Experimental Latin musician É Arenas is sitting with his back turned to the storefront window at the Primera Taza coffee shop in Boyle Heights. He’s resting on a long bench and taking his time with a crumbling slab of coffee cake.
“This [cake] is prepared by Homeboy Industries, which is right down the street. They use the L.A. Unified School District’s original recipe. So when we were going to school, we had this kind of cake,” Arenas says as he taps the confection’s crust with a stainless fork. “It’s produced at a mass scale, but I just had it right now, and it took me back to elementary school and junior high.”
Born Eduardo Arenas, he grew up in the now-demolished Aliso Village housing projects, less than a mile from where we're sitting. At that time the neighborhood was ravaged by competing gangs, and his mother and stepfather, both teachers and the latter a Vietnam veteran, kept him on a regimented path.
“You want to be a gangster,” recalls Arenas of growing up as a first-generation Mexican-American in the projects. “But that’s not the lifestyle [my parents] had in mind for [me], especially after all the sacrifices they’ve made. Since I’ve been in elementary school, it’s been about getting into the gifted classes and being honest about homework.”
Arenas resisted the violence of his surroundings and channeled his youthful rebellion through the strings of a weathered guitar his cousin found on the street.
“It was completely gone. It had so many holes in it. But that was the first guitar. That’s where I first started learning all of my Metallica songs.”
The young strummer, who would go on to launch his music career as the bassist for psychedelic soul quartet Chicano Batman, attended USC in 2003 as a McNair Scholar and studied urban planning in an altruistic move to enrich his connection with Los Angeles.
“The focus of my research was on gentrification in Boyle Heights. At that time, there was nothing physically happening that was obvious to the eye,” he says. “I would present my work at Berkeley and people would tell me to focus on cities like Chicago or San Francisco, where gentrification is really happening. But there are precursors to gentrification.”
Arenas cites the construction of the Metro Gold Line as the first step in his neighborhood’s transmutation, because “accessibility is everything.” Soon after, affordable rents disappeared with an influx of young, white hipster types.
Now in his mid-30s, É Arenas aims to represent his community with his debut solo album, Nariz. Released in November, the record makes an effort to untangle Boyle Heights’ artistic whitewashing by properly embodying his neighborhood’s Latino vibrancy.
Although the facades are improving and the streets are safer than they were 20 years ago, the cultural roots of Boyle Heights, Arenas says, stem from backyard parties and community gatherings, not established art galleries.
“L.A.’s not a city that you go and fall in love with at first sight, like New York,” he says. “L.A. is an experience city. You need to experience elements of the city to fall in love with it. If you can’t experience it, it will chew you [up] and you’ll feel like a loner. The best way to experience it is to get ahold of a community.”
Arenas’ distinct sonic aesthetic began germinating in his early 20s after he returned to L.A. from a trip to Salvador, Brazil. While living on the eastern coast of South America, Arenas fell in love with tropicalia, a politically progressive, regional style of music that fuses Brazilian and African rhythms with psychedelic rock. Tropicalia's offbeat syncopations and protest lyrics aligned with his own rebellious inclinations.
In tropicalia, "You have a different layer of how to rebel,” Arenas explains. “That’s the resonance today with a lot of people: How do you keep rebelling against the establishment? Well, you fuck up genres. You make them your own. You paint the world like how you want to see it. Just disregard where you’re supposed to fit in.”
Nariz indeed doesn’t fit in. Arenas constructed it with punk sensibilities, diffused by a jazzy drawl and strewn with elements of his own cultural background.
Arenas' journey is exemplified by "Lagartija," one of the more ominous tracks on the album — whose video we're premiering above. The video depicts a severed lizard's tail clawing for its last seconds of life while Warhol-esque flickers of color create an aqueous ambiance. The digitally influenced number is led by a steady, tribal drum hit and layered with the bluesy gaucho guitar.
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It took six years for all of the pieces of the Nariz story to fit into place. The songs describe a difficult time of Arenas’ life when he left his career as an urban planner in Huntington Park and was struggling to find his direction. He began writing melodies and held on to them like a collection of postcards until he found the words to match the cathartic emotion of his guitar.
“Songs are just relative to that moment when you are writing them,” Arenas reflects. “They don’t have to represent you for the rest of your life. I feel like now that the album is out … [it] doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the person listening.
"Now I get to have a clean slate," he concludes. "I get to create music a lot faster, with my own ideologies about what music is.”
É Arenas will be playing the Night on Broadway festival (Viva! Presents 5th Street Stage) on Saturday, Jan. 28.