The Night Dënver Gave Me a Future

   By Richard Villegas | Nov 7th, 2019

    Artwork by Alonso Ayala (@ouchal)

What’s the record that changed your life? I don’t mean the one that helped you get over a break up or nursed you through mourning a loved one. Those records are essential, but I mean the one that shattered your fundamental understanding of what music is and can be. I mean the one that forced you to reassess your beliefs. The one that unmasked you as little more than a young, arrogant fool. For me, that record was Dënver’s sophomore album Música, Gramática, Gimnasia, an emotional whirlwind of synthesizers, orchestral strings, romantic daydreaming and teenage angst that forever shattered my US-centric musical outlook.

Melodrama aside, that record really did change my life. In late 2011, after nearly three glorious, if hectic, years in South America, a wild adventure came to a crashing close as ending jobs, friendships, and romantic relationships indicated it was time to begin a scary new chapter. That October I headed home to New York City, an amazing but tough fucking town, where my less than glamorous circumstances ushered in a deep and ugly depression. I was broke as a joke, sharing a bedroom with two friends in The Bronx and unable to secure a job for the first six months of my return. This apparent fall from grace was a sharp contrast to my South American life, where for the past two years I’d lived in Santiago, Chile, making extremely cute coins and living excessively, to the point of vulgarity. It was a humbling shift, and looking for any nostalgic taste of my past life, I remembered a friend had gifted me the new album from this random band for whom he designed a website.

I distinctly recall my incredulousness as the shimmering disco strings of “Mi Primer Oro” gave way to the filthy, saturated synths of “Olas Gigantes.” How had I never heard this? I loved dance music. Disco had been my favorite musical genre since I started paying attention to the whole damn artform! How had this music existed right under my nose and completely escaped me? What the actual fuck was happening? Who were Dënver and why had I not yet pirated their entire discography?

But the bitter truth was I had known about this gold mine and didn’t care when I was actually in it. I had seen Dënver, Ana Tijoux and Astro perform at the first Lollapalooza Chile in 2010, and I shrugged them off as local filler talent as I walked over to catch whichever other US or European act was performing at the same time. Javiera Mena and Francisca Valenzuela opened the festival’s main stage on their respective days, promoting their sublime debut albums, as well as new cuts from their even better follow ups Mena and Buen Soldado. I, of course, showed up later, eager to see some mediocre band I can’t even remember. More galling still, I saw Dënver perform twice more during my time in Chile; once at a post-earthquake fundraiser in 2010 and again opening for Cut Copy later that year.

Back in my friend’s Bronx dining room, the epic orchestral crescendo of “Lo Que Quieras” was hitting and I was already frantically searching for related artists. That night I discovered Gepe, Adrianigual, Fakuta and Alex Anwandter, also going back and giving Javiera Mena and Astro a proper shot. I was blown away, and while the Chilean indie pop explosion came as a buzzy and gradual wave for most, it was a rude awakening for me. I looked back on my life in Chile, and even further back to the year prior in Argentina, and found cherished memories lived through a jarring gringo bubble. In many ways I’d been bratty and condescending, disinterested in local music scenes I was repeatedly told were excellent. Maybe it was knowing that soon I’d have to go sleep on a dirty, deflated air mattress, or perhaps it was the pit of regret expanding in my stomach, but that night Dënver threw me a lifeline.

Chilean indie pop suited me shockingly well, then and now, and while I remain a fervent acolyte of this musical golden age, Música, Gramática, Gimnasia is still my favorite way of getting lost in a wondrous hipster fantasy. I’ve always had a taste for quirky, left-of-center pop, so songs like “Los Adolescentes” and “Segundas Destrezas” left me twirling on the moon. Mariana Montenegro’s almost childish cooing on “Feedback” and “Cartagena” still gives me chills, and while she remains the face of Dënver to this day, it was Milton Mahan’s reluctant leading man energy that had me hook, line and sinker.

I was completely sold on the cinematic romanticism of “Diane Keaton” and “Lo Que Quieras,” the latter of which always gets me on the last line. After offering us heaven, earth and everything in between, Mahan closes the song by meekly gasping “Y si no quieres nada...” – an extraordinary reminder that having each other’s company is more than enough to get by in this terrible world. On “Los Bikers,” we also get a glimpse of the subtle darkness that has become a hallmark of Mahan’s writing, minimally unspooling a tale of sexual assault that grows even tenser when coupled with its modern dance and sadomasochism-flavored music video. Finally, on “En Medio De Una Fiesta,” he provides a perfect bookend for the record, exquisitely colliding the melancholy and disco ball euphoria we’ve heard explored throughout.

In my life there’s a before and after Música, Gramática, Gimnasia. Before Dënver opened the floodgates of an entire generation of Latin American indie musicians making brilliant, challenging work without so much as an ounce of credibility to envy their US and European peers, I was willfully ignorant and unaware of my staggering gringo arrogance. Afterwards, I became hungry and curious again, reconciling several aspects of my identity and devoting the better part of the past decade to supporting and uplifting this artistic universe. As a writer I’ve been lucky enough to meet, interview and befriend many of my idols, while as a fan and adventurer I’ve traveled the world, being welcomed into scenes, shows and homes I could only have dreamed of while sitting in my friend’s plastic covered chairs in The Bronx. Today, this music pays my bills. It literally feeds me. After years in the game, it still sounds like madness every time I say it out loud.

Gracias Dënver, por darme lo que quería.

Richard Villegas is a music journalist, culture writer, world traveler, Instagram thot and hot mess. He is a frequent contributor at Remezcla, Bandcamp and Rolling Stone and produces the SONGMESS podcast, where he interviews Ibero-American musicians and industry professionals over beers, coffee and chisme.
IG: @rixinyc / @songmess