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Recording the band Guillotina in Mexico City, 9/98

Back in 1993 I got a tape in my PO Box, unexpected, from a Mexico City band called Guillotina. To my great surprise it was excellent heavy rock, not exactly like anything I had ever heard, and I knew I had to record it. I produced and recorded their first two albums, "Guillotina" (1993) and "Rock Mata Pop" (1995) (trans: "Rock kill pop"). Recently I returned from my third trip to Mexico City where I did their new album, "Mientras El Resto Sigue" (trans: "While the rest go on"). The band keep getting better and better, and I have always enjoyed working with them immensely.

Guillotina is sort of a family operation. Their manager's name is Enric Rodamilans; note the spelling... it's Catalan, not Castilian (which would be "Enrique"). (Catalonia is to Spain, somewhat as Scotland is to England.) His brother Marc has an ADAT studio in the basement of his house, called "La Cocina." Enric's ex-girlfriend Alicia is the band's road manager and graphics designer, and is very much part of the team. Marc's house has an extra apartment upstairs with shower and a micro-kitchen, and there's an internet connection so I was able to stay in touch and get my email via telnet. (Hey! Win95 is good for something!) Food was provided one way or another, often cooked for us by the singer's girlfriend or her sister. The recording budget is usually small but the hospitality correspondingly large.

The band is good and their equipment is decent; and La Cocina, though not fancy, has exactly the bare minimum of equipment that I need, with additional stuff borrowed or rented at my request. It has become traditional when I mix there to use every wire, connector and adapter in the studio, and practically reconfigure the whole control room. As is usually the case when I work in someone else's studio, I eventually discover and identify every single bad cable and patch cord in the place. (Some studios should pay me for this service.) Marc's studio, though a home setup, is much better than some! I have at least twice walked into "professional" studios and discovered that someone (they usually blame an intern) had connected the near field monitors out of phase, and no one had noticed. (Worse: once I encountered a set of speakers with only the recently-replaced tweeters out of phase, which REALLY messed with my head...)

Mexican electric power is a subject I shall return to, but it must be noted that three-wire grounded power is not at all universal in Mexico City. How Marc keeps the hums and ground loops out of his studio I don't know, but he does. When something hums, you pull the plug and reverse it. Power cables for US-made equipment in Mexico often have their third "ground" prong pulled out with pliers, since three-prong outlets are often unavailable. As a BSEE (UW-'80) who majored in electric power, I scratch my head and get on with the job.

Marc gave me free reign with his digital camera, so I have many pictures this time. Here's the guys:

El Manco

Guillotina's first two albums came out on Warner Mexico, but unfortunately no one at the company seemed to know what to do with an actual "rock" band, so the band is now on an indy label called Sum Records. However, at no time during the making of any of their three records have I had any contact with anyone from the record companies. It is often like this outside the US, I have noticed. Fine with me.


Rock Mata Pop
Mientras El Resto Sigue

You may wonder about the language barrier. I have tried doggedly to rekindle my high-school Spanish, but Guillotina speak English so well (though they sing in Spanish) that they make me lazy. For some reason I have had more luck with Brazilian Portuguese. It's not an issue, with one exception: I can't critique the lyrics. But I take the word of everyone around them that their lyrics are good, and I get them to provide me with rough translations so I know what each song is portraying. Hey, music is a universal language, etc. Truthfully, it's great having a control room full of non-English speakers, because no matter how much they chatter I am not distracted by their conversation!

The Flight Down...

Mexico City from the air is quite a sight: one moment you're looking down on farms and dirt roads, and then suddenly, this MEGALOPOLIS comes into view, and just goes on, and on. The sky has a distinct brown layer which hugs the ground, but of course as you descend into it you stop seeing it. Upon landing, I was reminded of a good-natured custom among Mexican travelers (Brazilians too!): they applaud the airplane captain after a smooth landing. The entire passenger cabin of a 747 starts clapping.

The Club Scene

There are a number of rock clubs in Mexico City, but one of the most important is Club Rockotitlan. I have always seen interesting shows there. As I have said elsewhere, there is nothing as varied or as plain weird as Mexican indy rock. But I will delve further into this on my reviews page: I came back with a stack of CDs to listen to, and need to catch up. Back to the subject... A few months back I mastered (in Seattle) a CD called "Tri...buto", which was a tribute album to the longest running band in Mexican rock history, El Tri. October '98 was their 30th anniversary as a band, and the album Tri...buto was timed to celebrate this milestone. Apparently it is the first "tribute" album ever released in Mexico, and has gathered a lot of attention for the very, uh, eclectic (but affectionate) interpretations offered by the 17 bands therein. The official record release show at Rockotitlan was amazing, there were about 12 bands each playing only 3 songs each, so there was no time to get sick of any band. Guillotina put in a strong set, and my other favorite was a band called Limbo Zamba; imagine Rage Against the Machine with a female singer and more original riffs. Also weighing in with some latino-crypto-surf was Los Esquizitos. A highlight of the night was El Tri's own Alex Lora, live via satellite on a ceiling video monitor, addressing the crowd from a hotel room somewhere on the road, apologizing for not being there, thanking everyone, and exhorting the crowd to "Rock and Roll, Cabrones!!!"

A Revelatory/Sublime Travel Moment

Discovery that my carrot peeler (with which I always travel) makes a very serviceable pencil sharpener.

Actual Mexican Food

I asked Manuel, who visits the US often, what he thought of "Mexican Food" as it is served in the US. "Totally inedible" he replied. Real Mexican food is pretty great, and has only a superficial resemblance to what we gringos are used to. True, there are tortillas, but used in ways we would never think of here. And cheese is popular; one dish I saw was basically a bowl of hot, bubbling cheese with a side dish of hot tortillas to dip in it. But it's not all just stuff rolled in other stuff like we have here. The mangoes are infinitely superior south of the border, and the well-stocked grocery stores are full of baffling-looking fruits and vegetables. My favorite bebida is an apple-flavored soda pop called Sidral Mundet.

I always have a few days of, er, digestive discomfort upon arriving in Mexico, but good old Dr. Weil suggests taking acidophilus pills, and sure enough, between those and some Pepto-Bismol I was totally fine. Of course, no one drinks the water, but you can cook and wash with it. No one drinks it in London either, so big deal. For that matter, water in western Nevada is pretty horrible too. (Our Seattle water is perfectly safe, but I stopped drinking it 'cause it tastes like a swimming pool.)

And this impels me to mention:

Mexican Public Utilities

In 1961 Mexico City had 5 million people; now there's "over" 20 million. The water and power systems have not been able to keep up. Water pressure is such an unpredictable thing that houses have a big cement storage tank on their roof, with an inlet pipe and float valve not unlike a big toilet talk. This way, there is always gravity-fed water available even at times when there is no water pressure in the supply pipes, which at certain times of the year may be for hours or days. Sometimes late at night I could hear Marc's roof tanks suddenly filling up, and would realize that the water must have been off for awhile. It sounds odd but the system works fine.

Unfortunately there is no equivalent way to cheaply store electricity. Mini-blackouts are a common, almost daily occurrence. Power will abruptly disappear for anywhere from two minutes to an hour, sometimes several times in one day; and this can happen anytime around the clock, seven days a week. It may not happen for days at a time, and then BLAM, right in the middle of the perfect mix or drum take you are suddenly in total darkness. Studios usually being windowless buildings, this can be unnerving. But Mexicans shrug and say that's just how it is. (Economists: it's government-run...) When power goes out everyone dives for the circuit breakers and kill switches, so that when power returns the equipment will be protected from spikes and surges. One day this happened five times in a row while I was trying to lay down a mix; I finally gave up and went upstairs to the kitchen to make lunch. At least the gas (also fed from a roof tank) always works!

Incidentally I did not notice any outdoor "public" clocks anywhere, and I would hazard a guess that a consumer market for anything other than battery and wind-up clocks does not exist!


In Mexico City in Aug/Sept, it rains almost every afternoon, often with spectacular thunder and lightning. Nights are actually a bit chilly sometimes. It is not unlike October in Seattle. This always puzzles people I talk to who imagine that all of Mexico must be like Arizona or something. I have to remind them that the city is 2400 meters up in the mountains -- one of the highest-altitude cities in the world. The thin air has been a problem for me, being a sea-level Seattle citizen. For the first few days I always have trouble catching my breath, sometimes to an alarming extent. Any serious exertion leaves me gasping!


The pollution may make this problem even worse, but it's not nearly as bad as outsiders have been led to believe. True, when it's bad, it's very bad; you can't see buildings a block away. But this is the exception rather than the rule. The times I've been there (3 months total) it's been mostly OK, no worse than LA usually, and often there's sun and clear blue sky... until the afternoon rain, that is. The city deals with automobile pollution with a clever scheme: at times when it's bad, even-numbered license plates can only drive on even days, and same for odd-numbered plates. People still figure out ways to get around.


It is customary when I visit Guillotina to insist on a day of tourism. On a previous visit they took me to the prehistoric city of Teotihuacan, an hour north of the city, site of many huge "PYRAMIDES". (I have some amazing panoramic photos from there that I will post as soon as I can weld them together with Photoshop.) This time, we went several hours south of the city to the caves ("grutas") of Cacahuamilpa, state of Guerrero. Once again I had my ass kicked. I've seen some caves but these were grutas chingon. The guided tour only goes in about 2 km but the sheer size and volume of the cave was amazing. At one point the roof was 90 meters over our heads. At another wide spot, we came to a real amphitheater, bleachers and all, where a university orchestra gives concerts. (I've heard of a similar thing in western Slovenia.) The guide chattered away in Spanish and made lewd jokes about the shapes and shadows of various suggestive-looking cave formations; these guys are the same everywhere! The cave had been carved by an underground river eons ago; the river now flowed in another cave 70 meters under our feet. Upon our exit, we took a side trail down, and down, through the forest and bushes to the cave mouth below the one we had toured. And Lo: a BIG, BIG river gushing out of a BIG, BIG cave... and downstream, another river coming out of another cave, flowing into the first, hence: "Rio Dos Bocas", or two mouths. (Click on the thumbnail photo here to see an enlargement of what I saw... Do it, it's worth it!)

I was informed that the big cave was open to unguided exploration, but only for the few months of the year when the river is low; furthermore, it's 12 km through to the other side of the mountain, and some swimming is required in spots, and you have to bring your own lights...

Later we went to the nearby town of Taxco for dinner before the long drive home. Taxco is a colonial silver-mining town dating back to the Spanish Conquest. Today it is both a mining and a tourist mecca. It was picturesque as hell, and there were a few off-season American tourists, but far more tourists from Mexico itself. There was 16th- century architecture all over the place, first time I've seen that stuff outside of Europe, and a reminder that Mexico is about 200 years older than the US! The central structure in town is the cathedral here -- click the picture for the enlargement which is in my photo gallery. Wish I could show you the inside, so you could see where all that plundered Indian gold ended up.

Cosmic Bowling

One night we went bowling. As we were waiting for a lane, Manuel came up to me.

"Bad news," he says. "Very bad news. At 8:30..."
"What, is there a tournament taking over?" said I.
"Worse, much worse."
"A live band is gonna play while we bowl?"
"Even worse," he says. "At 8:30 they turn on colored lights and fog machines and start cranking disco music."

Yes, it was "Cosmic Bowling" night at the "Bol Tlalpan." So we got to bowl to UV light, under a flashing disco ball, with two DJs blasting us with earsplitting Mexican disco music. Fortunately I had my earplugs, but even so, my hearing was still a little mushy next morning, cuz it was loud. The fog machine was out in the middle of the floor, right next to our lane in fact, halfway out toward the pins. I'd step up to bowl and suddenly the pins would disappear, and I'd have to wait. I never knew colored bowling balls fluoresced under UV light! Once I got used to the, uh, ambience, I bowled OK.

Marc's Amp Collection

Marc Rodamilans, aside from running his studio, is a tinkerer, with more amps and weird tube gear in various stages of disassembly than almost anyone I've seen. There are all kinds of strange old Mexican tube amps, and even stranger things. Marc showed me an amp he found at a street market. It looked exactly like a 60's Fender Showman, and had a genuine black Fender faceplate, and the circuit was technically identical. But all the components, transformers, pots, chassis etc. were Mexican, and there were no serial numbers or Fender part numbers on anything. And it's old. Yet, it works, reports Marc, and has a sound of its own. I can also thank Marc for turning me on to a line of guitar amplifiers made in Mexico City in the 70's by the long-dead Golden Gate company. The "Model 1155" looks much like a Fender Bandmaster Reverb head, has substantially the same schematic and Accutronics reverb tank, yet due to the Mexican transformers and caps it has a cool sound of it's own: very bluesy when cranked, absolutely the opposite of a "metal" sound. And with the reverb cranked it's pure surf madness. I brought one home last trip and spent some time tracing/repairing the circuits; now it gets used in the studio all the time when people want a clean-yet-not-clean guitar sound. Everyone is skeptical until they hear it! What an amp. Wish I knew more about this company -- do I have the only Golden Gate amp in the US or something?

I took plenty of digital pictures of various Mexican amps in Marc's possession. Yeah, I know that's a slightly nerdy thing to do, but where else are you gonna see these? I figured the tube amp freaks in my reading audience would get a kick out of these photos, so I'm working on a separate Mexican Tube Amp photo gallery... check out these beasts!

(This reminds me of the Brazilian amp company, Meteoro, very much alive right now. Last time I was in Brazil, the band Titas had one of their amps in the studio, and it was a solid, chromed, modern thing not unlike a Mesa Dual Rectifier, but had an unbelievably M*E*T*A*L sound. When Andreas from Sepultura came by to do a guest guitar track, he went straight for the Meteoro. Wish I could have brought one home. And we mustn't forget Traynor amps, from Canada...)

The Bottom Line...

I had a great time in Mexico and we made a kick ass record.


© 1998 Endino

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