It was 2006, and Brenda Avina was on stage at the Church nightclub, terrified of looking anywhere but down at her bass. She had just a couple of days to learn the songs to play in her older brother Miguel Avina’s band. But there was a problem: Aside from her and Miguel unsuccessfully attempting to make a School of Rock band with their cousins when they were younger, Brenda was not a bassist.
But Brenda still played that night, even if she felt like Miguel might have mostly pushed her into it.
Fourteen years after their first show together, Brenda, 30, and Miguel, 33 — now both parents — are still playing music together as bilingual psychedelic-rock band iZCALLi. But much has changed for the siblings, beginning with their new record — their fifth overall — Casa de Papel.
Casa de Papel, the band’s first album with Wes Watkins [trumpet] and Josh Lee [fiddle] taking guest turns, is delightful and unpredictable. From “Como el Mar,” a bouncy and soaring opening Spanish track, to the gorgeous “Casa de Papel," a beautiful ballad with fluttering horns and intimate vocals, to the final track, “Silverspoon,” a guitar-shredding number that evokes Jack White.
While impressive, the range and variety of sound on the record is signature iZCALLi; it's the pacing and stellar production work from Tyler Imbrogno at Daymoon Studios, as well as the band's willingness to bring in another opinion, that stands out as perhaps the most telling sign of what's next for the group.
Since he was about seventeen, Miguel has written, recorded and produced his own songs. He has found success having his fingerprints covering just about every aspect of his band’s music — occasionally to the annoyance of others.
“Miguel likes to take control of things; he’s had that with me, just because we’re brother and sister, so I don’t have a choice,” Brenda says, laughing with Miguel. “He knows I’m going to stick around.”
“It’s been a nice dynamic,” says Miguel. “Like she said, had we not been siblings, it would have been a lot more difficult to keep a bass player or someone involved, because I do like to have control over certain things.”
But after injuring his voice and developing a polyp in his throat in early 2018, Miguel was forced to change his approach to vocals. While still able to reach the top shelf of his vocal register thanks to a successful throat surgery, on Casa de Papel, Imbrogno helped Miguel find the right approach to building up to the record’s biggest and loudest moments.
“I just think when I was writing some of these songs, I felt like I needed some extra input outside of the band,” says Miguel. “We’ve been writing together for such a long time that sometimes you can sort of hit a plateau and feel like you need an extra source of inspiration. It’s kind of a different dynamic than the past, where we’ve played the songs live for a long time — in some cases years — and then recorded them. But this time, we just have a bunch of songs that were bottled up that we wanted to release pretty quickly.”
“It makes sense now, and I mean, Miguel’s getting older, too,” Brenda adds with a laugh. “He had vocal surgery a year ago, so he was having some issues with his voice, and Tyler helped him apply a certain range to the songs and a little bit more dynamics to the songs.”
As if handing over some of the album reins to an outsider wasn’t emblematic enough of iZCALLi’s maturation, there’s also the matter of the Avina family’s home. Since immigrating from Mexico in 1992, the family has lived in the same duplex for 26 years. Their father turned a room downstairs into his own personal studio, and eventually passed it down to his children.
“While he was renting, this was his studio,” says Miguel. “We shared practice space; he practiced with his band down here.”
When the house went up for sale in 2018, Miguel and his wife purchased the home, ensuring that the place where every iZCALLi album has been written — including Casa de Papel — would remain in the family.
“I think it would have been really sad if we would have lost this house,” says Brenda. “We were lucky that we kept it, because everything has happened here. From being a teenager to now — I joined when I was eighteen — I’ve been through everything in this house."
Fully into parenthood now, Miguel and Brenda have already begun introducing the basement studio to their children, even if they are not quite old enough to join in on the jam sessions.
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“We had the bass session, and Brenda brought her baby and I had my girl there,” says Miguel. “She would record a song, and we’d finish, and she’d pick up the baby, breastfeed, finish up, then record another song. She’d record another song, he’d cry, so I’d have to hold him, then it’d be time to feed again, and then she’d play more bass.”
More than a decade into their musical partnership, Miguel and Brenda are finding new things to try in their music. But in more ways than one, for them iZCALLi is just part of being family.
Correction May 10, 2019: Tyler Imbrogno works at Daymoon Studios not Mighty Fine Productions, and Casa de Papel is the band's fifth album, not its fourth, as an earlier version of this story stated.