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Uneasy Pop From dios

There's a long tradition of soft, sunny California pop, and, at first listen, Hawthorne-based dios (the band's name is never capitalized) appear to fit right into the line that stretches from the Beach Boys to Jackson Browne to Grandaddy. From the slow, keyboard-lit choruses of "Nobody's Perfect" through the whispery harmonies of "All My Life," there's an uneasy pop vibe to the self-titled debut, a bittersweet dalliance between melody and alienation that recalls Elliott Smith, Neil Young and Beck. Early buzz on dios made much of the fact that the band hailed from the same hometown as the Beach Boys, and to be fair, they do swipe a chorus from Pet Sounds' "I Still Believe in You" in their song "50 Cents."

Still, it's not hard to sense a bit of frustration in dios guitarist Joel Morales at yet another Beach Boys comparison. "Before we were in any kind of serious band, we had a little collective of artists, writers and musicians that were all infatuated with the Beach Boys, and also proud of the fact that we came from the same area they did," he admitted in a recent phone interview. "But even so, it can be weird when people try to compare us to the Beach Boys. We're not writing surf songs. We're not carefree and lackadaisical. In fact, I'm stressed out and upset most of the time."

The band includes the two Morales brothers, Joel and Kevin, who both play guitar and write songs, as well as bassist John Paul Cabellero, keyboardist Jimmy Cabeza DeVaca and drummer Jackie Monzon. All are Latinos who grew up in the Hawthorne area, a South Bay community with a distinctly gritty side. "Hawthorne is in Southern California and there's a beautiful coastline," Morales said, "but you know, we also have poor cities and urban parts. It's also the birthplace of Black Flag and SST. There's still some energy and liveness in this area."

Morales says that while the band admires Brian Wilson's willingness to experiment, he draws inspiration from a wider range of artists: Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Beck, Neil Young, Nirvana, The Beatles and the Plastic Ono Band. And though the band's self-titled debut may at first sound as soft and tightly harmonized as a '60s AM radio love song, a closer listen reveals acerbic lyrics, edgy sound experiments, hidden dynamic shifts and more than a dash of punk attitude.

Morales says that he and his brother Kevin (who also plays guitar in the band) grew up on hip-hop, only making the switch to punk and hardcore after Nirvana appeared on the scene in the early 1990s. And, though it may seem counterintuitive, both genres left their mark on dios' complex sound. "The main thing with hip-hop is the really cool drums and samples," Morales stated, citing The Chronic and Cypress Hill as early influences. Now, with the addition of drummer Monzon (who did not appear on the album), he hopes to add bigger beats and more intense rhythms to dios' sound, and to continue to expand their use of samples.

"We're already starting to use more samples live," he explained, adding that the experimental use of electronics and keyboards on tracks like "You Make Me Feel Uncomfortable" and "The Uncertainty" are, in some ways, a tribute to another band that made an impact on him and his brother.

"We used to like Nirvana when we were growing up, because of the way they would go from loud to soft and back," he remembered. "So in the album, we weren't stomping on any fuzz boxes or distortion pedals, but our dynamic was going from soft to loud, in a sense, just by filling up the space [with keyboards and electronic manipulation]."

dios recorded their first album, as well as two tracks for the EP Arboles, at the band's practice space in Hawthorne in a matter of days, going back to that space and to bassist John Paul Caballero's basement studio to remix the tracks. "It wasn't anything dramatic," Morales said. "I sat down with my brother and said, we need to get an album out. I'll pick five songs and you pick five songs, and then we'll each pick a cover, and let's just start tomorrow. So the next day we went in and he laid down all the drums and then we just recorded it in our practice space, all the basic stuff."

One of the covers chosen for the album was Neil Young's "Birds," a haunting, country-influenced ballad with a fragile but soaring chorus. dios' version makes Young's influence clear, adding a pedal steel twang to the mix. The other cover was supposed to be of The Beatles' "Long, Long, Long," a little-known cut from the White Album, but the band was unable to obtain permission for it. dios also included a song written by friend and former bandmate Miguel Mendez in "You Got Me All Wrong," and its insistent rhythms, wistful lyrics and glowing keyboards make this track one of the disc's highlights.

From dios' bare-boned beginnings, however, the band has lately begun to raise its profile considerably. The band kicked off this year's Coachella, and they recently opened for Morrissey on his sold-out, five-night stand in L.A. "That was pretty frightening, actually," admitted Morales, who said that when dios went to the venue to load in at 4 p.m., ticketholders — many of them decked out in '80s gear and Smiths T-shirts — were already lined up to get good seats. "I love Morrissey and The Smiths, but I was afraid of playing in front of their fans. We were the one thing standing between the fans and their idol, so it was kind of scary that way, but it went pretty well."

As we spoke in mid-May, dios were one day away from embarking on a 17-date U.S. tour with Beulah. (That tour, now completed, turned out to be Beulah's final one.) Check the group's Web site for news about upcoming shows.

Morales cautions that anyone expecting mellow, pop-friendly love songs at dios shows may want to invest in a pair of ear plugs. "We do rock 'n' roll when we are in shows," Morales said. "We're not laid back. We're sometimes pretty confrontational. My brother and I have more of a punk-rock spirit."

That translates into a rowdier, more rocking show than dios might indicate, and maybe even a few Cali-punk covers. "Sometimes we cover a local South Bay band called FYP," he said, citing a semi-legendary band whose Dance My Dunce is considered a classic of late-'90s punk. "They've got so many good songs, but if you played them on acoustic guitar, you would think it was just a really good Beatles song."

Acoustic punk — it's an interesting and self-contradictory concept, but maybe what dios has been doing all along. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, June 28, 2004]

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