Capsula's Bowie obsession pays off

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Capsula

Members of the band Capsula. (Inigo de Amescua / June 21, 2013)

Capsula formed 15 years ago because of a David Bowie album, and this year the band worked on its album "Solar Secrets" (Krian Music Group) with Bowie's producer, Tony Visconti. "It was kind of a dream," says Capsula guitarist Martin Guevara. "Part of me is like, 'Did that really happen?' "

When Guevara and bassist Coni Duchess first met at a party in Argentina in the late '90s, they forged a lifelong bond based on the albums they were obsessing over at the time: Duchess was listening to Lou Reed's David Bowie-produced "Transformer" and Guevara was wearing out his copy of Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars."

"It was like planets colliding," Guevara says. "Those records are why we decided to start the band. We were playing before in different projects, but this was different, an obsession, it was an indication that we were meant to be in a band together. When we were kids in Argentina, there was dictatorship, and also the (Falklands) war with England. So English music and underground music of any kind was very hard to find. We were listening to South American psychedelic bands and it felt — how do you say it? — clandestine. When we were early teenagers, we started to listen to punk rock. First we listened to the British punk rock, then the original punk from New York — Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and all the influences they had: the Stooges, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie. It was like, OK, here is the fundamental stone, the initial kick for that music. It was like discovering a new world."

Capsula took its name from a line in Bowie's classic single "Space Oddity," and developed a sound that combined the spiraling guitars of psychedelia with the propulsion of garage rock and early punk. The trio (which now also includes drummer Ignacio Solimo) moved to London, then Berlin, and finally settled in Bilbao, Spain. The move was prompted by the huge distance between major cities in South America, which put a crimp in the band's desire to tour as much as possible. Since moving to Europe, Capsula has played at least 75 shows a year for a decade, honing its sound and making inroads into the North American market with well-received shows at high-profile festivals such as the annual South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.

In 2011, the group got an offer to play at the reopening of a historic Bllbao opera house and decided to perform their beloved "Ziggy Stardust" album in its entirety. "We had never done something like that before, but I have a big mouth," Guevara says with a laugh. "We had only a month to prepare. I thought I could play all the songs because I'd played these songs on my acoustic guitar all my life. But when we started to prepare the arrangements, we realized, 'We're in trouble.' But it was lovely trouble. We really get very deep into the album. We are a trio, and on the album there are a lot of orchestral arrangements, strings and horns. We decided we can do all these arrangements but in a sonic way, with guitar noises, so we added a guitarist for that show. We were so deep into the project, all four of us, that we would say at rehearsal, 'I was dreaming about Bowie and Ziggy.' It was like the spirit of Ziggy got in all of us."

The performance spawned an album of the band's "Ziggy" interpretation, recorded with producer John Agnello, who had previously worked with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. "John had produced our previous album, and he had told us that he first thought of producing music because of the drum sound on (the 'Ziggy Stardust' track) 'Five Years.' He was the right guy to produce it."

Then came the meeting with Visconti, whose producing credits include Bowie's "Space Oddity," "The Man Who Sold the World," "Young Americans," "Low," "Heroes" and "Scary Monsters," as well as classic albums by T. Rex, Iggy Pop and Thin Lizzy. Visconti was just coming off the sessions for Bowie's comeback album, "The Next Day," released earlier this year, when he heard Capsula's song demos and agreed to work with them.

"A close friend of ours from Barcelona is friends with Tony, and he was pushing us, 'You have to meet Tony,' " Guevara says. "For us, it was, man, you're joking. He's a myth. He's on our posters that we hang on our wall. We sent him some demos, and were really surprised that two days later he wanted to go ahead. He said he could reserve a studio in two weeks. A lot of things happened almost too fast."

Visconti was sent 27 demos and chose 14, with the intent of pushing the band beyond its previous limits. "To our surprise, he chose the most difficult songs, the ones that were farthest from Capsula's sound. It was a challenge. There were sounds and atmospheres that we never tried before. We love the Motown sound, girl groups, the Ronettes, the Supremes. But it was hard to mix it with our psychedelic sound. He found the right way to bring them together. There are a lot of vocal harmonies, mixing Ray Charles backing vocals with Syd Barrett's guitars, and a lot of different atmospheres. On the first listen, it's maybe not so apparent. We didn't want to scare people who like our sound. So on the first listen, it's Capsula. But if you go deeper, you can hear the influence of West Coast bands, a lot of Motown, a lot of soul, all mixed with the sonic guitars, which is our signature."

The band recorded in an isolated studio in Kentucky, where they lived for two weeks with Visconti. "It's in the middle of nowhere, you have no distractions at all. It means the producer and engineer and band have to live together and share every hour together. It was fantastic. We were like a family, and we put that experience of living together on tape. The place was surrounded by 14 acres of fields and woods. Sometimes when you need ideas, you take a little walk, go with Tony to a small lagoon, talk about the songs, the stars, the sky, and get images and ideas for the album. I thought, 'This must have been what it was like when Bowie and Tony were recording together in Berlin.' It was our little fantasy come true."

Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday at WBEZ (FM-91.5).

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 13

Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.

Tickets: $20 and $25 (door); lincolnhallchicago.com

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The Grammys 2011