April 24 2013 08:24 AM

With a new album out, local indie-rockers hope to hit it big—or, at least, bigger

From left: Rob Kent, Jake Bankhead, Dustin Elliott and Peter Graves
Photo by Jeff “Turbo” Corrigan

San Diegans love claiming musical legends as their own. No matter how tenuous their connection is to the area, we’ll grab onto big names like Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Iron Butterfly and never let go.

The best local music doesn’t come from famous people, though. It’s made by little-known artists and bands that play the same circuit of clubs for years on end. Unfortunately, many of these acts rise and fall without ever getting the recognition they deserve.

For too long, New Mexico has been stuck in this local-band lurch. Though they have an enthusiastic following, they’ve been playing the same set of songs for the past two years and their profile hasn’t risen by much. Now, though, they’re hoping to gain more attention on a national scale.

They’ve hired a publicist. They’ve gotten advice from people who’ve had experience in the industry. And after working in the studio on and off for more than two years, they’re finally about to release their debut album, Malpaís, a magnificent, 36-minute collection of ethereal synth-rock gems. They’ll celebrate the release of the new record on Friday, April 26, with a show at The Casbah. The Howls, The Burning of Rome and Bruin will open.

“The way we’re not completely sick of the album yet is because we’ve been distracting ourselves with about 15 new songs we’ve been working on,” says guitarist Jake Bankhead, who plays in the quartet with bassist / singer Rob Kent, drummer Dustin Elliott and keyboardist Peter Graves.

In a perfect world, these guys would already be famous, or at least moderately successful. On Malpaís, their economical punk rhythms and overcast, Gary Numan-style synth hooks are perfectly timely in that nostalgic-for-the-’80s kind of way. And for all of Kent’s cryptic, surrealist lyrics—“I am the amalgam of myself / Trying to interpret someone else,” he sings in “Cold Loads”—on stage, his cathartic choruses fill the room with good vibes.

New Mexico aren’t exactly sexy from a marketing perspective, though. They don’t adhere to any of those fun-loving Southern California stereotypes that drive bloggers wild—in fact, they actually sound kind of British. And their name is pretty hard to search for online, though Kent says it’s scored them a niche following.

“We’ve gotten emails from people in New Mexico that are, like, ‘When are you going to come play?’” he says.

Ironically, the biggest thing that stands in New Mexico’s way might just be their love for playing music. They’re so into it that they end up neglecting the more businesslike duties required of a band that wants to get big, like cultivating online profiles, reaching out to bloggers or touring relentlessly.

“When I come with a new idea and we jam it, and I get to show my girlfriend and I get to show my friends, and, eventually, it blossoms into this beautiful song, I’m more excited by that aspect of being in a band than, like, all that other shit,” Kent, 31, says.

As many scenesters remember, Kent, Bankhead and Elliott got their start playing in a much different band—a garage-rock quartet called Apes of Wrath.

Formed by Kent and guitarist Andrew Geldmeier in 2005, Apes of Wrath were one of the city’s hottest bands in the late ’00s. Crossing catchy, Strokes-style hooks with the occasional, Eastern-tinged guitar freak-out, they had plenty of fans and got tons of buzz.

Eventually, though, it fell apart when Geldmeier had a falling out with the rest of the guys. He ended up getting kicked out, and the trio decided to start fresh, announcing their name change in mid-2010.

At first, this seemed like a pretty kooky idea. Cory Stier, the booker at Soda Bar, says the band seemed to lose a lot of momentum because of the name change.

“All of that time and energy that they had spent building Apes of Wrath’s brand had been lost,” he says.

But Elliott, 28, says they had to do it, partly out of respect for their former bandmate but also because the old name didn’t reflect what they were doing anymore.

“If we were in a thrashy, metal, screamo, emo, whatever the fuck you want to call it—it would’ve been perfect for that,” he says.

Compared with the in-your-face rock that the band used to play, Malpaís doesn’t sound like much. Every song’s been stripped to its most basic parts (see the straightahead beat of opener of “Alpha Male” or the one-note bass line of “Wandering”). The whole thing sounds like it was recorded in a closet.

Keep listening, though, and the album sucks you in. For all its simplicity, it’s rich with infectious details—the jangly guitars in “Orca Eats Shark,” the space-age hooks in the title track—that stay lodged in your subconscious.

Often, messages are embedded deep in the music—in the track “In Formation,” Kent uses subtle wordplay to comment on a culture that’s enslaved to technology. At its core, though, Malpaís is just a fantastic listen—fresh, artful and highly entertaining.

To achieve a slower, moodier sound, Bankhead and Kent used two vintage synthesizers, a Korg MS-2000 and a Roland Juno. The Korg is ideal for hooky melodies and arpeggios; the Roland offers thick, billowing droning tones like something out of a John Carpenter film score.

“I really like the idea of naming the Korg MS-2000 and the Roland as actual band members,” Kent says.

The band recorded the album with Andrew Montoya, a sound engineer who plays in local synth-punk outfits Ale Mania and Beaters. Unlike most engineers, Montoya didn’t give them a specific timeframe to record. He just let them go into his studio and work out the songs one by one, sometimes with long breaks in between.

Now that the album’s out, they hope to build some national buzz. But while they’d like to make it big, it seems they won’t be devastated if they don’t. They made Malpaís exactly how they wanted to make it, and if anything, that seems to be enough.

“The victories have to be in yourself, you know? You have to be happy with yourself as an artist,” Kent says. “If you’re happy with yourself, chances are other people will be, too.”

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.