Chris Bowers-Castillo insists that Creatures of Habit isn’t about him.
“Most of the stuff I write, it isn’t about me so much as it is about the people in my life or imagined scenarios,” says the Kiltro frontman. “It’s a little more constrained when I have to explain or express something more deeply personal.”
And, on the surface, at least, he’s right. Creatures of Habit isn’t about him. Each track is narrated by a different character: a drunk, a dictator, someone who insists they’ve just seen a ghost. But musically, it’s inseparable from his identity: The songs mesh indie rock, ambient soundscapes, Chilean folk and Latin classical guitar. And there’s no separating that particular combination from the last two-odd decades of Bowers-Castillo’s life.
The musician’s personal history ricochets between Chile and the United States. His father is from Illinois and initially moved to Colorado to attend the Air Force Academy. His mother grew up in relative poverty in Santiago and bootstrapped her way to a career as a dentist. She emigrated to the U.S. with his father, and Bowers-Castillo was born in Aurora. The family spoke Spanish at home — he learned English in kindergarten — and spent summers in Santiago with his mother’s family. At home his father played the standard roster of ’60s rock: the Beatles, Neil Young, the Doors, Bob Dylan. His father kept Revolver in the car tape player; the first songs Bowers-Castillo learned on his father’s guitar included “Michelle” and “Norwegian Wood.” His mother and cousin Ignacio, now an artist in Oaxaca, filled in the gaps with French and Chilean music: Víctor Jara, Violeta Parra, Inti-Illimani. During high school: Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, Radiohead.
After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder at 21, Bowers-Castillo promptly returned to Chile. He landed in San Pedro de Atacama, a small northern town roughly twenty miles east of the Bolivian border. He worked at a five-star hotel — “I think it’s the worst job I’ve ever had,” he notes — and lived in a dorm. He doesn’t remember the 45-minute walk each way through the desert (which was freezing at 5 a.m. and scorching hot by 3 p.m.) particularly fondly. In other words, this wasn’t another summer vacation in Santiago.
“It’s one thing to be around my family the whole time; it’s another thing to be working with working-class Chileans who don’t have time for my B.S. So I was a gringo in San Pedro, which used to annoy the hell out of me,” he explains. He found himself defending aspects of American culture in conversations and on the receiving end of gringo jokes, his fluency in Spanish be damned.
He subsequently relocated to Valparaíso, a significantly larger port city northwest of Santiago. In its glory days, it served as a midpoint between the western U.S. and Europe, enjoying the spoils of the Gold Rush until the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal plunged it into economic ruin. Drawn by plummeting rent, the bohemians moved in and stayed, setting up shop in the marvelous mansions left behind. Bowers-Castillo was no exception: He lived in the boat room of one such mansion with a piece of plywood for a door and a roster of eccentric housemates that included a college student, a clown, and Julio Narbona, an artist whom Bowers-Castillo would later commission to create the artwork for Kiltro’s debut singles. He got a job leading walking tours and stayed for three years.
“It’s a very colorful, weird, bohemian sort of place. It’s also very dirty,” he says. “It’s considered this drunken port city. Things move slowly and life gets started late.” Case in point: His guided tours met near a coffee shop that managed to stay in business despite opening at 9:30 a.m.
Off the walking-tour clock, Bowers-Castillo started writing a collection of short stories set in Valparaíso, each one narrated by a different character with a distinct perspective of the city itself. He intended to use the presence of quiltros — slang for the ubiquitous street mutts that roam the city in small packs — as a leitmotif. But he scrapped that project to write songs with a similar narrative bent, partially inspired by celebrated Argentinian guitarist Atahualpa Yupanqui and the heroes of the nueva canción movement — namely Víctor Jara, the artistic polymath and leftist activist tortured and killed by Pinochet’s soldiers, and Violeta Parra, the prominent Chilean composer and ethnomusicologist credited with revolutionizing Latin American folk music. And somewhere down the line, he hit a happy medium in terms of his split identity.
“The issue is that I had trouble seeing myself as both [Chilean and American] and being okay with the fact that I was never going to be one or the other. I was always going to be somewhere in the middle,” he says. “Going down to Chile was one of the most important things that I have ever done, to re-establish my roots there and to live there and to understand what my Chilean identity meant to me and to allow it to be reconciled with who I am in the States.”
He ended up lovingly naming his project after the street mutts. "Choosing the name Kiltro was empowering because it does mean something mixed," he says.
Toward the end of his stay in Valparaíso, Bowers-Castillo met someone — and reflexively began writing breakup songs. “I was entering into a relationship and mentally preparing myself for the inevitable end,” he says. “Obviously I had stuff to work out.”
He left Valparaíso to join his girlfriend in London, playing the “weirdly competitive” open-mic circuit. “It was right in that Ed Sheeran craze, so you had a lot of people playing in that certain style,” he says. And while he wasn’t pantomiming Ed Sheeran, he also was feeling increasingly disconnected to his own straightforward one-guy-one-guitar Latin folk songs.
“I felt like I was getting on stage and embodying this persona that didn’t feel like me — this deep, melancholic, artistic type,” he says. “The original idea was to drop the folk stuff and do a bunch of ambient things and go back to soundscapes and see what emerged from that. But I quickly realized that I missed melodies and I missed hooks, and I missed writing things that have structure.”
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So he tried for a happy medium. Back in Denver, he reconnected with his friend and local musician Will Parkhill, whom he’d first met in a college French class. Parkhill liked the new songs that Bowers-Castillo had been writing — many of them mixing traditional pop structures and Latin classical guitar with ambient soundscape interludes — and offered to come on as a “company man” for Kiltro. Drummer Michael Devincenzi joined later, writing several of his percussion parts during the Creatures of Habits sessions. They played with random tone generators and drummed on pots and pans and did the obligatory agonizing over how to re-create it all in a live set. The album dropped in July.
Between the ambient soundscapes and the intricate guitarwork, Creatures of Habit is fundamentally inseparable from the impossible-to-detangle experiences that have made Bowers-Castillo. Which is to say that, true to form and not unlike its maker, it’s a mutt. And yes, that's a compliment.
Hear Kiltro, Turvy Organ, Spirettes and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.