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Snake Charmer: A Conversation With Alex Estrada of Silver Snakes

Silver Snakes mastermind, Alex Estrada wakes up at 9 a.m. to do his laundry after celebrating National Margarita Day in Boston, where his band, just played to a packed audience at the House of Blues the night before. Though the size of the venue shocked the band, they still have bigger shows to play, as they are set to take on one of the biggest tours in their still emerging career, opening up for the massively  popular progressive rock band, Coheed and Cambria and post-hardcore legends Glassjaw.

Silver Snakes, who consist of Estrada, bassist Michael Trujillo, guitarist Jeremiah Bignell and new drummer Garrett Harney, have been cutting their teeth in the local Los Angeles hardcore scene where they call home for the better part of a decade. After Estrada’s other band, Cathedrals, came to an end, he decided that he wanted to go in a different direction with his music, which led to the creation of Silver Snakes.

The band released their heavily post-hardcore/ alternative debut album “Pictures of a Floating World” in 2011 on the indie label Animal Style Records, and followed it up with their sludgier and darker sophomore release “Year of the Snake” in 2014 on hardcore label Bridge 9 records. With their third release “Saboteur,” Estrada and the band find themselves pushing the boundaries of their own sound and experimenting with new elements such as electronics and lyrically themes that tie the album together.

Silver Snakes: Michael Trujillo (bass), Jeremiah Bignell (guitars), Alex Estrada (vocals, guitar), Garrett Harney (drums).
Silver Snakes: Michael Trujillo (bass), Jeremiah Bignell (guitars), Alex Estrada (vocals, guitar), Garrett Harney (drums).

“Saboteur” not only provided the band a new musical endeavor, but a new label home as well, being released on Evil Ink Records, the newly founded label of Coheed frontman Claudio Sanchez.

The son of a Grammy winning mariachi performer and producer Jóse Hernàndez, Estrada has been surrounded by music his whole life, establishing a musical bond between father and son that has lasted throughout the years, even today as both Estrada and Hernàndez both have new albums that are climbing the charts in their genres.

Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Estrada went to Citrus College to study recording technology after going to East L.A. College for a recording technology program, which helped him better understand what he was doing with the second-hand recording equipment that he started to acquire from his father’s studio. Though he was learning much in his classes, Estrada spent a lot of free time studying recording on his own and getting hands on behind the boards, inviting his friends in the punk and hardcore scene to come and track songs with him.

Estrada, who just celebrated his 30th birthday only a few months ago, started recording bands professionally at age 19 at his studio, Earth Capital and has been recording ever since, sitting behind the mixing board for popular bands like Touché Amoré, Nails, and Joyce Manor who have all gone to find commercial success in their respective genres within the last decade.

Now, after toiling in the underground punk scene more than a decade, armed with a new record, new drummer and the opportunity to tour with one of the biggest names in rock music, Estrada and Silver Snakes are ready to meet  success as well, on their terms.

My first question is about your recent residency that you did at the Silverlake Lounge. I was wondering how the experience went overall.

It was great. Better than expected. We’ve never been a band that played locally much, so we were a little unsure of how the residency was going to go over, but each week the crowd was bigger and bigger. By the last week, we kind of had a built-in crowd that just kind of found out about us recently from the new record and recent press, and it was great playing with new people in our home town.

Do you think it’s something you would do again?

We’ll see. Not anytime soon. Maybe whenever we do another record, but the priority right now is mainly just touring.

Was there anything about the residency that you particularly enjoyed or found challenging?

This answers both questions, it was challenging building a lineup each week that was diverse, but I really enjoyed what we came up with. Each night there was about four bands that were completely different stylistically. It was a really nice change of pace from the way shows usually go.

Do you think fans of your old albums are responding well to your newest album?

It’s a bit early to tell. For the most part it’s a lot of new people that were seen coming out to the shows, writing to us online, and tweeting at us or posting about us on Instagram. It’s a lot of new people. We’ve seen it happen from record to record since we’ve changed very much from release to release, especially with this one where we did an even bigger change. We didn’t tour much last year, so we’re kind of laying low. We’re just seeing this whole new explosion of different people all over the world that are getting into the music, especially with the Coheed and Cambria connection that we have now.

Can you explain a little more about the connection with Coheed now? I know you guys are on Claudio’s new label. Can you tell me a little bit of how that came about?

We did a single show with Coheed in, I believe, 2013 and it made a lasting impression on us. We followed up with their representatives and pretty much told them, “Hey. Anything we can do with Coheed in the future, we’d really appreciate it,” because their fans really took to us and we felt a really strong connection playing with that crowd. So we kind of just stayed on their radar and once we demoed songs for the new album, we sent it to their manager who basically checked it out and said, “I think Claudio’s going to like this.” He passed it over to Claudio who had just started Evil Ink Records and hadn’t had many releases on the label. They wanted to do the record so we went with them and it’s been great.

Have you been a fan of Coheed yourself?

I didn’t really grow up on them as much as some of my friends have. I feel like they’re a band that you need to get into the records and then immerse yourself into them. Because there’s so many stories and plot twists. It seemed really daunting at the time when they first came out, so every time I listened to them, I loved it and I love Claudio’s guitar playing. That’s something that’s always left an impression on me, but it’s not until recently that I started actually diving into their albums. I would almost consider myself a new fan even though I’ve been familiar with them for over ten years.

What’s the overall theme of “Saboteur”?

The theme lyrically is sabotage. It’s a record about stepping on others, whether they be people or corporations or social issues, whatever they are. It’s about stepping over things in order to achieve your own goal, whether it’s a negative or a positive in your own eyes. It follows the story of someone who does that and has to face the consequences of those actions. Musically, we just wanted the music to convey that message. It’s a very dark record musically and lyrically. It’s very bleak. There’s not a lot of hope in the record, but there is a lot of conviction. It’s very unapologetic on every front.

So the theme of sabotage is kind of what ties all the songs together throughout the album?

Yes. In my eyes it represents a particular story, but I wanted to leave that open-ended to the listener. You can see it in order. In other words, the first song is the spark. What makes this person want to commit these acts of sabotage, what acts of sabotage inspired them to go down this path? The last track on the album, are the consequences. You can kind of see that song as like a jury deliberation. It’s about the person facing judgement for what they’ve done and unapologetically admitting to it all.

I had a question about the last track on the album, “The Loss.” It ends with clapping. What does it mean?

That coincides with the story. Like how I said this last song is about this person facing their consequences. I see it in my own mind-this is open to interpretation-that song is basically a person on trial and stating their case and having people rooting for them in the courtroom and having people root against them in the courtroom. Basically when it comes down to this person being on the stand, that’s the last words of the album. This character says, “The dream is dead,” and it’s basically saying, “My mission is accomplished. I cut this person down or I cut this corporation down. I cut this movement down.”

Then it goes into several minutes of this long buildup, and to me that’s the deliberation. At the end, the clapping, it’s kind of hard to explain, other than it’s the end of a show. We incorporated elements of Flamenco palmas, a style of handclapping used in Flamenco music. I really wanted to tie that into the record since it was a big inspiration on me musically. I figured it would be a cool way to use that, by putting this rhythmic clapping, which also represents the supporters of this person who committed these acts of sabotage, basically showing gratitude and solidarity with that person.

From what I understand, it’s your first time using electronics on an album. How do you think your first experience with using electronics went?

It was really fun because it’s something new. I’m personally at a point where I’ve been playing guitar for so long that it’s hard for me to get excited about playing guitar. We played a lot of different tunings in order to keep things fresh for us as musicians which really helps, but adding those other elements and instruments that I’m completely inexperienced with, really brought an excitement to the process of making this record.

We definitely needed some help. We had some other people come in and kind of help us with the programming aspect of things. I was doing trial and error sampling on my own. I was watching old movies and basically sampling sound bits off these movies and manipulating them with computers and using different apps and really harnessing modern technology to make it all work for myself, without having a guide, without anyone teaching me or walking me through that process.

So the electronics added a new challenge to producing the album?

Definitely. It was challenging because we didn’t know exactly how to execute it. It was a challenge, but it was like any other challenge when making a record. It’s like when a song is done but you don’t have lyrics. You kind of just have to make it work. You have to sit there and make it happen and that’s what happened with the electronics. Once we got a skeleton for them, we were able to layer on top of that. It was an exciting process and a challenge that we welcomed.

I wanted to talk about the track in “Fire Cloud.” To me it really stuck out on the album because it kind of slows everything down and changes the pace of what is going on in the album. It’s more melodic and less heavy on the riffs. Where did “Fire Cloud” come from? Why was it in the middle of the album?

It goes in line with the album. You know how the album has a story? “Fire Cloud” is literally the calm before the storm, “Red Wolf”, the next track, is when this person commits actions or a grand act of destruction or sabotage or whatever it may be. “Fire Cloud,” kind of sounds like it’s a part of “Red Wolf,” because that was the original version of that song.

“Fire Cloud” was how “Red Wolf” originally was. It was a slow, drawn out, very melodic, eight minute basically doomy rock song. When we were making the album, I really wanted to separate the ends since everything was just nonstop. We knew that was going to be the end of one side of the record, so we kind of felt like bringing it back down and having a lot of tension right there with those very dark chords and there’s an eeriness that goes with the melodic sense in that song. I feel like it just builds up the tension. There’s some synth lines under the guitar parts that I think really bring out those layers well.

Talking about the names of the songs, I was wondering if there were Native American culture references between the names of the songs on the album.

The song “Red Wolf” is probably the closest because that song was inspired by a Native American man. We have a lot of those sorts of titles in our past releases and it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. When I write lyrics, I go through a lot of Native American history books and watch a lot of documentaries on their cultures. There’s a lot of depth to it and it’s something I’ve always been interested in.

Do you have any memorable stories about how a song came to be?

There’s a song on the album called “Charmer” and that is the oldest song on the record. It was written like three years ago. I came up with the idea for that song when I was at my studio. I recorded bands for a living, and a band finished up early and the idea for that song just popped in my head. I recorded a guitar part, sat behind the drums, played a bunch of these drum lines, and it was a really crazy process. It’s something I’d never done before because I recorded the guitar before the drums. Usually I come up with drum parts before guitar parts. It was my first time messing with audio manipulation and really chopping things up and experimenting with that more industrial sound.

That was the spark that made me think we should head in this direction at some point. But this was many years ago and we weren’t ready to make this record yet even though I wanted to. I’ve been wanting to make a record like “Saboteur” for many years but it was intimidating. It was a very intimidating record to make and we had to be comfortable with ourselves before we were able to dive into that process. I would say “Charmer” was an interesting song because it really sparked everything and created this record.

Was there any bands that influenced you on creating this record?

We really go back to our roots when it comes to writing. We’re ‘90s kids for the most part. We grew up on bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and a lot of that has always made its way into our sound, not intentionally. We’re not trying to sound like any band, but if you learn how to play guitar by playing those bands songs when you’re a kid, it naturally makes its way into your repertoire and the way you play.

With the electronics and such, I was leaning more towards the Nine Inch Nails sort of thing and bands like Garbage, Ministry, Godflesh. There’s a lot of these heavy industrial bands. In a modern sense, we listen to a lot of what they call stoner rock and stoner metal. That influence is also pretty heavy on this record. There’s a lot of bands like Om, Sleep, Windhand, and even tinges of Black Sabbath in there because that’s who we listen to these days. When we’re in the van, that’s one of the only sorts of genres we could all agree on.

So the record is a big combination of those two genres, which I’ve never really heard done before. I’ve never heard people combine something as raw and repetitive as stoner rock, with something as modern and in your face and dynamic as electronics.

Are you still recording bands like Touché Amoré and Joyce Manor?

Yeah. At my studio I’m working with old bands and new bands all the time. I actually just recorded both those bands in the last few months. I mean, obviously, both those bands are off to doing huge things. It’s really awesome that their careers have taken off. We’ve been working together for so long. I’ve been working with Touché Amoré for at least six or seven years now. I’ve been working with Joyce Manor for pretty much the same. Joyce Manor brings me in to do production on their records. I produce the vocals and work really close with their singer. I record the pre-production and the same thing goes for Touché.

Touché just came in and did all their pre-production for their new record they’re working on. I have a really good relationship with both those bands. We work together well. Both of them are going to be in the studio when we get back from the tour, so I’m hoping to catch up with them right away and kind of see where I could help.

Can you tell a little about how it was like getting started when you first started doing audio engineering and what some of the challenges were to try and get your name out there?

I started engineering as a necessity. My dad is a producer, so I grew up in recording studios. I had 4-tracks when I was younger. I used to record on karaoke machines and all this stuff. When I was out of high school, I went to East L.A. College for a couple months. I took a quick program on electronic music, learned a few things, then actually started going to Citrus College, doing all my prerequisites for the recording program, taking recording engineering, music theory, electronics and all that. I learned very fast. I ended up picking up really quick from these classes. I had really great teachers and at the meantime, I was really diving into books, lessons online, my dad and all these people that had a lot of information that could help me out getting my feet wet in recording.

My dad ended up giving me a bunch of hand-me-downs from his studio, so when I was 19, I already had a whole set up going. I had the opportunity to set up a recording space in the practice space my band had at the time in 2005. Once that was set up, we started inviting our friends’ bands to come and record and we were recording our own music. It just kind of snowballed from there. I was recording full time. I haven’t had another job ever in my life. I had one other retail job when I was 17, but since I was 19, I’ve just been recording bands. It’s going to be 11 years already that I’ve had my studio and it’s just been a whirlwind ever since. It’s a crazy business.

Music business can be very unpredictable. It’s never steady, but I’ve managed to get by on it for a long time and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with bands like Touché Amoré, Joyce Manor, Nails, and a few others that have got my name out there. All my promotion is word of mouth and those bands have done a lot for me.

I know your dad is pretty well known in the mariachi community. Can you talk a little more about your dad?

My dad is a sixth generation mariachi. He was born in Mexico and he moved out here with the whole family. They were all musicians as well. My grandfather came over in the late ‘30s and started playing shows. Then they moved here in the ‘50s to L.A and that’s just what it is. It’s a family business. My uncles had restaurants, my dad opened his restaurant in 1985 and I believe he’s had his group since 1981. They’re grammy nominated. He’s worked with the biggest names in the Latin community. He’s produced for Selena, stuff for Green Day, Beck. He’s worked with Kottonmouth Kings. He’s done a lot of crazy stuff. He just had a new record that came out a week ago. It’s the 35th anniversary record of his group, Mariachi Sol De Mexico, so it’s pretty crazy seeing seeing his record and our record both on different iTunes charts currently.

We just did our record release and he just did his record release, so we’ve been talking to each other on the phone a lot while we’re both touring. It’s a really, really unique bond we have through music, from complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

Right now you’re touring with Coheed and Cambria, I the Mighty, and Glassjaw. Coheed and Cambria and I the Mighty have a lighter sound than your newest album. I was wondering what the crowd reaction has been like.

Coheed bands are very receptive to bands that Coheed basically gives their stamp of approval to. The fact that we have that sort of validation from Claudio of Coheed and Cambria, releasing our record on his own personal label really opens us up to their crowd. A lot of  times when you go to a show you have all these preconceived notions. You’re just there for the headliner and don’t care about the opening bands. But being up there, this whole community of Coheed fans know our association with them, so they’ve been very receptive. They’re very sweet. They’re die hards. Coheed fans are one giant tight knit family and it’s been really great.

Even though we’re the heavy band on this tour, stylistically, there’s been a warm welcome to us. We’re only one show in and we already felt it. So many kids came up to us after the show last night and just said they’ve been hearing a lot about us and said they were excited to finally see us. We’re really looking forward to this tour. We think it’ll do great things for the band.

You guys play at the Palladium in L.A. on the 22nd. Is that the biggest show you guys have done so far?

In L.A., definitely. That is one of the top three or four biggest shows on this tour, but that is without a doubt the biggest show we’ve ever played in L.A. We couldn’t ask for something better. We’re going to be playing in front of a lot of people we went to high school with, old friends and old coworkers. There’s going to be a lot of familiar faces in the house. Our parents are all going to be there, so that’s a really exciting show for us. Hopefully I’ll be used to the bigger rooms. I mean, we play at Madison Square Gardens in New York. That’s the biggest venue on this tour. By then we’ll shake off the rust and play these big rooms because last night was a shock. House of Blues, Boston, as it is, is a huge room. That was already the biggest show we’ve ever played.

Do you think your music is translating well to bigger crowds and bigger rooms?

It is, especially with this new record because a lot of the music is really heavy and really hypnotic. Especially in rooms that big where the sound is really in your face and you have the subwoofers going and feel every drum hit and every note the bass plays. It’s really crazy and looks hypnotic to be on stage and see this ocean of people head banging at the same time. It’s really cool.

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