Auteur Theory: A close-up on Making Movies’ long shot

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Making Movies. // Photo by Travis Young

I’m overdue to head home for a family holiday celebration. I’ve postponed because there is an event taking place here in KC for which I struggle to find an appropriate way to dial-in my expectations. A group of musicians is throwing a year-end bash that seems both fantastical in scale, but equally an infraction on some ill-defined level. What they’re setting out to do breaks an unspoken rock ’n’ roll rule, and I need to be there in person to witness the grand spectacle and/or catastrophic misfire.

They’re going to cover the entirety of Radiohead’s album Kid A on its 20th anniversary. Making Movies promised in an interview earlier with The Pitch that they’ll be taking one of the bleakest electronic albums ever recorded, and turning 50 minutes of unyielding existential dread into a block party.

I’m not aware of it yet, but this gig will wind up serving as my introduction to a band that can’t simply be enjoyed, but demands to be celebrated. Who else would dare to promise they can make the Debbie Downer vibes of Radiohead’s 2001 album… fun?

       

Making Movies is composed of immigrant brothers Enrique Chi (vocals, guitar) and Diego Chi (bass), along with Juan-Carlos Chaurand (percussion, keys) from Mexico, and Duncan Burnett (drums) from Kansas. Since 2009, the group has toured the world, been nominated for a Latin Grammy, and featured on NPR multiple times. Their mix of cumbia, psychedelia, American roots, Son Cubano, and spoken word—all passed through a heavy rock and roll filter—is so singular that it becomes its own genre.

Enrique Chi was born in Santiago, Panama, and moved with his family to Lee’s Summit, MO when he was only six years old.

“We moved to this suburb because there was a great ESL teacher there,” Chi says. “She taught me English, but she made it feel safe to learn. There were only 12 immigrant kids that would go to her for education, and we literally took the short bus to grade school. She also went above and beyond with the families of her students—helping them fill out tax paperwork or deal with other facets of life in the United States. I don’t know what my perspective on America would be without her, especially with the way American kids would treat us. I’m not sure without her that I would be able to handle the country I see now, reflected on social media and in the post-Trump era.”

From an early age, he was fascinated by the sounds of bands like Dire Straits.

“At nine years old, my dad bought me this little crappy classical guitar,” Chi laughs. “It was cool because it rattled so hard and was so cheap that it actually wound up sounding a little like an electric guitar, which I loved.”

Chi would later find friendship and musical partnership mostly through a church his family attended. But his belief in a higher power began to waver, and sought opportunities to create elsewhere. The music of everyone from Steely Dan to South African instrumentals began to brew into a blend of influences that would help define the sound he’d begin chasing.

“We had an alternative rock band, and we were offered this opportunity to play some big shows and maybe have a song on the radio,” Chi says. “They gave us this contract and I didn’t understand what it meant, so I took it to a local guy named Bill Rush. Bill said not to sign because it said these people would own our soul. So, I started working for Bill as an intern.”

Chi’s work under Rush would teach him the intricacies of the music industry. Unlike most musicians that simply dream stardom will find them by sheer luck, Chi set his expectations on becoming a normal day job studio musician and developing an understanding that would eventually allow Making Movies to leapfrog years that other bands may have wasted while waiting on the world to find them.

By the time the group was ready for mainstream attention, Chi understood how to get invited on NPR Tiny Desk concerts and industry showcases. The only real hurdle was finding a way to make their sound work.

“The idea for our sound was this aggressiveness of alternative rock, but with our understanding of Panamanian-centric rhythms,” Chi says. “More or less an abundant mindset as a melting pot so you get a bunch of the Cuban stuff and the salsa music. Puerto Rico takes the claim for reggaeton as a genre. We had a very nascent understanding of it. We hadn’t found the right drummers yet. People were playing it with an outsider’s understanding. I kind of knew that could pair with rock and roll risks, and would have been kind of amazed that no one was doing it. Santana meets Sonic Youth.”

Since 2013, the band has released three albums, each with increasing fiscal and critical success. As a group dedicated to the art of storytelling, each of the albums has a conceptual throughline and a narrative arc.

A La Deriva is about an immigrant family that succumbs to the pressure that America places on “outsiders” and the impact this inflicts on the generation beneath them. I Am Another You is a tale of three people from different parts of the world, and the tragedies in their lives, but reveals that these are all actually one character.

       

It is May 2022, and I’m at a pickleball restaurant that is about to become high-profile group therapy, followed by a loud concert.

Making Movies has helped arrange an event to discuss mental health for musicians and to serve as a graduation concert event for the kids from Rebel Song Academy, a digital sister program to an organization founded by the band called Arts As Mentorship, which allows kids from across the metro to not only learn an instrument but to have access to studio facilities and other technical and spiritual guidance. It’s one of a half-dozen non-musical side projects that make you wonder, “Where do they find the time?”

“Eleven years ago we were in San Antonio,” Chi says. “We saw these punk kids and they were standing up for everything they cared about and sharing their work, and we realized we didn’t need to wait to have a much larger platform in order to make change in the world. You can just get started doing it. Right now.”

While in high school, local musician Dia Jane entered the program.

“That was my first experience, being in KC and having someone who built a genuine career in music telling me that I could do it too,” Jane says.” And that’s not just motivational soft skills bullshit, it was a sincere insistence that we—that I—was going to make this happen.”

Jane is one of a dozen musicians that I’ve written about in the last few years at The Pitch who considers the work of Making Movies and this program to be responsible for her ability to have a career in the industry.

“Ever since I was a kid, people kept telling me I had this great voice and all this talent, and all that I needed was to get into a studio,” Jane says. “But how do you get into a studio? My family didn’t have any wealth to put me up in one. Suddenly, through Arts As Mentorship, I have access to all these resources. And out of nowhere, maybe they’d just bring Brandon Yangmi into the room in the middle of me recording. I wasn’t prepared for that. The younger kids didn’t know who he was, but I was pretty startled that suddenly I was performing for someone from The Greeting Committee.”

Over the summer, the band finished construction on a new rehearsal space and recording studio, which will serve as a permanent base of operations and central hub for the mentoring program.

       

It is the eve of the XOPA release, the band’s first album since Ameri’kana three years prior. Chi and I chat for the last time before this story heads to press.

The second single “Sala De Los Pecadores” has been out since April, and features one gigantic brutal guitar riff on repeat, that only appears to become louder and thicker as the track pummels forward.

Yesterday, the music video for title track “XOPA” released, featuring a high-end short film wherein not even a plane crash can prevent the members of Making Movies from continuing to annihilate the chords of another near-barbaric earworm.

“In our career and blending these influences, we’ve been told to be careful if you’re building a Frankenstein. When you’re building a Frankenstein, it still has to walk. Don’t put the arm where the leg goes, or it’s gonna hobble. What makes the new album special is that we built a functional Frankenstein. Now it just feels good. Sometimes our old music was conceptually exciting—the theme and thesis were exciting. This is the first time one of our albums feels like it fully merges our ideas and just… the ability to listen and immediately enjoy it,” says Chi.

From start to finish, the ten tracks of XOPA feel like Making Movies’ best opportunity ever to break into the mainstream music world. But for a band from the Midwest, who mostly performs in Spanish, this is a bit of a big ask from that same mainstream audience, based on how they’ve received non-English music in the past.

In the lead-up to the album drop, the band has crisscrossed the country, playing industry showcases to get their music in front of the kinds of folks who decide which bands get their music in TV shows and advertisements. So, how do you sell Making Movies to The Decision Makers when they might not be buying exclusively Spanish-language rock tracks?

“We’re getting onto a lot of big festivals in other parts of the world,” Chi says. “But we aren’t getting invited to things at the level of a Coachella in the United States. Ten years ago we were pushing our first record and trying to make this crack in the wall; sneak into the scene. That album was split—half English songs, half Spanish songs. We weren’t getting booked and our manager at the time suggested we try something based on an old Charley Pride story. He started just sending out press information that we were a rock band from Kansas City, including the English-speaking songs only like our cover of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World,’ and in no way mentioning that we were this blend of styles and languages. And we got booked. We wound up doing that again in 2018, and it worked again.”

Sometimes, Chi admits, he gets mad as hell about it.

“It’s the ignorance. This is the only country in the world that expects all of its entertainment to come in its own language. If you’re in Latin America or Europe, they’re fully down for whatever you’re bringing to the show. You need a wider worldview. I try to let go of some of that anger, but you wish so much for people to find… empathy.”

       

Back to December and The Truman.

The lights go down and four men take the stage. The opening notes of Kid A’s “Everything In Its Right Place” fills the cold winter venue, and a wave of cheers push through the crowd.

Almost immediately, the stark and pensive brood of the original recording is toppled by Latin percussion elements. There are guitar solos. By the mid-song, those in attendance have pivoted into a full-on dance party. And for the next hour, this never lets up.

They did it. They pulled it off, and it is glorious. Kid A is now Kid Chi, and there is no going back.

The band takes the stage for an encore, and a Spanish-language cover of Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” turns into a ten-minute jam session, I start to feel like I’ve seen an event that is not just special, but singular.

Throughout the evening, Making Movies is joined on stage by more than a dozen guests from other bands.

Brandon Yangmi of The Greeting Committee comes out with his guitar to add yet another layer to an already explosive wall of sound. Dia Jane serves as the lead singer for one of the tracks. Co-owner of recordBar, Steve Tulipana, absolutely annihilates the vocals on a cacophonous full jazz band version of “The National Anthem.”

Every person on this stage can trace their success, in some way, to the contributions made by a band formed by immigrant kids who grew up in the KC suburbs and cannot seem to stop paying it all forward. Making Movies is not making a documentary about themselves. Making Movies is shooting a Technicolor, manic Hollywood blockbuster—telling a story that belongs to this entire city.


Catch Making Movies on tour this summer and Art as Mentorship’s fundraiser in September. Tickets can be purchased here.

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Categories: Music