Interviews June 23, 2020
The Characteristic Optimism of Salt Cathedral

For some artists, watching your album come out in the middle of a pandemic, when travel is impossible and therefore touring is a non-starter, would be disappointing to say the least. But when I asked the Colombian duo Salt Cathedral if they regretted the timing for their new album CARISMA, which came out May 8, they told me nothing could be further from the truth. From the Brooklyn apartment they now share, Juli and Nico told me, with both themselves and their audience stuck at home, they've been able to perform their music in different ways and share things like DJ sets.

“It's a very joyous album that came out at a very strange time and we got so many people saying 'oh, this album is really lifting me up! It's bringing me joy!'” Juli said, “and it felt healing and felt like it found its place. For me, I would never say 'Oh we released it at the worst time' because I've tried to find some positive in it.”

We talked over the phone Monday about timing, about how the shape-shifting band knows when they've sufficiently put their mark on a piece, collaborations with MC Bin Laden and Big Freeda and doing LAMC and the Libera Awards remotely.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Step into the Salt Cathedral.

Afropop's Ben Richmond: First off, do you want to introduce your band and yourselves?

Juli: Absolutely, I'm Juli.

Nico: And I'm Nico.

Juli: And we're in a band called Salt Cathedral.

Ben: So, maybe the most generic term for what you guys do would something like “electropop” but that doesn't really shed any light on the kind of music you're making. How would you describe Salt Cathedral's sound?

Nico: Well, we haven't really described it because we've moved to so many different places. We were talking about the term “electrofusion” and it's something like “electropop” that doesn't really say anything. It's hard, we tend to say we have elements of Colombian music and also pop and also tropical with electronic elements—I find it so hard to find a specific term for what we do now. We have to say like four things to explain it a little bit.

I guess when you're forging your own path, it's hard to describe.

Nico: Yeah, we're not in the path of cumbia or Afrobeats or something like that. We kind of move from different styles and different things and we sometimes feel the dynamics a little bit stylistically. I don't know Juli, if you agree with this, it's like we're not the “niche,” we're more like the “compilation of the niche”—like if you go to a compilation and search for a country, there's different styles, and we're sort of like that.

Juli: I would agree and I'd also say it's like an attitude, it's a little bit of an attitude of exploration and an attitude of curiosity. Yeah, there's an on-going aesthetic because we're two of the same people, but the music—the rhythms change, the things we get curious about change. Of course we try to move respectfully, otherwise you're just taking off from cultures but, we're trying to create that Salt Cathedral world and ask what does it mean to bring any other influence into it.

And it's because we grew up with so many things. I wasn't born a singer doing cumbia the way Totó la Momposina was—in her town, in her place in her family and her culture, she has always sung this. We grew up with the American radio and a lot of dancing—dancing salsa, dancing merengue, dancing reggaeton at a very young age, listening to Cuban music because a lot people listen to that in Colombia, but also the American stuff, even the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears which I grew up on. Then we went to jazz school, Nico played fusion and Nico played in hardcore and metal bands; there's a huge rock and metal scene in Bogota. And so I just think it's this crazy combination...And then we moved to Brooklyn and discovered electronic music and hip-hop from Brooklyn and you listen to this on the streets, and it's dancehall music. So there's always been this exploration and this deep respect and curiosity for music in general.

Nico: I think what we're trying to do is an exploration and a journey. We don't have to maintain a tradition, it's a little bit explorational. It's a personal journey to a certain extent.

As you were saying, you can draw different traditions but you have to be authentic to your own story and what you've heard, and I think we're going get a lot more of that balance with everyone listening to each other. Thinking of Colombia, I think of champeta music—would you say that Colombia, as a country, does a lot of fusions and adaptations?

Nico: Yeah, when you think about champeta, it's a great example—it's African music with a sound system added to it, and you give it a Roland [drum machine] or samples as a drum part or sometimes somebody playing the drums live, but not anymore. When you go and you explore different countries or you explore different things, champeta is like that; cumbia is basically that— a mix of indigenous, Spanish and black—that's what Latin music sounds like. It is a little bit like that and I think when I hear something Colombian, it's mixed. It's always mixed, even the salsa they make there is so different from Puerto Rico or New York because of the instrumentation, the arrangement and the production. Joe Arroyo was also doing a lot of soukous and he was doing this in the pop context of Medellin and Cartagena. So when somebody's “what is champeta” I'm like “oof!” Or “what does Joe Arroyo do?” It's hard to explain to somebody and then they listen to it and are like “O.K., I understand but I really don't understand.”

One incredible thing about Colombian music is that when you see it—whenever you go to the place and see it in context—immediately you get it. I think it's not something like Jamaican music that is so globalized. It's still so local that until you go to the place and you understand and are with the people, you really don't get it completely.

I know what you mean. I liked champeta just fine, but then when I visited Cartagena a couple years ago, we went out to a club on champeta night, and it clicked in a way it hadn't. And now when I hear it, I have a place and a memory for it. Likewise, when I went to Brazil, all the music snapped into place. I mean, I loved it before, it travels well and the more you listen to it, the more you can engage with it, but to be there in the place and see how it fits in even socially is really valuable.

Speaking of Brazil, you recently had a collaboration there with MC Bin Laden. I really like that song for a number of reasons, but one think I like particularly is how gracefully it slides between English and Portuguese. It feels like the casually multilingual song could be a trend here—there was that collaboration between Bad Bunny and J Balvin and Mr Eazi last year or maybe before—did you make a conscious decision to change languages on that or other songs?

Nico: No, I don't think it's conscious, not on that song. When you think about J Balvin or Bad Bunny, those guys are thinking with a sort of Pitbull mentality, about being global, and trying to have the biggest song in the world. We're not coming from there; we're coming from a place with listening to baile funk for years and we love MC's style and what he does and we just wanted to go and have a little bit of an experience with him and make something between his world and our world and the dance world as well. Fortunately people in Brazil like it a lot.

The only conscious part of it was the beat was informed by a lot of funk that'd I'd been listening to and I tried to keep the production something you might listen to at a party in Brazil, but also something more listenable—that was the hard part because some funk would be crazy to put on at 11 a.m. It's just too intense. So that was a conscious part of it. How can I make funk that is listenable at lunchtime, let's say? If you're not doing the party now, something you could casually listen to. That was the thought behind that.

I like your mix of the more mellow elements that still has a strong percussive element to it. What are you composing on these days? What's your writing process?

Juli: I feel like our process changes a lot. When we say our band is an attitude, it's “never repeat ourselves,” and to never do the same thing again. We're not going to do three baile funk songs you can listen to by yourself at 11 a.m., so the process has to change, because if you do the same process you get the same results.

We do compose in Ableton and we use that as our main tool. Sometimes Nico will start out very beat-based, and I'll sing over it, but sometimes we're on an instrument—Nico will be playing guitar, I'll be playing piano. Writing the songs and melodies, sometimes the song comes right out of me and Nico will add elements to it, our song “Te Quiero Olvidar” was made like that. So it changes, but I think the main elements are samples that Nico works with, a lot of our songs are sample based and we resample my voice a lot and sometimes other voices and sometimes until it's unrecognizable.

Nico: It's a little bit of a hybrid process because we come from playing a lot of music and playing guitar and piano and a lot of stuff, so it's a hybrid between like being a beat maker and also being musicians who play instruments and we record a lot of stuff in different areas. That's our process basically: we play everything and I program a lot of the beats, and sometimes we record some guitars like Juli said. We just try to do whatever is needed, we're not thinking “oh because I play guitar, a guitar must be there all the time.” It's more about the song, and what is needed. For all these years, there's a lot of elements and we have it when we need it.

Right now we're working on a reimagination of the record, with a drummer and he's making and layering a bunch of stuff, and that's a new element we haven't done in a bit.

That's interesting. You've also collaborated with Big Freeda, and I like that track a lot. I wonder how finished is the song before you bring to the person you're collaborating with?

Juli: Well, the Big Freeda track is a particular story, because that song had like five different iterations of itself. We originally went down to New Orleans to work with her and Nico did a bunch of more bounce-sounding tracks that I sang choruses to, and I did like three songs with her, and the songs ended up just being parked on our hard drive for like a year, because they didn't quite feel like we were bringing Freeda into our world. It felt like we were trying to make bounce music, which is not our music. Nico produced it over these five iterations and we ended up bringing Jarina into it, so that one's a particularly interesting case because it took at least two years to shape and form into what it became.

When did you know it felt like enough of you? The goal, like you're saying, is a process and to not repeat yourself, so how did you know when you'd struck that balance?

Nico: It's really easy. The process was Juli being an executive producer there—I would produce and she would listen to it and it worked really well because sometimes I go really deep into the details, while Juli sees the big picture.. So having that balance between the guy who's going over it and Juli being like “It's not there,” and I'd get pissed and go back and do it again and do it again, we get it. Like Juli said, I did five versions of it, and you know when it feels right. Because at the end of the day when you're composing these things, it's emotion. Sometimes it comes from an idea and it's more intellectual but for the compass, the north is emotion. The aesthetic and emotion.

Juli: You have to be a bit instinctive with it. You were talking about the baile song that you can listen to in the morning, it's the same with bounce. We can't just make a bounce track that they'll play in the club. It's not our music and not our sound, and it's not what we're trying to achieve. But the moment we can incorporate bounce and Freeda and add another artist, a Dominican girl and then us, it's like “O.K., there it is.” You feel it. It's an instinct thing.

Nico: I think also, that's an interesting question because sometimes what you're doing with a song is trying to give honesty to it. So I guess when it feels honest, it doesn't sound like a copy of something, when it doesn't sound like a rip-off. Obviously when you have inspiration, musicians copy because that's how you learn. But once you copy there's a process of incorporating those elements and once you incorporate that and give your take on it, that's what you're trying to do. That's the place you want to be at.

And that's where we're trying to get the songs. It's like “cool, they like New Orleans bounce and they worked with Freeda, but it only sounds like bounce?” No, you have to get into the process of incorporating those songs inside, to bring out something else, besides that. It sounds very hippy or spiritual or something but it's something like when a jazz musician learns—they hear a lot of Charlie Parker, a lot of Coltrane, they go over “Giant Steps” a thousand times and then sometimes they sound exactly like Coltrane but then they have to go and get their journey to who are they as improvisers. I think when you make songs, you have to find that moment beyond this, like “this is our take; there's something that our experience and perspective gives to the song.” That's when we know the song is all right. It's not about “the best song” it's about the most honest collaboration or song we can do.

It sounds like you'd have to have a lot of trust to work the way you do, at least between the two of you, since you're the final words on it.

Nico: Absolutely!

Juli: We're family at this point—I mean, we're roommates and we live together, and that makes it easier for music. There's a lot of back and forth, but the great thing about being so close is the honesty. Nico mentioned it, he said he got angry. He'd get angry when I'd say “No, this still sounds like bounce and we're not releasing a bounce track. We need to find...our own voice. Let's keep working it until we find our voice.” And that works really well.

Nico: We are very honest with each other and it's a blessing and also a curse because we get into a lot of arguments, you know? We get into a lot of fights between one idea and another, but at the end of the day, there's nobody else in the world I can send over a track or a song—Juli's the only person I send my music to who will be honest and thoughtful. She's very thoughtful, so it's a blessing, because you don't always know where you're going. Sometimes you move certain ways or you become a little superficial because you feel like the motion is there, but you have to think in terms of the big picture. It's a good dynamic to have.

You met here in New York?

Juli: We met in Boston, but we didn't know each other in Bogota. It's really we grew up like 10 blocks from each other, like Nico on 81 and me on 91, if you could imagine the equivalent in New York. We never met, but we had friends in common and went to the same college for a year, art college, but we never met and then we met in Boston when we were both going to school for jazz.

What are the odds? Or maybe it's just running on parallel tracks, and that's why you made such simpatico collaborators.

Juli: I never thought of that but you're right. We could even pinpoint Halloween parties that we went to as kids, like “Oh, I was at that party too!”

So the timing for this album coming out...could it be worse?

Juli: Disagree! I mean, yes I know, but...

Well, wait, what's the upside? It sounds like you've found the silver lining!

Juli: Yes! I feel like we just find the silver lining! I mean, not being able to tour the album is unfortunate. If it was right right now, with the protests on, we might've cancelled it, but the moment we released the album, it felt like people's attention was really online and we have a fan base that's very global, and it became an easy way for everyone to meet, from all over Latin America and the U.S. and Europe, it became an easy way for people to meet. I think people were at home and they could listen to the songs and embrace the album. And it's a very joyous album that came out at a very strange time and we got so many people saying “Oh, this album is really lifting me up! It's bringing me joy!” and it felt healing and felt like it found its place. For me, I would never say “Oh, we released it at the worst time” because I've tried to find some positive in it. We've been doing a lot of online opportunities, where we've developed playing in other formats and in acoustic formats, and doing a lot of deejay sets, so it's been an exploration into music in that sense and relating to our record. So I see a lot of upside, do you, Nico?

Nico: It's really interesting. We're just people who see the positive in the negative sometimes because we have to and we've found a way to make it work, you know? And we didn't decide, “Oh this is the worst time,” we decided to make the best of it. And we did, we've done it like and it's kind of working and we're adapting so, I don't know. There was a curfew and protests...But it feels like we've been through things like this and we're O.K. with it. We released the record, and we're happy. We're not thinking about having the “best opportunity” or whatever, it's about having the record out there and it's cool and we're safe. That's it.

Juli: That's a very Colombian attitude, I think. It's a very resilient people in Colombia, a country that was just in war and violence but Colombians are very resilient. You always try to strive to find the positive.

Nico: That's what you can do! Nothing is perfect—it's like people here want perfection and they're so dramatic, and people here want to do the best thing and be number one—I'm happy to release a record, and I'm happy to do this interview with you. Done, man! What else can I do? I don't control the pandemic. I can't control circumstances, I can't control the crazy drunk dude, so, you know, I'm doing my best with this. I have to see the bright side to enjoy life and go through the process and be humanistic about it.

That's very heartening to hear. I'm glad you shared that. Last week you were at LAMC, how did that go?

Juli: LAMC was wonderful. The performance was pre-recorded so we did it a few weeks back but we watched the panels and the information was really really great. There was two particular ones. One was the Wonder Women of Music and Nico and I watched it together and it felt very empowering. And the one that we both loved was the mental health one with Carla Morrison and Ana Tijoux. They talked about anxiety and all these things that everyone feels but no one talks about.

The precarious nature of being a musician must really exacerbate those problems.

Juli: They were talking about that, how much of a roller coaster it is because they're artists, because you get off a stage where people are cheering you but you might feel like you did a bad job or something else comes up. They described it really well, one of them did, I think it was Ana Tijoux, when she said, like our range of emotions has way lows and highs just by nature of being an artist.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to call! Nico, Juli, thank you so much and I can't wait to see you out in the world soon!

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