XIBALBA has made its way from the undeground. Their Spanish/English lyrics surrounded by negativity, their display of Native-American heritage and on top of itcult , being placed somewhere between death metal, doom and beatdown hardcore, has brought them to have a cult status.
We spoke with Brian Ortiz, guitarist and one of the main composers of the band, during a extremely hot evening, about the process of making Años en Infierno, loopholes, cultural identity and protesters and looters.
Subterráneo Webzine: Did you have any kind of touring prepared before this crisis?
Brian Ortiz: We really didn’t have like a tour planned, just some release shows on weekends but no tours were really worked on, just some weekend things here and there. We have quite a few shows that were planned but ever since the quarantine and the pandemic we have to put those aside and focus on keeping our families safe.
SW: Yeah, it’s not like other bands like ABORTED who were like “We have an entire US tour prepared!”, nothing so big, right?
BO: Not at all, just some regular release shows, a couple of festival shows, but no tours. Unfortunately even before the pandemic we weren’t able to tour because of work schedules and we couldn’t do that. We just could do some weekend trips and go back home on Sunday to work.
SW: We, as fans, have this “rockstar effect”, I mean we tend to think that every band we love is gonna tour all over the world, but within the underground you are just like us, normal people that only play on weekends because they have to pay bills.
SW: The only show I have seen by you is the YouTube showcase where you played like four, five songs. But I also saw you playing here, in Seville, with HIEROPHANT like seven years ago on a European tour, I don’t know I you remember anything.
BO: Actually I wasn’t on that tour. Around that time I started working on a real job and I really didn’t wanna risk losing it, so I decided to step up and focus on the job, ‘cos If I did the tour full time then, money wasn’t guaranteed and I still needed a steady income. My work provided that, but the band unfortunately don’t, so I chose not to be part of it, but I heard it was a good tour, talking to the guys back then.
SW: I came for HIEROPHANT and I became fan of yours.
BO: Hell yeah, thank you!
SW: Speaking about the music, I was about to ask you what took you so long [to release the album] but I already have the answer: life itself.
BO: Yeah exactly, but we don’t have the pressure of the label to put something out. It felt good to just set on things, planning out the songs a little bit better… Me and Jason [Brunes, drummer en.] basically wrote everything and we were able to sit down on songs for a little bit longer and pick them apart: “We don’t need this, this part doesn’t need to be so long…”. Just perfecting the songs, ‘cos we had a little bit more time since we were unable to jam as much as we liked to. So when we jam, we record it on our phones and dissect it, play along to it… Then we decided where has to go each part and, you know, in the end, worked out that way. We also talk each other all the time: “Okey, you don’t need this part” or “let’s put this little section here”, you know, “link those two riffs together…”. I guess it was a good songwritting for us, since the product we were able to produce ended up being our best stuff. I took five years but it was worth it (laughs).
SW: So, Southern Lord, your label, knows that you guys can’t tour, so they tell you “ok, just send us the music when it’s ready”.
BO: Yeah, luckily Southern Lord has always been supportive on our decision when we told them that we wouldn’t be able to tour as much as we like and they were like “whether as long as you have the record ready, that’s all we need”. Even the record took five years to be complete, they eventually check out on us “how’s the writting going? Is everything ok? When you guys think it will be done?”. But nothing like “We need it done by NOW”. It was more like they verify on the status, so we really didn’t felt that pressure and that helped a lot too. They gave us a lot of freedom to fuck around, experiment and take it on the pace we were capable of, because we work full time.
It was good, like I said before, the proof is in the music, I feel we’ve put our best record.
BO: No no, when we started those songs, they were gonna be on the record. We wrote those tunes and then after we started with other ones, but they weren’t finished. A friend of ours suggested us about making an EP and we were like “We have music but we’re saving it for a full length” but it had already been two years [since our latest release] and we only have done three songs. But Nate [Rebolledo, singer en.] put it into perspective: “We have three songs in year and a half/two years, why we just don’t put these out as an EP just so we can stay a little bit relevant and they don’t forget about us?”. Even when EPs don’t do it as well as full lengths, of course. Because not many people know about that EP. So that’s why we put that out, for our true fans to have a little bit [of music] and it worked, because it brought out extra material we had to write for this record. Since we’ve already used those three songs, we just scratch them and started over again.
Then we focused the next three and a half years on brand new songs for Años en Infierno. That was the reason for that 7’’ EP, to say “hey, we’re XIBALBA, we still here! Don’t forget about us!”.
SW: So far, every album has been shorter than the previous one, Hasta la muerte, which I consider your first real album, because the previous one, Madre mía gracias por los días, seems like a demo…
BO: I agree.
SW: So, Hasta la muerte was almost one hour long, Tierra y libertad 45 or something like that, Años en Infierno 35 minutes. Seems like through the years you’ve grown to be more confortable with your own sound, going straight to the point, deleting what’s not necessary… Is that right?
BO: Yeah, so basically with the songs we’ve tried to short them down. Even we write stuff we wanna hear and we like, at the end of the day there’s other people listening to it. So what I try to do is put the music into the listener’s perspective. Because not every single listener likes the atmosphere and those big build-ups. I mean, I like that shit, I love fucking songs that are five, seven, eight, nine, ten minutes long, but not everybody likes that shit. So instead we tried to do everything in one song. On Tierra y libertad we had already attempted do that and it went ok, but on this one we were kind of able of mixing that atmosphere and build-ups and compress them. It wasn’t too much, wasn’t too long, so people didn’t get bored of the songs.
So, okay, I like my atmospheric and doom parts but I get that from a songwritting standpoint that’s not necessary in every single song. In some parts you can just have the meat and the potatoes. That stood with me while making this record with Jason and definitively we just want to make a shorter record so people don’t get sick of it. It has parts where you can space up a little bit, parts where it’s just banger-banger-banger-banger and ass-beaters… It has a little bit of everything on each song. I think that’s why we’re getting a little bit more of attention on this record than in Tierra.
SW: I got you completely, it’s not only about what you like because people might get bored, I personally don’t, but maybe most of people do. A ten minutes doom song it’s like “fuck it, I won’t listen” (laughs).
BO: Even we had the ten minutes doom parts at the end of the record, we got the idea of “Why don’t we put the banger parts, a little bit of soft sections to let people relax, two other bangers and the rest of the record, perhaps one or two songs, to just chill?” We kinda maped out what we wanted to do before and it helped a lot when we were putting together the album. It has worked out, I believe.
SW: Since your first day you have never been death enough, not beatdown hardcore enough, not doom enough, just XIBALBA. When you came out it was the deathcore explosion and you could think “they mix death metal and hardcore, another SUICIDE SILENCE copycat”, but no, it has nothing to do with it. So, after all these years, are you really satisfied with the band’s sound?
BO: Yeah, I think we’ve been able to create our own style. There aren’t many bands mixing death metal, doom metal and hardcore, all in the same pack. Well, maybe there are, but not so explicit as we do it. ‘Cos nowadays there’s a lot of death metal bands coming out that their members used to be hardcore kids and are taking this hardcore energy but making full death metal records. When we started with Hasta la muerte we tried to do that, even in Madre mía [gracias por los días; their first album/demo] with the song “Obituary”, taking a mega death song but having this hardcore energy to make it fun, brutal, violent and atmospheric… All these kinds of stuff. That’s what we tried to accomplish and in the process we just came up with our own sound.
We don’t have the overly guttural vocals like most of death metal bands, we have something that it’s in between a hardcore bark and a death metal growl with Nate. I don’t want so sound arrogant but it’s unique what we’ve created and I’m glad people appreciate it nowadays. We’re getting hitted by younger death metal bands all the time: “We love your new stuff, we love your old stuff, this new record is great”. And we’re like “fuck, I don’t even you knew about us”. And these are bands that I love. It’s fucking sick, I didn’t know they were fans! It’s very humbling. So yeah, I’m very proud of what we’ve been capable of create throughout the years. And despite we don’t have the biggest fanbase in the world, we’ve always have a consistent, cult following and I love that. It’s the fans and people like that who keeps us going. It’s very cool to stay relevant over the years.
SW: It’s a very intelligent move because you don’t try to go big and compromise your sound but instead go to your specific public. You know how it is in the music business: You go big or go home.
BO: I don’t want to make it seem like XIBALBA has always played it safe. We just do what we like to do, we do shit for people that appreciate us, because we appreciate everything we’ve been able to achieve through playing music for different audiences, like traveling out across the country, across the world for a couple of days to a week… We really appreciate all of that. We take that hard, people wanna see us so we’re gonna give them something good… And that’s what we’ve tried to do.
BO: Yeah, for example “En la oscuridad” was supposed to be two minutes longer, because like I was saying, I had this doom/atmospheric outro prepared for that song and, in fact, there’s a recording of me and Jason jamming to it, but we ended up cutting it up since Jason was like “Hey, I think we should cut that up because it’s too long and we already have another song that it has a doom metal outro. So it would be better to re-do it and repeat that”. And even I really liked that doom metal part I agreed with him. He was right, we had a song with a similar structure, so we can always save it for something else.
Besides, there’s other riffs that they were recorded on my phone that I programmed drums for, but didn’t make the final cut. We pick what we think is best and we focus on jamming to those.
I’m still finding stuff on my phone and think “maybe I’ll work on that”. During the pandemic I have been jamming other stuff just to pass the time. I’m not sure if it’s gonna be for XIBALBA since we haven’t had the time to rehearse. Plus, after Años came out I haven’t picked out my guitar on almost two months now. I’ve been playing guitar non-stop for the last five years and…
SW: Let’s have some rest.
BO: I’m just chilling man, I wrote for side projects stuff, for XIBALBA at the same time… So I’m done right now, just focus on relaxing (laughs).
SW: Maybe this is asking about the formula for Coca-Col but how do you achieve the thick sound of the guitars, bass…? You know, this wall of sound.
BO: So, for the guitar tone, that was Arthur [Rizk, producer of Años en Infierno en.]. I have like a live tone that I get out from my amp and I like. But that’s all I really know about this. But on record is different, things get tracked. The whole thickness of the guitar, is Arthur. We told him what we wanted, “Hey, we wan’t this record to be very big, very menacing, very huge sounding…” So, what I told him in particular was “Take that tone to a low end and sustain it, but mix that with the Odd fellows rest sound, the CROWBAR record, you know, the heaviness and the chunkyness of that guitar tone. But I also want something a dirtier, like Cause of death, The end complete, OBITUARY style. If you can mix those three tones together I’ll be forever in debt«. And he knocked out this fucking part. I was very happy with the guitar tones.
Normally, when you’re tracking down the guitars, you can’t get an specific tone, to beef it up you just do like ten guitar layers, but on this record we just did around eight. It’s still a lot, but other bands do many more.
Arthur just kept up everything sounding nice, he fucking killed it man. Whatever the fuck he did, it was great. He exceded our expectations and we’re very happy of how it came out everything.
SW: There’s a tradition in your albums that you always include an instrumental. This one is entitled “Saka”, which is very SEPULTURA, with all of that percussion, and it gives me the impression that this track is like an interlude between two very heavy songs. So how did you come up with that song?
BO: Like I told you before, when we were writting the songs, we wanted a banger and then in the middle, a song to relax the people and chill out, so that would be this one. I mean, I love fucking SEPULTURA, is one of our bigger influences, and another band that gets overlooked in that tribal percussion is NEUROSIS. So we wanna something that it was all just straight drums. I got the idea from a song they have on Times of grace that was all percussion…
SW: I think it was on Enemy of the sun, the last song, ten minutes until the end just percussion [so, it wasn’t 10 but 26… en.]
BO: Yeah, there’s that one, but I think is the second song from Times of grace where it’s all toms and then the guitars came over. So I wanted a song like that where it’s all percussion, where everything is heavy, but I also wanted the doom part. So that’s why I put another riff together, just to tie things up. That was going through my mind, just something that people can space out to. You know, back in the day every fucking metal band had one chill song that you can kick back and smoke a joint to. «Planet caravan» of BLACK SABBATH… Even on more recient examples, every CROWBAR album has this song in the middle really slow, doomy, ballad almost… I wanna to do that, except I didn’t want any singing, just percussion and keep it instrumental.
On some reviews it’s the stand up track for people and I’m glad that it came up good. That song was fun to record, I tell you that. Even when we were having the tracking done to record extra percussion, still being fun. So yeah, is one of my favourite songs of the record, ‘cos in studio was so fun to fuck up with…
SW: The doom track, “El abismo”, is very different, you know, the clean guitars, the vocals… For me it sounds very much like CORRUPTED, the japanese band.
BO: That’s exactly what I was trying to accomplish, that was my main influence for writting that song, El mundo frío, with those clean guitars, you’re not even expecting it and then out of nowhere… BOOM! The eruption of the distorted guitars and those crazy growls… That’s exactly what I was going for.
I tried to do the same on the Tierra record, in “El vacío”, but I thought I could improve on this one and sound a little bit more dense and insanely heavy like in El mundo frío, where that shit just comes out and hits you like a ton of bricks. This one is a little bit better I think.
SW: Why did you split that song in two parts?
BO: Originally I didn’t want to, but Arthur told us that, technically, a record won’t be considered a full-length album by our label unless is at least eight tracks. So we were like “Oh fuck, really?”.
Here’s the thing, in fact Años en Infierno is only six songs but we turned into eight tracks. “La injusticia” and “Corredor de la muerte” are actually one song. Then “El abismo I and II” are clearly “El abismo” (laughs). But for the label rules, if we ever wanted Años en Infierno to be considered full-length, it would have to be eight songs long or more.
I mean, we ain’t going to have a fucking Grammy, but you never know, but let’s do it that way (laughs). I’m glad that we did because some people were like “I love the second song, Corredor de la muerte, it’s a good doom bridge from the other song” And I thought “that was not what intentionally was but if that’s your interpretation of the record, I’m all about it, I’m happy you enjoyed it”.
So in the end, that’s the only reason why “El abismo” was splitted in two.
SW: Jokes aside, it would be very frustrating that after so many years working, being labeled as an EP and, as we spoke before, that tends to generate less promotion, it’s not so well known and does not receive so much attention.
BO: Exactly, Arthur’s recommendation was to split the songs in half so it seems there’s a lot more, and then also everyone is gonna be more atracted to a full-length rather than an EP.
SW: Something that has been bugging me for years since I listened to it. In Hasta la muerte you have the song “Mala mujer”. It was different, it has clean female vocals. But then, after songs about death, suicide… Comes a heart-broken song, and I didn’t get it. Later I discovered that you borrowed the lyrics from a THIN LIZZY song.
BO: It was our singer’s idea. “I’m gonna use this lyrics if that’s ok” and we though “That’s actually kind of sick”. You do realize that it’s a THIN LIZZY song, but SADE covered it and back then we didn’t knew that. He was going for SADE, but it’s a THIN LIZZY track SADE was covering.
All us listen a lot of R&B, lot of oldies, lot of heart-broken songs… So we decided it was appropiate, this is music we love, good heart-break ballads. Originally my idea was to add another instrumental, but they suggested to put lyrics over it and I was good with that. Nate came up with the idea to do the THIN LIZZY/SADE lyrics, he got one of his friends to do the vocals and it turned out to be very badass.
It was a ballad to paid homage to other influences we had outside of metal and hardcore, ‘cos we love a lot of oldies and Motown, R&B… Neighborhood music, so to speak (laughs).
SW: Speaking about artwork, why have you always chosen mayan pyramids as the centre of your artwork?
BO: Just another way to pay homage to our culture and our background, where our antestors came from. Even though we listen to SEPULTURA, MORBID ANGEL, CROWBAR and are huge inspirations on us, the biggest one is our cultural background and our heritage. For me personally and I think I speak for the rest of the band. That’s a huge influence for us, more than any kind of music.
So, when we had Dan Seagrave to do the artwork for us we made a point to tell him: “Hey, we’re fans of your artwork, we don’t want to tell you what to do, but we want you to include our heritage with your style, because even we love your work, we also be very us, so if you can include those pyramids or a variation of it to let people know this is XIBALBA, that they can look it and say that’s a XIBALBA record or, at least, they observe it and think that’s cool and know that some mexican dudes, some latinos, wrote it”.
That’s what we were looking for, ‘cos when we started the band that was our main inspiration, we wanted to be very pro-latinos, chicanos, indigenists, native-americans… Of course we wouldn’t shove people’s throats off, but let people know who we are and where we come from. I mean, that’s the first thing you see man (laughs).
SW: In the metal and hardcore world you are one of the few Mexican, Latinamerican bands that pay attention to that. You know, you can listen to bands like DISGORGE, the Mexican version, and they have nothing distintive. Do you know if there are more bands that pay tribute to their heritage?
BO: I don’t know, I try to pay attention to it as much as I can on the underground but there’s quite a few bands that are pro-latino/indigenist, taking the folk from their culture and putting it into music. There’s a lot of groups in black metal doing it right now with mayan and aztek lyrics, but those are really obscure underground bands. Although it’s coming back, specially with BRUJERIA, ASESINO, FEAR FACTORY… Two of the members were chicanos/mexican, at least during their prime days. They had always been in the mix, and I’m glad Dino made projects like ASESINO and BRUJERIA to be a little bit more explicit with his culture.
But right now there’s a huge explosion in the undeground, with bands embracing those old roots from their culture, at least in North and South America. Even in Europe a lot of pagan and black metal bands doing the same thing. There’s a lot of that stuff, you just have to dig into it.
SW: Besides, you know metalheads can be very narrow minded. You can spend thirty years singing about Satan and killing people, so this stuff gets done soon enough.
BO: Yeah, it gets over exaggerated and boring. Ok, another satanic band…? But is their music good? If it is, fuck yeah, I’m into it. But if it’s just whatever, then there’s no substance.
Then you have bands that add all of this old pagan, ancient things and makes them a little bit more interesting and they actually have good music on top of that. So I’m a little bit more inclined to listen all that shit.
SW: On the metal world did you have any kind of problem due to your identity? You know, all of this happening with Black Lives Matter that has raised questions about racial issues, identity… So, did you have any problem on the metal community?
BO: Yes and no. I mean, there’s people that they just don’t care, fair enough. There’s a small portion of them that are just straight up racists, but then there’s also a good chunk of them that they care and that’s cool. Nate, our singer, is going to protests very actively for BLM, for race issues, inmigration issues, out here. I’ve gone to a few protests, but unfortunatelly my fiancée has an autoimmune condition so can’t be as active in the street as we’d like to be, but we do what we can from our home.
Racism is a serious issue that needs to be taken care of, not just in America, but globally. It’s just a dumb ideology. Okay, someone is different, who gives a fuck? People think of me different because I listen to metal and hardcore. But I can be at a normal job, be the best worker but some persons are like this:
“-You play in a band?
-Yeah, it’s a metal band…”
-I guess… yeah…”.
And they just don’t get it, they inmediately judge you. It’s the same concept: “You’re from Mexico, what it’s like there? I heard they had drug wars and it’s hard to live there. I heard that you just went to a Civil War, killing each other!” What’s your point? We’re just humans, trying to live our lifes for ourselves, our families and communities, doing the same shit than you, there’s no any fucking difference. We don’t believe in the same shit, not even in the same god maybe. Who gives a fuck? Go mind your own fucking business and I’ll mind my own and we can live in harmony that way (laughs).
SW: Here in Spain we have another issues, another problems, but until a few years ago we had a terrorist group called ETA and they mainly operated on the northern part of the country. Outside Spain, when we spoke about our issues they said “You’re from Spain? Haven’t they killed you yet?” It’s the same. Not all of the country suffers the same problems. Yes, it exists, it’s a big part but it isn’t everything!
BO: Exactly man, there’s a couple of bad apples on everything. I mean, like a prime example is the Black Lives Matter movement. Yeah, when the protest started they were a majority peaceful, but the news media and, of course, a lot of right-wing losers, focused on the very small people that were looting. And some of the looters were actually far-right wing groups that basically were trying to frame BLM for this stuff. I’m not saying that all the looting was framed, but a there’s always going to be oportunistic people taking advantage of large gatherings.
You hear about this gigantic festivals in Brazil that were overwhelming peaceful but what get’s spoken on print is “Man, all these people gets their car broken into them in the parking lot”, during Rock in the Park or whatever.
Yeah dude, there’s a hundred thousand people there, of course there’s gonna be oportunistics trying to cause some bullshit like that. It happens everywhere where large groups come together, no matter what, ‘cause there’s some many fucking people and people fuck each other sometimes. It sucks but there’s just a small portion of what’s really going on. Unfortunatelly negativity sells, gets people’s attention. So, some people decide to focus on that shit.
SW: I can tell you the same, there’s some people protesting peacefully and there’s a bunch of assholes who screw up everything.
BO: It sucks, but it should take away what the objetive is, and that’s peace, bringing people together and not being hateful and a piece of shit (laughs).
SW: I just have one more question left. I always ask the artists for recommendation of bands they’ve discovered recently, that they’ve always loved… Whatever! We don’t mind about the genre, doesn’t have to be heavy metal.
BO: Bro, how much time you have? All I do is listen to music, all day, and I’m constantly trying to find new music. So I’ll name a few: One that I’ve been hooked up on for the past couple of years, are friends of mine and they’re actually putting out a new record, is a band called FROZEN SOUL. They’re a death metal band from Texas with some BOLT THROWER influences. Really good band, really good people, they’re putting out a new record on Century Media coming out this year. They have an EP that’s on a label called Maggot Stomp, which is really cool.
Another band that I’ve been listening to a lot is ISHAKTIKLAN [I’ve been unable to decode the real name, so it must got it wrong en.], a native-american group, out of Los Angeles, is black metal.
For hardcore there’s this band called DEAD AND DREAMING, I think they’re from Richmond, Virginia. Very weird, very heavy, very cool hardcore band that i’ve been listening to a lot… There’s a lot of fucking bands (laughs).
I’ve been listening to the new HUM record, a hardcore band but on the alternative/post metal DEFTONES kind of shit.
I’ve got a side project called TZOMPATLI, a native-american/mexican/aztec band, so check that out motherfuckers!
One more band that I’ve been listening to is DROWN, a doom metal band. I don’t know where the guy are from, but he’s a solo artist. Has another record called Tchornobog, more of a death/doom/black record, is really good [he’s refeering to the homonymous record from that solo project E.N.].
DEAD HEAT, good hardcore band, out of California… I don’t know man, there’s so many fucking bands that I listen to… (laughs).
SW: At least you can remember, when they ask me, even if I’ve listened to one hundred bands, I can’t recall any of them…
BO: Dude, I’m surprised that I can remember those! ‘Cos I know a lot of groups but usually they don’t come into mind, I have to look my Spotify or Bandcamp lists to see what I’ve been digging (laughs).
SW: Well, thank you very much man, It’s been very fun.
BO: Thanks for having me brother, I appreciate it!
Live photos: Gabe Becerra