Belako: Basque Country guitar gang with globe-conquering appeal
Four best friends are crammed into a circle in a tiny venue in central Madrid, jostling for what little room there is on stage. Within moments of the snaking bassline that begins ‘Tie Me Up’, this gorgeously decorated, 1940s-style jazz club, turns into a sauna. The hellish red lights help, of course, but Belako know how to create an intense atmosphere: the way the song – taken from the Spanish band’s 2020 album ‘Plastic Drama’ – builds and builds allows it to pivot into a raucous, punk-y thrash.
Playing this afternoon at Café Berlín to an intimate crowd of media figures, friends and family, the excitement is in the delicious contrasts of Belako’s performance. The band treat their polished surroundings as though they’re in a basement, inciting moshpits and exemplifying live music’s capacity for emotional release via shouted choruses. There is fun to be found in watching how the guitarists, siblings Lore and Josu Billelabeitia, egg each other on, throwing up comedic hand-horns and trying to outdo one another with their larger-than-life dancing. “They’re rowdy like the Gallaghers – but they’re actually friends,” lead vocalist Cris Lizarraga jokes of the pair later on, as they play-fight over the last of some cherry gazpacho at lunch.
An hour after the band wraps up their 10-song set, NME meets an excitable Cris and drummer, Lander Zalakain, in a dressing room backstage. They pair are still running off the “crazy adrenaline” they worked up on stage, their words and laughter spilling out of them in an endearingly enthusiastic torrent. “We enjoy ourselves immensely when we are performing because we are friends above all else. Live music is the space in which we thrive,” says Lander.
“At our shows, we say that we are too punk for the Spanish mainstream, and too mainstream for punk music,” adds Cris, before breaking into a gleefully silly and out-of-time singalong of Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’. “Musically, we land in the middle of nowhere – and we’re so proud of that!”
It’s an apt description of a band who have worked tirelessly to cement themselves as one of the most exciting prospects in Spanish rock music, becoming the first act from their country to perform at Reading & Leeds in 2019, having opened up for Liam Gallagher the year prior. Three self-released albums, 2013’s ‘Eurie’, and its follow-ups, 2016’s ‘Hamen’ and ‘Render Me Numb, Trivial Violence’, which dropped two years later, paved the way for their debut proper, the aforementioned ‘Plastic Drama’. The latter, which was recorded live to tape, saw the group expand their young, loud and brilliantly frenzied guitar riffs with a more diversified flurry of synths and pianos; in a four-star review, NME described it as a record “full of the kind of confidence it takes to be unforgettable”.
This bold and sneakily experimental side to the band is illuminated beautifully on the recently released deluxe edition of ‘Plastic Drama’, which features dance-leaning remixes of the album’s swaggering garage rock from the band’s own Josu, plus indie heavyweights including Wolf Alice and Crystal Fighters, among others. “We wanted to give the record, which is largely made up of pure moments of rock ‘n’ roll, another dimension by adding in electronic elements,” Cris says. “It represents our eclectic tastes, and sounds like a bright explosion of colours. We are committed to reinventing ourselves.”
For Belako, balancing their pop curiosities with a shared experimental instinct isn’t the only thing that’s new. In the past two years, they have gone from DIY grafters and playing over 100 gigs a year to sharpening up their aesthetic and landing a global record deal with BMG [Blondie, Bloc Party], who they say helped them link up with a handful of the names on the remix album.
Collaboration wasn’t on the horizon for the band prior to this release, explains Lander: “We wanted to elongate the life of ‘Plastic Drama’, but we are definitely more comfortable working by ourselves. Though reaching more people with this new album is the intention; international success is our obsession now.”
For ‘Plastic Drama’ (Deluxe Edition), the band encouraged artists remixing their songs to take a choose-your-own-adventure approach to the project, letting them pick the track they “connected with the most”. The Vaccines’ drummer, Yoann Intonti, surrounded his French house-inspired version of title track with warm and tumbling breakbeats. Sebastian Pringle of English-Spanish quintet Crystal Fighters, meanwhile, turned to the metre stylings of Ghanian HighLife to rework ‘Profile Anxiety’, switching its insistent and jagged riffs up for a pitch-shifted, percussion-heavy arrangement.
“I wanted to create a mix that would sound at home at a tropical beach party, so me and Graham [Dickson] from the band set about adding extra vocal chops, darker chord progressions from the original Belako song and Latin percussion rhythms to bring it into our world,” Pringle tells NME.
The rollout of ‘Plastic Drama’ and its subsequent remixes have also demonstrated the band’s willingness to adapt in the face of uncertainty. The first coronavirus-enforced lockdown wreaked havoc on their release schedule; the album was pushed back to September 2020, and the four-piece took on extra promotional duties in lieu of live performances. “We spent more time speaking to the media than fans and friends,” says Cris. “Our identity as a band was completely erased.”
But Belako’s message of resistance remains indelibly married to their songs; the lyrics on album highlight ‘Truth’ (“Romance is a weapon / It ensures our exploitation”) have the same pummelling effect as the empowering punk-rock anthems of their friends and peers, Dream Wife, for example. Having met at art school in Mungia of north Spain’s Basque Country – they are named after the Belako suburb – the anti-establishment ethos of Basque Radical Rock scene of the 1980s is in their DNA: music as a conduit of hope. Moreover, like their predecessors – which include underground punk bands Basura and RIP – Belako choose to sing in English, Spanish and Basque to represent their region’s inclusive aspirations.
“Basque comes out of our mouths without even thinking,” says Lander. “We want to challenge people that see language as a barrier. That’s why we need to sing in Basque when we are playing in other countries – using the language makes us feel so proud. We also don’t care for non-political music. We talk about where we are from and what we stand for. We like hedonism, but we are aware of what’s going on in the world.”
A screening of Belako Pandemic Tour 2020 finds upwards of 100 fans crammed inside the downtown Cine Paz Theatre. The cinema’s bar is stocked with copious amounts of popcorn, eye-poppingly bright candy and – impressively – what appears to be its entire alcohol cache; “pre-drinks” for this evening’s DJ set from Belako, a security guard tells NME. Fair enough.
The documentary follows their journey as they embarked on a series of drive-in shows across Spain – which marked the first-ever post-pandemic tour in Europe – and hit cities from Bilbao to Barcelona. As it rattles through montages of the thousands that flocked to see Belako during that unpredictable and stop-start summer of two years ago, some gig-goers are interviewed for the camera, and they cite Belako’s explosive live performance as their main appeal. Others suggest that, at a time when Spanish music is evolving through globalisation – flamenco crossover megastar Rosalía, for example, collaborated with The Weeknd on 2021 hit ‘La Fama’ – it’s crucial that other corners of the country’s scene are nurtured and uplifted.
NME is reminded of something Lander said earlier on the state of the genre in his home country: “Sometimes, I feel like rock is dying in Spain. We are from a super diverse country when it comes to our sound; we have flamenco from the south, which is so technical and emotional. Away from Spain, I think people think that the only music we have is [flamenco], folk, or reggaeton because they are all huge on a mainstream level – but we want to be an example of just how rich our rock music is, too, and I think we’re doing that.”
Alongside alongside director Hernan Zin, Lore and Josu make an impassioned speech as they thank those in attendance for watching the documentary. They look unbelievably happy – and almost relieved – to finally be celebrating their biggest album to date in the company of those who have helped them get to this very room.
In a few hours’ time, they’ll join their bandmates and hit the rooftop of the swanky Hotel Gran Via to hit the decks and premiere some of their brand-new remixes. And when they do, it’s not difficult to imagine all four members of Belako standing there, busting some serious dance moves like nobody’s watching.
Belako’s ‘Plastic Drama’ (Deluxe Edition) is out now
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