Justin Moyer and Rafael Cohen met as freshmen at Wesleyan University and started their band, El Guapo, as a two-piece rock outfit playing your standard aggressive post-punk fare. Then Moyer, a native Philadelphian, spent the summer with Cohen at his home in D.C., and El Guapo began playing out.
Upon returning to Wesleyan the next fall, the two added drummer Nate Smith. With a more solid lineup (Cohen and Moyer had been sharing all instrument duties, which made for some live chaos), El Guapo recorded a six-song EP, which would turn out to be its first and last release you could classify easily.
Cohen began taking classes with Wesleyan professor and avant-jazz composer Anthony Braxton. With notational symbols and a homemade musical language, Braxton integrates improvisation with composition by actually scripting certain aspects of otherwise improvised pieces.
Through Cohen, Braxton’s language found its way into El Guapo’s material, and the band began to explore “the different spaces in music,” as Cohen puts it. Cohen cut off his distortion and picked up an oboe. Moyer added bursts of clarinet to his bass lines. Smith began to play glockenspiel. Suddenly, El Guapo wasn’t performing the obnoxiously loud racket that had characterized its early days.
The structure of the band’s performance changed: El Guapo had been experimenting with uninterrupted sets, but with broader knowledge of Braxton’s musical language, the trio learned to communicate onstage with simple hand signals. As a result, the flow from song to song became smooth, and the El Guapo performance became a solid piece, with its songs serving as different movements.
“We sort of rely on open-mindedness,” Moyer explains.
As the traditional punk-rock side of El Guapo began to disappear, the band searched for new means of musical diversity. The three added Pete Cafarella and his accordion-keyboard setup to their roster. The old material was still there, but it would appear unexpectedly as a musical quote, hidden inside an altogether different movement.
Now, when it all comes together, El Guapo reaches a dizzying state, which Cohen calls “freedom.”
“Rock is so ritualized,” says Cohen, explaining his yen for change.
Moyer agrees: “You go to a show, and it’s the same people pulling out the same tricks. The songs are good, but what’s next?”
Now, Smith and Cafarella have departed, and Moyer and Cohen again find themselves a duet. But, true to form, it promises to be nothing like the past.
“It’s still very much in the works,” says Moyer. “We’re moving further away from rock”—a realm the former rockers consider outdated. “I think [we’re] just trying to find a way to stay relevant.”—Mike Kanin
El Guapo plays the Black Cat Thursday, Oct. 14, with Les Savy Fav and the Apes.