Luigi is a goth musician, writer and artist based in Chicago. We spoke to him about being a gay Latino in Chicago, his time as a music writer in Mexico and owning your own dark side.
Tell us a bit about your background
Well, I’m a Chicago native. I’m a queer Latino. I’m a pisces and a bit of a nerd.
How would you describe your music?
It’s been really hard for me to figure out a name or description for what I do. I keep wanting to call it blender-goth or noir-scape or something pithy but I just can’t think of anything that sticks.
When I find a track or beat I really like right now I just spit my rap or poetry over it and let it be its own thing. That said, I’m really specific about what sounds I want to sample and reference. I’m really into learning more about industrial music and would love to one day work with some industrial heads, or even witch house or some other electronic computer music people locally and internationally.
Which artists/bands have inspired you?
Well I have to admit as a kid I was only into basic fanfare, whatever I could catch here or there on the one (only one) alternative music radio station in Chicago (Q101 FM).
I was really into Orgy and Placebo with sprinklings of this local sort of an electro-pop-goth band called Kill Hannah. KH was the first concert I ever caught at this amazing venue called The Metro when I was 14 years old.
Since then my tastes have evolved to your typical stuff like Morrissey and some harder stuff like At the Drive In and the more psychedelic Mars Volta. Hip hop has always been in the backdrop of my life as a city boy but it never stuck, or spoke to me the way the dark, synth, syncopated 80’s stuff like Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys my mom listened to most definitely did. That said, the ethos of hip hop, it’s origins in the 80’s as a political manifestation and voice for urban, Black and Brown folk has always meant something to me. I used to be really into poetry so the poetics of hip hop, less than most of the contemporary or pop icons, interest me as well.
I really went off the deep end for a while only listening to indie music and specifically Latin American indie musicians. I became a music journalist after college and moved to Mexico City for a couple years to cover the Latin American indie music scene for some online mags.
In that time I found out more about EBM artists like ECM from Spain and cumbia goth artists like La Mini TK del Muerto. I was one of the first cats to ever hear Dani Shivers and pitched it to Remezcla before any of those New Yorkers knew what was going on in Mexico.
Scorpion Violente is another favourite for their super droning death grind synths. I’m really into two other contemporary bands too, Beastial Mouths and The Soft Moon. They’re all killer and their sounds are mixed into my mixtape. I think it’s important to pay respect where it’s due. Nothing happens in a bubble. Through it all I keep finding my way back to some of the origins of industrial goth sounds like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Fad Gadget to name a few.
I haven’t stopped delving. I love music too much to ever stop searching for old and new sounds to reference and play with.
There’s also a lot of really incredible local musicians in Chicago which totally inspires me. I try to catch as much music of all genres around town, constantly. For example there’s this really sort of trippy artist called LeCiel. I helped her on this amazing really dark music video of hers this past summer.
There’s a vibrant underground music scene here so that keeps me very engaged and stimulated.
Have you struggled as a gay Latino?
I don’t really know how to answer that question. I mean everyone struggles in some way or another, but my struggle can definitely be seen through the particular lens of being gay and being Latino in the US.
I mean while growing up there was very little and is still very little representation for Latino people in the US despite our numbers and the nation’s paranoias about Latinos taking over the population eventually. I think that’s what all the immigration propaganda and conservatism boils down too. The white majority is trying to stay the white majority and it’s pretty obvious, and pretty pathetic. Mass deportations and this simultaneous push to assimilate all the Latinos that are or have historically already been in the US makes for a confusing political arena.
All that coupled with surviving the Bush era homophobic legislative push of the early 2000’s has made it quite interesting as an artist and person. I had a brick thrown at me when I was 17 because I was outed at my high school so that sums of the levels of violence and aggression chucked at our communities.
I’ve lost friends due to discrimination and their bigotry or resentments about things like affirmative action. My mom experienced housing discrimination when she was on government assistance raising me as a single mother. Being keen to the reality of the world at a young age made it difficult to just sit around and do nothing. The struggle has been to get out of poverty, my humble beginnings and turn my creativity into a viable and sustainable living.
I think more than a struggle it’s been a politicization process since birth, and the struggle has been to contain my frustration and rage about the injustice in the world directed towards my various peoples.
That said, it’s also hard fitting in with any one particular subgroup. I’m too uppity and educated to be a stereotypical Latino, I’m too queer to be this that or the other. Too much of a weirdo, into dark gothic stuff to hang out with the pop loving queer camp. I like too many different things to fit into any one subset of social groups and that makes sustaining friendships and community difficult.
Not to mention dating. It’s like all the gay dudes around this town are either stuck up yuppies or full of themselves hipsters who are totally unaware, and then on the other hand there’s the hyper politicized queer folk who can get a little obnoxious because they think they’re just sooooo above the mainstream gay culture, even though all their mannerisms and affect is identical to the gay mainstream, they just listen to different tunes.
But in the end they’re not even listening to anything that edgy. It’s all pop crap with them too. They think their indie music is soooo unique, like it’s somehow not filtered or processed by an industry too. Needless to say I need more goth guys and gals in my life.
How has your music helped you to deal with life? You said it’s a way to process the violence you have seen in Chicago and Mexico City?
The music gives me a place to gather and concentrate my thoughts on certain political and personal violences directed towards me and my communities.
The music gives me a place to feel like I have some control in the world and that maybe someone else will understand or hear me. The creative control of just setting my words to music, turning it into something other than festering thoughts and aimless emotions gives me a little solace.
At the end of the day after you hear about your friend’s student getting shot and killed, or your cousin’s co-worker getting shot and killed, or your grammar school friend was shot and survived, or your university scholarship friend’s brother was shot, or an old poet friend was shot and is in the hospital (all things that happened in Chicago to me, my friends and family) or that your own cousin in Mexico City had her car hijacked, held at gunpoint and left out on some distant road; you start to wonder how much time you have left in the world.
It feels like the violence is closing in around you and you might be next, but instead of losing it, you shake yourself free of the fear and know you have an obligation, if not simply to yourself, to make something of it all, to share your point of view.
How have your experiences led to the work you are producing?
I started rapping or writing lyrics and spitting over tracks and ultimately sampling stuff more recently as a means of self expression. The music helps me say all the things I haven’t been able to say in fiction or plain poetry for decades.
I used to work solely as a poet and prose writer, with ambitions of publishing. I have minor works published here and there but the publishing world just seemed particularly soulless. There’s very little connection between people, or directness, no face-to-face relaying of experiences and ideas through the printed word.
For years I’d read my poetry and fiction to audiences and people would come up to me after a set and thank me or whatever, but after years of writing journalistically I started to lose that impulse.
Through listening to hundreds of albums for reviews and previews and concert coverage as a music journalist, I started to realize there was something missing in all the wonderful noise I was hearing. There were hardly anybody with my experiences, my dualities and my perspectives chiming in the chorus.
When I made the decision to try my hand out at the lyrics game, it was with much trepidation and caution that I pursued the words. However, once they started coming, I couldn’t stop them. And more importantly once I started to realize the soundscape I wanted the lyrics to accompany, the aesthetic world and the focal points of darkness, of morally ambitious and politically plagued content I knew I was hooked.
Setting my thoughts to music made more sense than trying to poeticize or fictionalize my experiences. Letting the words and the experiences be mine, claiming them through subtle abstraction or hiding them in the noise made me feel safe in a way and uncomfortable in new and exciting ways.
The music became a way to mash up all these disparate parts of myself, these sort of repressed and unexpressed parts of my personality. It’s been quite a process.
How does gothic music and the gothic scene fit into your life?
I’ve been returning to my goth-boy roots in the past years really aside from just going to a lot of goth and industrial nights at clubs and bars across the city, which I do almost every week.
The music and the imagery is really all about how to resist mainstreams. It’s all about coming back to who I am and being proud of where I come from. Being proud of my goth boy origins also means I can be auto-critical and introspective about my heritage as a Latino, while being critical of Mexico too, where my family is from and simultaneously being critical of my place as a Chicagoan, raised in a very violent city.
The goth aesthetic and impulse, for me, is about accepting our very dark and abysmal realities and bringing them to light. A lot of people in the US are very focused on the Black vs White racial divides but all too often the mass deportations, the I.C.E. raids on undocumented immigrants and the trauma of being Latino in the U.S. is overlooked by the mass media because then the US would have to take up some responsibly for the way it historically dealt with or abused Latin and Central America.
These are definitely dark times. These are the things weighing heavy on my heart and it boggles my mind that they don’t matter to more people.
The opening quote on my mixtape comes from a Mexican film called Rojo Amanecer (Red Dawn or Bloody Dawn) which is about the Plaza Tlatelolco 1968 massacre of students in Mexico. I chose that quote to echo the past and make us consider how little has changed in these developing countries, how the violence in Latin America hasn’t ever stopped and how it constantly causes these waves of migration to first world nations.
My mixtape “igualallaqueaqui” translates to “the same over there as over here.” I started the mixtape and dedicate it to the 43 massacred rural students of Iguala, Mexico who were slain by their government in September of 2014. One of my songs, “La Santa Muerte” is all about mass graves of traveling Central Americans people murdered along perilous trips through Mexico just to get to the US, and the violence they encounter on the US/Mexico border because US Border Patrol agents are apparently allowed to shoot across national boundaries into Mexico.
Coupled with similarly heinous conditions of violence endured by minorities in the US I hope the mixtape muddies the waters of political righteousness just a little. I think being a goth or goth-inclined is about owning your dark side. Well let’s own our privileges and histories too. It doesn’t get any darker than that.
How do we as a civilization come to terms with all these violent realities? As a deviant, a sexual deviant, a racialized deviant, a politicized freak I wondered for a long time how to express my feelings about these dark topics and dark realities, thus my return to goth and research into industrial music.
People act surprised or appalled that there’s all these immigrants coming over but nobody stops to ask what is causing this massive influx of people. More importantly, with the cartel and police state run civil war under wage in Mexico it’s reported that some 5 million people have lost their lives, yet no one is calling Mexicans refugees. Mexicans don’t get the privilege or assistance of that title, because then the US would have to acknowledge its role in devaluing the Mexican peso, in fracking Mexico’s state owned oil and turning its state owned resources into privately owned interests that benefit the US and harm Mexico’s economy. The US might have to take some responsibility for the effects of certain economic policies like NAFTA (Free Trade Agreeement) on this hemisphere and the onslaught of the drug wars it initiated in the 90’s in Colombia and now Mexico. Not to mention all the CIA sponsored government coups in Latin America. The history of Latin America strikingly resembles the history of the Middle East in that these first world nations act innocent and absolve themselves of all their invested violence in these countries. Thinking about this stuff or being a product of this stuff makes for definite nightmares and dreary outlooks indeed.
Do you see yourself as a goth or part of any particular subculture?
I might be a free-flowing goth. Once a goth always a goth? Or a goth at heart. When I was a kid I used to hang out at Chicago’s very own and unique store The Alley, this amazing goth shop in the gay part of town. That store is actually closing this month due to gentrification.
It’s sad because that store has been there for like 40 years or something. I have friends who’ve gotten all their piercings at The Alley. I bought some of my first goth garb there. Mostly barb wire patterned silver rings and battle ax necklaces. The whole aesthetic world, the ghoulish overtones, the allure of something anti-mainstream always attracted me but to be honest I just couldn’t afford any of the accoutrements of goth lifestyle when I was a kid. As I said, in high school my mom was on government housing assistance for single mothers and I was working a part time job just to pay my bus fare to and from my Catholic high school, so looking the part wasn’t really my priority. I knew I was a goth kid at heart and my friends always knew it. One of my buddies used to call me Winona, for obvious reasons.
In a lot of ways being a recovering Catholic has more to do with my gothic appreciation and taste, more so than subcultures or anything commercial. In Catholicism and in particular Mexican Catholicism there’s a lot of bloody imagery and reverence for the dead, culturally speaking. That’s where I draw a lot of inspiration from, the art and imagery of religious texts and such.
In high school I used to have to wear a uniform, blazer, khakis, tie, the whole nine yards. As far as the look and feel of being goth is concerned bracelets and necklaces, small things I could get away with from The Alley to adorn my strict Catholic school boy uniform with pins and whatever was all I could get away with.
I had my hair long until I caught the unwanted attention of the principle and he made me cut it all off for violating dress code. You know, typical fascist shit, but because of the school codes it’s not like I could adorn myself with the full on goth look. Since then, goth style has always just been subdued or like super subtle with me. I used to dress like a rock-a-billy after college. Those were fun days. It’s more about an attitude, likes, dislikes. And those things change. That said, I do wear a lot of black. Mostly only black. But I think that’s also from urban wear, and more about stealth and my couple years as a stage manager in school too.
Do underground cultures appeal to you?
Yes, very much so. I started out as a kid in high school hanging out with the non-profit poetry and arts scene in Chicago, so fringe and niche cultures have been a part of my life for a while. I think there’s something really important in finding a group of like-minded people, people who get you and who you understand completely. I feel more at ease with hair-colored geek freaks than with straight laced people. I feel at ease with people with lots of tattoos and piercings over preppy folk or jokes if that’s what you mean.
But looking at me I don’t know if anyone could tell I’m into goth or industrial music. I like being able to slip in between the cracks. I dig my crusty band shirts and worn out work boots.
What are your plans for 2016?
Well I’m in grad school getting my Masters in Fine Arts in Chicago currently, so I have to finish the program, classes, keep making art.
And your ambitions beyond that?
I hope I can keep making art, music, videos and maybe start working with more people, collaborate and move towards live performance. I’m also working on an experimental documentary narrative about my mother and her time in and out of some mental institutions in Chicago in the mid 70’s.
She was a rebellious young lesbian at the time and things didn’t bode well for queer folk in the 70’s. Her conservative, Catholic, working class family didn’t take kindly to her being a lesbian so they did what a lot of people did back then, they threw her in a mental institution to cure her. The project is sort of killing me but the story is more important than me.
Where can our readers check out your work?
People can go to my Soundcloud page or my Twitter @LuEeGe and Instagram @lu3ge to keep up with me. If you’re interested in my more academic stuff or music journalism stuff, (I write for this Chicago paper called New City sometimes) you can find me on tumblr at www.joseluisbenavides.com.
What else should we know about you?
I just spent the new year pretty sick from some sort of vicious stomach bug or maybe I’ve developed a shrimp allergy. Since I was stuck in bed for a while I decided to catch up on and download the entire 7 seasons of Buffy. I was always too busy to watch the show consistently as a kid, you know having to be a straight A student to get the grades to get the scholarship to get my ass out of my situation.
So I guess I’m a Buffy nerd but like the theme of this interview, a delayed or muted Buffy nerd. Oh and last year I read the entire Hannibal Lecter series. All those novels by Thomas Harris are among my favorites. Talk about your antihero. Woof.