Gaucho Major keenly uncovers the duplicitous side of human nature.
The Los Angeles pop-rock duo of Max Espinosa (vocals, guitar) and Mike Pappas (songwriting, production) shines a jazzy, truthful light on “Blue Ribbon,” an eye-opening, witty new single that instantly challenges people to reveal their true identities.
“It’s basically a song about the American lie in privilege. There’s a lot that goes into that, and there’s a lyric in there, ‘Be happy that you’ve left where you’ve come from.’ While growing up in LA, I saw people come here from all walks of life,” said Espinosa.
“I noticed a difference with someone coming from Detroit, St. Louis or Cleveland; they just wanna erase where they came from. They’re happy to shed it. But when I go to New York, people are like, ‘I’m from Pittsburgh, or I’m from Ann Arbor,’ and they’re just proud about it. They’re past lives aren’t thrown away.”
Throughout “Blue Ribbon,” Gaucho Major elegantly retrieves those discarded past selves as thoughtful piano, soulful sax, mystical electric guitars, sauntering bass and cozy drums unearth the importance of living authentically.
Espinosa playfully sings, “Be happy to leave where you came from/There’s everything here under the sun/The crowd back there/They ain’t got much to go on/Careful where you step, son/We just did the lawn/It’s good to be on the board/Even if you’re a pawn.”
“The verses are very much like a parody and a caricature’s story. When I get to the chorus, I actually sing and do my normal voice. It’s a wink, a smile and a nod to what people expect in life, especially with the rise in social media, and people filtering out 90 percent of their real life to give you a 10 percent glimpse of the good times,” Espinosa said.
Espinosa and Pappas started delving into “Blue Ribbon’s” refreshing theme of uncovering inauthentic selves last summer. The duo received a songwriting prompt for the track from the KDC Guild’s Kristopher Malone, who will include “Blue Ribbon” on his upcoming multimedia concept album, Welcome to the Cise Pavilion.
“We basically brainstormed this certain segment of the story, and it was this long scene of what an ideal life would look like. It’s the notion of a trophy family and how you’re supposed to live in America, and I thought it was perfect for me to write about it. That was enough for me to get going on creating the soundscape and everything for the song,” said Espinosa, who’s influenced by Steely Dan.
To solidify the track’s first-rate, jazz-inspired sound, Gaucho Major invited a talented roster of musicians, including Kevin Hannah (drums), Kateri Lirio (piano) and Kapil Raman (sax), to collaborate remotely for “Blue Ribbon” over a six-month period.
“We started in July with the skeleton build to get the bones of the track, and that’s just the thematic elements of the song and not even the lyrics or anything. When it came to recording the parts, we did a rough demo in August to send out to our drummer,” Espinosa said.
“We picked Kevin because he’s got amazing gospel chops; he’s got groove. When we got the drums back, we decided to build everything on top of it. We ended up getting those back in late September and recorded everything else in October. And then we sent it off to get mixed in November.”
If You Want
While laying the foundation for “Blue Ribbon,” Gaucho Major released their spirited, fight-for-change debut single, “If You Want,” in December. Thumping drums, shimmery electric guitars, propulsive bass and poignant piano emphatically remind listeners to take charge and make an impact on the world.
Espinosa candidly reflects, “You got something to say/But your thoughts betray/Self-conscious finds its way/And fear leads you astray/But isn’t it easier to let things go.”
“It’s doing the little things in life of being charitable and helping people out in little ways. Are you doing those things? Are you being the change you want to see in the world? It doesn’t have to be huge movements; little things do snowball. When I wrote the chorus, I was very frustrated at a bunch of people saying things and not doing anything,” he said.
For Espinosa and Pappas, “If You Want” served as the ideal track for introducing Gaucho Major’s catchy melodies, insightful lyrics and funky grooves to a growing audience. They revived the track with Hannah and Lirio after it was initially written for Espinosa’s former Cleveland alt rock band The Shadow Division.
“Mike had worked on it, but we never released it. We demoed it and tried our best to get it somewhere, but we never did. The band was tricky; it wasn’t heavy enough, and then it was too light. There were a lot of politics in that, so I shelved it,” Espinosa said.
“When I brought it back to Mike as a Gaucho tune, we definitely funked it up. It’s not as heavy, and we put a groove on it. My drummer, Kevin Hannah, who was in The Shadow Division, worked on the original track, and he was like, ‘This is completely different, and the vibe has completely changed.’”
Gaucho and Pretzel Logic
Together, Espinosa and Pappas started creating a new sonic vibe after forming Gaucho Major last year. They opted to launch a new project based on the Steely Dan model of music creation – two core members partnering with a rotating collective of highly accomplished session musicians.
“When we started writing music together, it was like, ‘Hey, Mike, here are all these ideas that I have. What can we do with these?’ And it wasn’t until Kristopher Malone prompted me to write songs for his compilation that I put the project together as just Mike and myself,” said Espinosa, who named the project after Steely Dan’s 1980 Gaucho album and 1974 Pretzel Logic single, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.”
“I said, ‘Hey, Why don’t we just finesse the songs, write them, get them to a good point and split everything 50-50? And then we hire out the drummer, the bass player, the piano player and the saxophone player.’ That’s been the idea.”
Espinosa developed a deep appreciation for Steely Dan at age seven after seeing them live at the former Blockbuster Pavilion (now Glen Helen Amphitheater) in San Bernardino. He became fascinated by the sheer number of musicians on stage and wanted to explore the different possibilities music provided.
That growing interest quickly led to playing guitar and writing songs at age 13. In high school, Espinosa formed a band and started getting approached by A&R reps. Unsure how to navigate the nebulous music business at a young age, he decided to study music at Cal Poly Pomona instead.
After college, Espinosa eventually relocated to Cleveland and worked at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. At the time, he formed The Shadow Division and released a series of singles and EPs from 2016 to 2018. He also met Pappas, who later produced The Shadow Division before relocating to Los Angeles.
“He was the most amazing producer-arranger in helping us get our act together while we were there. I moved back here, and he soon followed. We work together in a professional capacity where he’s signed to my publishing company, and I manage his stuff,” Espinosa said.
With two recently released singles, Espinosa and Pappas plan to release additional new material for Gaucho Major later this year.
“I’ve got about four to seven ideas cooking. Mike will wait until he can get to them and start chopping them up. Normally, we dissect them once I give him some ideas. But the idea would be a couple of follow-up singles that will eventually be on a full EP,” Espinosa said.