Q&A: Pistolera’s Sandra Velasquez On Singing In Spanish, Criss-Crossing The Country, And Rapid-Response Songwriting


The powerhouse NYC quartet Pistolera started out meshing uptempo, Latin party music with politically engaged lyrics, but on their third release El Desierto y la Ciudad (Luchadora), they shift into a more atmospheric mode, offering a suite of songs meant to be heard in sequence and all together. Lead singer Sandra Velasquez talked about the album with us over email while on the road.

What’s the single biggest musical change between your previous releases and this one, in your mind?

Our first two albums kind of branded the band as being a Latin party band with political lyrics. With this album, we move away from that. This album is a concept album, about a journey between the deserts of the West and New York City. It is meant to be listened to from beginning to end and was recorded with the idea that it was a soundtrack. There are interludes that escort the listener along the journey.

Even though the album is meant to be heard as a complete work, if you could pick one song that sums up Pistolera in 2011, what would it be?

Yikes. Hard question. I have to pick two songs, “El Desierto y la Ciudad” and “Nueva York.” This year we are all about showing that we have what I call quiet power, with songs that are soft and mellow yet still powerful, while still maintaining that we can get people out of their seats and onto the dance floor.

How do you feel about the general lack of political engagement in the contemporary rock scene? Is it still possible to wake people up through music, or are indie kids in New York generally too comfortable to give a shit?

I think both are true. Music as well as other art forms can and does help raise consciousness, and there will always be people who don’t care. Not everyone looks for meaning in music. There certainly is a preaching to the choir aspect with songs that have social/political messages and the people that are drawn to them. They like them because they already agree with their message. Nevertheless, music helps fuel certain ideas into public consciousness.

It seems like the “Latin alternative” bubble has deflated quite a bit; the Latin Alternative Music Conference was recently held and turnout was far down from previous years. Do you think that’s just because of a lack of exciting performers at the moment, or is it something larger—a sense that Latinos are assimilating and paying attention to (and becoming part of) mainstream American culture, and may not need something that’s “their own” as much anymore?

First, Latinos have been assimilating and paying attention to and becoming part of mainstream American culture for a long time. Indie rockers in Mexico are listening to TV on the Radio and PJ Harvey as much as the people in Williamsburg are. Does anyone actually listen to or like an artist just because of where they are from? I think people like the style(s) they like, and where the artist is from is secondary, if not completely irrelevant. I do think that the segregation of media based on cultural origin is sometimes unnecessary. Did we really need a MySpace Latino? Clearly the answer was no. There is also a programming issue when it comes to what is considered “Latin music.” Just because a band is from a certain country or sings in the same language as another band does not make them of the same genre or even compatible to share a bill together. We have played our share of “Latin bills” where programmers think that if they put us with a band from Mexico it is an automatic match. That is not always the case. Everyone loses when we generalize and lump bands together based on ethnic heritage.

Is the issue of singing in Spanish vs. singing in English a political issue for you, the way it was with, say, Café Tacuba and Maldita Vecindad in the early ’90s?

Originally I started writing in Spanish because the songs for Pistolera were the first ones where I was the lead vocalist in a band, and the songs were very personal. I didn’t want people to understand what I was saying. Now I am over that and choose to sing in Spanish simply because I enjoy singing in Spanish more.

Cumbia seems like an infinitely mutable form; what attracts you about it, as a songwriter and performer, and who do you listen to for inspiration?

Growing up in San Diego, I heard a lot of cumbia before I even knew that it was called that. It wasn’t until I was an adult and started studying music that I learned what all the different styles were called. I was originally attracted to the songs because of their melodies and lyrics. I love Sonora Dynamita and Sonora Santanera.

You changed drummers between your last album and this album—and your previous drummer was a relative. So how did that change come about, and was it acrimonious?

From the beginning Ani Cordero had her own band, Cordero. She became the drummer for Pistolera with the understanding that she would do it as long as she could. I was surprised she did it for as long as she did! At one point she was working on four albums at once. That’s when she knew something had to give. Luckily, our new drummer was already part of the band family. When Ani was pregnant, Sebastian was her substitute when she could no longer play. It was a smooth transition. He already knew the songs.

As a lyricist, you have political messages but they’re mostly universal—what do you think about the hyper-specificity and topicality of norteño and corridos, and is that something you’d ever attempt yourself, releasing a song directly to YouTube in order to comment on a specific event?

I am fascinated by the groups that use their music as the news. Record a song the same day an event happens and release it. I am not sure I can work that fast. Even though many of my songs have political content, I can only write about something that affects me personally. As a songwriter I take lyrics very seriously. I cannot get up onstage and sing lyrics that I am not 100% behind.