Making Movies will celebrate the local release of its CD “A La Deriva” on Dec. 21 at RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road. Heartfelt Anarchy will open at 10 p.m. Admission to the 18-and-older show is $20. Admission includes a copy of “A La Deriva.” From left: Juan-Carlos Chaurand, Enrique Javier Chi, Brendan Culp and Diego Chi.
In March the Afro-Cuban/indie rock band from Kansas City went into a recording studio in Portland, Ore., with producer Steve Berlin, best known for playing saxophone and keyboards for Los Lobos.
“The first time I saw them, I was kind of knocked out by them,” Berlin told The Star recently. “To be honest, a pointy-headed intellectual like me was kind of shocked you could find something like this in Kansas City, of all places. I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
That first time was in September 2011, when Making Movies opened for Los Lobos at Knuckleheads, a honky-tonk/blues bar in the East Bottoms. Berlin was instantly smitten.
“I really liked their musicianship, how they seemed to want to create something new,” he said. “They weren’t just recycling things.”
He liked what he saw so much he that asked a few of his bandmates to come out and catch the opening act.
“I heard he’d been watching us and texting on his phone when we were playing,” said Enrique Javier Chi, lead singer and guitarist for Making Moves. “Eventually, the rest of the band came out and watched us. Later, they asked Juan-Carlos (Chaurand) and me to join them on stage for a couple of songs.
“After the show, at the merch table, (Berlin) said, ‘I produce records. Would you be interested in me producing your next record?’ Obviously, we said, ‘Of course.’ ”
Six months later, after exchanging a few demos and winnowing of the song list, the band was in Portland, Berlin’s hometown, laying down the tracks for “A La Deriva.” The process, it turns out, was rewarding for both parties.
“Whenever you start a record, you have high hopes and expectations,” Berlin said. “But the reality is often different. More often than not, I’m happy. But it’s rare that I anticipate a result and it’s a million times better than what I anticipated. This is one of those records.”
Making Movies comprises Chi, his brother Diego on bass, Chaurand on percussion and Brendan Culp on drums. Enrique Chi founded the band in the mid-2000s initially as an alternative-rock band, but later overhauled its sound.
“A La Deriva” is a follow-up to “In Deo Speramus,” which represented the band’s shift to a sound more heavily rooted in the Afro-Cuban and Latin music that three of its members were raised on. The Chis are Panamanian; Chaurand’s heritage is Mexican.
When they went into KCB Records in Portland to begin recording, Making Movies had a few ideas in mind. The rest it expected to leave in Berlin’s hands.
“We really wanted to record to tape, which we were able to do,” Enrique Chi said. “It makes the sound more organic; there’s a ‘fatness’ to it that’s hard to explain. Also we wanted to record live as much as possible. So we set up with the drums and percussion in the same room, but baffled.
“Diego was in that room, too, with the bass amp sent to isolation. And I was isolated, too, with the vocal mic. But we were recording all together. For every song but two I sang right with the band. Sometimes that makes the process quicker, sometimes longer.
“Everybody has to get it perfect at the same time,” Culp said. “But if you do, you’re done.”
Berlin said he was impressed with how prepared the band was to arrive and deliver the goods under those circumstances. A few first takes made the final recording.
“They were so in control of the sound,” he said. “The level of attention to detail was remarkable. I liked the material but I was really struck by their musicianship and the level that Enrique brought to his (guitar) playing.
“When I make records, it’s not unusual for me to change the guitars and the amps and the pedals. I don’t like records that sound like everything was done with the same instruments. But the way he crafted each song to sound different from the others was incredible — and not just to me but to the engineer. The guitar sound is amazing.”
Berlin’s spell is most evident to the band, which watched and listened to how he affected the arrangements of songs, sometimes subtly, sometimes profoundly, always positively.
“I have a bad habit of really being passionate about a song until we get into the studio, then I get confused and wonder whether I was wrong about the idea,” Enrique Chi said. “I’ll think, ‘Is this a stupid song? Should we abort?’ But (Berlin) was always supportive: ‘No, you’ve got it. This is great.’ Or ‘It’s not there yet, so keep pushing.’ ”
“He was fantastic,” Culp said. “He was decisive and always knew what he wanted. If he wanted something changed, it was usually for a creative benefit.”
“He’d close his eyes and tilt his head and poke his ear out, listening for a certain sound,” Diego Chi said. “And he’d talk you through it until he heard what he wanted. When he recommended something, we’d trust his gut and go with it. And if it didn’t work out, he was usually the first one to call it no good.”
Berlin changed the dynamics of several songs from their demo stages, especially “Hasta el Dia Day Mi Muerte.” The band arrived with a “pretty good arrangement that we liked,” Enrique Chi said. But it was recorded late in the 10-day process, and in looking at the album as a whole, Berlin suggested a change.
“He’d noticed that we’d already done something at the same tempo,” Chi said. So Berlin suggested a new tack.
Culp said, “It went from a fast, mambo feel to a half-time cha-cha feel. It turned out awesome.”
And on the ambient “Deriva,” Chi said, “Steve really helped us figure out what to do with it. He really helped us capture the weirdness.”
“I have a video of us demo-ing some of the songs,” Chaurand said. “I watched it the other day. Some of the songs aren’t nearly the same anymore, even lyrically, because of how he arranged them and changed some tempos. He really pushed Brendan and me to create these weird sounds and got everyone to step out of their elements.”
The time spent in the studio with Berlin affected more than the arrangements and dynamics of the recorded music. It has also affected the live performances.
“I have a lot more to do now,” Chaurand said, laughing.
“We’d never played them the way we recorded them,” Diego Chi said.
“We got home and listened to the tracks again, and in some places we were like, ‘Uh, how did we play that? What was I doing there?,’ ” Enrique Chi said.
On a broader level, working with Berlin taught everyone not only to trust their instincts, but to run with them.
“We went into the studio thinking Steve would trim down our sound, make us sound more concise. But he did the opposite. He’d have us drag things out, follow our instincts and get weirder and more complex.
“Looking back, I see we self-edited ourselves too much as a band in the beginning. Without a producer, we’d simplify things or go, ‘Nah, that’s too weird. It’s probably only cool to us.’
“He showed us it’s OK to be weird,” Diego Chi said.
In March, Making Movies will release “A La Deriva” nationally, spreading its weirdness and charms from coast to coast. The hope is it will be a springboard to something bigger.
“We’re trying to evolve into a national thing,” Enrique Chi said. “We’re not there yet. We’re a local band that works hard. There’s no national presence for us. We’re not expecting things to happen instantly, but there’s a good shot that this album will open doors.”
The man who helped them launch the next big step, who has set them on another course, feels the same way,
“They are an amazing, special band,” Berlin said. “I’m hoping, like I’m sure they are, that this record helps take them wider and farther.”