Shawn King and Raul Pacheco had met just once before they started working together on Los Dreamers.
That meeting was backstage at a gig at the Fillmore, a 103-year-old auditorium in Denver. King is the drummer and sometimes-trumpeter of Denver gypsy-folk outfit Devotchka — the four-piece quartet that went from backing Dita Von Teese on tour to a Grammy nomination for the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack. Pacheco plays guitar and sings in the multi-piece L.A. staple Ozomatli.
The two say they shared a drink and chatted about how “fun it might be to record something together.” One year later, the music non-profit Revolutions Per Minute kicked that small talk into high gear. Both King and Pacheco are members of the group, which exists to provide “strategy and support” for rock star activism. This includes hooking up artists with projects that align with their interests — in King and Pacheco's case, a play about immigration issues in the United States.
That play was Dreaming Sin Fronteras, released with their musical accompaniment in 2014. When Revolutions Per Minute introduced the piece to King in 2013, it was a collection of monologues and short stories based on the tales of “DREAMers,” undocumented students who would benefit from the proposed federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Creator/director Antonio Mercado constructed the play out of testimonials from undocumented students he taught in a high school drama class, many of whom couldn't graduate because of their legal status, even if they were straight-A students.
When Revolutions rang up King, the piece was already a collection of digital projections and spoken monologues, with actors dressed in black and using music stands to prop up scripts. What they said it still needed was a handful of musical pieces to tie it all together.
King grew up on the East Coast and has been a self-described “traveler most of [his] life.” The musician lived in Mexico for years before learning Spanish and coming back home to teach bilingual children in public schools. It was there that he became intimately aware of immigration policy — the way the slightest turn of legal phrase could make or break a student’s life.
Pacheco grew up in Boyle Heights, raised by a mother who, by his own admission, “was racist” against her own people. “My mother was born here, and her grandparents were born here,” he explains. “So there are these weird layers of history that we forget. We simplify it all. My connection to immigrants, specifically from Mexico, there’s a cultural connection for me, but it always comes back to this more human thing.”
But when King got Pacheco on the line in 2013, he didn’t know about any of that.
“He got my number through the people at Revolutions Per Minute,” laughs Pacheco. “It was like… a cold call.”
King’s biggest concern at the time was finding someone to put words to his music. “I’m mostly a music writer and not a lyric writer,” King explains, a little sheepishly. “When they recommended him, I was just like, ‘Yeah, I suppose so.’ It’s incredibly lucky we had any chemistry at all.”
The two met every few months for roughly a year and a half. At each visit, King would bring the skeletal beginnings of what could be a song — which Pacheco would yay or nay on the spot.
“I mean, I’m in a band with like 10 other people,” he says. “If everyone’s excited, then that [song’s] the one. If we love it, let’s make it real.”
After the two chiseled out a steady foundation for a track, they started on the possibly-even-more-complex task of rounding up collaborators. Eight of the album’s nine tracks include a “featuring” credit. Artists including Ceci Bastida of Tijuana No! and Luz Mendoza of Y La Bamba contributed — Mendoza in two connected tracks, one in English, the other en Español.
When it came to choosing their collaborators, King and Pacheco’s selection process was similar to King finding Pacheco. Nearly everyone involved is an artist one of the two had previously bumped into, sometimes years in advance, often at only a single gig.
“There’s combined 35 years of experience with bands between the two of us,” King says. “We’ve met a lot of people out in the world, whether it’s backstage at a Belgian festival or in a studio in New York or at a TV spot in Texas.”
The ad-hoc method wound up drawing in accomplices from Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (who King had met twice over the span of a half-dozen years) to Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark (who Pacecho knew lived down the street and wanted to “try out his new keyboard.”) It all led to a finished product that is a marvelous mish-mash of disparate styles and themes.
Songs veer between English and Spanish — often in the same three-minute track — and flicker from psychedelic sambas to techno-funk jams at the drop of a hat. What stays familiar are the words. “Here I stand/Can you see me?” wails Marisol Hernandez of East L.A.’s La Santa Cecilia on the Latin rap anthem “The Others,” as Slimkid3 of The Pharcyde chants behind her that they’re “treated like aliens from another planet.”
Occasionally a song will wander into highly personal territory — the dreamy guitar-ballad “Alejandra” tells the story of Alejandra Cardona, a Denver student shot in the Aurora Theater massacre and granted a U-Visa for being injured by an American citizen. But mostly the songs all sport similar refrains, tracing wanderers and loners, outsiders and friends, across the American Southwest.
As for what happens now, that all depends. The pair would love to put on a series of live performances, but booking their collaborators is tricky. But a festival date in Denver is on the horizon, as well as a performance at a fundraising event in Beverly Hills with Ceci Bastida this Thursday. And whatever happens with the project next, the duo is proud of the result.
“Ultimately, where Raul and I coincide is just getting to the real story of what’s behind these tales,” says King. “What’s going on with people’s prejudices, people’s assumptions, people’s fears… I think that’s what we discovered is really worth exploring.”
Los Dreamers' self-titled, nine-track mixtape is available March 25 via iTunes. King, Pacheco and Bastida will appear as Los Dreamers on Thursday, March 26 at Riviera 31 at the Hotel Sofitel, at an event for the PorTiYo Foundation, providing pro-bono legal services to undocumented individuals in the U.S.