Photo: Miranda Rosales

Interview: Mexico City shoegaze outfit Mint Field – “When you play music for yourself it usually turns out best, and more honest”

“Bird, Snake, Goddess, there She sat, all the colours of the rainbow and full of little windows with faces looking out singing the sounds of every thing alive and dead, all this like a swarming of bees, a million movements in one still body.”

This beautiful passage from A Mexican Fairytale, a short story written by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, feels oddly pertinent to the type of music Estrella Sanchez and Sebastian Neyra choose to make as Mint Field. The duo’s second album Sentimiento Mundial is a swooping post-rock/shoegaze excursion that doesn’t shy away from more intricate textural arrangements. At its center soars Sanchez’s voice – an elegant, nebulous, though strangely intimate vessel for myriad emotions. Unlike, for example, Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, she applies existing words to imbue concrete meaning into Mint Field’s songs. In some way, it’s the same type of inverse logic Carrington applies in her writing and visual art: once you’re bombarded with so much otherworldliness, the more lifelike elements start to appear bizarre as well.

Which brings us to the meaning behind the album’s title, Sentimiento Mundial, which translates roughly to ‘feelings of the world’. As this question was addressed, Sanchez and Neyra stumbled over each other with an endearing, lighthearted unease. Sanchez: “In this crazy world we are living in, it’s really easy to feel alone. When you’re having a bad day, or when you’re feeling sad or depressed, it can seem as if you’re the only one feeling this. And on social media, it seems like everyone is living this perfect life.”

“But everyone has issues,” Neyra adds, “So this album is like an emotional survival kit for people. If you’re feeling like any type of intense emotion – it could be positive or negative – you can use this record as something to aid you with that. Either intensify it, or maybe cool it down a bit.”

Sanchez acknowledges her voice’s abstract quality, and how it reinforces the album’s message, “Of course, I would like the people to understand the lyrics, but I know that’s not going to happen. Not everyone speaks Spanish. But sonically, the music represents the feelings that surround us in life. I think it’s really nice to express that feeling of not being alone, of saying everyone has the same issues. It can be a taboo sometimes to talk about these kinds of topics; people don’t want to say it or they prefer to pretend that everything is okay.”

Sanchez contends that the lyrics she wrote are more personal and candid than ever, fully aware that the nature of her voice tends to obfuscate things. “On the album, I dealt with a lot of things that have happened to me these past two years,” she says. “It’s really personal. The way I write isn’t straight to the point, maybe more metaphorical. But I like people to have their own interpretation of it. It might be hard to really relate to what I’m singing lyrically, but purely in the way I sing, the true emotion is revealed.”

Listening to Sentimiento Mundial from front to back inspires a sense of remove and tranquility. For an album that puts such emphasis on the act of feeling, there’s actually no palpable emotion – like sadness or elation –  that really pops out. Like any shoegaze-indebted album, it has a fair share of satisfying guitar squalls that discharge beyond the cosmos, but the record offers plenty of subtle treacherous twists as well.

The opening song “Cuida tus Pasos” (“Watch Your Steps”) is a nightmarish, psychedelic piece of music that pulls the rug from under you like those dreams when you’re free-falling. It enwraps the listener in dark, contorted swells of strings and saxophones, and eerie spectral choirs strike as a swift overturning of reality. “Natural” meanwhile, feels as if treading more familiar earthbound territory, sounding almost like a throwback of Chemikal Underground-bands such as The Delgados or Aereogramme. That push-pull dynamic happens all across the album: the abrasive stabs of guitar noise on the title track, the strange, anticlimactic ending of “No te cigas” (“Don’t Fall”), the sudden motorik burst of “Presente” (“Present”).

For Sanchez and Neyra, performing in Mint Field also presented a swift change of pace in their young lives. “For me, music happened a little bit by accident,” Sanchez reflects. “I started playing guitar before I really knew how to play guitar. I have always enjoyed singing since I was a little girl. That was like my main thing. I think both Sebastian and myself started off as fans, because we just liked music.”

“I started playing in high school, and I used to go to shows all the time,” Neyra recalls. “And me living in Mexico City, a lot of cool bands stopped by. When I was 18 I could finally go to concerts – otherwise you have to go to these big stadiums and arenas and watch a band amongst a sea of people. The best place to see music was a festival called NRMAL, which is still happening. But back in the day it used to be so small and super DIY.”

Both Neyra and Sanchez quit school halfway to start focussing on writing, recording and touring full time, releasing the band’s first album Pasar de la Luces in 2018. The following year, Sanchez moved from Tijuana to Mexico City after the departure of founding member Amor Amezcua. “Three weeks before we started recording the songs for Sentimiento Mundial, Amor left the band,” Neyra recalls. “So we needed to rearrange the songs. At first, those arrangements consisted of plug-in synths from our computer.”

The new incarnation of the band found its footing on the other side of the ocean – in London’s Wilton Way Studios to be precise. Producer Syd Kemp and drummer Callum Brown, both members of Ulrika Spacek, jumped in to materialize the sessions for Sentimiento Mundial. With no settled band dynamic to fall back on, Mint Field opted to experiment with abandon, inviting guests such as Cathy Lucas (Vanishing Twin) and sax player Nathan Pigott to give each song a unique touch. Kemp insisted that Pigott would play parts that Sanchez and Neyra composed at home on the computer. “(Nathan) not only performed the melodies, but also harmonic variations. And that happened with the flutes and violins as well,” Neyra glows. Sanchez agrees: “It was really awesome to see all these amazing musicians reinterpret our songs.”

The creativity was infectious, and it prompted Callum Brown to offer his services to Mint Field as a permanent member. Because travel has become impractical with the coronavirus afoot, they have been exchanging files from long distances, hitting the ground running on the next Mint Field album. “Callum really understands us, and we generally like the same music,” Sanchez says. “We connected. On the last record, we were still finding out sound but now it has become really cohesive.”

Between the sessions in London, Sanchez and Neyra unwound during the weekends at Kew Gardens – the renowned Royal Gardens in the south west of the city. “We stayed with some friends of Syd Kemp, and they had an annual pass,” Sanchez remembers. “It’s a botanical garden that’s impressive and beautiful.” The duo shot a picture there that would become the album’s cover art. Sanchez says that Mint Field experiences the music as a visual thing (the official term being synaesthesia): “When we were listening back to recordings, we were talking about what kind of color the music sounds like. Not black, it had to be a very bright color.”

That visual mindset could prove fruitful for Mint Field’s current project. At the moment, Sanchez, Neyra and Brown are working on a song for a music compilation inspired by Amores Perros, the feature length debut by Mexican Academy Award-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, and along with Mint Field, artists like Mabe Fratti, Concepción Huerta (who is also Neyra and Sanchez’s roommate) and Lorelle Meets The Obsolete contributed music to the project. It gives Mint Field an opportunity to merge their music with a different medium; and it’s a film both Neyra and Sanchez happen to hold dear in their hearts. They describe Amores Perros as a visceral, intrusive viewing experience, and their reaction and relationship to the film deeply informs the song they’re currently writing.

For Mint Field, that personal element always sort of anchors the music, even though it surges out in this elemental fashion. Sanchez says that this is a significant change from the band’s more drifting, whimsical formative stages. Mint Field now serves a substantial purpose: “The music you make always has to say something about you. And with Sentimiento Mundial, I love everything about the way it sounds. There are no feelings of ‘we should have changed this or that’, and the music stands really close to me. It captures a moment of our lives in a special way. I think that in the end, we make music for ourselves. Of course, it’s amazing that people can enjoy it and relate to it in some way. But music made for other people isn’t always the best. When you play music for yourself, it usually turns out best, and more honest.”

Sentimiento Mundial is out now on Felte. You can buy the album on their Bandcamp page.

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