Medvedi (Ben Balusek, Andy Chavez, Ernie Carillo, and Chris Odom) at Soledad Canyon, NM
Medvedi is an Americana punk four-piece based out of El Paso, Texas. The band—comprised of Ben Balusek, Ernie Carillo, Chris Odom, and Andy Chavez—are gearing up to release their second full-length album, Unwind, this summer. With another full-length album and a split under their belt, the quartet met with me after practice one Wednesday night to discuss their newest album, the dynamics between the members, and the future of the band itself.
Medvedi began as Ben Balusek’s acoustic project a handful of years ago. Balusek chose that name after scouring the internet, searching for words in different languages.
“I’m 25% Czech,” Balusek said. “My favorite animals are bears and I liked the name Medvedi because it means bears in Czech so Tay[lor] and I went with that. I do feel it fits the theme of the band (and my life) of connecting with the outdoors and finding peace in nature.”
Back then, the band consisted of Balusek, on singing and guitar-playing duties, while his wife, Taylor, played the glockenspiel and joined in with vocal melodies. Ernie Carillo, a long-time friend and collaborator, began playing drums for Medvedi during this period. A few years later, after Taylor departed the band, Balusek recruited Chris Odom and Andy Chavez for bass and lead guitar duties, respectively. What had long been Balusek’s personal project now expanded to include three incredibly talented musicians, each one bringing his own flavor and original sensibility to the band’s music.
Ben, Ernie, and Chris have been in bands all throughout high school, sometimes together and sometimes just in the same circles. Ben and Chris, along with drummer Zach Leach and occasionally joined by Xavi Sandoval, made up the seminal folk-punk group Am I Awake? Known for their shouty lyrics about perseverance and friendship, Am I Awake? would often perform impromptu shows in Walgreens parking lots and local parks, skewing away from regular venues. This band could be seen as the foundation for what was to come. The folk-punk tendencies expressed by Am I Awake? permeated throughout the lives of Ben and Chris.
Fast-forward a couple years and Medvedi are now playing full-band shows in venues all across the nation. They’ve traded in their acoustic guitars for electric instruments. Chris Odom plays impeccable bass. Ben—a natural drummer—puts the rhythm in rhythm guitar. Ernie—mostly known for his rock-god stage antics as the leader of Lunas—now takes a seat as the drummer while Andy supplies the sweetest, catchiest lead melodies on his classic SG.
Since Balusek had used the band name of Medvedi for many years, he considered changing once the band gained more members.
“I did think about changing [the band name] when we started jamming as an electric full-band with Ernie, Chris, and Andy,” Balusek said. “But I decided to keep Medvedi for a couple of reasons. For one, the integrity of the music was the same. Medvedi has always been songs written about real shit happening in my life. Songs written by me with talented friends of mine making them better. Also, people already knew my music as Medvedi.”
And so, Medvedi was reborn as a four-piece Americana punk group. After about one year of playing together as a full band, Medvedi embarked on a nationwide tour in the summer of 2017. Once the tour was completed, the band returned to the studio with a fire in their hearts to record their second full-length album Unwind. They recorded at Brainville Records, a local recording studio established by Ross Ingram. Ingram worked as the albums chief engineer and producer. Over the span of a week, Medvedi recorded 13 songs to tape.
Usual Magazine: What differentiates Unwind from your first album, Upside Down?
Andy: More songs.
Ben, more seriously: One more song. It’s a little longer, about ten minutes longer. There are a lot of similar things and a lot of different things. We recorded on tape [at Brainville], which was different.
Ernie: Just the whole approach. Being together as a band longer. Playing those songs live.
Andy: This time, we got to play the songs more before we recorded them. We took some of [the new songs] on tour so I feel like we got to know them a lot better.
Ben: The album was written within about a year. 13 songs. The first half was written before tour so we played all those songs on tour and we got those really solid. The second half was written after tour. That’s when we got a lot more comfortable playing. The songs started to get a bit more experimental, I think you can hear that on the album. First half of the album is more old songs, relatively, and the second half is the newer songs. I think, overall, the album is a little dirtier. I think we developed our tone. Everyone’s developed their sound and they know what they’re playing a little better now.
Ernie, quietly: I hope so
Ben: Yeah, I mean none of us are playing instruments that we’ve played very much in other bands. I feel like this whole band has been a development process for each of us, individually.
UM: What inspired the melodies to these songs? I know Ben and Andy work together on crafting the guitar parts. Could you go more in-depth into your process?
Andy: I thought about it more this time.
Ernie: It felt like you approached it differently on this album?
Andy: Yeah, there was a lot of stuff when [Ben] introduced these new songs where, right off the top, I came up with something but I didn’t like it and so—
Ernie: But even when we recorded “Landlocked,” I remembered you had—
Andy: It was right off the bat.
Ernie: I remember you had a different part.
Andy: For example, in “I Can See Heaven,” I had something completely different. Every song is different. I didn’t approach the album with a specific point of view. And then you just go changing it when you start, little by little, you start to change.
Ernie: You developed it within the day we recorded it.
Andy: Same thing for “Temporary.” The chorus was improvised. It happened to work well in that one take. I think it was an exercise, sometimes. I was a little more self-conscious [when recording] the first album. In this one, it was more of an exercise of saying “what happens, happens.”
Ben: I feel like that’s a theme of the album. The album is called Unwind. I feel like it has two meaning. The first being unwinding in a sense of letting go and healing but a large sense it is also to unwind, literally. It was recorded on tape, the album cover is going to be film photography so there were all these platforms that you unwind. I feel like with film or tape, in general, you don’t get a lot of chances so all the fuck ups just remain and I feel like that rawness was captured.
UM: The new songs have a darker, grittier tone. Did you decide on that or did it happen naturally?
Ben: I think it just happened, honestly. When we recorded Upside Down, the songs were more straightforward. What we were doing was more straightforward. During tour, especially, was when we started jumping into the drum set and using more feedback. Andy started using pedals so the tone got dirtier and dirtier.
Andy: I think a lot of the new songs just have more energy too so with that energy, we just adapted. I think it just came naturally.
UM: How do you come up with the bass and drum grooves for the songs?
Ernie: We just listen to each other
Chris: I try to be conscious of Ernie and what he’s playing. I feel like if there’s anyone I follow most closely, it’s Ernie. The bass and drums should always be kinda tied up because they’re essentially the backbone. A lot of times, certain things get overlooked but my responsibility—along with Ernie—is to make the song feel just smooth, y’know? If the drums and bass are tight, then everything else just falls into place a little more easily. I try to just stick with Ernie because if him and I mesh, that’s when I feel like I’ve had a good show. If Ernie and I were pretty fucking tight the whole night, everything falls into place a little bit more easily that way.
Ernie: There’s some moments where we improvise and we just listen to each other. Even in ridiculousness. I remember when I was doing a bunch of noise and then I did one last hit, just randomly, and you ended it with me. I looked up like, “What the hell?”
Chris: I always try to have those moments. I strive for them. When Ernie and I are especially tight on like little things. It adds a certain degree of tightness to the overall…even the messy parts.
Ernie: It’s like a little world of its own sometimes, when we’re playing. I look up because of something we did like, “Whoa, that was cool.” [Saying it nonverbally.] And the song’s still going on but within the song, I’ll look up like, “Damn” after I notice something [Chris] did.
UM: How would you describe your genre?
Ben: I’ve tried to come up with a genre…The term that I’ve coined, or heard, recently is Americana punk. It has some surf influences, some experimental stuff, emo stuff. Yeah, it’s tough. It’s Tough Rock. Black Metal.
UM: Do you have any cool anecdotes, crazy after-show stories you’d like to talk about? Maybe a run-in with a celebrity?
Andy, jokingly: Ben Stiller was at our last show and he’s really, he’s a big—
Ben, interrupting: He hated it.
Medvedi will release Unwind in the summer of 2018. They will embark on a West Coast tour in August of this year. Unwind will be available digitally as well as on vinyl. Follow them on Bandcamp or on Instagram to stay up-to-date on upcoming shows (and to check out Ben’s awesome film photography).