The Psychedelia of Santiago: South America’s Hotbed of Retro Rock
Ten bands you need to know from the Chilean city keeping it psychedelic.
Some cities have geography on their side. Santiago, Chile sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains while the Pacific Ocean lies just a stone's throw away to the west. It’s the kind of cityscape that inspires big dreams, and in a country with some of the best stargazing in the world, it’s a place where those big dreams seem possible. Maybe that’s why in the last five years, every teenager worth a damn on guitar who grew up worshipping their Hendrix albums has started a band.
Santiago now hosts one of the most burgeoning underground music scenes in South America. With local venues popping up in the city’s bohemian neighborhoods like Bellavista and Larrista, Santiago now specializes in something other than las vistas de las montañas and empanadas: psychedelic rock. Maybe it’s the presence of La Silla Observatory north of the city at the edges of the Atacama Desert that boasts one of the world’s best vantages of the night sky. Americans might think stargazing was invented by teenagers on the hood of their cars after the prom, but it’s a storied Chilean pastime. Santiago has 300 nights a year of clear skies.
The bands emerging from this perfect storm of folkloric history, seasoned plantains and dramatic landscapes are modernizing the psychedelic sounds of North America and Europe in the early 1970s. You’ll hear clear references to The 13th Floor Elevators and The Electric Prunes, as there is a sense that all these young, long-haired musicians had a little too much to dream last night. They even dress like them too, with self-cut v-neck T-shirts and straggly John Lennon hairdos, they’re paying homage to the 60s and 70s in every way possible. So, the next time you’re planning a trek in Patagonia or a surf trip to the beaches of Valparaíso, make time for stopover in Santiago because there’s some fun to be had with this latest crop of retro futurists.
The Holydrug Couple
The blissed-out, reverb-heavy sounds of The Holydrug Couple bring to mind Australian psych-rock outfit Tame Impala. Their sound is sprawling and heavy with an undulating groove behind it all. It’s as if they’re all playing in an echo chamber that’s slowly rotating around you; you might get dizzy, but it’s worth it. They’ve now played in the United States twice, once in Brooklyn and once in Austin (go figure), and from the attention they garnered at both shows, they’re sure to be back again soon.
After forming in 2008, Föllakzoid quickly became the grand maestros of the resurgence of Chilean psych-rock. Drawing on their 1970s Chilean predecessors like Los Jaivas and Aguaturbia, they’ve modernized the sounds of Chile’s past by adding krautrock and progressive elements. They sound like they could be the lovechild of Amon Düül II and The 13th Floor Elevators and the world is a better place for it. The trio also founded the Chilean indie label Blow Your Mind Records that has been churning out hand-pressed vinyl gems for the last five years.
Trementina is a force to be reckoned with. Their experimental noise pop is softened by shoegazey vocals from lead singer and guitarist Vanessa Cea. They have the same “I don’t give a shit I just want to play music” guitar sounds as American bands like Wavves and King Tuff, but there’s a distinct south of the border way they marry their vocals and instrumentals together. They cite Jesus and the Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine as their biggest influences, which explains why their music oscillates between manic and chill so often. Trementina means “turpentine” in English.
La Hell Gang
These guys are straight out of 1971 and I’m not complaining. Doom meets garage rock meets stoner trance music from Mars. They’re the perfect soundtrack for new planet exploration or deep-sea diving among creatures that have never before seen the light that BBC creates entire docu-series about. La Hell Gang finds a groove, dives into it, and never lets go, jamming until the very end. La Hell Gang is proof that Led Zeppelin cover bands should really start recruiting talent in Chile.
There must’ve been some been record stores in Santiago handing out their overstock of Hendrix, The Stooges, and The Monkees for free in the early 2000s. As bands like Föllakzoid and Cindy Sisters and Acid Call were bursting onto the underground rock scene in Santiago seven years ago, friends Martin, Gonzalo, and Nicolas decided they should probably form a band too. What resulted was WatchOut!, a band that took the best elements from bands already part of the Chilean scene and dedicated themselves to putting on the best live shows.
Lumpen & The Happy Pills
Lumpen & The Happy Pills are an intense lucid dream; you have little control over what’s happening because you’re too in awe to care. They’re Radiohead meets The Addams Family theme song—on happy pills. They’re frequently playing gigs at DIY venue Trip House, infusing a new energy into the underground music scene. They’re the freshman class of psych-rockers in Santiago, getting as wild and raucous as their audiences.
Vuelveteloca now have officially been branded Santiago’s next big export with their recent signing to BYM Records (Chile’s equivalent of Trouble in Mind Records). These guys are garage rockers at their core, with some serious just-got-off-the-beach-from-surfing-all-day vibes. They’re more melodic than some of their scenester compadres, but none the worse for it. In fact, it’s their trippy surf rock hooks and harmonizing vocals that make them stand out in a crowded scene. They’re definitely the kind of band that invites their whole audience to the parking lot after the show to hangggg.
The Psychedelic Schafferson Jetplane
The Psychedelic Schafferson Jetplane win the award for the best band name you’ve never heard of. They also win the award for least-Googleable band on this list. Although they’ve been around for a while, their self-titled album is one of the weirder, most ambitious projects I’ve heard. There are Afro-Caribbean drums and construction background noise and Chinese gongs. Just when things seems to get hypnotically ambient, you’re destroyed by a fuzzy guitar lick. These guys are a band of Discogs and internet-music-troll lore. They created a masterpiece of global psych-rock noise infinity.
Chicos de Nazca
Chicos de Nazca take you down Chile’s coast from the harrowingly dry Atacama Desert of the north to the striking glacial formations of the south’s Patagonia. They play on musical plateaus, always teasing the precipice, but never quite hurtling you off the edge. Their grungy appeal and feverish hypnosis give you the sense that they’ve tried everything and their music is a culmination of those collective psychedelic journeys. If you ever find yourself riding a motorcycle down the coast of Chile these guys would make an ideal soundtrack.
Their name translates to “my galaxy” in English, and it is fitting for a band pumping out intergalactic sounds akin to those of The Holydrug Couple. They play with delirious abandon, opting for five-minute guitar solos and ten-minute jam sessions at live shows. There’s a Broken Social Scene surrealism to the way they craft their songs; they don’t shirk away from sounding noisy, but balance it with their beautifully whispered shoegaze vocals. They’re often sad and messy like a bad breakup, but with every once they surprise you by breaking into full-on pop mode. They transform their corrosive happiness into a hallucinatory daze reminiscent of those first few hours after you got your wisdom teeth out and you kept asking your mom where you were.