Weekly Alibi: What makes the New Orleans music scene stand out, and where do you and Bubble Bath Records fit into it?
John Maestas: Yeah man, it's just such a vibrant music community and vibrant culture out there. It’s also a very unique community because musical tourism is such a huge part of the economy; you can make your money just going out playing music, and the market is gonna be there, ready and waiting for you, with a built-in touristic money supply for you.
Because there's never been a shortage of badass music coming out of New Orleans; the whole time it's been a city, been settled, it's been full of incredible roots music and funk music, all this great stuff. But they don't put that much attention on the new music scene, so we’re trying to voice what 2018 New Orleans sounds like and get people to open their ears to a new generation.
What steps would like to see Albuquerque make to start a movement towards a musical culture and community similar to the one you’ve found in New Orleans?
Oh wow. You know, I think that one of the biggest things I love about New Orleans is this culture of after-work activity. I love the idea that after you're done working, instead of going home and grabbing a beer, you go out and be social in your community and your area. People in New Orleans are so openly ready to go out and hang and talk about their days. That’s not quite the same here.
It’s an individualistic society, you know? We have urban sprawl out here and I understand that, grew up in it, but I’d really like to see Albuquerque move towards a more social culture. If the city had an initiative to partner up with local businesses to promote activities, that encourages people to go out and come together and play more active social roles, I think our music culture would really start to grow.
What are some things you miss most about Albuquerque? Either things you wish New Orleans had or just some things you have newfound appreciation for?
If I can be honest? Straight up, the breakfast burrito culture!! That's the one that totally hurts my heart. Any time you get up and gotta go do something and don't have time to cook, you just roll over to GP or Taqueria Mexico or Twisters to grab a burrito and go. You can't do that anywhere else, and I'm so missing that.
On a natural level, I miss the perspective. Here, you can see 200 miles in any direction, especially if you're up in the foothills. You have this amazing immense perspective of where you're at and where you're going and the sky is huge and the clouds are humongous and you see a storm coming from an hour away. In New Orleans, we're in a bowl, sometimes 15 feet below sea level, so you can't see anything.
That really does change the way you envision your own existence, huh? When I first moved to Tejas, the thing that shook me the most was not having the mountains. I just felt lost all the time. Just having a sense of direction can give you this primal sort of power, where you know where you are and where you're going.
It's so flat out there too man, you get lost real quick. I miss the mountains. Nature out here is just really fun and inviting, man. I mean, you gotta be prepared, but you can go rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking in every direction. You get to go see this really cool stuff and be a part of the natural, awesome, sacred land that NM is, and it's so inviting and part of the culture here. I really miss that. In Louisiana you can definitely go be part of nature, but there are gators and huge mosquitoes and water moccasins waiting for you at every entrance to the swamp. It's a whole different relationship to nature.
Have you found that leaving has made you appreciate New Mexico or the community here in different ways?
Yeah man... it made me realize that in order to be seen as having value yourself, you need to leave and show that other people see and believe in your value. There's a weird hesitance to believe in the talent of local people, but if you go to California and do well and people think you're cool, then you can come back and people believe that you’re cool.
I think the same thing is true with New Mexico. You have to leave and see how cool other people think the things you take for granted are. I left home when I was 17 to go to school out in Chicago, and people would ask me about New Mexico. I remember my roommate out there told me, "it's my life's dream to see a Native American." I was just like, "what are you talkin’ about bro. Like, where are you from?" And he was from Atlanta; I was blown away, just like, "Dude, you have Native American culture there. It's everywhere, it's the United States!"
That really blew my mind open. Like, I realized I had to take a look back at our culture and appreciate more of what's going on here and how special it is that we have the zia and Kokopeli and the symbols for rain and all of that everywhere throughout our culture and design. But we grow up just seeing it without really knowing the history of it, so there’s this weird cultural disconnect too.
The line between appreciation and appropriation can be tricky to navigate, especially given an awful history of oppression and exploitation.
Exactly. I wanted to learn about this super unique culture we have in New Mexico that other people don't have any idea about at all, and I started thinking about how to promote cultural awareness and appreciation in the right ways.
I talked to my friend out at Santo Domingo Pueblo, a guy named Robert Rosetta who is an incredible jewelry maker out there, and we were talking about cultural appropriation and what that can mean. He has been able to travel to all these different countries and sell his art and connect with all these musicians and artists that wear his pieces, and he's come to his own personal conclusion that visibility is the goal. By promoting cultural awareness, you make sure that your culture doesn't die and it keeps growing and being appreciated instead of getting stamped out by everything.
I think that's really sick and I really enjoyed his perspective on it, because I think so much of Native culture definitely is at risk of falling by the wayside and into this weird group of old ancient peoples whose whole civilizations and cultures have just been buried under dirt, for the sake of modernity, going to the way that the "modern world" works in Western civilization.
How can Albuquerque itself help to ensure that doesn’t happen?
One of the biggest things I've always wanted is for Albuquerque to be Albuquerque, and not try to be Austin, and not try to be Santa Fe, and not try to be Portland, y'know? It's great that we have so much more tourism coming to the city, but we don't want people coming in from outside and trying to change it into a reflection of some other place.
We want this city to be culturally embracing its own history and heritage. We just went through the tricentennial a few years back; let's let it be what it is and what it has always been. It’s a fascinating intersection of cultures, right in the middle of the desert and at the base of the mountains, and I hope the city continues to identify with that.
Does that desire to embody New Mexican culture inform your own music and approach music and life?
For sure! I'm from a melting pot kind of family, we have Spanish, Mexican, Native, Anglo blood; it's like the oppressor and the oppressed all in one, and that's a really uniquely New Mexican sort of thing. Where else do you get that kind of crazy melting pot? With my music, I want to express that and show people what it's like to be multicultural, and to promote that that's the bomb diggity. To be proud of that and boast of it.
For my work, I put this cool headdress that my friend made on top of the coyote—that's the character Juan Tigre wearing the coyote mask, and there's this whole narrative that goes behind the character. I've been working with a couple people to make this sort-of-comic-book thing that in a grand perspective accompanies different parts of the journey in the story.
How is that story inspired by your own life and experiences?
That audio-visual story is about being from a place of high desert and needing to be able to find what roots mean, and what having a background in three, four, five different cultures can cause a kid to think about and feel conflicted about. But it's also about having the ability to relate to other people who have had their own similar struggle in a totally different part of the world, and being able to talk about those things through the medium of music.
So, at a big meta level, that's where I'm coming from and where I’m going.