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If Kiltro’s first album embodied any kind of spirit, it was the playful and energetic nature of its namesake muse: a dog. After storming onto the Denver scene in 2018 with a kaleidoscopic swirl of Latin-folk sounds, the indie rock band—named after the Spanish word quiltro, meaning “mutt”—released its debut album Creatures of Habit in 2019. The debut drew upon singer-songwriter Chris Bowers Castillo’s experiences living in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, where canines roam wild. He’d seen them everywhere in the seaside city during his early 20’s, when he worked as a walking tour guide: stray dogs gathering in packs, dogs strutting up steep roads, dogs accompanying and protecting him while he strolled Valparaíso’s vibrant but decaying neighborhoods.
The canines’ influence stuck with him; Years later, once Castillo returned to Denver and started Kiltro with bassist Will Parkhill and drummer Michael DeVincenzi, the wild dogs of Valparaíso became the connective motif of the band’s early lyrics, which explored magical realism and assumed the point of view of various, fantastical characters—including a dictator and a narrator who claims to have seen a ghost.
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But in the band’s second album, Underbelly, their sophomore effort takes inspiration from an opposite species: cats.
“I feel like a cat is more of an inward creature,” Castillo says, “and [Underbelly] was a lot more of an introspective process.”
The brooding, feline inspiration is specifically called out in the last track of the new album, which was released on June 2. As Castillo wrote about the pulsating, Latin and neo-psychedelic tinged tune, “’Cuchito’ is a song about a cat. It’s kind of about my cat. Or maybe a version of my cat that lives on the street, or at least fantasizes about living on the street while he sits at the window.”
While putting together Underbelly, the band was also sitting at the proverbial window themselves, peering outward at the world, and inwards towards their own doubts, struggles and anxieties. In early 2020, the pandemic disrupted Kiltro’s momentum just as much as anyone’s: a tour canceled, opportunities vanished or put on hold.
“Suddenly it was just being in my house, really not knowing what to do with myself,” Castillo remembers of lockdown.
And so he began the process of writing a new album—a very different album, Castillo says, than the collection of songs for Creatures of Habit, which the band mostly crafted and honed on stage before recording them. Kiltro forged the 2019 album through the trials of performance after Castillo, Parkhill, and DeVincenzi reunited in Colorado in 2018 after meeting years earlier at CU Boulder. Adding percussionist Fez Garcia to the mix for live gigs, Kiltro’s sound—the swirling mixes of Latin syncopation, looping and distorted harmonies, Chilean folk sensibility, and Castillo’s Thom Yorke-esque crooning—evolved on stages ranging from the Mercury Café to the Larimer Lounge.
But while Kiltro’s early songs took flight in the laboratory of live music, with its ever-judgmental crowds, COVID lockdown was different; using performances as a song-writing technique wasn’t an option.
Stuck at home, Castillo says he started teaching himself advanced looping and post-production techniques on his computer. His lyric writing for Underbelly, too, assumed a different form than the frontman’s previously jaunty, gregarious songs which had drawn so much from the personalities of Valparaíso’s stray dogs and the energy of Kiltro’s live performances.
“One of the big themes [of the new album] is: What exists internally when everything falls away?” Castillo says. “It’s that moment of passing through a psychological torrent of unresolved issues. And I think the Underbelly is passing through all of that and seeing what’s on the other side.”
While Castillo doesn’t want to call Underbelly “a pandemic album” or associate it with COVID too specifically, he says that he can still hear the uncertainties and rawness of that time. That’s not to say that Underbelly is a sleepy album; for all the cat-like vibes, Kiltro hasn’t abandoned its hard-to-pin-down, mutt personality. The new album is a genre-bending—often grooving and exciting—mixture of influences that make for a beautifully-crafted and unpredictable journey from start to finish.
Take the single “Guanaco”, which employs yet another animal reference. “A guanaco is an alpaca,” Castillo says. “But it’s also Chilean slang for a police vehicle that shoots water, and I wrote that song at a time that Chile was having massive protests.” As the song builds tension, its percussive drive adds an unusual set of instruments. “People always bang pots and pans at protests in Chile,” Castillo says. “And so we were like, ‘the rhythm section should be pots and pans.”
Such field recordings and samples are a favorite of bassist Will Parkhill, who not only scours the internet for unusual sounds, but often captures audio outside the studio if he hears something unusual. “If people knew how many outtakes there were on our tracks it’d really blow their minds,” he says with a grin.
Now the challenge will be to translate such a dense, layered studio album to the stage—the opposite approach to their last album. But ahead of the band’s extensive North American tour—which kicks off June 21 and wraps September 22 back home in Denver with Don Chicharrón at Summit Music Hall—Castillo isn’t as nervous as maybe he once was. “It seems to be working well live,” he says.
Still, there’s some curiosity about how Underbelly’s songs will actually translate to the stage.
“Performing is like public speaking,” Castillo says. “When you bring a song out live, it’s like you’re suddenly aware of the thing you’ve done.”
They’ll find out soon enough. If the studio album is any indication, Kiltro fans are going to be mesmerized.