A vivid conversation with longtime songwriting partners Joe Reyes and Erik Sanden
Demitasse grew out of the friendship Joe Reyes and Erik Sanden forged playing together in Buttercup, a rock band based in San Antonio, Texas.
In 2009, they lost their fathers and turned to music to ease their grief. The result was Blue Medicine, a quiet introspective album full of lovely harmonies and insightful lyrics. The duo’s latest album, Perfect Life, continues to explore the troubling aspects of modern life, with compassion and sensitivity. It’s more musically adventurous, with elements of rock, rap and classic pop complimenting their close harmonies and haunting melodies. Childhood memories, aging and the frustrations of unrequited love lay the foundation for tunes full of shimmering light and shadow.
It’s a perfect album for our troubled times, an ode to the strength it requires to be a good person and reach out a helping hand to others. Sanden and Reyes answered questions about their creative process via email, from their self-sequestered homes.
Why did you choose “Perfect Life” as the album title? Is it ironic, considering we’re living in the age of Trump?
Erik Sanden: Not ironic at all. Perfect Life came from the stubborn optimism that we were feeling at the time the songs came together. Demitasse has always been a glass half full kind of band but, as we’ve grown (and aged), I think we can see the fundamental grounds for hope, even in the dark. We are as capable of generosity, compassion and courage as we have ever been, because we are human. It’s important to remember that in a crisis.
Joe Reyes: The song “Perfect Life” is a memory from childhood that Erik transcribed. Childhood, perhaps more than any other time in our lives, might be the best chance we have to call life perfect. As a title, it seemed to tie all the songs together into one emotional place.
Why did you decide to record with no pre-production?
Sanden: Joe will say because of expediency and freshness: you never get the first take back. It’s important to record at all times, especially moments when you think you aren’t ready yet.
Reyes: We have made records in which rehearsing and arranging the songs beforehand was more efficient. There were studios and producers/engineers to pay, so this saved money. With just two people, and one of those people doing the engineering, we have no overhead to worry about. We could indulge ourselves by setting up microphones, walking into a room together, with nothing but sketches, and hoping for magic to happen.
Did you show the tunes to each other before you went into the studio, or was it all bare bones?
Sanden: Bare bones! Joe was setting up mics before I was done playing the tune for him. Many of the songs were just sketches, we fleshed them out and arranged them on the spot.
Reyes: I don’t remember hearing Erik’s songs before we recorded them. My songs might have been in some sort of raw, recorded form before we both began to re-record them.
Sanden: Each day, we did a single song, top to bottom. These weren’t long sessions. I’d arrive at the studio around 11am, and by 2 or 3 we’d have built up a full song, capable of walking around on two legs. One time, I drank four espressos from our fancy machine and had an out-of-body experience.
Reyes: There was something quite emotional about “Flamenco.” I played in a Latin guitar duo early in my career, and I’d never thought to use the word “flamenco” objectively in a song. I was really moved by this concept and the lyric, which was so heartfelt (which is very flamenco).
Did you layer up vocals or instrumental parts, or record live?
Sanden: We start with the vocals and, usually, acoustic guitars. Then we layer upon that, adding piano, drums and more guitars as needed. And handclaps. We had a lot of handclaps on Blue Medicine, our first record. We forgot about handclaps completely on Powercouple, our second record. We had a note to self to not make that omission on Perfect Life.
Reyes: We usually double our vocals to thicken things up a bit. Once a basic track is done, Erik immediately plays his piano parts. Then I add drums, electric guitars, keyboards, or anything else I might feel works. I’m trying to work unconsciously, as I record each part.
What are the challenges of producing yourself?
Sanden: I suppose the danger of falling into a echo chamber of your own particular way of hearing things, but the advantage of that echo chamber is that, if you are successful, it will actually sound like you.
Reyes: Going down terrible wormholes happens on occasion, but working along side a gifted writer like Erik, we seem to have no problem arriving at what works best for each song. The same thing happens when it comes time to sequence the record and for the artwork. After 16 years of working together, our trust in each other, and our instincts, is strong.
There’s a great rhythmic sound using acoustic guitar and minimal drums? Is there subtle bass in there?
Sanden: Yes. Turn up the bass! That is usually Joe playing the bass with his soft, patient and self-assured touch. Picking his spots. You’ll notice that he often waits for big swells in the songs to enter.
Reyes: There is a bit of bass throughout the record, but it’s subliminal.
What’s a live show like? Is it as intimate as the album, with additional players along?
Sanden: We aim to recreate that hyper intimacy live. We’ve done shows with the two of us sitting at a table, covered with our notebooks and personal effects, facing each other. Most often we are minimalists: two acoustic guitars and two vocal mics. But we’ve also performed as Demitasse with the rest of Buttercup: Odie on bass, Chris Maddin on keys, and Claire Rousay on drums. The full band shows are really, really fun. Claire plays very softly, everyone is transfixed when she enters a song. Odie and Chris add dimension, drama and some degree of danger.
Did the current administration affect your writing?
Sanden: Oh yes. “Forgive” and “Hope in the Dark” are direct products of the panic and darkness coming from Washington.
Reyes: Compassion and empathy seem under constant attack. Our work is to combat things like our current administration, which is led by someone devoid of empathy, by making music and sharing it with others, so we can feel like one again.
Do you ever write happy songs?
Sanden: Yes. This record just doesn’t contain any!
Reyes: Aren’t these songs happy? In all seriousness, I think there is a subtle optimism and humor that seems to be growing in our songs. I think they are tilting towards something like happiness: I’d describe it as recognizing the beauty in life, as you’re sweeping up the broken glass.