In 2015, just after his band had broken up over clashing egos, Victor Hernández was hanging around at a Growlers concert and admiring the style of a man wearing a Doors T-shirt.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'That dude looks like a musician — like a good musician," Hernández says. On a whim, he approached the man in the Doors shirt, Sergio Castorena, and asked if he was a musician. When Castorena said yes, Hernández asked him if he would be interested in starting a band.
That chance encounter was the launching pad for Denver-based Latin psych-surf band Vic N' the Narwhals, made up of Hernández on keys, Castorena on guitar, Mateo Lozano on bass, and Emanuel Montoya on drums.
It was actually Castorena, not Hernández, who came up with the band's name: "We were sort of in the ’50s in music, that ’50s aesthetic, and there was, you know, Shannon and the Clams, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, so we wanted that kind of name, just to get that vibe across," Castorena says.
Since Vic has the shortest name, his was chosen, though he was reluctant at the time.
"When I first thought to make a band, I never thought to make it with my name on it or about me at all," Hernández says. "I've always said that we're like a four-legged table, and we all compose and write quite evenly."
While Vic N' the Narwhals have since evolved from that ’50s musical aesthetic, adapting their sound to include influences from many other eras and genres, the name has stuck. Their eclectic sound and the diversity of their discography comes, in part, from the bandmembers' collaborative spirit. While they all share writing and composing duties, one member will frequently take the lead on a song and determine its direction. With each of the four musicians having distinct musical tastes, certain songs lean more toward individual preferred genres.
"Serge loves that classic ’80s 'Brit rock, and I personally love the Doors, the Keys, the Zombies — old-school stuff like that — and a lot of Spanish music, like Manu Chao, cumbia.... We definitely have that influence," Hernández explains. "And then Emanuel, the drummer, listens to more punk and emo music, and our bassist is more into alt-pop like Portugal. The Man and Cage the Elephant. It's fun, but it's a challenge we have to overcome, because we all like different things. It's hard to please everybody; it's literally like dating three other dudes."
Hernández, Castorena, Lozano and Montoya — all of whom are of Latin American descent — also trade off singing duties, since none of them had any singing experience prior to being in Vic N' the Narwhals. The quartet self-produced its first EP, titled Los Narwhals, in an underground warehouse called Ursa Minor, where the band used to throw shows. While Ursa Minor no longer serves as a venue because they kept getting kicked out during shows, it still hold a place in the bandmates' hearts.
"The warehouse was our bread and butter for the longest time. Ursa Minor was like the cornerstone of Narwhal history," says Hernández.
Los Narwhals was never released online and could only be heard if you got your hands on one of the fifty physical copies made. Until now, that is. Songs from the EP, along with other new tracks, can be heard on Vic N' the Narwhals' first full-length album, Lágrimas de Agave (Tears of Agave), which was released in February. Named for the band's most beloved muse, tequila (which comes from the agave plant), Lágrimas de Agave is a twelve-track bilingual delight, including both English and Spanish songs (and some that include both languages).
When asked how they decide which language to use, Hernández says, "I would say some songs naturally feel more Latin. It's a more heartfelt language; all Latin languages are a bit more romantic, in a way. I personally feel that we owe it to the community to give back and have more of a connection with the community."
In addition to drunken nights and hungover mornings, Vic N' the Narwhals count heartbreak, death, Halloween, urban legends and watching other local bands among their primary inspirations for Lágrimas de Agave.
"I think this album is really inspired by the struggle," Hernández explains. "We all go through the pain of heartbreak, family death, the sense of loss, and I think also some of the songs were truly inspired by just seeing other friends party and turn up, and us playing with them."
The recording process was much more difficult than any of the four had anticipated. By the time they started recording in October of 2018, they had already set a date for an album-release show at the Marquis to coincide with Hernández's birthday on January 26, 2019. After their first days in the studio, they quickly realized how ambitious it was to attempt to record and finish an album in three months. But with the help of their friend Nestor Renteria, a sound engineer at EightyEight Studios, they were able to get it done (though not in time for the Marquis show, which happened anyway).
Of the recording process, Castorena says, "It was fun, but it's my least favorite part of the process. I like playing live." Hernández agrees: "A lot of the beauty of our band is you hear the album, but the live experience is where it's at, because every time we play, we change it up. We'll play long songs, short songs, we'll jam. We have a couple songs we didn't record on the album and new songs we're working on right now, so the mix of that is really cool. We rarely make set lists. We get on stage and we feel the crowd, which is great."
This Saturday, September 14, Vic N' the Narwhals will return to the stage to play a show in honor of el Dia de Independencia, Mexican Independence Day, along with fellow Denver bands iZCALLi and Pink Hawks, as well as Sierra León, a band from Mexico City. This will be the third year that the Narwhals play a show in celebration of Independence Day with other bands.
"It's just kind of becoming a tradition now; it's good friends, people who we've been playing with for a while and see live all the time," said Castorena. Vic N' the Narwhals have been wanting to play with iZCALLi and Pink Hawks for some time, and they knew that el Dia de Independencia would be the perfect occasion. Says Hernández, "It's always such an honor to play with such big-caliber bands who are huge, and people I look up to. Especially being about our community, the Latin community, it just makes it that much more special."
Elias García, who plays guitar in Pink Hawks, reiterates the importance of celebrating el Dia de Independencia as a community. "This is the actual Mexican Independence Day, this is not Cinco de Mayo. This is a community that comes together, and we commemorate what happened with Mexicans' independence, because it wasn't just the Mexicans that wanted it. Before they were Mexicans, those were indigenous people, and they were fighting against the Spanish government. The people that joined them were the Irish, the French, and so many other different cultures, that with this kind of set that's coming together is actually getting unified. Because you have Pink Hawks, which is Afrobeat, you have iZCALLi, which pushes the boundaries of rock and Mexican rock, and then you have Vic N' the Narwhals, which is a culmination of many different types of Latin music that have been influenced throughout history."
You can celebrate Dia de Independencia with Vic N' the Narwhals, iZCALLi, Pink Hawks and Sierra León at 9 p.m. Saturday, September 14, at the Broadway Roxy. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. To purchase yours in advance, email [email protected] Listen to Lágrimas de Agave now on Soundcloud or iTunes.