Tantric Picasso: "That alchemy is so precious and nurturing"

Tantric Picasso (due Thursday, February 2 at the Bluebird Theater) started in 2008 among a group of friends who met at school, which is typical enough, but in naming the band, the fivesome created a personal mythology (partly detailed below) that is somewhat embodied in the name with hints of the esoteric knowledge, mysticism, sex and magic and the spirit of artistic experimentalism that those words imply when brought together.

Musically, the band's richly expansive songs blend together blues, psychedelia, funk, power pop and electronica in a way that also doesn't sound like it was created by a bunch of dilettantes trying to please every taste. The band's new album, Make Your Love Bigger, reflects its recent absorption of Latin rhythms.

We recently sat down for a chat with the group's rhythm section, Pablo Cruz and Matt Tanner, about the unique way it came up with the name, an especially significant and spiritually stirring trip to Portland, Oregon, that set the band on a new path and the group's goal of connecting with the audience in a deep and meaningful way.

Westword: Why did you call your band Tantric Picasso? What those to words signify are an interesting mixture of imagery.

Matt Tanner: The name originally came from our bandmate Jackson [Boone]. He was reading the Eric Clapton autobiography and he saw the word "tantric" and thinking it was a cool word. It was at a time we were trying to think of a cool name. Just something that sounded fluid. So he picked "Picassos" and said, "The Tantric Picassos." So he made this event that involved a code from the Clapton book where each member of the band had to go to a specific page and find the next clue to give to the next member. Finally it came to me when it said, "Turn to the last page and if you like this band name then let's become the Tantric Picassos."

I got to the last page and went, "How about Tantric Picasso" [singular] so it became that. So it was kind of a fun game and there was a twelve pack of beer in the fridge at the end and we all celebrated. That was three years ago, I think.

Is the album title Life's a Bitch and Then You Die So Why Not Laugh Until You Cry for real?

Pablo Cruz: Our visual artist made a picture for us a while back. He did a bunch of awesome illustrations and one of them said, "Tantric Picasso" and then "Life's a Bitch And Then You Die So Why Not Laugh Until You Cry." It shows this kid that has an ice cream cone and the ice cream falls off. And gets shot in the face. Then out of all these tears, it turns into rain and these flowers grow to form the name Tantric Picasso. It's a really cool piece. But we all decided that should be our album title and the picture should be the album artwork.

MT: And that was a really playful record so we wanted a playful title for it too.

You mention "Mer-Ka-Ba lightbodies" on your Facebook profile. What's the significance of that for you and how did you become familiar with those concepts?

MT: That's because a lot of what we like to play around with, in terms of ideas, are metaphysical in a lot of ways and Mer-Ka-Ba is a metaphysical idea.

PC: It's a symbol we're very influenced by right now.

What is it a symbol of?

MT: It's a symbol of ascension, of divination into the fourth dimension where you climb into your lightbody as a vehicle and you can travel through time and space where you don't need a car, you don't need clothes, you just need you, yourself and your organic matter and you ascend. Like Buddha or Jesus Christ. It's a fun way to play with music even more. [We learned about those ideas from] books and friends, conversations, it's all kind of in the air right now.

PC: We had kind of an iconic, spiritual trip together a year or so ago. Jackson is from Portland, Oregon so we would go with him to see it because we thought it was a cool town and whatever. The last time we went out there, it was a bunch of our friends who went, not just the band, and it was a really... I don't know, connecting experiences happened during that time.

We met some people who were very wise with their words in a lot of ways and they kind of gave us this new idea to be focused on. She talked about this indigo children thing or, you know, and it was very interesting. We all started to feel more connected with each other and we wanted to break out of just getting fucked up and doing drugs all the time and moving on. Which we already naturally felt like we were doing anyway.

I don't know if it was supposed to be funny but the string of musical genres you list for yourself is a bit absurd but it also captures what your music actually sounds like. Was that kind of joke to list all of that?

MT: I mean, everything is kind of a joke. When you're describing music, it's so personal in itself. Your best friend may hate it but for you it may bring you out of your most terrible day. So the words are pertinent because they do have meaning but we like to play with them as much as anyone else. Life is love, man, it's a joke, it's all great. You can be mad at it or have fun with it. We just choose to have fun with it.

PC: It is hard for us to classify ourselves because we are blues-influenced but we have a lot of synthesizer/electronic aspects to our sound that's growing all the time. On top of that, we all play jazz for school so there's that influence coming into things. And then just classic rock and roll stuff and by the end of it, Matt will switch to banjo and Marko [Melnick] will play mandolin.

We're trying to get into a place where we're focused and that was the whole point of this new album. It's meant to be more of an almost pop-rock album, something a little bit more cohesive. We're fitting those things in, which is what everybody says, probably. But literally more than with any other band I've been in, with this one it's very hard to just say, "We're just blues." Maybe for a couple of weeks. Or maybe for an album.

Or maybe just for a song or part of a song.

PC: Right.

You guys studied jazz in school?

PC: Well, that's part of it. Our degrees are half performance, half audio engineering. Jazz is a huge focus on the performance side of things at CU Denver. We just started doing the Latin Ensemble this last year, Karl [Rivers] and I together. Matt was doing it too. It's a really great influence for the rhythm section of a band to get the whole Latin experience in school. It's a totally different vibe for sure.

MT: I've been playing a lot of Nigerian and Afro-Cuban music and all of those rhythms float in your head and come out in various ways and various places so it's cool to hear it trickle down into the music, especially in the drums and bass.

You guys are all from different parts of the country. Where are you from and how did you all meet?

PC: I'm from Los Angeles. Jackson's from Portland, Oregon, [as we mentioned before], Karl is from Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

MT: Marko's from Denver and I'm from Colorado Springs.

PC: We essentially met through school but we also knew each other through different avenues of friendships and at parties beforehand. The first time I ever met this guy, we were at a party. I used to play bass in high school but I stopped because I didn't have a band or anything and was just playing guitar by myself. I started playing bass at this party and he was on the drum set and after a couple of minutes we looked at each other and went, "Oh my god, this is awesome!" We were guessing each thing the other was about to do and going through with it.

A year later, Jackson comes up to me in class and says, "I have this band and I want you to come jam with us if you're interested." I said, "I don't know, man, I'm kind of a singer-songwriter and I don't know if I want to do that kind of thing." But he said, "Just jam." So I did and it ended up being this guy again and we hit it off. The entire band ended up having really good chemistry.

MT: When I met him I just remembered him as this crazy guy who wore Ray Bans without any lenses in them. White Ray Bans with no lenses just to wear white Ray Bans. I thought, "That guy was crazy but he's a lot of fun to play with!" Then Jackson told me, "I invited that guy to play in the band." And I was like, "Alright..."

PC: The three of them started the band with another guy the year before I joined, I think.

MT: I met Jackson in the dorms on campus and we met Marko in classes.

Why did you think Make Your Love Bigger was an appropriate title for the arc of songs that make up your new album?

MT: One of the friends we met on that trip that Pablo was discussing, Laurie Paul, a sweet lady and incredible oil painter and visual artist, she's the one that told us about Mer-Ka-Bas and lightbodies and gave us some books [on those subjects] and she had a very intense dream where she was trying to think of a manta for use to use for this new album. She just woke up and kept saying, "Make your love bigger, make your love bigger." She made a painting and sent it to us in the mail. It helped kind of bring more focus to this album. Yeah, "Make your love bigger," that's what this album is all about.

PC: We're definitely in a place where we want to be a part of the entire experience with everybody. We're all tired of playing shows where you get a little drunk or high before the show and "Look at me, I'm playing this show, this is awesome. Does everybody like me?" I'm tired of that. I like the shows where you go there and you're connecting with the musicians on stage and, "Wow, I feel like we're all doing this together." It's like we're sharing this experience versus two ends of the thing. I think that's what we're trying to accomplish more and more.

MT: And I feel a lot closer to the people around me, Pablo and the audience too. Making sure to look everyone in the eyes if I can and feeding them that energy when we're there. That alchemy is so precious and nurturing.

Tantric Picasso w/The Marrow, Safe Boating is No Accident and Tommy and the Tangerines, 7:30 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. show, Thursday, February22, Bluebird Theater, $10 adv./$15 d.o.s., 303-377-1666, 16+

Follow Backbeat @westword_music and

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.

Latest Stories