Los Saicos: Simply Spontaneous, Notoriously Combustible

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Music had its share of rebels and rockin’ rumblers in the mid-sixties, but none broke down the bars and stampeded through the urban jungle, instilling fear in the weak and exhilaration in the strong quite like Los Saicos, the short-lived, highly influential garage band from Lima, Peru, who played from 1964-1966. Los Saicos knocked down those walls with the primal urge to play unbridled rock n roll with attitude and vigor.  Their music attacked like a feral rabid dog – everyone in Lima was infected. Whereas most Peruvian bands were playing covers of American/English rock n roll groups, Los Saicos stood out from their peers, writing and performing originals no one had ever heard before. In fact, they had  very little to no knowledge of the Nuggets-type garage bands performing in the US and UK. In 1965, they scored their first major hit, “Demolición,” which swept across the country and across South America. The band, comprised of Erwin Flores (lead vocals, guitar),  César “Papi” Castrillón (vocals, bass guitar), Rolando Carpio (lead guitar), and Pancho Guevara (vocals, drums), released a total of six singles before calling it quits a year later. Though Los Saicos remained relatively obscure for the rest of the 20th century, the influential torch they lit forty-five years ago still shines brightly on modern garage-punk bands, and shows no signs of burning out anytime soon. Our friends at Munster recently released a beautiful 6×7″ boa set of all the Los Saicos singles (also available on CD), and they gave me the opportunity to interview Los Saicos leader Erwin Flores, who has been living in Washington D.C. since 1971.

LITA: You are regarded as one of the true pioneers of punk/ garage rock music, and 45 years later, the influence of your band is still heavily prevalent in American bands, like The Black Lips, and Puerto Rican band Davila 666… There weren’t many bands like you, in Peru or even the world at the time…Were you only hoping to stir up some initial buzz when you formed the band?

Erwin Flores: We were simply spontaneous; we were not thinking of the effect our music would have.  If there was something to it is that we were a product of our neighborhood, where several good bands sprout at the time – like a little Liverpool.  We all had the same sense of “bacan” – “cool”.  It came from James Dean, but reached us the most strongly from Elvis.  So, when we played, we us four were outputting an unhesitant ideal of cool, which was shared by boys and girls of our neighborhood and other ones in Lima – we just had a particular way to express it.

Were you a wild child or did you get into any trouble in your teen years?

We thought we were baaad, but actually were average middle class kids driving our parents’ cars reeeeaaaalllyyy fast.

Who were some other bands you’d play with? How did Los Saicos stand out from them?

There were some very good musicians playing rock in Peru and in Latin America in general who we admired.  We played with many of them on TV and on stage. Some bands in Argentina were putting out originals, but most bands played covers and a lot of it in English.  We wrote all of our songs, the large majority in Spanish, and no one could come anywhere close to our crazy stuff.

Who put out your singles? What did the label say when they first saw you play and how quickly did that turn into putting out your music?

We never went through the process of playing here and there, then becoming noticed.  My brother, Harry, brought a popular disc-jockey to one of our rehearsals; he liked us and sneaked us into the annual Peruvian “EMIS” of the time, circa 1965, where the whole industry (records, radio, TV) gathered.  We played “Come On.” When we finished, there was total silence in the room and the first thing that came to our minds was “we flopped big time”; however, an instant later, the entire audience rose to their feet clapping and screaming.  Next day we were on TV and recording.  Our first 45 was “Come On,” and it played here and there on the radio.  The second was “Demolición” and you could not turn to a radio station that was not playing it.

What was the political climate of Peru in the mid-sixties?

It was a democracy and socially tolerant – very tolerant.

Rock n roll was fairly tame at that time. And then you guys came out, and bam, things really turned up. Did you ever face any sort of ridicule or protest for your music?

“Demolición” caught everyone by surprise and people loved it, so it went mainstream.  After that we were a mere curiosity, until [being] rediscovered in this century.  Now everyone is crazy and we are commonplace – and playing again.

Obviously, the kids loved it, though…because “Demolicion” was one of Peru’s most popular songs in 1965. Did you ever feel like the Beatles when you went out in public, running into fans, signing autographs, any of that?

Yeah (yeah…yeah..)

Were you playing a lot of live concerts and TV appearances at this time?

Nonstop.  Played live and TV every single week for over a year.  Top shows.

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What were your songs about and what did you hope people would get out of your lyrics and songs?

We did not write or played our music thinking of what effect it would have on people.  We were just that way and that’s that.  All “Demolición (Demolition)” says, repeatedly, is: “let’s knock down the railroad station – let’s demolish, demolish, demolish… we love to blow up railroad stations…”. “Camisa de Fuerza (Straightjacket)”: “shoebox yet unopened …candy, chocolates..four airplanes and one truck…to kill, destroy and set on fire…” “El Entierro de los Gatos (The Funeral of the Cats)”: “the top cat has died, they’re burying him .. now I shall rule, I shall be the top cat.”  Then we also have some romantic songs, even if they don’t sound like it: “I’m in love with you – and your sister too.”

Did you ever consider writing songs in English, to maybe cross-over into the American and British markets?

Not really. At the time it all looked so remote as to be impossible. Now, at my age, it would be plain folly. However, Black Lips and I have toyed with the idea of doing something together, sometime, somewhere, perhaps, who knows…

What were some of your bands you were listening to at the time?

Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Chuck Berry.  The first rock I ever heard was Bill Haley and the Comets playing Rock Around the Clock.  I was catatonic for a week; could not think, sleep or eat.  I’ve only felt that way one other time, when I understood the Theory of Relativity.

Where did you draw your greatest influence from?

Paul Anka. Does it surprise you? Me too.

The band lasted only two years. Why such a brief tenure?

Even less than that.  I think the backlash on our craziness depressed us.  Also, believe or not, there are other things to life than playing rock n roll.

What caused the band to break up?

People wanted to hear something closer to the common; something they could effortlessly relate too.  I guess if we had been in the States or the UK we would have been there with the Doors (until death do us apart, which isn’t too long either) and the likes for a bit longer.  And the “I superstar” syndrome that eat up each of our brains generated that antigravity effect that perhaps all bands have experienced.

What did you do after Los Saicos? Did you continue playing and releasing music?

While in college, in the seventies, I sang with my acoustic guitar in the Latin restaurants of Washington DC.  In 1997, a Miami recording company produced me an album, singing my own Latin songs, none of them rock, which was recorded in Colombia.  When it was done, they decided (realized?) that I was too old to pour half a million bucks in promoting me – so, they gave me all the materials and gracefully released me with a pat on the back.  That was just as well, because I was gainfully employed and could not have gone professional anymore.  But the experience of having my songs arranged and played by phenomenal musicians awoke the dormant musician in me again.

Are you still in contact with the other living members of the band? What did they go onto do after Los Saicos?

Papi, bass and lead voice for some of the songs, moved (just per chance) to Washington sometime in the eighties. He is a businessman. After my Colombian experience (musical, I mean), I went on a spree and got me everything a little kid’s heart might desire: a Steinway piano, a Les Paul guitar, some Pro Tools recording equipment, and so on.  Since then, Papi and I got together at least once a week to play music, but only in private.

About five years ago, I went to Peru and called Pancho (drums) and Chino (lead guitar).  I just looked them up in the phonebook; they had not seen each other, or me, since 1971.  Neither of them had been active musically.  Chino was an engineer and had his own computer business at that time.  Unfortunately (and this is something that makes me more brutally angry than sad) he died just one year later.  Pancho had some agricultural investments and had not been playing either.

Do you still play music?

Now, here comes the impossible.  About six years ago, an underground fanzine in Peru had interviewed Chino and then went on to do the same with me and later with Pancho and Papi as well.  In parallel, some “archeologist” unburied the original tapes of our 1965/66 recordings and issued a CD, the radio started playing some Saicos again, the TV and newspapers began enshrining us like the Peruvian Beatles, and the Mayor gave us the Civic Medal.  In Spain, Vampi/Munster Records had put out an LP with our songs (which I bought on the Internet and allowed me hear our music for the first time in decades); now Vampi has issued a collectors box with replicas of all of our 45’s and a very nice biographical booklet packed with pictures.  A project of a documentary about Los Saicos (Saicomania) is in the Internet and, to our greatest surprise, there are bands literally all over the world playing our songs.

Do Los Saicos still play music?

Because of the fanfare, we are booked to play in Spain (Dracula Festival) in October, Argentina in March and Peru probably next May.  Pancho and two very good, younger Peruvian rock n rollers rehearse in Lima, Papi and I in Washington, and coordinate it all by email.  I think we are sounding like a SOB again – now let’s see if I don’t faint on stage … or worse (way to go).  I’ve written some new songs we are going to try; who knows, we might end up recording them.  But we can’t be too active as if we were still in our twenties, for obvious reasons.

Now you’re in America; Washington DC, I’ve heard. How long have you been here, and what brought you here?

I got here in 1971, when a military government destroyed the Peruvian economy.  Got married to a wonderful Virginian chick (second wife, the first Peruvian) and have a son with her, Alex, who is now in his mid-twenties and signs his own songs with a garage band.  I studied Physics and then went to work for NASA for ten years.  After that, I became an executive with a multinational company and am still with them.  I have traveled the World with this job and that’s how I met my current wife, an Argentinean beauty and fan number one.  I am a US citizen and very proud of it.  By now, I’ve lived in DC most of my life and don’t plan to move anywhere; I don’t know a more beautiful city than this.

Do you have the Vampi/Munster 7” box set that was just released? How much did you take part in getting it reissued (before, there had only been a Peru-based CD reissued in 98, and a 10” in 96)?

We cooperated from afar. It was a phenomenal effort; a great production.  Last year Vampi took me to Spain to sing “Demolición” with a band in Madrid, and then put me in a one hour interview with a radio show that’s heard all over the country and beyond. They’re pros.

What do you think of when you hear these recordings today?

I had the good luck to be involved with three born musicians of great quality.  I wrote most of the music; but the arrangements were every bit as creative and interesting and we all did it together.  When I see other people playing our stuff I sure feel proud of it; but unlike other covers, a lot of our songs are filled with screams that although in appearance seem random they actually are not – and they are practically impossible to reproduce.  Listen to it – each noise, each scream has a definite musical purpose.  What do I think when I listen now? “How the hell did we come up with that!?” That’s how!

What do you hope people today will get out of your music?

Fun – life is short.