicrous? So, we’re well prepared for that. Before that we used to… all young musicians used to drink. But, this culture now that we’re in, the millennium culture, they don’t respect that. And the further you go into your craft you realize that ‘Dude, I can’t believe how stupid I was.’ I used to drink and get drunk before a show. As you get further into your career you want to land those notes exactly how you wrote them. You want to express exactly the vision that you had. Why would you want to impair that and give them less than that? Because Max… you see, I’m a generation Xer but Max and James, they’re millennials and they’re like “Vic, man, we don’t drink, we’re very straight.” I went from 3 beers before a show to maybe one now. I’m glad they’re there because they’re the moral police a little bit, and they explain to me certain things. If you grew up as a generation Xer, it was a different time, it was like go up, get drunk, have fun and be crazy. It’s not like that anymore. You don’t see that. That era’s gone and it’s more about going up there and doing your job.