Radio Nowhere

RADIO NOWHERE

Day 1 - Cortez & Pizarro

Okay, let's hit the road! Our first day’s drive takes us to…Mexico (whoa)! "Cortez & Pizarro" is a song that answers the musical question, “Flamenco guitar vs. Marshall stacks - who wins?"

Read on for the answer to this question, more about where this song came from, and why I owe the whole thing to cheap guitar glue... 


Listen

Click the big orange Play button to get the song rolling, then read on for more about the song, lyrics, and extras...

About The Song

So, a few years ago, I took a road trip with my friend K. from San Francisco to…Honduras. Yeah, the one in Central America. We took 30 days to get there, and if you look at a map, you won’t be surprised to learn that we spent most of that time driving through Mexico


It was not a smooth ride. The purpose of the trip was to carry supplies from California to Honduras for Ken’s new business - a combination traveller’s hostel and parrot farm, near a national park on Honduras’ northern, Caribbean coast. We had two trucks stuffed with very unusual items, like 1000 feet of steel cable, and this meant we were the opposite of inconspicuous as we traveled through little towns far off the usual gringo trail in Central Mexico. 


Things went wrong right from the start. Due to our odd cargo, we were refused entry at the first two border crossings we tried, in Tijuana and Nogales. Then our driver’s licenses were stolen as we crossed from El Paso over to Ciudad Juarez, leaving us with nothing more than library cards for IDs.

This left us defenseless against corrupt law enforcement officials of all stripes, and so when they demanded bribes in exchange for not locking us up during routine traffic stops (which happened nearly every day, again because we stood out so much with our California license plates and yards of steel cable), we had to comply. 

We gave up our cameras, CD players, boombox, and other gear, and lived in terror that they’d discover the laptop we had hidden in the stuffing of the driver’s seat

We came very close to being carjacked by Zapatistas in Chiapas as well, just barely escaping a stretch of potholed highway notorious for bandit attacks, and reaching the safety of a huge caravan of 18-wheelers before night fell. It all got to be pretty nerve-racking, and we were both suffering from severe paranoia by the time we finally made it to Honduras.

On the plus side, we also got to marinate in Mexican culture a little more than tourists usually do, since we were able to visit many friends Ken had made on previous trips to Mexico and get a sense of their lives.

Growing up in California, and studying the history of the American West in college, I’d always been aware of the Hispanic influence on the region. My home state is full of Spanish place names, Spanglish slang is part of everyone’s lexicon, and the names of Spanish explorers and conquistadores are as familiar as those of Revolutionary War heroes back East. 

Hanging out with Mexicans in their home towns got me thinking more deeply about some of this history. A narrative of the dark side of conquest is a foundational part of Mexican history and culture, especially as it relates to Hernando Cortez, who deposed the Aztec king who ruled over most of Mexico when the first Spaniards arrived. 

I had known that the conquistadores, and Cortez & Pizarro in particular, were cruel, greedy men who spearheaded the European colonial project, but something about traveling at length through the first land they had conquered really brought the depth of the damage done by them and their compatriots into sharper focus

On a more musical tip, the sound of Spanish guitar was everywhere in the air. Many of K.’s friends were musicians, and without exception they shredded on nylon-string guitars, a sound which I loved  prior to this trip and got even more into during the drive. The beginnings of a song started to take shape in my mind, and I might have written the song earlier than I did, had I not had to give up the little travel guitar we’d brought to a corrupt federale who stopped us along the highway north of Zacatecas.

When I got back home to El Norte, I had the beginnings of the song in my mind. I knew the title was “Cortez & Pizarro”, and had a basic idea of what the verses would be about, but the actual music for the song wasn’t coming. Then something weird happened to my acoustic guitar, my main writing instrument: the glue that held the bridge to the top of the guitar partially dissolved, and the bridge began to come away from the body. Why is this relevant? Because at that point, I couldn’t tighten the guitar strings all the way up to concert pitch (or else the tension would’ve pulled the bridge completely off the guitar), so it was tuned to a much lower pitch that gave the guitar a cool, throaty tone. 

Suddenly,  all my usual, boring chords and riffs were giving me intriguing new sounds and tonalities, which was super-inspiring. It put my head into enough of a new space that the same approaches and patterns that I’d been trying with “Cortez & Pizarro”, which hadn’t been getting me anywhere, suddenly felt right and appropriate for the song, and after that the music came pretty quickly (along with the remaining words for the verse). So I really owe this song to cheap glue! 

When I finally got my guitar fixed, I was a little nervous that the song wouldn’t work with the strings tuned up to normal pitch, but that turned out not to be a problem (phew!). In fact, it might have sounded better at that pitch, and even BETTER on really loud electric guitar - which came as a welcome surprise. In fact, the transition of this song from acoustic to electric was really the catalyst for transforming my music from old-school singer/songwriter to something…louder. And more interesting. 


About The Recording

Before I wrote “Cortez & Pizarro”, I’d been tracking acoustic demos and playing solo singer/songwriter sets in coffeehouses in San Francisco. After plugging in for this song, I recruited a band and started doing shows at rock clubs, and was determined to record a fully-produced, full band album. This track was really a watershed moment in the formation of Radio Nowhere.

I’ll tell you more about heading into the studio for this album tomorrow (today’s Road Trip story is already too long!), but I did want to mention the issues I had with tracking the guitars for this song. From the minute I finished writing it, I’d envisioned starting and ending the song with flamenco guitar - it was gonna sound awesome! Only problem? I can’t play flamenco guitar. At all. 

So in the studio, I tried all kinds of different guitar styles for the intro and outro (and for the solo as well). I tried folky fingerpicking, bluesy slide guitar, metal riffing, atonal skronk…but none of it was working. We were starting to get discouraged when I finally remembered a classical guitar teacher named Michael Telle who’d worked at a music school in San Francisco that I’d also worked at. 

He played classical, could he maybe play some flamenco too? We brought him into the studio, and it turned out that he could. A lot. Turned out that Michael could straight shred on flamenco guitar, and he came in and dropped the nylon-string brilliance that you’ll hear on the track in just one or two takes. Unbelieveable. 

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Lyrics

well a long long long long time ago
before I was born / that's all I know
there were two young cruel young brave young men
their king said hit the road and come back again

well the king said he thought they had what it took
and the aztecs shivered and incas shook
they saw the sails and muskets long
and thought these are gods / but they were wrong

to the native peoples' sorrow / here come cortez and pizarro
hernando and francisco / hacked their way to heaven
blow by blow
men of god in spain / they worked for someone else
in mexico

well they burned their ships upon the shore
said we ain't goin' back to spain no more
in the smoking embers on the sand
lay the future of the land

to the native peoples' sorrow / here come cortez and pizarro
hernando and francisco / hacked their way to heaven
blow by blow
men of god in spain / they worked for someone else
in mexico

well gifts were gave
and hands were shook
but men are men
and man they took

well the thing that brought this on for me
was my cool earring and new goatee
the mirror shows a 16th century caballero
and I thought I’d get my armor and grab my steed
and ride down across the border and over the seas
and apologize from atop my palomino

for the native peoples' sorrow / here come cortez and pizarro
hernando and francisco / hacked their way to heaven
blow by blow
men of god in spain / they worked for someone else
in mexico

Today's Bonuses!

Cortez & Pizarro - Original Demo

Check out the original demo for "Cortez & Pizarro"! My super-shaky flamenco efforts and caveman drum machine programming are front-and-center, but hopefully the heart and soul of the song still come through...the only real hint here of the aggression unleashed in the final version is in the guitar solo, which is interesting. 

Cortez & Pizarro - Mini Concert

This one is a little difficult to pull off without the services of an actual flamenco guitarist on hand. I settled for my best gringo approximation instead...hopefully that works well enough for rock'n'roll. 


This tune is actually just as much fun to play on acoustic as it is on electric; you don't get to make as much of an unholy racket, but there's kind of a hypnotic drive that you can get from just pounding that E chord that really feels good.