Oscillation of Two: A Talk with Fragile Balance
by Ryan Johann Perry
Fragile Balance, a guitar duo composed of Cruz Lujan and Nico Cooper, will be playing at the Plaza Theater this Sunday at 2:30 p.m.. Prior to that, they came to my house to have a discussion regarding music, ideas, influences and memories. Interestingly, their personal and conversational dynamic is parallel to their musical dynamic, revealing their music as true extensions of themselves.
There is an ambient nature to their music, with melodies rising in and out, changing hands and turning into something altogether different. The first song they played had an interchange that felt like controlled traffic on the Autobahn. Between the two guitarists, a third entity came to be, like some 8 limbed Hindu god, that simultaneously held the songs together and obscured their sources with pure sound. Their roles ceasing to be relegated to their names, Fragile Balance becomes, in their music, a player piano notated by experience and emotion. Where the composition ends and the 'in the moment' wave riding of the song begins, becomes difficult to distinguish.
This style of music is necessary extension of the architecture of the Philanthropy Theater at the Plaza. Arching chords, like crossbeams, a depth of stage like the overtones of their sound, and a seating that holds as much people as their memories. Those who go to see them Sunday will be granted access to the internal, closed loop, of what it feels to be a human in context with the often divisive nature of what we would define as human, the fragile balance between the self and the other.
Nico – We try to play the guitar more like a piano. We are very much in love with Piano music, but want to play guitar. It is dense because we focus on having strong bass, mid's and highs that gives us a bigger sound.
Ryan- Do the songs come from jamming?
Cruz – it is a mix, one guy comes up with an idea. “i don't know how to finish”, we bring the work to the other. For me, I can't really jam.
Nico – One of us comes with a complete composition, and we allowed the other to add their thing.
Me – Where does space play in the music, in the parts that are missing.
Cruz – We started writing music and getting good at guitar at the same time and progressed similarly so our style has fused together in an interesting way. When we write, we have the other person in mind.
Nico – I try to make a composition something that could stand on its own, the accompaniment, we want to stand on it's own as well.
Me – That sounds like post Rubber Soul Beatles, where you would have the two mixes. The Beatles in the right channel and George Martin's mix in the left. “Eleanor Rigby” is a perfect example of that. You have two visions that combined into something, that separately would stand on their own, but combined created something very interesting.
They leave spaces, imply rhythms that they know the others would bite into.
Cruz– We are doing an arrangement of a piano song. In that song, I am playing the complete piano part myself. What Nico then does is comes on top and adds his own thing to the piece, making it a whole new arrangement while keeping the original piece intact.
Me – How does your personal interaction mimic your musical interactions.
Nico- We communicate, talk about everything, I think that is key. That is an extension of our music. When we started we had different visions, and visions I think are important. “What am I trying to communicate? What am I trying to say?” We are not just playing songs, we are trying to communicate.
Me – How long have you two been together?
Cruz - Five years.
Mari – I was wondering why you never wanted to be in a rock band?
Nico – I was, Vainnation. They are still around. Artistic Asylum.
Cruz – I had a bunch of electric. I wanted to do a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn style stuff, Pearl Jam. After a while I realized most of the songs I like were finger style so I just started playing that style of music. I wrote my first finger style song and I was hooked. Then I met Nico
Nico – He would copy off me in economics class. We finally jammed so I just started playing Santana style leads over it. We kept building until our vision came to be. Our next album is a live set, old songs, new songs. Revisiting those ideas. We will call it Candlelight Sessions. We are just looking for a place that won't look at it as a fire hazard.
About the Song 'When You Were Here': This is the first song we ever wrote together. We played it at an open mic. We thought we'd get some chicks. Nico actually got a number. Beginners luck. Our next song was called Fragile Balance, but this was our first.
Ryan – What was the biggest hurdle you've dealt with in those five years?
Cruz – Him (Nico) being in college.
Nico – And now he is in college.
Cruz- since we started the band he was in college and we would do one show on the weekend, try to write and record.
Nico – Now we can spend more time doing stuff.
Ryan – And what about musical hurdles.
Cruz – It is trying to find things that are inspiring. For a while there I knew what I wanted to play, how I wanted to change, but I don't think the experience was there that could help us. We weren't experiencing life, we had nothing to write to. Our music reflected that.
Ryan- What is your biggest non-musical influence.
Nico- Film. Creating a story. It is universal over all art medium: Dancing, painting, film. I study art movements and dance movements and try to see how I can apply that to my music.
Cruz- I'm a fan of film, but especially cinematography. That is why I watch film. We try to bring that into our music videos.
Nico – Graphic design, I love graphics and designing poster. We both take photograph's and I'll take those photographs, treat them, and combine them in a way that I feel reflects the music.
Ryan – So is your eventual goal to control every aspect, from visual to musical to presentation?
Cruz – Yes, we have been doing that. We record ourselves, mix and master it, create the videos the posters. I come up with the video's concept, our mutual friend Mario films it, and Nico edits it.
Nico – It is all us. We don't trust someone else, we have to do it.
Ryan – Auteur theory, right?
Nico – Yeah, we can't leave anything to anyone else. But the graphics and videos are a challenge so we enjoy doing that as well.
Ryan – Speaking of film, is there any movie that you would have loved to soundtrack?
Nico – An existing movie?
Cruz – I would probably do The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Ryan – Julian Schnabel is a brilliant artist, painter, director.
Nico- I always think of movies that have not come out yet. I am a big fan of Darren Aronofsky. I think that The Fountain would be one.
Cruz – Yes, in both movies the camera reflects the main character, I would love to make music that did the same.
Ryan – Has their been a movie whose soundtrack ruined the film for you?
Nico – We both love movie composers, people like Gustavo Santo Lia. He does a lot of his music on Argentinean instruments.
Ryan – I used to love Danny Elfman. I used to watch Tim Burton movies to see what Elfman was doing, but now his music is as much a caricature as Burton's films.
Cruz – I think the trick to composing is to try to write something beautiful that does not steal something, but adds to it.
Ryan – That is what I loved about The Social Network. The music changed the tone, changed it to something that impacted me more. Had Hans Zimmer done it it would have been a different movie.
About the song “Losing You”: You don't lose someone once, you lose them twice. You lose them physically, death, losing touch and years later you lose your memory of them. How did they smell, their voice.
Ryan – Is there any idea that gives you writers block, anything that you cannot articulate yet with your music?
Cruz – Yes, I am going through it now. I want to capture the spirit of improv, to make the music breath, have it react and change like a living thing. When you improv, you can't just improv one thing, it ends up a medley. I want to capture that magic though, or that feeling, when I am writing my songs, but it is hard.
Nico – And I have been improvising from the start. When we began, Cruz wrote most the songs and I would just improv on top.
Cruz- Now a large part of our performances are improv.
Nico- We played a set at Mesa Street and we both popped G strings. Cruz left me to go find strings and so I just improvised the whole time. So we just kept improvising for the next hour and a half and it was awesome.
Cruz – Yeah, and now I feel more comfortable, after that, improvising.
Nico- Another challenge is our live sound. We first had radio shack mic's attached to our shirts. And now we have so many chords for two guitars but to get that sound, the reverb, the mix, perfect is of absolute importance.
On the name Fragile Balance: “There was an artist, a new wave kinda guy and I saw that name and it fit how we live our lives. Everything, our lives, relationships are a constant fragile balance. We have friends that comment on our name, saying how it came to them when they were going through something.”
Ryan- And what have you been having trouble with musically?
Nico – Well I have been having the opposite problem, trying to write something, compose something without my crutches. The chords, sounds I always use. Especially on steel strings, with melody, it is difficult and I hate certain sounds on steel string.
Cruz – He hates a lot of sounds. It is trying to find the sound and the melody that captures you and surprises you with where it goes.
Ryan – and you cannot just be melodic, you cannot hide behind a vocalist, or a drummer. You have to be more than melodic. You have to be harmonic.
Cruz – Exactly, and we are self taught but know a bit about music theory. And there is the battle between left brain and right brain.
Nico - ' I'm not gonna follow the rules, man'.
Cruz – Exactly. Trying to find that balance is important.
Ryan – Do you have favorite chords?
Nico – I almost never play regular chords, I need new voicings. And because the songs are in different tunings, we always find new chords.
Cruz – My favorite chord is the fragile balance chord. (Note: I don't know what chord it was, but it was pretty.)
Mari- I want to ask about presentation. There are these formalities, you have to come in, put down the stand, etc. How is your presentation gonna be different.
Cruz – We may just walk out barefoot with a glass of wine. Laughs. We'll look nice.
Nico – Yes, and we have to decide on sitting or standing, because it changes us and our playing depending on which one we do.
Mari – You want it to feel like a classical concert?
Cruz – Not exactly, we want to address the audience more intimately, and we will be sharing the stories behind the songs.
Nico – So it will be a classical setting in that it is quiet, but it will be different because we are against the rigidity, so we want it to be a more conversational feel.
Ryan – What was your worst concert experience?
Cruz – Jamaican Cafe. There was a lot of 'green' everywhere.
Nico – And everyone hated us, they were telling us to not do it anymore.
Cruz – We got a dollar tip. There was another one, just after high school. It was quincineara. It was at the Lancers Club so we thought we were moving up, you know? There was a DJ who did not know that we were gonna be there. Everyone at the party did not remember that we were there to play. The DJ only had one mic so we had to face each other and share the mic. We were playing a song and halfway through the mother comes by and asks “When are you gonna begin playing?”
Nico- It was awful, we had been playing for a while and no one noticed.
Ryan – If you could play any location in El Paso, where would you play?
Both – The Plaza, there is a lot of history there.
Mari – Do either of you struggle with stage fright?
Cruz – I did, the first shows, my head was down, just hiding.
Nico – I never did, what gives me nerves is sound, tuning. That is always a problem. Either it is not loud enough or too loud. Feedback, cutting out frequencies. That stuff scares me, people don't.
Cruz – To this day I still won't look at the audience.
Nico – I don't because it is weird. To just stare at someone in the audience.
Cruz – Or what if I see a pretty girl, you know and I think I am making a seductive face but it ends up looking like this. (makes a Scarface, macho snarl).
On the Fifth Beatle for Fragile Balance, Mario: He is like the fifth Beatle, he films our videos, helps us get gigs. He even speaks for us to club owners. He is an important part of Fragile Balance.
Ryan – Have you ever wanted to collaborate? If so with what instrument?
Nico – Cello, piano.
Cruz – Yes, if we could collaborate with anyone though, it would be with one of our influences.
On the song “Transcendence”: It is from an upcoming concept album, The Contour of Self. The album follows the contour of a persons life, like the contours in sculpting and painting. The contour of a line. Transcendence is, in context with the album itself, is influenced by my cousin who was getting married. This song is not about how great it is to get married, that is too cheesy. What we came up with was celebrating the fact that getting married is one of the few things you can do to go down a different path, that you can choose. Most of the time you have no choice, you can just react. But getting married is a conscious choice, a choice to transcend. In the story, the character is at the same juncture. This is the choice. To Transcend.
Ryan – what is one question you have wanted to be asked. Tell me and I will ask you and you can answer.
Cruz – Why do you do what you do?
Ryan – Why do you do what you do?
Cruz – I think all the arts have reasons. Some reasons are greater. We do it firstly for ourselves. How I play, how it sounds, brings me peace. Playing music I feel okay.
Nico – Can't think of a question.
Ryan – Let me ask, do you think the person that designs this chandelier, or the Mona Lisa. Do you think that what inspired Da Vinci can inspire you as well?
Nico – I think ultimately there is a human space that is universal, that makes us human, that artists can access. But I also think a lot of things created say nothing. I like the lines and the curves on the chandelier. Ultimately, even if they are driven by money, there is some self expression. What drives me as an artist is not what drives other people necessarily. I can talk about art all day. I obsess over expression and it is the heart of what I do. I think a lot of people have not come to terms with that. To put yourself out there, to express yourself to the world. That drives me. Art is how we remind ourselves of our humanity.
Ryan – I grew up in Germany. There was this playground that we called the “witches hat”. It was a large metal circle tethered to a pole with chains. We would swing around on it, and sometimes it would shoot us off. I like to write, and one of the things I have always wanted to do was write something that felt the same way as the witches hat. Is there something, for you, that you want to express like that. Something where you say “i want my music to feel like that?”.
Nico – A lot of our songs are personal experiences so we try to articulate that. I lived in Spain for a while. The way the air smelled, the trees. I want to make something as good as that.
Cruz – I think it is about matching the internal with the external. There is no one thing. I think it is more photo album. This song is a relic from this time in my life.
Ryan – Wanna finish with a joke?
Cruz – Yeah, a guy walks into a bar, he is carrying a bag. He tell the bartender to give him a drink. The man reaches into a bag and puts a fuzzy ball on the bar. Like it is not there. When the bartender comes back he says “Here is your drink, what is that there?” The man replies “It is my fuzzy.” The Bartender says “Oh, a fuzzy?” The man says “Yeah, you don't know what a fuzzy is?” The Bartender says no. The man says “Check it out. Fuzzy, chair.” The fuzzy puffs up, growls and attacks the chair, turning it to sawdust then returning to being a fuzzy. The Bartender says “That's crazy”. The man say's “Yeah, thats my fuzzy.”
The whole time there is a woman sitting next to them. She is watching and hearing it all. So she steals the fuzzy when he is not looking and takes the fuzzy home. The ladies husband comes home and says “I'm home”. The lady has a silver platter and shows her husband. She says “I made you dinner”. The Husband says “Right, you made dinner, what is it?” The Lady says “It is a fuzzy.” The Husband says, “Right, fuzzy my ass”. Thats the joke.
Mari – That is pretty intricate for a 'guy walks into a bar joke'.
Fragile Balance will be at the Philanthropy Theater Sunday January 11, 2015 at 2:30 p.m.