Interview: Chon Talks Writing Fusion Music, Self-Titled Record

Posted: by The Editor

Instru-metal and progressive jazz band CHON have released their self-titled third full-length album, building off their 2017 release Homey – the perfect jams for summertime, with noodly guitars and soothing odd time signatures. CHON’s musicianship shines with beautiful fretwork and intricate soundscapes that elicit happiness. My special lady friend and partner in crime (Jessie) and I sat down with CHON master noodliests (guitarists), Mario Camarena and Erick Hansel, prior to their headlining show in NYC at Irving Plaza to discuss their new album, their June 2019 tour, and their mastery of jazz fusion

How’s the tour going? It started at the beginning of this month, and goes through the end of the month, right?

Mario Camarena: It’s going great! It’s been an easy one; it’s our first tour on a bus. So it’s the most comfortable tour we’ve had. Also I think partly because of that, it’s one of the most fun tours.

JD Beck & DOMi are young jazz musicians that are a part of this tour. How did you hear about and meet them?

M: We’ve known JD for a few years. We met them at the NAMM show once I think. And we’ve just kept in touch through the internet. He was- ever since we’ve known him- he’s been like one of those prodigy drummer kids that you know is gonna kill when he’s older. And now he’s only 16 and killing it…those kids are nuts.

Where does the name CHON originate from?

M: We stole it from the science channel. We didn’t think about it ourselves. it just came on and we stole it for ourselves.

Jessie Leiman: From what?

M: It’s an acronym for the 4 most common elements of life. 

J: What are they?

M: They’re carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

J: …Shoulda known that. [laughter]

I heard about you guys from a friend who’s into jazz and metal, so naturally found you guys. He also introduced me to Pianist, Hiromi Uehara. She’s an influence on you. What other artists and bands influenced you guys?

M: Yeah, a lot of other jazz and piano players now that I think of it. Robert Glasper- 

Erick Hansel: Chick Corea! 

M: Chick Corea, Tigran Hamasyan. Yeah, we listen to a lot of jazz piano players.

You guys are from San Diego. When I think of San Diego, I think of No Knife, Rocket From the Crypt, Hot Snakes. What is it like coming from that area? What’s the music scene like there today?

M: I don’t know too many bands from San Diego besides Blink-182…and Switchfoot, I think? [laughter] but yeah, there are a lot of local bands when we were first starting out, mostly a lot of metal bands. We had a bunch of friends who play guitar, and played a lot of technical shreddy-type stuff and that was a big influence on us back then. Like I remember there used to be a bunch of house shows where these friends of ours would be playing, and they’d be doing these like crazy sweeps and stuff, and that kind of inspired us to…start playing like that. That’s what I think of when I think of the San Diego scene.

For me personally, your music has a joyfulness to it, puts me in a good mood, makes me feel like I’m at the beach or something. While a lot of music can kind of be sadder, especially with bands that have a vocalist [and lyrics], the message can be rooted in sorrow. Do you guys intentionally make your music sort of upbeat, positive?

M: Mmm…I think it just ends up that way. I feel like a lot of it is rooted in sorrow, and then it just ends up sounding happy. A lot of it, we like to…we write in all different types of head spaces, like a lot of the times we’ll just be trying to make each other laugh and we’ll do that with riffs. Like we’ll just try to think of something we can add to the riff that’ll make Erick laugh or something [laughter]. That’s how the riff will come about.

J: So this is more of an organic result of you playing together?

M: Yeah! So we’ll do that, [or] sometimes we’ll just be by ourselves making something that’s more serious. We write all the time, so every [and] whatever emotion we’re going through, we’ve probably written music in.

So how did you guys meet Erick?

M: Well, we were both from the same city, so we had mutual friends. And we had this friend who was like “Yo! You need to meet Erick, he’s an insane guitar player. You guys would start a cool band!” And so he introduced us. And it’s kind of funny, like right when we met we became really close friends-

E: I’d just like stay the night-

M: Yeah like the first day we met he stayed at my house-

E: Practicing-

J: Prep for touring!

M: Haha yeah! So we [also] realized we knew all the same skate tricks, we liked the same fast food-

What kind of fast food do you like?

M: I dunno…

E: Del Taco!

J: All of it!

M: I just remember we had a conversation about it and I was like “That’s my favorite thing at Jack in the Box too!” or whatever. Yeah…then he joined our band that we had at the time.

Erick, what’s it like being in a band with a bunch of brothers?

E: It’s pretty cool. I have the same amount of brothers, and I just imagine it the same way I guess. It’s just super comfortable. I’ve known them forever now.

Like a second family?

E: Pretty much.

For many people, your band is probably the first to blur the lines between jazz and metal. Was that planned, to be like a fusion band, or was that something that happened as you guys played together?

M: Well, we listen to both those styles of music, so I think it happened pretty organically.  A lot of metal bands who play these, like, shreddy metal techniques were an influence on us, and we listen to a lot of jazz piano players. So we took harmony from that, we kinda just like instinctively mixed those two things. 

I first saw you guys live with Circa Survive and Thrice [in 2017]; that show was here [in NYC] I believe, and then again in Boston, at House of Blues. I went with friends of mine in Boston who had never heard of you guys, and they were blown away by your musicianship. So did you guys take formal lessons? 

M: Yeah, I took lessons for like a year when I first started. My guitar teacher taught me all the basics- like major scale, triads, basic chords, how to build your own chords. All the basic stuff like that, and then from there I just learned the rest from YouTube, and just like deconstructing songs that I like. Erick took some lessons for a while from the same dude. But he’s mostly self-taught.

E: Yeah. Pretty much the same. 

I remember seeing Circa Survive and Thrice in 2006, and they had another band opening for them, Pelican. And I think some of the fans there didn’t take well to them because they were an instrumental band. There are a lot of people who listen mainly to bands for lyrical content. Have you guys received any pushback for being an instrumental band?

E: Online I guess. Never in person. 

M: Like that one Boston show that you went to, I remember after we played, someone tweeted us and tagged us and said that we were really boring or something. And then I replied, like, “Thanks for purchasing a ticket to the show” [laughter]. Yeah I don’t know. 

There was a whole section at Terminal 5, they were all about you guys. We were up in the second deck, they were all about it.

M: That’s awesome. I love seeing that, when we’re opening for bands, we’ll see like little pockets of our fans, and we can just tell they know all the parts and stuff…it’s great.

I can’t see how anyone would see you guys as boring but-

M: I mean that’s fair…respect to those people [laughter].

Your self-titled album came out earlier this month. How was the recording of that different from your albums in the past?

M: One of the main differences is we recorded all the guitars ourselves at my house. We‘ve been planning on doing that for a while, actually. Because up until this album we’ve been recording, we’ve been going to a studio, staying there for like a month, and doing everything there in one month. We kinda were just over that vibe, because you can’t really relax. You’re always on the clock, and you’re not in your own space- your own personal space- it’s just not as comfortable. So like I feel like our creativity suffers a little bit…or maybe it doesn’t suffer, maybe it just changes a little bit. But we wanted to do it in a more comfortable setting this time. Also, I think since we’re not on a clock or anything at home, we can just experiment even more. 

J: Do you have a studio at home? Or were the acoustics just totally different?

M: Yeah well, so we’ve been planning this for a while. So we kinda just built a home studio at my place. We soundtreated the room and got all the equipment we needed and stuff like that.

How long did it take to do that?

M: We were building it for like a year and a half before we actually started tracking the album, because we didn’t really know anything about recording before that. In the summer of 2017, we started planning this out and I got a computer dedicated to recording. That’s when we started learning everything.

On the new album there seems to be a culmination of sounds you’ve explored in the past that you kind of expanded upon [Erick and Mario nod in agreement]. The trip hop from your previous albums. What were your goals going into recording your latest album?

M: Just to be creative, [and] kinda make something cooler than the last time.

Is there anything you learned that you wanted to improve upon from your other recordings?

M: Yeah! We wanted to just make the guitar tones more personal, because we always had an engineer who’s kinda guiding us through tones, and ultimately just deciding what happened with [them]. But this time it was all on us.

E: Yeah with the effects too-

M: Yeah, guitar pedals-

E: Reverb, everything was our decision.

M: All the guitar sounds and everything are just us.

So we’re about halfway through 2019! Do you have any favorite albums that came out this year?

M: This year…

E & M: Toro y Moi came out, that album was awesome. [We] listened to it a bunch.

I know you guys love video games! I’m curious as to what characters you use in Super Smash Brothers.

M: I use Yoshi. I’m gonna use Banjo when it comes out. He’s DLC (Downloadable Content)

E: You use Pichu also.

M: Yeah, I use Pichu.

E: I don’t play as much as them, but when I did, I played Ness a lot. I was trying to get good with the Ice Climbers now on the new game.

Their latest CHON is another exhibit in their body of work as a superior champion of calming mathrock.

Tyler Holland | @InTyler_WeTrust

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