Border-Hopping with Tijuana's Nortec Collective

"What happens in Mexico...STAYS in Mexico!" Five copies of the 3-track Nortec UNO sampler special edition vinyl will be given to four lucky readers. Giveaway details follow Wasim Muklashy's trek through Tijuana!

"You in Tijuana?"
'Yes'
"You got a car?"
'Yes.'
"Drive south to Las Playas.  Meet me in front of the bull-fighting ring in an hour."
CLICK.

What!?! Sounds like the beginning to a bad movie. That wasn't exactly something I was prepared to deal with while standing at the public Telex on the corner of Negrete and Zegovia. It being less than 3 hours after finally passing out from a night of unabated debauchery in what seemed the seediest nooks and crannies of Tijuana, I was still mentally and physically disheveled. Although the important parts are still with me (or so I believe), four weeks later and it's still a bit difficult to piece together the hazy happenings that went down on Revolution Avenue and beyond on that fateful February evening.

It wasn't exactly planned out that way. I was scheduled to go down to Tijuana, Mexico for the day to sit down and speak with Pepe Mogt, co-founder of the Nortec Collective and one-half of south-of-the-border electronic music pioneers Fussible (pronounced Foo-see-blay). We were to first meet at the infamous Jai Alai building, home of the Centro Bar, on Saturday night to finalize the manner in which we were going to do the interview. I showed up at 9pm, he wasn't there, I returned at 2:30am, he wasn't there. I later learned that he had been there precisely in between the hours that we (a couple of friends decided to make the jaunt down with me) had disappeared and found ourselves (un)willingly morphing into the mad goings-on that take place on legendary Revolution Avenue every Saturday night. A place where you'll find drugs. A place where you'll find hookers. A place where you'll hear countless groups of over-the-border friends drunkenly proclaim to each other "what happens in Mexico...stays in Mexico."

After rolling through one of the many local Farmacias for something to help take the edge off the disturbing fact that I had left my car parked in a shady corner of Tijuana's Hotel Aragon directly in front of a huge white hand-painted sign that read "Park At Your Own Risk", we managed to find our way to Senior Magwai's, one of the 80 or so clubs, bars, and cabarets lined up one after another on the Avenue. While I continued to insist that the sole reason for the trip across the border was for a well-oiled feature piece on the Nortec Collective, it was hard for my friends to take me too seriously when even I could no longer understand the blurbs of jibber-jabber coming out of my mouth.

It was a damn good thing I did most of my preparation before crossing the border. What I do remember is a lot of tequila, random people shoving towels in my mouth while violently shaking my head, and whistles. A lot of whistles. VERY loud whistles. Within an hour, I was completely disoriented. It was only 8pm. I tried making my way to the restroom and before I knew what I was doing, my friends were pulling me away from a game of indoor basketball I managed to get myself involved in the upstairs of the same bar (I don't know. Don't ask. I won't be able to answer). The other players (all non-english speaking locals) were laughing at me and I found myself keeled over laughing with them. Then, out of nowhere, another whistle. And some more tequila dropping into my mouth from a foot above. And another god-forsaken towel shoved in my mouth. A couple of vodka-soaked jello-shots. And more laughing.

Most would do what they can to avoid the notoriety that Tijuana has built itself on, but as it turned out, Pepe would have it no other way. He embraces it. He credits the uniqueness of the melting pot border-town as the inspiration behind the groundbreaking work his collective has pieced together. We caught up with him in front of the bull-fighting ring 20 minutes south of Tijuana and followed him through a maze of charming unpaved beach roads leading to his home and studio. With a warm smile on his face, he immediately began to explain. "Nortec is basically the same spirits you felt when you were on Revolution street yesterday, you know, drinking and having fun. That's nortec. When you are walking thru Revolution street you hear, like, hip-hop too loud here and then techno here and then you hear a Norteno band in the street. All that fusion is basically is what we are doing with music. That's the most basic explanation of what nortec is. Have some drinks, walk down the street, and have all these sounds together. Revolution, for me, is a very magic place. To be in the middle of the street hearing all this fusion together. It's very inspirational."

If you told Pepe 5 years ago that he'd be earning his living by making music, he would have laughed at you. Until just a few years ago, he was using his computer science engineering degree to design formulas and machines for facial creams, "but when the Nortec thing started to get more attention, we got this invitation from Palm Pictures (record label) and suddenly we got a lot of gigs in different parts of the world. Japan, Europe, the United States. So then I had to quit my job. Right now I'm not working as an engineer, and I'm making less money than I used to, but this is what I love."

He may not be using his degree to design facial cream formulas anymore, but that's not to say that his background in engineering hasn't come in handy. Quite the contrary. He has an affinity for toying with the inner-complexities of his electronic equipment. "We create custom drum machines, including changing the chips inside instead of using their sounds, we put other sounds into it.  With most of our equipment we do custom modifications to get other sounds." He grabs a Roland 606 off one of the shelves. It has a curious extra outboard interface with additional knobs and pads wired directly into the drum machine. "For example, here I have a 606 and added some modification so you could tweak the sounds more.  Now we have other options to process the sounds."

Ironically enough, the centerpiece of his studio is an extremely outdated Oberheim 4-voice that contains no internal memory, "so every time I'm going to create a song, I have to build it from scratch. I have to build the sound, record it, then the sound gets lost. But it's cool to have that because every time I switch it on, we get a new sound, very unique. I can try to recreate something, but it's always going to be totally different. That's the good part about it." Aside from the Oberheim, Pepe lays out a few of the other essential items in the studio that he 'can't live without.'  "I'm always using all the MPCs since the first MPC came out, the MPC 60, the MPC 2000, and right now I changed to the MPC 4000. This drum machine is the main tool for doing breaks or samples and generating patterns. And also we use this one over here, the VR Odyssey (synthesizer)."

Pepe's home studio is where most of the material for the Fussible projects are created. He makes it a point to distinguish between Fussible and the Nortec Collective. Pepe and DJ Tolo are the brainchildren behind Fussible, a strictly musical outfit, while the Nortec Collective is a ever-growing and constantly-evolving group of friends that collaborate with each other on every level of the various creative processes they decide to involve themselves with. The many elements of the collective include graphic design, literature, architecture, apparel design, film, and there's even a video game in the works.  As you can imagine, technology plays a large part in both producing and distributing the Nortec creations.  "Most of the stuff we can share by email, and everyone lives in Tijuana, so we are very close to each other. And even though we are a collective of musicians, everyone's usually working in their own studios, but we are constantly sharing the sounds and ideas. Sometimes we hook up, mainly in the bars, and we talk about some of our ideas, our tracks, and what we think about them and, you know, we exchange ideas like that, and then everyone goes to their house to work on it. Sometimes Hyperbole and Panoptica (two of the musical members of the Collective) come down here to the studio to use some of the synths and we finish the track here. Sometimes they come down here, we record some stuff, then go back to their studio and finish their work. That's the idea of the collective, to share ideas, and it's more prolific in producing material."

I figured it was a good time to have Pepe explain how it had evolved to this point, show how the nortec sound was born, and he was eager to talk. "The thing is, I was raised here in Tijuana, a city that grew up by itself, without control by even the government back in those days. There were no Mexican chains here, and all the television and radio was American. We didn't have any Mexican radio, so all the folk music we were listening to was mainly from the southern parts of Mexico. We grew up listening to mainly electronic music because most of the radio stations were from San Diego."

It's important to understand that in the United States, there are restrictions and regulations on the coverage area a radio antenna can reach. Due to the lack of these restrictions south of the border, and the fact that it was so much cheaper to maintain an antenna there, San Diego's 91X had their broadcast antenna placed in Tijuana. This allowed Pepe and the residents of Tijuana to tune in to programs they would have never otherwise known. In addition to being exposed to such acts as Kraftwerk and other early electronic music pioneers, often times the radio signal would mix with what was being broadcast in Mexico, creating an eclectic and interesting mix of sound and culture. "We were hearing on the radio what was happening in the UK, what was happening in Detroit, what was happening in Germany, so when we crossed the border (to San Diego), we were looking for these records." This, along with the Revolution Street experience, had everything to do with triggering the idea of combining it all into one, unique, appealing sound.

The experiments began on Revolution Street's Club A, where Pepe and DJ Tolo would spin German techno and American house during the early part of the 90s. They were pleasantly surprised to see that the crowd consisted mainly of people from over the border on the American side. People were coming from San Diego, Los Angeles, and even as far up as San Francisco. "You'd see only a few people from Tijuana, because the scene was nonexistent for electronic music...there was none. So it was cool for us because we were spinning and every Friday we had people that really wanted to listen to house and techno."

"Then we started doing Nortec. Basically, it's the fusion of the folk music from here, norteno and tambora, with the (electronic) influence we got from America and from the rest of the world. When people began to notice that we were fusing the old sounds of the town, it seemed like people were touched inside...they felt like the music we were doing was part of them too, so this nortec thing started blowing up. If we never had the radio station, if we never have been living here on the border, if we never had the opportunity to cross the border to get the music, Nortec would never have existed."

And it's no question that their influence has been far reaching across the music world. Their unique style has been recognized and appreciated by many surprising sources, and this has kept them quite busy. In addition to finalizing the tracks for The Tijuana Sessions Volume 2, they are busy collaborating on projects with personalities including the Allen Parsons Project, and are also involved in remixing a track originally written and performed by the famous composer Ennio Morricone, who has written well over 400 film scores whose list of credits includes The Untouchables, The Mission, and U-Turn. The remix is for a Compost Records compilation that also includes artists such as Kruder & Dorfmeister and is scheduled for release later this year.

Pepe and various elements of the Collective are also in the process of collaborating with a host of live musicians. One of the things they are doing is recording electronic tracks and then presenting them to real norteno bands to cover. They then take it back to their studio and mix and match between the electronic and the live. It's interesting "because now musicians try to imitate electronic music with their own instruments, so it's fun for us to see what happens."

Other things to look forward to are a summer tour, a possible stint at the Sonar festival in Europe, a track that uses up to seven drum machines simultaneously to create melodies, and a 40-track double-cd compilation that Pepe is putting together called "Colores." It consists of electronic tracks from various Latin American countries that don¹t get as much exposure as Pepe believes they should. It will have music "from Mexico, from Chile, and from Argentina, just to give exposure to them because right now Argentina has a lot of economical difficulties and Chile is very far, and sometimes it's very hard for them to get the (proper) exposure."

There's no question that the members of the collective are very busy these days, but throughout it all, Pepe remains grounded and humbly unsure of his success. He's enjoying the moments for what they are, "but if I don't make it, I'll have to come back to working in engineering." From the looks and sounds of it, that doesn't seem to be the most probable scenario. The momentum only seems to be building, and Pepe, along with the Collective, are poised to be major players on the international music scene. Great minds think alike, and with over 15 minds working together at any given time, the Nortec Collective are here to stay. 

Something else that's here to stay is a slice of Nortec history in your very own living room. Here's a little something special for all you who didn't get bored and made it all the way through the article. Pepe was generous enough to hand me 5 copies of the 3-track Nortec UNO sampler special edition vinyl to give to 4 lucky winners (c'mon...like I wasn't going to keep one for myself!!). All you have to do for your chance to win is to send an email to nortecgiveaway@myway.com with your name, mailing address, email address, and phone number. Three lucky names will be pulled out of a sombrero and will promptly receive this priceless addition to their music collections. Winners will be announced in the May 1 Underground mailer, so send in your entry no later than April 29! Oh...by the by...one entry per household.  To keep you satiated until the winners are announce, make sure to check out www.fussible.com, www.nor-tec.org, and www.milrecords.com 

*GetUnderground.com staff members are not eligible to enter.