Hideous Kinky? 

Kinky is either an A&R guy's wet dream or a kickass band. Maybe it's both.

What blends equal parts rock en español, house, and traditional Latin music; promises to retain its indie ethos while at the same time courting mass-market appeal; and lends itself to cute double entendres about crossing border and genre lines? It's Kinky, a pop critic's fantasy of the ideal new sensation to rally behind, that's what. It's a young band whose bio reads like a spoof e-mail that entertainment publicists might forward to each other with the subject line, "If there were groups like this, we'd be out of work. ..."

Really though, Kinky's got every category covered -- samplers, guitars, cowboy hats, dreads, turntables, drum kit, congas, designer sunglasses, flip-flops, dance tracks, and happy songs. It's like lifestyle music for those too inundated with lifestyle choices to settle on any particular one. Plus, Kinky's from Monterrey, Mexico, a fact that's redeemable for instant cool points in lefty circles, but also has pedigree with hipsters who keep tabs on the various international hotspots for emerging sounds. Monterrey has produced Control Machete, the first Mexican hip-hop group that US audiences took notice of, as well as mock rockers Genitallica, Beastie Boys retreads Plastilina Mosh, and El Gran Silencio, purveyors of a Latinized rock-rap hybrid. Like Kinky, these groups tend to wear their influences on their sleeves and delight in shmooshing multiple, seemingly incongruous styles into a single song. This is where the double entendres come in. Mexican bands, the popular reasoning goes, are able to disregard traditional musical and regional boundaries, since they themselves are wedged like their homeland between the States and the rest of Latin America. As The New York Times sees it, "For Kinky ... the border-hopping birthright of Latin alternative rock is a license to dig into any kind of music from the last three decades that might make its listeners move."


Kinky's keyboardist and main spokesman, Ulises Lozano, concurs with that characterization. "In Mexico, we are always receiving a lot of information from all over the world, and people are open to all types of music. We have our Latin roots, but we listened our whole lives to rock music from the United States and electronic music from Europe."

Postmodern in perspective, and cute and cuddly to boot -- each has his own compartmentalized tastes, sort of like the Spice Girls. There's Lozano on keys and programming, who digs European dance music; Omar Gongora on percussion, who favors Latin and jazz; César Pliego on bass, who goes for rural Mexican music and Tex-Mex; Gilberto Cerezo, on lead vocals, guitar, and turntables, and Carlos Chairez on guitar, who share a passion for rock and trip-hop.

The music press loves lineups like these -- the more distinct personalities, the better. "Kinky are like the Village People of Mexican avant-pop," Spin purrs. "There's the Cowboy, the Hippie, the Nerd, the Heartthrob, and the Kool Kat." Collect all five.

And Kinky has an unequivocally major-label sound despite its real allegiance to a small start-up -- Coldplay and Beta Band producer Chris Allison's Sonic360. Allison won a bidding war between various big players because he offered creative freedom and lots of attention -- Kinky was his first signing, resulting in a win-win for band and label. Sonic360 let Kinky record whatever it wanted, which gave the group indie cred. And Kinky returned the favor by recording something that didn't sound indie at all. Rather, its self-titled debut has something for just about everyone -- samples of famous breakbeats, norteña accordion riffs, rocanrol guitars, even a Brazilian batucada (the track "Sol"). The group has a distinct computer-processed feel to it -- synthesized melodies, sequenced percussion, a compressed mix-down that often gives the impression of all the instruments pulsating as one -- but Kinky is able to re-create all of it live, and takes pride in being a band of musicians, not studio techs. Lozano describes the approach as "electro-Latin organic fusion."

Another example of Kinky having its cake and eating it too are the vocals, which are in Spanish. But the words are repeated often enough so even gringos can chant along (the group's anthem, "Mas," is built around the simple refrain "vamos queriendo mas y mas," which is shouted back by concertgoers). And the lyrics, while lighthearted and apolitical in a way that much rock en español songwriting isn't, are not without meat. Cerezo, who writes them, name-checks Gabriel Garcia Márquez as an influence, and the author's fanciful descriptive style shines through in tales about astral travel ("Sol") and how to look at the world sideways ("Mirando de Lado").

"We really like to have fun with our music, and we try to share that with our audience," Lozano says. "But we don't want to make funny music. You dance to it and the lyrics are fun but they have meaning -- they're not just funny."


Talking with the members of Kinky, it's clear that all the pulling of the press' heartstrings they do is more or less unintentional. Conversation with Gongora, for example, skips from Tito Puente to minimal techno to the ways rhythms from both can be meshed together. But his interest in playing them off each other doesn't lie in their irony value. Whereas a similar approach taken by an artist like Beck can feel calculated -- let's throw as many cultural references at as many demographics as possible and see which ones stick -- Gongora just likes the way two kinds of dance music from different eras can make people move. Kinky seems motivated more by hitting a nasty groove than hitting a particular commercial niche.

Indeed, the band is not the gimmick it may at first seem. The group's seeds were sown when Lozano met Chairez three years ago during a summer music program in Los Angeles put on by the Berklee College of Music. Lozano had already studied film scoring and jazz at the school's Boston campus; he and Chairez shared a taste for experimental music, and both were from Monterrey. After returning to Mexico and bringing in the three other members, the group started out "as a jam band, not really playing songs but just playing over loops and programmings," according to Gongora. The band even played for an avant-garde theater group called Teoria de Gravedad for a while.

So Kinky wasn't formulated in some A&R rep's petri dish. In fact, it was sucked into the American and European pop markets quite unawares -- a friend submitted a demo tape of the group's material to the 2000 Latin Alternative Music Conference battle of the bands without the members' knowledge. Kinky subsequently won, resulting in contract offers from Sony, Universal, and BMG. Kinky didn't mean to make the industry bust a nut, it just happened that way.

Still, there's something strangely missing from the band's recorded output. The ever-churning synthesizers, the steady boom-tis of the electronically augmented drums, the chipper choruses, the undercarriage of peppy congas -- all the component parts seem to be resting on a void. Peel back the surface layers and there isn't a core, like an exciting action movie without a plot. Once one gets beyond the novelty of house, cumbia, and Brazilian rhythms swirling in and out of funky guitar and bass licks, there isn't much left to chew on. Many of the arrangements feel kitchen-sink crammed, as if the point is to dazzle with the quantity of styles used rather than to coax a memorable tune out of them.

From all reports, though, Kinky's live show is astounding, with members swapping instruments and hopping about like kangaroos. Some critics have suggested that the band just wasn't able to encode that magic onto disc for its freshman effort. A similar condition afflicts most jam bands, which is perhaps what Kinky still is underneath its techno trappings. A gushing review of its April show at the Elbo Room posted to jambase.com likened the group's sound to a Mexican version of Sound Tribe Sector 9, a hippy-raver outfit whose live recordings are also better considered than its studio work.

Kinky may have stumbled into media darlinghood by accident, but it will have to prove itself more than an easy comparison to the Village People all the same. The trick now is to get a few good records out before the Kinky action figures hit the shelves.

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