In the comic world she’s a doomed femme fatale, but when it comes to music, Pistolera has a more positive role that anyone can appreciate and love. The four-piece group ruled by three female musicians is merely classified as “alternative rock,” but they’ve been successfully changing the sound of Latin music since they formed in 2004. Pistolera has the credentials of an infectious local band performing in your neighborhood during a block party, daring you to have that extra shot of tequila. Yet, Pistolera’s political soul is evident, empowering them to question everything from border issues, to a woman’s right to choose. Add a playful accordion, thunderous horns, and feel-good, sing along lyrics led by an electrifying front woman and you have a musical ensemble that’ll make everyone swivel their hips faster than a speeding bullet. After taking a short break, Pistolera is back and ready to join five other bands to play “funky, crazy, dirty world music” at New York City’s Here Comes Trouble, a concert that’ll celebrate the many genres of Latin music thriving today. In time for the festivities taking place at Manhattan’s 92Y Tribeca, nocheLatina speaks with leading lady Sandra Velasquez about Pistolera’s impact in music, what 2010 has in store for fans, and why Lady Gaga has nothing on them.
nocheLatina: How did you get started in music?
Sandra: Velasquez: I personally have been playing music since I was five-years-old. I started on piano and did recitals. When I was 13, I started learning the electric guitar. By the time I was 15 I was playing in rock bands. I eventually ended up at Cal Arts Music School for college. It was there where I wrote my first songs with lyrics. I love the piano, but it can be a lonely instrument. I prefer standing up and playing guitar.
nocheLatina: I read that during your early years as an artist, you decided to move to New York. When did you embark on this journey?
Sandra Velasquez: I visited NYC for the first time when I was still a student at Cal Arts in 1997. I knew immediately that I would have to move there. The city moved at my pace and was so full of life and culture. I always felt a little frustrated with the laid back California lifestyle. I am really goal-oriented and impatient. I like to make plans and get things done immediately! So, I moved to NYC right after I graduated.
nocheLatina: How did moving from California to New York City impact you as an artist?
Sandra Velasquez: As much as NYC was everything I wanted, it lacked the strong presence of Mexican and Chicano culture that is so dominant in southern California. I realized I had totally taken it for granted. Even though I grew up listening to rock music, I still heard various forms of regional Mexican music and Colombian cumbia from my mother's living room stereo. You can't avoid it when you live so close to the border. It was my longing for my culture that made me start Pistolera. I had to move across the country to really appreciate what I had been hearing my whole life. The birth of Pistolera comes from my desire to make myself feel more at home in NYC. I mixed the sounds of Latin music I grew up hearing and united it with the rock music and attitude that I also loved.
nocheLatina: As a band, Pistolera is known for operating independently without the help of a label. Why was it so important for the group to stay independent?
Sandra Velasquez: It's not that we are anti-label, it's simply that no label has been able to offer us what we can do for ourselves. The industry has changed SO much in the last 10 years. It's really a different game now. We might have to front costs for album production, but when we sell records, we keep all profits. We have a great booking agent and manager and we'll work with a publicist on an as-needed basis.
nocheLatina: Can other aspiring Latin artists benefit from staying indie and not signing under a label?
Sandra Velasquez: I don't think it's a Latin artist thing, it's just an artist thing. We've been approached by labels, but we remain independent because they haven't offered us something that we don't already have or can't do without them. But we're still open to that opportunity!
nocheLatina: I know that some of Pistolera's lyrics discuss border issues. Why has Pistolera remained faithful in touching on this subject?
Sandra Velasquez: I grew up in San Diego, about 10 minutes from the border. Both of my parents are Mexican and my mother is an immigration lawyer, activist, and professor. The subject of immigration has always been a topic in my house. Not just as a political one, but a personal one. I can only write about things that I care about or that have affected me in some way. Because of my own family history I am empathetic to the immigrant struggle. I see people who are just like my family and are looking for a way to help their families. At the same time, I see those who don't understand that struggle and are anti-immigrant. When you live in a border town, the racial and class tension is an underlying part of the culture. The awareness of that issue comes out in my songs.
nocheLatina: Many of Pistolera's songs are politically-charge, which has always intrigued curious listeners. However, in an era of Lady Gaga and pop music ruling the charts, what are some of the challenges Pistolera has faced in staying true to their music?
Sandra Velasquez: There aren't any challenges in staying true to our music. I write songs that I like and that's it. Not all of Pistolera's songs are political. Some are very personal. It's just that our ‘political’ songs have gotten a lot of attention. But it's also because the music is unique! It draws people in first and then they notice the words.
nocheLatina: I discovered that the band was on a break from the road. How have you been keeping busy?
Sandra Velasquez: Taking a break from the road means I have time to write new material and rehearse. In order to write new material I have to have new experiences and live life a little. It's hard to do that when you're always on tour and doing the same thing night after night. We weren't completely off the road though. We managed to go back to Belgium and Portugal for a string of shows.
nocheLatina: Tell us more about your two new albums for 2010.
Sandra Velasquez: One is a Pistolera album called El Desierto y La Ciudad about escaping the hustle and bustle of New York City life for the desert. It’s also about discovering how the desert life is hard in its own way too. I took a series of trips to the desert last year and was really inspired by the silence and space. The other big thing for 2010 is the birth of Moona Luna, our new side project for children and their parents. It will be our debut of bilingual songs. Since I started the band five years ago, the three women of Pistolera have become mothers. Having children changes your perspective on life. We also noticed while on tour last year that whenever we played festivals there were children dancing and jumping up and down in the front. Our music is already kid-friendly, but our lyrics are geared more for adult minds. We thought it would be great to give our younger audiences something they can relate to.
nocheLatina: What should we expect from Here Comes Trouble?
Sandra Velasquez: We are going to be using the Here Comes Trouble showcase to debut songs from both of our new albums. We are going to play three new songs from El Desierto y La Ciudad, as well as three additional songs from Moona Luna. It’s going to be a great night and a real treat to have all these bands in the same room!
nocheLatina: Who, if the given the opportunity, would you like to collaborate with and why?
Sandra Velasquez: I think it would be great to collaborate with Lila Downs and Los Lobos. We share fans, so I think they would appreciate it if we played together. Mexican-Americans unite!
To learn more information about Here Comes Trouble, click here. You can also check out Pistolera’s official site here.