Tuesday, 22 March 2016 11:26

Who is Victor Villarreal? Super Fan Brings Patron Saint of ‘Math Rock’ to Grand Rapids

Written by  Cale Sauter
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Victor Villarreal Victor Villarreal

In the words of Dante Hicks, tortured convenience store jockey called into work on his day off, “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

In fact, the last time this writer booked multiple shows for a touring musician was probably over three years ago. The last time I wrote for an entertainment publication was 2007. But here we are — for one very important, very inimitable and very legendary reason: Victor Villarreal.

I have briefly come out of my retirement from booking shows (and writing about them, apparently) to set up dates with Villarreal at Camp H Skate Park on March 25 with Charles Rogers and Momentai and on March 26 in Hamtramck, with Bars of Gold and Mountain Club.

This mission involves the dizzying prospect of a full weekend spent with the one artist for which I’ve developed any sort of fanatic reverence. The experience acts as a test of my will to not re-enact the Chris Farley skit with Paul McCartney: “Remember when you were in the Beatles — that was AWESOME!”

So, Who is This Guy?

Chances are, unless you’re amongst the horned-rim glasses, ringer-tee wearing devotees of the late ‘90s post-hardcore and art rock-era, you have no idea who Villarreal is. Frankly, neither did I until the night I learned what it was to become an embarrassing, overzealous, obsessive fan of someone’s art.

Up until this point I had surely been a “fan” of a lot of different artists. I was listening to the albums you assume a ‘90s teenager would but I never understood the Cobain fanatics or the grainy old footage of screaming Beatles fans. I liked their music but not like that. It was a level of obsession I just didn’t think I was capable of. That is, of course, until the first time I heard Victor Villarreal play the guitar.

At about 20 years old, I stumbled upon Owls. I was a fan of the Promise Ring and I knew of Cap’n Jazz but their hype as weirdo genre forebears never quite caught my ear, as more polished records had served as my gateway into this world.

Victor Villareal
wsg. Cavalcade, Charles Rogers, Momentai
Camp H Skate Park
5240 W River Dr. NE, Comstock Park
March 25, 7 p.m.
Facebook event page

Owls’ songs, buffering slowly through my 5 Mbps connection, sounded so much different than I remembered Cap’n Jazz sounding — especially the guitars. Most notably, the guitarist sounded like he had 17 fingers on the fretboard at a time. It split my brain in half and immediately changed the way I perceived the guitar as an instrument.

Surely this was a different guitarist from Cap’n Jazz past. I checked again. This actually was Victor Villarreal, unleashed with whatever had gotten into him in the five or six years following Cap’n Jazz’s cessation. I don’t know what it is (I may be about to find out), but I do know that it was officially the moment that math rock (or at least this noodling, meandering incarnation that has persevered) was perfected.

I was immediately hooked. During that time, I absorbed any and every project involving Victor Villarreal that I could track down. I dug around and found his instrumental project, Ghosts and Vodka, and his mind-blowing collaborative project, Noyes, with Ryan Rapsys (Euphone). I even came to appreciate those subtle nods to what he’d eventually become as I revisited the Cap’n Jazz recordings. The only problem came when the breadcrumb trail of inspiration I was following stopped abruptly in 2003.

I scoured the Internet. I talked to people I knew living in Chicago, anything I could think of. No one could fully verify where he was or why he stopped making music. I’d stumble on various rumors (some more disturbing or far-fetched than others) surrounding his absence, which only served to heighten my intrigue. I was concerned for someone whom I had never met. More intense than that fear, however, was my selfish desire for more of this music that so many others were still mimicking but never quite replicating.

In the years following I never tried to emulate what Victor was doing musically. Instead, I took his lead, honing in on the idiosyncrasies of my own untrained approach and trying to use this to develop a unique voice as a guitar player. I went on to play with quite a few bands, start my own record label/production company (Bermuda Mohawk Productions), book hundreds of shows for touring artists and write for my city’s weekly entertainment periodical.

Throughout all of that, my true passion has always been to turn back to those same six strings and try to create something that pulls my brain in a dozen directions at once, the way Victor’s playing once did. In fact, a record one of my bands put out in 2007 required us to name our personal publishing imprints for ASCAP. I named mine, “Committee on the Safe Return of Victor Villarreal,” (this will come into play eventually).

Villarreal very quietly and humbly returned in 2009, recording a sparse acoustic record called Alive, under his own name, handling vocals for the first time. The record itself was created as a personal gift to his family in the wake of his younger brother's untimely passing. As such, it was hard to track down even for his most fervent fans. He’d soon reveal his hiatus was spent “dealing with personal demons,” in his own words, and pursuing a different passion of his: training dogs.

In short order, his obsessive and cultish fans began to crawl from the woodwork, convincing him to focus on more fully realized work.

In 2012 his follow-up solo album, Invisible Cinema, was a breath of fresh air, reminding fans of this style that, even though many have attempted imitation, there’s only one Victor Villarreal.

Since then, he has taken to guesting alongside former bandmate and notorious Chicago post-rock curator Tim Kinsella's revolving cast of musicians in Joan of Arc. He also joined Kinsella for a proper follow-up to the 2001 self-titled Owls record, with 2014's Two. Last year he released Sleep Talk, another excellent solo album.

At 35-years old my priorities and career path have shifted away from DIY punk gigs. I’ve abandoned the booking agent and music writer jobs but I’ve never been able to shake the love of playing live music. I still perform and record in the band Cavalcade. We released a 2007 record with my Victor-inspired ASCAP title.

At some point throughout all of this, that record ended up in the hands of a friend of Villarreal’s, who also serves as his booking agent. This led to a few conversations back and forth, and the offer to bring him to Michigan for a weekend of shows with my own band. Hopefully he’ll see the dedicated pocket of fans here, developed in an area where he’s seldom played. In fact, Friday marks his first solo show in Grand Rapids and given Villarreal’s track record, it could be his last – so don’t miss it.

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