The rock n' roll Maestro Of Gijón: An Interview with Jorge Muñoz-Cobo Gonzalez of doctor explosion
Pacific Coast Highway. The stretch of road heading towards Hermosa Ave is oddly empty this Saturday afternoon in late Summer, a time when normally locals and non-locals would be flocking here en masse. Adjoining Redondo or Manhattan Beach could have something more to offer people looking for more than just a day on the ocean; their business and time aren't my concern; however, all that matters is that it's hot outside today, fucking hot to add context.
Hermosa is a stretch from where I live. Crossing the 405 freeway to the South Bay is counterintuitive since Malibu's beaches, and even Oxnard is much closer to home. However, reading about a massive mural depicting the figures of the South Bay punk rock world in Hermosa Beach got me curious and two gallons of gasoline lower. Even at 3:45 p.m., traffic is still stacked with bodies in cars heading to the water. Aviation Blvd is the offramp and becomes PCH which then becomes Pier Ave and finally Hermosa; lo and behold, look at that on the side of a parking garage. A bright yellow, turquoise, red, and grey colored illustration where the centerpiece is a dilapidated building with two longhaired, towering figures, one emerging assertively from the front of the building yelling into a mic and the other behind the building, looming large and in attack mode with guitar in hand, both in live-action shots. A mural such as this isn't a regular sight in most cities. But Hermosa Beach is notable in Los Angeles culture for being an epicenter for the origins of Southland punk rock beginning in the late 1970s. It makes sense that a new generation of residents would jive with seeing a mural of The Church, Keith Morris, Greg Ginn, Pennywise, Mike Smith, and other notable figures in the city's punk and skate world as an homage to the area's cultural history.
The United States has a collection of these types of homage murals a Ramones one on the Thorneycroft Ramp in the Queens borough of NYC, and 22 miles across the 110 Northbound freeway from Hermosa Beach lies a massive Mike Muir portrait the city commissioned across a large wall near on Santa Fe Ave in DTLA’s Arts District. “Homage” is one way to describe these murals; a publicity tool for the city to piggyback their image off their hometown artist’s undertaking is another (the irony being Los Angeles officials coming back to honor Suicidal Tendencies with this mural, even though the city gave them a six-year ban from playing within city limits. Violence at their shows is the reason for the ban, and the band reaching commercial popularity is the reason for the ban’s lift.) Objectively, the venture is a win-win for both parties.
A question hit me as I was looking at the South Bay mural, are there any other cities outside the United States who do the same for certain artists? Does Vancouver, Stockholm, Oslo, and Berlin utilize their underground culture to draw awareness to their neighborhoods at some point? They certainly have the names in punk rock and heavy metal that have helped their city's draw. Would smaller towns in the shadows of the more populated cities ever do the same to draw more awareness to their area based on their history within an underground culture? An example is Spain, where Madrid and Barcelona are the main tourist attractions with a historically solid underground music scene, but so do the smaller towns across the nation. Gijón is one of these towns, a seaside city in the Asturias region with its history of independent music and activity separate from the rest of the country. In the 1990s, the Xixón Sound (as the press dubbed it, primarily due to location over music) put a brief national spotlight on the town where bands like Australian Blonde, Manta Ray, Pauline en la Playa, The Undershakers, and many others were mixing punk, post-rock, 60s pop, and garage music to the point where the country's largest independent label, Subterfuge Recordings, began releasing music from the area. Another notable group that came up around this time is Doctor Explosion's garage punk group, whose founder Jorge Muñoz-Cobo Gonzalez is a 30-plus-year fixture in Gijón's independent music community. Muñoz-Cobo (or as he's known more as Jorge Explosion) doesn't have the large-scale cross-continental genre reputation that someone like Greg Ginn carries. Still, Explosion's nonetheless been a consistent and notable figurehead in Spain's garage punk world since the 1980s. He founded Las Munjitas Del Fuzz along with Doctor Explosion and co-founded The Ripe with members of The Black Angels. He has owned and operated the analog grounded Estudios Circo Perrotti since 2003, where he's done his part in increasing Gijón's tourism sector and tax revenue with his recording knowledge and reputation, bringing artists from around the world into the city for session bookings.
Explosion’s involvement in Spain’s underground world is extensive, with tours around Europe, Latin & North America, recording his material at home, in other European cities, or abroad in the US. Estudios Circo Perrotti has hosted genre peers around the world like Messer Chups, The Fleshtones, The Youth, The Night Times, The Jackets, and Surfer Joe, among many others. I gather from speaking to Explosion that he isn’t jaded, which gives credence to his down-to-earth demeanor and the ideas he freely shares about new angles he’s working on with singles off the new Doctor Explosion album, Superioridad Moral. This is an album he’s excited about, and rightfully so. Superioridad Moral is the first Doctor Explosion album in 11 years. The lineup is brand new, and the US label Slovenly Recordings is picking the album up for release and reintroducing America to these wild men from the Spanish northwest (Pennsylvania-based Get Hip and Keystone Recordings being the only other US-based labels release material from the band in the past). With some spare time in his schedule, Explosion answered a few questions for Gearhead readers who have yet to be familiar with the man or nothing about him. City officials in Gijón's Municipal Foundation of Culture, take note, please.
For those who don't know, how can you best summarize what Gijón is like to a person who's never visited the town before? What's the city's history with music that you remember from your early life, and has that history grown or stagnated over the years?
In the early 1980s, an explosion of new bands emerged in Gijón with the arrival of the New Wave and the echo of La Movida Madrileña. These bands were mixed with the hard rock and urban rock groups that were very trendy in Spain towards the end of the 1970s. So in Gijón, we had bands like La Banda Del Tren, Ilegales, Sombrero de Copa, Madson, Rimel, Los Ruidos, and others. Before these groups, there was another band called Crack who played experimental progressive rock in the early 1970s; back in the 60s, there was a vibrant Beat scene with bands fueled by teenagers who were dreaming of emulating such groups as The Shadows, The Beatles, and similar bands. These groups were Los A2, Los Sonis, Los Brios, and Salitre (the only band alongside Crack from of this scene to produce a recording!). The only band from this local scene that managed to become popular and, more importantly, maintained big international popularity even nowadays were IIegales, led by a good friend named Jorge Martinez. I had the luck of becoming friends with Jorge during a visit to my brother's flat in 1980, I was 11 at the time, and Jorge was 25. We're still very good friends, and he influenced me. Flash forward to the early 1990s, and another explosion of local bands, including Doctor Explosion, managed to capture the national press who dubbed us, along with other groups like Australian Blonde, Penelope Trip, Screaming Pijas, and Cactus Jack, among others, as the "Xixón Sound." They were emulating their contemporary indie heroes. Still, we always felt like we could never fit in because we loved The Remains, The Downliners Sect, and The Kinks. At the same time, other groups were hip on Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, The Lemonheads, Pavement, and in the case of Penelope Trip, a lot of obscure noise music. Screaming Pijas was the band of my best friend Luis Mayo; they were Garage Punk oriented like us. However, at the same time, I always admired the new talent writing lyrics about some of the Spanish bands from the early 1980s, like my friend Jorge Martinez along with Pistones, Polansky y El Ardor, Las Vulpess, Siniestro Total, Los Pegamoides, Parálisis Permanente, and Derribos Arias.
Tell us how you were raised in Gijón and first discovered your interest in rock n' roll culture.
I was born in a large family where I was the youngest of seven siblings, the biggest age difference between my brothers and me is 20 years (the eldest), and the closest I'm at is 12 years, and he played piano. I remember there always being a guitar in the house, and this instrument had me in awe. Looking back, I was also shocked that they gave me a 3-year-old boy's toy drum kit, but my parents quickly figured out their mistake and took the kit away because of all the noise I made. That was traumatic because I was happy playing that kit and wanted it back, but looking back at that event, it was the right call because at 16 years old is when I learned how to play the drums. My mother and brother played the piano. My brother Juan played in a jazz combo and listened to [John] Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis. My older brothers also turned me onto classical music, children's stories, The Beatles, and groups of South American folklore like Los Chalchaleros. I grew up with those records, they were always playing at my house, and we had a big record collection. Records fascinated me; I spent the whole day playing them and even destroying them when I wasn't careful enough. The first time I saw The Beatles on television was when I was four or five, and that event left a huge impression on me. My brother Juan showed me a lot of bands from the 1980s, but my friend Luis Mayo turned me on to punk rock when I was around 13 years old, and then my other friend Jorge Illegal gave me his first single, Youth Revolt In Mongolia. From there, I began building my record collection, and our neighbors introduced me to bands. When I hit 14 years of age, I wanted to form my first band and write music.
Was Doctor Explosion your first band, or were you playing in other groups and happened to meet Alvaro and Felix before becoming bandmates?
My first band consisted of my friends Javi Mata and Piluco. We formed in the Fall of 1985 and played our first concert on December 20, 1985, at the Piles Institute (Piles High School) of Gijón. I played my brother's DX7 keyboard at that show and soon switched to playing the drums as the instrument had a stronger attraction for me. That's how our next band, The Sworn (Los Juramentados), started in the Summer of 1986. Then my family shipped me to San Luis de Pravia, a boarding school in Asturias, because of my failing grades. Looking back then, I must have been crazy at the time because I was the one who told my parents to send me there, probably because I felt guilty for having to take a year to repeat a course. I think this was when I became obsessed with music, and in October of 1986, I began playing the guitar and bass. I got a Hofner violin bass and used this to learn how to play a lot of basslines from listening to our records at home. I took guitar lessons with Jose Campa from the band Esquil y Los Mures, and Jorge Martinez from Ilegales taught me some tricks. Then in 1987, Varo and I became friends and began rehearsing with different bass and guitar players. Jorge then advised me to buy a Fender Jazzmaster in 1988, so that happened next, and the same year, we met Felix, a soul music fan. Myself, Varo, and Felix rehearsed James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy" together, and we formed Doctor Explosion afterward. Felix played great because he had studied music. At the same time, Varo and I were inexperienced, but we knew what kind of sound we wanted: garage rhythm and blues cut in the vein of early Rolling Stones and The Kinks.
Let's have you talk about the band's early years. You set a reputation for the band with the wild live performances, and were there parts of the country that didn't receive you as well as others? How were you all networking and setting up tours around the country and throughout Europe during the early days?
We were lucky enough to be embraced and supported by the Mod scene back then. This is interesting because I didn't consider myself a Mod. Still, looking back on my dressing like a member of a 1960s band and the fact I liked Northern Soul and R&B, the embrace makes sense. Varo was part of the Mod scene, though. We were the typical band that entered the Mod cannon based on our aesthetics. Alejandro [Díez Garín,] of Los Flechazos booked us as his opening act for a gig in León while touring off his second LP. We also played a Mod convention in Santander and Malaga, so little by little, we had the support of that whole scene, which was amazing. That scene is full of musically cultured and interesting people, fake people aside, most of the people genuinely love soul, ska, and R&B. Playing in the south of Spain was difficult just because of the distance since Gijón is way in the north. There are places in Spain we've never visited before, like Huelva, and we've barely toured through Andalusia compared to the north. We were mainly moving through the northern cities of León, Bilbao, and Galicia. Still, We would also visit Lleida, Barcelona, Valencia, and sometimes over to Madrid. Touring was difficult, but we always went where we were needed; it was fun and exhilarating to meet other freaks like us who were crazy about garage music. We sounded compact with a good beat and flow, and when we got on stage, we went crazy! Sometimes to the point where the show was out of hand, hahaha!!! That's a great feeling! We liked that anything at our show was possible with our audience if we generated the right energy and intensity in our performance, which came naturally to us. Seeing people jump and go crazy was a common thing at our shows. We connected with all sorts of people who could help us with booking logistics or at least knew how to set up and execute a tour. Remember that this was before the internet, too, and we found creative ways to pull tours off. True story, in 1995, I organized a European tour after piggybacking some work I was doing with the Red Cross! Back then, I was given the option to serve in the military or do social services at the Red Cross for mandatory civil service duties. I chose the latter cause I didn't want to cut my hair! I'd used the Red Cross's office to book a European tour. When my boss found a huge phone bill with calls to France, England, Germany, Switzerland, and all these other countries, he was pissed! I'd use the phone so much in that office for Doctor Explosion-related work that we'd receive calls from companies thinking that Doctor Explosion is a real doctor and ask for their services. The doctor is always on duty, haha!! We pulled contacts from our friends and got referrals from friends about people who liked garage music in a specific town. We'd call them on the phone, send a record or a tape, and then manage to get a gig out of it.
You took the reins of the band and left the country to see what else was out there for you all across the Atlantic, and that includes traveling to Seattle to record Viviendo Del Cuento with Johnnie Sangster at Egg Studios, embarking on a short West Coast tour of the United States and a fly in two-show date in Atlanta. Was this your first tour of the US at the time, and what were your impressions of touring the US back then and now that you've been here multiple times?
We wanted to see the world and get to know scenes in other cities. Regarding our first American, I have to say that I'm a little disappointed in places like Los Angeles but maybe because I had very high expectations for us at the time. We did a show in Hollywood, and hardly anyone came; that was tough, but we didn't know anyone in LA back then. San Diego was a better gig because we knew people down there like Mike Stax, and my friend Luis Mayo was living there. Atlanta was great, and San Francisco was quite the experience, we played at the Purple Onion with The Flakes, and it was nuts! Michael Lucas and Russel Quan from The Phantom Surfers and The Mummies took excellent care of us. Also, our Atlanta friends, Glynnis Ward from Feline Frenzy Fanzine and Richard Whig, did the same when we toured down there to play with The Woggles and The Subsonics. These days, I often travel between Austin, TX, and Los Angeles to visit friends, and it's interesting to see how different those two cities are from each other. Back in the 1990s, I often visited New York and saw my friend Paul Sommerstein who worked in Matador; around then, I wasn't familiar with the southern states of America. I revisited New York in 2016 to see my niece, Teresa, and explored the possibility of working at Matt Verta-Ray's studio. Then, I noticed how much the city has changed, especially in Manhattan; there's more of a scene in Brooklyn now, especially in Williamsburg. I'm not a fan of Manhattan anymore or many big cities; they're overwhelming, and I have my good friend Peter Zaremba to thank for saving me from New York's overwhelming world. In the late 1990s, America's independent music scene was much different. Looking back on the kind of music coming out then, garage music was way more marginal and underground than it is today. Lately, there has been a remarkable resurgence of bands in the garage and psychedelic genre.
There's an 11-year gap between Hablaban Con Frases Hechas and Superioridad Moral. What was going on with your work and life during that period that helped influence the songwriting on the new album?
A few things have been happening in my life that helped shape Superioridad Moral. Over the last decade, I was recording tons of bands Estudios Circo Perrotti and stocked up on so much gear (i.e., microphones, amps, guitars, rack gear). The constant collecting and work got me to the point where I was burning out. I decided to change my life by playing music more frequently and traveling worldwide as often as possible instead of locking myself between four walls and accumulating more gear. I often began traveling to the United States around 2012 to set up a recording studio over in Austin, TX, at a friend’s house, but he ended up moving, and the plan couldn’t go forward. However, traveling there was a great experience and a good reason to stay in contact with Austin’s music scene and check out SXSW and Levitation. I toured through Latin America in 2018 and 2019 with a lineup of Doctor Explosion featuring two insane Argentian garage-surf band members called The Abstinence; they were Juano Valdez and Facundo Delfino, who comprised the band alongside myself as a three-piece. Those guys are huge Doctor Explosion fans and not only played as the lineup, but they organized some shows for us in Argentina. I met them through their guitarist, Mariano, who was living in Spain and came to Circo Perroti, where he presented a plan for me that I acted on out of being adventurous to go to Argentina and explore the country. So, I traveled to Buenos Aires and practiced the set with Juano and Facundo. After our Argentina shows, we traveled to Brazil, Uruguay, and other surrounding countries. Mariano made me realize the importance of connecting with people playing rock n’ roll music worldwide. That experience played a huge part in Superioridad Moral’s development which was recorded in 2019 and mastered in 2020 at Abbey Road Studios. However, all the groups I’ve recorded in Circo Perrotti and the studio experience over the last 11 years have resulted in this record, which is crucial for me to note. Also, the original members of Doctor Explosion (Varo and Felix) reunited with me to form the band Las Munjitas Del Fuzz; we’ve managed to release four singles and have played quite a few gigs. So, you can’t say that we’ve stopped!
The new album also brings a new lineup of the band to the forefront with an expansion to a quartet, notably the absence of Alvaro and Felix. How long did it take to piece the band together, and how far back do you go with these new guys?
Varo and Felix left the band in 2001, and all three of us reformed as Las Munjitas Del Fuzz in 2016. Doctor Explosion's lineup over the last 11 years has been Pibli Gonzalez on drums and Pablo Alvarez on bass. They're featured on this new record. Pibli plays in eight different bands. Although he gives Doctor Explosion priority over some projects, he doesn't give us an absolute priority. For that reason, when we played Wild O'O' Fest in Mexico in 2019, I used the lineup that played in Argentina the prior year. The same issue arose when we were preparing to tour this year, and Pibli couldn't tour with us because of conflicting dates. Finding a drummer in Asturias to replace the guy was difficult, and I traveled to Madrid to meet Conrado. I telephoned him and explained the project; he was very much into the situation. In 2019, Conrado was playing in a band called Cooper with Dani Montero and Alejandro Flechazos. When that band ended, Conrado mentioned that Dani could be interested in playing with us, so I initially traveled to Madrid to practice with Conrado and Dani. Cesar Crespo also lived in Madrid, and I wanted him in the project. Still, I waited until we got the sound right as a three-piece like Doctor Explosion always ran before bringing Cesar into the mix. Before Cesar joined, he and I organized the guitar work together between two guitars. Cesar is someone I was very keen to work with. We met at Circo Perrotti when he recorded two different projects in recent years. He seemed ideal to incorporate as a fourth band member. Superioridad Moral was already finished when he joined the band. In 2021 we all rehearsed together, but in January 2022, Pibli informed me that he couldn't play some dates we had scheduled, so that when I began looking for a substitute and found one in Madrid, which ironically is where all the members of Doctor Explosion, except myself, currently live. Despite the distance, we've been rehearsing quite a bit, and the band sounds very tight. However, we have much work to do because I want to see how this lineup grows as a group and sounds in the studio.
How did you want Superioridad Moral to stand out from the other Doctor Explosion albums, and what challenges did you put yourself through to see that it truly did?
The challenge was to get a very wild, exciting sound without compromising our garage sound, not losing aggression yet simultaneously holding a degree of radio commercialism without overproduction. That was the real challenge! Keep the wildness and sound quality without losing any rawness in the mix or sounding fake. Another challenge was to write the lyrics and balance personal subjects and topics I felt comfortable writing about that escaped conventionalism and cliches. That is personal, and I felt comfortable, even seeking to surprise me constantly. I wanted the texts treated as a truthful character expressed from my point of view. To say things I genuinely felt and to tell my own stories from introspection while keeping my voice excitable and credible in delivery.
You've done quite a lot in this business, but is there anything else you'd like to do with the band before deciding to hang it up?
Yes! I want to explore more in sound and production by producing better albums and writing better songs. Doing all this is what amuses me most in life, and I plan on being active in this world until my body gives out. I want to work with other producers, but I’m also afraid of losing creative control by putting my work in the hands of others; that’s something I’m working on overcoming. I have my own work system, which includes a lot of studio improv and composing on the hoof.
What advice would you give someone who wants to follow the same path as you?
Always have fun doing what you do. Work harder than I have and learn to sing and play well; that’s the key. The other key is to tell authentic and genuine stories to people.
Give Gearhead readers your Top 5 albums, don’t hold back.
You’re asking me the impossible here, haha! I can’t just do a “Top 5”, no way! I have to go with “Top 5 of Soul”, “Top 5 of Today’s Group, and "Top 5 of Garage", plus singles! Tell you what, here’s my Top 6 of the pile of discs next to me; enjoy!
The Kinks - “All Day and All Of The Night”
The Cookies - “I Never Dreamed”
Sanford Clark - “It’s Nothing To Me”
Gal Costa - “Baby” (but I’m going to tie this with “Se Telefonado” by Mina!)
The Zephyrs - “I Can Tell”
Link Wray - “Deuces Wild”
Keep up with Doctor Explosion through their Facebook page and pre-order Superioridad Moral from Slovenly Recordings before it takes the band another 11 years to produce something new.
Interview by Eli Grisham.
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