Srinivasa Ramanujan lived in a tiny village in India, but he had no formal education. He had no access to modern scientific work. But he came across an old mathematics textbook. From this simple text, he was able to extrapolate theories that had puzzled mathematicians for years. Amazing things come from the rarest, least expected places. The biggest rapper on earth is caucasian. Arguably, the greatest rock guitarist of all time was African American. It seems like one of the best rock bands you’ve never heard of, may just be from a little town in Mexico.
ELAN sing in English, sound like very few bands do today, have sold over 1.7 million albums, and have toured extensively for the past 15 years. Most likely you’ve never heard of them because they have never released a record or toured in the US. Indeed amazing things come from the rarest of places.
The word “elán” means “life force”. But the rock band “ELAN” (written in all caps “ELAN” as opposed to “Elán”, the lead singer) – a brother-and-sister led quintet from a small village near Guadalajara, Mexico – define themselves in different terms than other contemporary bands. On their eighth album See Us Spin, they continue a streak as the first Mexican group to release successful albums in English, offering plenty of gritty, graceful style in its tracks thanks to the snake charmer’s dance of Elán’s vibrant singing and deeply human lyrics, and Jan Carlo DeFan’s emotionally expressive, sonically adventurous guitar and a band that seems like it was teleported from Jacksonville in the 70’s.
This band built their foundation on playing instruments very well but the real goal of See Us Spin from this writer’s perspective is to do nothing less than restore the flesh, blood and heart to the often bereft bones of today’s rock ‘n’ roll.
“A lot of albums over the past two decades suffered from a kind of artifice or snobbery that was absent in all the truly great albums of the ’60s and ‘70s” Jan Carlo says. “Growing up in Mexico, our radio was not something we liked much, so we learned about music by listening to our parents records. The Stones, Dylan, Joplin, The Allman Brothers, Skynyrd… a blessing really. Those musicians who meant what they said and told you what they thought, not how to think. We look back to a day when music had soul and try to carry those qualities with us on our journey, in our own songs and sound”. In keeping with that aesthetic, See Us Spin is very raw, dirty, spontaneous and not over-produced” explains Elán, who also plays piano. “we usually write all the time but I waited until we were almost ready to record to start writing the lyrics and we made and arranged the music together in rehearsal. All of the lyrics were inspired by things that happened in my life or that I saw and experienced in the previous year, which helped me keep my performances fresh and unfiltered by any second guessing. It was all very natural as it usually is for us when it flows”.
This keeps See Us Spin rippling with live energy. The album begins with a stream of feedback that swells into the grinding slide guitar riff, powering “Bad Days Are Gone” a kiss-off to the past that Elán’s flag-waving performance turns into a good-karma anthem with plenty of whiskey and wildness in the mix. Jan Carlo’s open-tuned slide six-string appears again on “Everything You Ever Wanted” a love song with a balance of classic American twang ‘n’ soul so perfect it could have been written by Jagger and Richards for Exile On Main Street.
“Stranger” is See Us Spin’s staggeringly powerful blues tour de force. Elán conjures a potent elixir of love and desperation in her lyrics, and evokes visions of Janis Joplin with the balance of gravel, spirit and heartache in her voice as she sings about her “cosmic blues”. At the same time, Jan Carlo recreates the era of the Fillmore auditoriums with a majestic, biting guitar performance that parallels the shimmering six-string heroics of both Fleetwood Mac-era Peter Green and Big Brother & the Holding Company, full of gutty expressive bends, floating sustained notes and a tone that’s equal parts blood and granite.
“I felt like I’d left my heart and soul in the studio after we recorded that song” Elán declares. This record, showcases for the warm, honey-dappled core of Elán’s voice and some of bands’ most textural playing – bristle with crisp authority hinged on the flexible drive of the band’s rhythm section. “We are very tight and I think I am lucky because I am surrounded by some of the best musicians in the world”, guitarist Mauricio “El Pato” López Reyes shares. Reyes has played with the DeFans since their early teens, while bassist Carlos “Charlie” Padilla Maqueo was in the first jam band with Jan Carlo at 11 years of age, and drummer Michel “Cheech” Bitar DeFan is the brothers’ cousin. They have been best friends for nearly two decades and playing with each other just as long.
There’s a staggering level of musical communication nearly hard-wired into the band members’ genes. ELAN has played together since they were children. “But we’ve really hit the point we’re at because of the constant touring we’ve done together over the past 15 years” Jan Carlo explains. “We’re really a live band, and we’ve developed our sound by playing anywhere we could”. This band has famously been known to play tiny cantinas to huge stages in the same 24 hour period. “We just want to play” says Elán “we don’t care when or where”.
In Mexico, particularly, that’s not as easy as it may sound. “Early in our career we had to develop our own circuit there – really, the first circuit of its kind I think, for every rock band in Mexico, because except for three or four cities there weren’t that many bands doing the rounds. So there weren’t that many places for a band to play. Some places we’ve performed in don’t even have the electricity for amps and lights, so we’ve had to travel with our own generators and at least two of everything, from guitars to the P.A. Otherwise, if something goes down you’re not going to be able to find a replacement. When we hear other bands here in the US or across the pond talking about how “hard” their tours are, we just look at each other and laugh. People take things for granted you know. The first time I left Mexico to record in the US, and walked into a Guitar Center, I sat down on the curb outside and wept. I’d never seen anything like that before”. Nonetheless, it’s ELAN’s live approach that makes See Us Spin a powerhouse. “We literally set up just like we do on stage at the studio” Jan Carlo recounts. “Along with our engineer Rafa Sardina [11 time Grammy award winning engineer, who’s worked with Stevie Wonder and Macy Gray] we have our road crew, so the vibe would be exactly like doing a gig. It was awesome”. That recording strategy captured ELAN at a new stylistic peak, but getting to their current creative zenith was harder than carrying a mountain of stage gear across Mexico.
ELAN’s 2003 debut Street Child gave them a hit in Latin America and Australia, with “Midnight” holding at number one on the charts for 21 weeks. The song’s video stayed at the top of the “Telehit” TV music network’s list for 12 weeks. “We cared about developing our sound and touring more than we did about ‘having a hit’. So we went back to the drawing boards, back to the studio and back on the road… we didn’t want to take the ‘next big step’ yet. But now we are ready”. Says Charlie, the band’s bassist.
“This Fool’s Life” from the follow-up London Express fared similarly. The band has collaborated with such luminaries as Slash (who played on “Street Child”), Counting Crows’ David Immergluck, and Grammy winners producer Brian Paulson (Beck) and engineer Jeff Poe (Pink Floyd, Dylan, Madonna, Santana). But behind the scenes, even as 2007’s What Can Be Done At This Point, 2008’s Shine, 2009’s Lost and Found and last year’s Regular Weird People continued to total more than 1.7-million albums sold, struggles with record companies jeopardized the group’s career repeatedly and threatened to leave at least one completed album in limbo.
“We’ve created one sound together. We aren’t five sounds, but one”. Says the band’s rhythm guitarist Pato. “It is very rewarding to have built our success by ourselves brick-by-brick. It is that way because our music mattered to us. Sometimes it was hard because we didn’t know if we could continue,” Jan Carlo says. “Today we know that if we hadn’t gone through those struggles, we might never have become as good a band. Those two old sayings are true: ‘Nothing good comes cheap’ and ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ We’ve never been stronger”. Elán echoes her brother’s sentiments. “With Regular Weird People, and now See Us Spin, we’ve found ourselves as artists,” she says. “We know that we’re doing exactly what we want to do, and doing it better every year. And we’ve learned that what’s important is not the place we’re going, but the ride”.
After 15 years, 7 albums, 1.7 million records sold on their own, and countless shows, this band is going to perform for the first time in the US in 2012 and beyond. They are a fluke, a rare concoction of the wrong place at the wrong time. That is the best kind. If you can, go see them. You’ll hear a lot about them in times to come. They were “uncool” before being “uncool” was cool.