Many people look back in nostalgia to the ‘90s. Windows 95, the Tamagotchi, the test screen and pokemon; it was in many ways a revolutionary period. Many of these novelties really influence our daily life unto today, others just make us smile when we’re reminded of them.
But the ‘90s was not only a decade of funny gadgets, it was also an era of musical innovation. Many young musicians in Spain had enough of the Spanish pop music in the ‘80s. All over Spain, musical scenes sprang like mushrooms. The most important and influential were the scenes of Granada, Albacete, Zaragoza and Asturias. Especially Asturias had an active rock scene. In a short period, a dozen of indie bands was found. The first ones were Penelope Trip, Dr. Explosion, Screamin’ Pijas and Nosoträsh. The next years, Manta Ray, Australian Blonde, Undershakers and many more joined. These bands were influenced and inspired by the music that came over from the UK. They had enough of the very Spanish music that topped the charts.
To know more about what happened that period, we talked with some of the protagonists of Xixón Sound. They spoke about their experiences and how Xixón Sound changed the musical scene of Gijón onto today.
One of them is Tito Valdés, he is one of the founders of the band Australian Blonde, perhaps the most succesful Asturian band of that era. Today the band still plays, occasionaly, but without Tito. In 2014, he was one of the creators of Gijón Sound, which has grown to be a weekend-long city festival. Tito is half-British and is now an English teacher for business people in Gijón.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “In the late ‘80s, begin ‘90s there was this wave of change in the music. We started listening to band we had never heard of, like the The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. We wanted to imitate them because the music sounded fresh, but more importantly, it sounded easy. In 1991 we started with the band, Fran, Roberto Nicieza and me knew each other from school, and we wanted to play in a band. Like everybody else, at that age you either want to be a sports player or a musician. Fran started to play the guitar and they asked me if I wanted to be the singer. Eventually they thought it was better if I played the bass.” (smiles)
Uviéu or Xixón Sound?
The musical scene became a dense community, most of the bands had at least one member that studied at the Campus Milan of the Universidad de Oviedo, at the faculty of humanities.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “There were a lot of people who had the same age as us that began a band. But they all had their own style, we were probably the most “poppy” ones. Bands like Penelope Trip were more into the darker style, and others like Dr. Explosion played more ‘60s garage style. We were all in college at the same time here in Oviedo, so if we played everybody else came to our concerts and we went to watch them.”
One of the others bands was Undershakers. Arock band that existed out of five girls, Mar Alvarez played the guitar. The band was active until begin ’00. Then, she and her sister Alicia started with a new project, Pauline en la Playa.
Mar Alvarez (Pauline en La Playa/Undershakers): “My father has a bookshop which also sold cd’s, Paradiso, and so my sister and I always had a lot of music in house. When I started to study in Oviedo, there was already a big musical movement. There were bands from all over Asturias, but they were concentrated in the university. It organized a cultural week and a music contest. There I saw Robert Nicieza playing, and I was fascinated. So I said to myself, I want a band too. As I always played guitar before, and studied music, this seemed normal for me. Because I had friends, who thought just like me, we started a band. We became Undershakers. And our style was a bit revival, garage rock.”
Although the band members studied at Oviedo, the musical scene in reality happened at Gijón. There was an encouraging atmosphere that stimulated creativity. The “label” Xixón Sound was found. And more importantly, the scene broke the barriers of their own community and got the interest of a larger audience. Though still quite local.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “We all knew each other and attended concerts if some of us played. And that’s when we started to organize things together. We made a t-shirt with the names of all the bands of the city, and this added to the legend of Xixón Sound, which technically wasn’t a sound. We were just a bunch of people of the same age that shared an interest in music.”
Mar Alvarez (Pauline en la Playa/Undershakers): “Back then, there were a lot of bars where they played live music. Gijón was really a city full of music But the scene was artistic, not only musical. There was also a big group of people who designed the posters or cd’s.”
One of the members of Manta Ray, Nacho Alvarez, opened a bar in 1992: “La Plaza”. In the middle of the old neighbourhood of Gijón, Cimadevilla, La Plaza became the epicenter of the movement, where all the bandmembers and alternative people gathered. Today the bar is still drowned with melancholy about that time, many of the visitors were young in the ‘90s. The interior and exterior haven’t changed that much. But at the same time, it doesn’t fail to attract younger alternative souls.
Mar Alvarez (Pauline en La Playa/Undershakers): “Everything happened there. It was a time when you were either in the bar, studying or working. So when we went out, we always came there. With a lot of friendship. It was actually the center of Xixón Sound and music in Gijón. There were other bars too, but eventually everybody always ended in La Plaza. I still come there. In the summer I sit there on the terrace in the summer with my sun. They also play good music. And it’s just a great location, Cimadevilla. Especially when the area became car-free, it’s nice being there.”
It was not the first time a musical genre got named after a specific city or region. Many places preceded Gijón: Merseybeat in Liverpool, London Swing, Seattle Grunge, Chicago House, Detroit Techno and Missisipi Blues. But it was rare that a middle-sized town played such a prominent role. While other towns had great musicians too, they weren’t so professional as the bands in Gijón did. And this had a specific reason.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “It obviously happened everywhere. All over Spain you had good bands. But the means to create music were very limited. In Gijón there was a band, Los Locos. Which consisted out of Paco Martínez and two other musicians. And Paco and his brother had studios, with very simple, small mixing tables. But with their talent and the little equipment available, they were willing to help us and teach us. So we could make a decent record very cheap. Paco Loco later became the Australian Blonde guitar player.”
Mar Alvarez (Pauline en La Playa/Undershakers): “It’s very important. Paco was a little bit older than us and had experience in recording albums. He made records for a lot of bands of many different styles, for us Undershakers, but also for Penelope Trip and Dr. Explosion. It was a blessing for us that we could make records for a reasonable price.
Paco “Loco” Martinez is a reference within the music recording and producing industry in Spain. He had a band “Los Locos” during the ’80s and recorded the albums of almost every Xixón Sound band. In the name of love, he moved from Gijón to Cádiz. There, he still has a studio.
Paco Loco (Los Locos/Australian Blonde): For me, it wasn’t little money. “I recorded for a price that I thought was reasonable for the bands, but of which I could also earn some money. But it’s true that I recorded for a lot of bands. The first one was Dr. Explosion, and then followed a lot of them. In the ‘80s, I had a band and so everybody knew us. Therefore many of them contacted us. What I liked most about the bands from Xixón Sound is that they didn’t have any pretention or great ambition. And of course, that they made good music.”
The big succes
Gijón became a reference for indie music in Spain. Other cities booked bands from to Gijón to play at their festivals. While the first bands really had to work their way up in the musical circuit, later musicians benefited from the established reputation of Gijón.
Mar Alvarez (Pauline en La Playa/Undershakers): “In Seattle and Manchester, for example, were already big musical scenes. But what’s interesting about Xixón Sound, is that we were the first in Spain. And the quality of the music in a small place like Gijón is thanks to some of the first bands, especially Penelope Trip, who are 4 years older than we. When they started, there was not much space for alternative music. In the beginning they came around in the city from bar to bar to offer their albums, and ask if they could play their songs. And because they set the tone, other bands had more opportunities. We could tour through Spain with Undershakers. It was exhausting, but fantastic.”
Although the music of Xixón Sound was very much appreciated by the Spanish audience, very few bands got an international career. Australian Blonde was the only band who really succeeded in exceeding the boundaries of Spain. Their melodious, catchy songs went down well in other European countries, and even in the US.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “There was a period that we had a lot of success. My band in particular did something nobody else did, we wrote a hit. We had a hit “Chup Chup”. It broke the barriers of alternative music. And that song made the movement even more popular. Otherwise the movement would have been a little thing that happened locally. But we hit number four on the lists in a time that records were being sold. We got on tv and the song was used in a commercial for Pepsi and appeared in a movie. I think I wouldn’t have had a musical career without that song. We even played at New York. But we never lost our roots, we always kept playing in small bars. We were a rock band that toured all the time and kept the punk attitude of playing everywhere for anything.”
The end of Xixón Sound?
Around 2000, the peak of Xixón Sound was over. Some bands split, others continued to play, but less frequent. Most of the bandmembers were already in their thirties by then and started to settle. Some of them moved to other parts of Spain.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “You grow up and need to work to survive and to have food on the table. Most of the bands that were here never achieved a status that helped them survive. So everybody just started in jobs. The movement dissipated because we grew up. It’s possible to live from your music if you reach a certain number of sales, like 50-60 thousand copies, back in the day when records were still sold. But nobody in here sold that much. We were the closest, and we only sold 30 thousand.”
Mar Alvarez (Undershakers/Pauline en la Playa): “We stopped with Undershakers because we all went to live in other places and didn’t have this many shows as before. In 2000 Operación Triunfo (a talent show for musicians, editor’s note) was organized for the first time. Before cities booked three or four indie bands for their fiestas, but since then people from Operación Triunfo were chosen to play. We couldn’t practically keep the band together anymore. But in 2001, some girl who liked us very much, paid a lot of money to make us reunite one time. It was really fun, we went there with a minivan and had a good time. And Juan de Pablos also came to play a dj-set.”
“And so my sister and I started in 1999 with Pauline en La Playa. Which is much calmer and more poetic, and also in Spanish. Undershakers sang in English, but I wasn’t the singer there. With Pauline en La Playa we’re both singing. The music is very well chosen. We think a lot about the composition of our songs. We’re still active because we’re sisters. But at the same time friends. Our lives are also a bit synchronized, we have our own jobs, but we for example went to live in Madrid together. And the band is part of our lives. We release an album whenever we want and don’t have any pressure. It’s like we’re three sisters, Mar, Alicia and Pauline. We can’t imagine to stop with the band.”
A new start
However, many musicians didn’t stop playing music. Some bands still have shows occasionally. When La Plaza turned 25, Manta Ray reunited once more. Other people started completely new projects.
Tito Valdés (Australian Blonde): “Right now Australian Blonde is still playing, a few times a year. But they don’t see each other in between the concerts. And it’s without me, because I got out of the band when I moved to New York and got married.”
“These days I have a duo, we’re Pancho and Lefty. We play the songs we always wanted to play, from the bands we’ve always liked. Covers and our own songs. We play gigs here and there. My ambition is now to be able to record our songs, not much more. It’s good enough to be recorded I guess.”
Mar Alvarez (Undershakers/Pauline en la Playa): “Right now I’m happy to work in music, me and some other people from Xixón Sound started Sonidopolis, a pop-rock music school for kids. My life changed a bit, from really performing to a rather technical side. But having had a band really changed my life, therefore I do what I do today. And many of my friends are people from that period. We also have a band, Petit Pop, which is for children. The bass player is from Penelope Trip, the drummer from Nosoträsh and the guitar player is from Undershakers.”
Other people who found a second musical breath are Manta Ray’s Nacho Vegas (as himself) and José Luis Garcia (as Elle Belga), Australian Blonde’s Francisco Fernandez (as Francisco Nixon). But there’s also a new generation of musicians. Every year Gijón Sound festival is organized, it started as a tribute to the bands from Xixón Sound, but grew to a festival where all kinds of bands and singers can perform.
Gijón Sound and the new generation
As new musical generation has stood up to conquer Asturias, and maybe more. One of them is Fee Reega, a German singer who moved to Asturias in 2011. She’s one of the artists that performed on the festival Gijón Sound 2018. She tells why Gijón breeds so many excellent musicians.
“I think Gijón is a very good place to be a musician, I’m trying to convince more friends to come here. And musicians I know really like being here. But I also think it depends on the individual situation of persons. The jobs that exist here in music are rather limited, although there’s a lot happening for a small town. For me it’s really good, because the living costs are really low and therefore I can live as a musician. Every couple of months there is a big event, when I arrived I was surprised how fast I could make contacts and how qualitative the musicians and audience are.”
She lived in Berlin, a big city where there are a lot of opportunities for musicians. But Gijón has its advantages too.
“Being related to a smaller scene can be a benefit. On the one hand side there’s a connection between a lot of bands, thanks to their history in the ‘90s. And it’s still alive. On the other hand, you have such a variety of styles, but we all stick together very well. Because we’re with only a few, people call you to sing on their record, or collaborate. Although our styles are often very different. There’s a very good atmosphere, with a lot of possibilities. Even after all these years, there are still so many people with who we want to work together.”
Almost 30 years after the first indie bands started to play, Xixón Sound is alive and is important for the people who are conquering the stage today.
“Xixón Sound really provoked a nostalgic feeling among many people, hopefully it will be the same in 10 years. But I have the feeling that something similar is happening right now. When I go to Barcelona or Madrid, people say me: “there are so many things going on in Gijón”. Almost all of the musicians from the ‘90s still play music. And we still go to La Plaza, which hasn’t changed. They still don’t care what people think about the music they play there. Although they don’t really want to call themselves the center of alternative music in Gijón and Xixón Sound, they are.”