Interview: City of the Sun swerves from instrumental preconceptions

City of the Sun

Photos: Alessio Neri

NAPA — When New York trio City of the Sun released its full-length debut in 2016, an album recorded live to tape in one day at a Brooklyn church, no one was more surprised—or confused— that it debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard jazz chart the band members themselves.

“I don’t think any of us consider ourselves jazz,” guitarist Avi Snow said. “[Guitarist] John [Pita] and I taught ourselves guitar. None of us went to any school for music.”

Snow and Pita, who had been playing together for several years, did have jazzy inclinations, but that was just one genre that the two and percussionist Zach Para subconsciously blend into their sound. There are Flamenco guitars, acoustic folk mentality, and oh, yeah, none of the three sings, which guides the band in a cinematic post-rock direction.

“We like a lot of reverbs and delays, things that shape where post-rock comes from,” Pita said.

Just don’t confuse City of the Sun for Explosions in the Sky; the trio is its own animal.

City of the Sun

City of the Sun photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 27, 2017.

Pita was born in Los Angeles but raised by his parents in Ecuador. He and a vocalist started the band in 2011. Pita found a connection with the Brooklyn-born Snow, who grew up on jazz, in 2012. The band got its start not through the typical bar circuit, but on the streets and in the subway stations of New York City. In the beginning, Pita said, he and Snow had wanted to quit their steady day jobs.

“It was more like, ‘Let’s quit our jobs and busk,’” Pita said.

The two guitarists did not intend to play in an instrumental band. The singer eventually left. Rather than replace him, Pita and Snow went in a different direction. Para, a Seattle transplant who performs with hand drums, his fingers taped and a rattle around his leg, joined about a year later, in 2013.

City of the Sun

City of the Sun photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 27, 2017.

“We talked about maybe incorporating some singers, and we are definitely open for some collaborations, but it’s just moving in this way and so we just kind of stuck with it,” Snow said.

As their music began taking on more importance, they were able to follow through with their goal. The group has had the opportunity to play at a national TED Talks meeting and have opened for the likes of Marky Ramone and Gregg Allman.

Still, the trio makes a point of performing spontaneous gigs in public spaces as often as possible.

“I think that playing in front of people, in general sense, is a necessity,” Snow said. Added Pita: “It’s how we met most of the people and how we got exposed to the New York crowd. People are receptive to us when we play. But not only that, they seem to follow up. We see the same people at shows, we see the same people at festivals and really grassroots the way that we grew from that.”

City of the Sun recorded and released two EPs before recording their 2016 debut album, To the Sun and All the Cities in Between, at a Brooklyn church in a nine-hour window. Single (and album closer) “Everything” would go on to reach the no. 2 spot on Spotify’s US Viral 50 chart and no. 5 on the Global Viral chart.

City of the Sun

City of the Sun photographed at BottleRock Napa Valley in Napa on May 27, 2017.

Other songs, while wordless, evoke a sense of time and place, something Pita, Para and Snow make a concerted effort to find. “W. 16th St,” “La Puerta Roja” and “Winter 2011” may conjure different images to different people, but it’s the connection that matters most.

“The song titles are usually meant to have a broad meaning and to be rooted and tackle certain emotion,” Pita said. “That word or statement means something to you; to someone else it might mean something else. It has to be something that I feel or that we feel that a lot of people can understand, as well, like ‘Winter 2011.’ Everybody’s had a winter. … Maybe that winter meant that you fell in love.”

This year, City of the Sun released three singles, with more on the way, from which the band will release another EP. The most recent is “Sugar,” perhaps a more traditional anthemic post-rock tune. But then there is Para’s south-of-the-equator drumming, which makes the track stand out from the band’s contemporaries.

“I think what we do comes from a melting pot of everything we do, everything we listen to, everything we grew up on,” Pita said. “Nothing we do is conscious, as in, “we want to sound like … jazz or like flamenco.”

The band hasn’t ruled our adding a singer, either. If the feel and timing are right, the band is willing to collaborate with vocalists of all types. The only thing City of the Sun is adamant against is sacrificing its art for the sake of commercial success. All decisions are made with the creative integrity of the band in mind. Snow hopes to eventually have a song play on the radio, score a film or sell well.

But as a band whose members are still buskers at heart, they have other measures of success.

“Personally, I want to travel the world and share our music with as many people as possible,” he said. “I know that we all share that desire.”

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