Houston Music

It Takes Two to Make Kitino Right

Kitino Artwork by Laura Ahumada and Victor Hernandez, courtesy of Kitino
To understand the thoroughly modern aesthetic the Houston indie rock duo Kitino has laid out in its fine new album Even in My Dreams, you might need to travel back 50 years and follow the story of a couple of Bard College students who met, bonded over shared musical interests and created one of rock’s most enduring acts.

As Kitino’s vocalist and guitarist Jay Garay tells it, he and bandmate Daniel Campos channeled their inner Steely Dan to bring the record, which releases on streaming platforms February 22, to vivid life.

“So, it’s two of us, right? But once we laid out the groundwork for every single song we had musicians play on the record. So, we kind of went with that Steely Dan approach where we came up with the music and then the players came in to fill in the color a bit.

“Overall, the album has that rock feel but it has an electronic element and since we both are Hispanic we wanted to tap into our roots a bit and so we threw a little bit of Spanish into it as well,” Garay continued. “The album is actually a concept album. It pretty much deals with themes of loss and dreams, like the title says. It’s basically about a man — or you could say a woman — going through a break-up and reflecting on it at an airport.”

Like Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker – the Dan’s iconic duo —  Garay and Campos got to know each other better through higher education, at Houston Community College, and they too bonded over shared musical interests. Their music has less to do sonically with the classic rockers than another wildly influential duo.

"I think one of our favorite projects was Daft Punk. They’re like one of my favorite bands of all time,” Campos said. “The ideas we want to try, we just go for them. In the past, my experience has been the opposite. When I wanted to try something I was met with opposition. With Jay, it’s great.”

Before they started Kitino in 2019, Garay and Campos were in the six-piece band Videotheque.

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Kitino's debut album releases on streaming platforms February 22
Album cover art by Karem García-Loera, courtesy of Kitino

“We had met way before,” Garay said. “Actually, we went to the same high school, we had the same high school friend, that high school friend ended up introducing us years later after high school. And then, little by little, our paths were intersecting a lot and then we ended up in the same piano class at HCC.

“Around that time — this might sound cheesy — after playing together, just for fun, practicing in the rehearsal studios right there in HCC, I sent him a text one time,” Garay continued. “I was like, ‘Dude, I had a dream you and I were making music like Daft Punk.’ That was back in 2016. We didn’t realize that was ever going to come true.”

“Yup,” Campos agreed. “It’s crazy.”

They have such an affinity for the band that they’ve had avatars created for the work they produce by artists Laura Ahumada and Victor Hernandez. Because the band began during the throes of a global lockdown – and with no one to answer to but themselves – they felt an air of mystery suited the project well. Like Daft Punk, they’re content to step into the shadows to let the music shine.

“Basically, once the pandemic hit, that’s when we started the record, almost exactly right when it hit, March of 2020. So, we kind of got stuck with that mentality like, oh well no live shows, let’s just stick to the studio,” Garay said. “I guess that carried over to now where we’re still just kind of being careful and worrying about this release. We haven’t really planned anything live. If anything, we’re planning a live video concert later on down the road. But that’s still in the works.”

The band has never played a live set, but they represent what new music looks like in 2022. Music now, live shows later. Like lots of new bands working through the pandemic, Kitino would love for audiences to already know and love the songs by the time they hit the stage.

“You just kind of have to learn to adapt to the times,” Garay noted. “Definitely the live shows are the future. They’re there in the cards but we haven’t really looked at it seriously yet. We’ve been more focused on releasing this and having fun with this because both of us never really had that proper LP release before in our lives. This is like a big deal for us, you know?”

The proof of that is in the music. When the songs were ready, they worked with their manager and producer Josh Gutierrez to find the right place to record. They entrusted the project to King Benny’s House of Sound. Garay and Campos had high praise for the studio’s owner, Jacob Rodriguez.

“We felt at home there and he just made the process less stressful than what we were used to. Every time I was in the studio I was used to a lot of stress and a lot of bandmates clashing. This time around, that’s what made the work get done and made the creative juices flow. We felt at home and everything just fell right into place,” Garay said.

“Around the time when we were recording it, we were listening to a lot of older stuff. I guess we were listening more to, from that time, the Beach Boys, the Pet Sounds album, and I guess some of the songs we did explore that Wall of Sound type of deal that was being used a lot in the ‘60s. We used that Wall of Sound in some of the recordings. I thought it was pretty cool how whatever we were listening to at the time helped motivate us and in the end it’s reflected in the final product.”

“The Wall of Sound had an influence on the record but also we had more modern takes on recording as well,” Campos said. “It’s a whole experience, that’s all I can say.”

The Houston Press got an advance copy of the album and can say that Wall of Sound is also an amalgam of sounds. Kitino doesn’t mimic influences like Daft Punk, it creates something new from all that’s come before it. You can hear hints of lowrider cruising classics in tracks like “Distant Moon.” The lead single, "Faded Lights," is a good representation of its dreamy vibe. Whether he’s singing in English or Spanish, Garay’s voice is resonant and confident, supported by lush arrangements and Campos’s backing on bass, keys and drum patterns.

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The band's members are using avatars to represent themselves so the music is front and center
Artwork by Laura Ahumada and Victor Hernandez, courtesy of Kitino

Garay said the album begins in the head of someone recalling the bliss of an early relationship and “as the album progresses, through the dreams, he realizes everything went sour and I guess he’s still clinging onto that moment. Towards the end of the album he realizes he has to accept the way things are and let go.”

That makes the album very relatable in 2022. There’s a sense of loss over the last two years that the album taps into. We all have been stuck in a dream world, sitting idle, stranded in our own airport terminals and waiting for life as we knew it to lift off again. Despite our frustrations, in the end we have to accept the way things are and move on.

“I feel like it kind of came out of necessity, in a way,” Garay said of the project. “We still wanted to play but were just not able to find the people to play with. So, we were like, okay, it’s us two. We want to do this, let’s do this. That’s how we ended up working together. We both have the same tastes. Everything just works faster as well when it’s just the two of us because we get to call the shots, we say how things are supposed to go. Sometimes with musicians that’s the fastest way they can work, too. With the other band we had, we had six heads and they all had this type of sound or idea in mind and then that just starts causing conflict and a lot of clashing.”

Campos agreed they felt free to try different things working as a duo. Some ideas worked, some didn’t, but they were comfortable trying it all and able to agree on the final product. They have a mutual respect, so much so that during the interview they don’t finish each other’s sentences the way some bandmates do. Each allows the other to finish out their ideas and that’s probably a good indication of how they brought Dreams to life.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve enjoyed it, we’re like-minded in the way we want the sound,” Garay said. “It’s just worked well, with less stress, and it’s been fulfilling, I guess, to be able to do it that way. We realize this is the first project we get to do where everything just sounds and feels right.”

Even in My Dreams releases on streaming platforms Tuesday, February 22.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.