Paul and Carlos could be Mexico’s most bizarre synthpop duo. Their latest music video feels dated with '80s graphic effects and features the two dancing awkwardly in retro ski jackets and surfing in outer space on giant piano keyboards.
It's not exactly what you'd expect from Mennonites. And that's a big part of their appeal.
The two young rockers are bucking stereotypes for a conservative religious and ethnic group that came from Europe and settled in rural Mexico sometime in the early 1900s. In Mexico, Mennonites are known for living in isolated communities and selling fresh farm-made cheese, not jamming to space-age electric rock videos. And that's what makes them hipster cool—like Mexico's answer to Flight of the Conchords.
“We started playing just for fun. We were more acoustic at first and shooting for a folk sound. We tried the accordion, the mandolin, the ukulele and the trumpet,” Carlos, 24, told me in a phone interview. “I don’t know how our transition to electronic exactly happened. As a kid I rarely listened to music, and the little I listened to was mostly religious hymns or stuff like that."
“I really don’t know what music genre we belong to,” he adds. “Our first EP is more trip-hop and our second record is more beats, hip-hop and electric guitar and then we have this new song, which is more '80s.”
Most Mexicans know Mennonites as the curious white people who forbid technology, speak in a German dialect, and rarely come in contact with outsiders. Paul and Carlos are odd in a different way, but say their community is way more complex than people give them credit for.
Paul, 25, the son of a Mexican Mennonite father and a Uruguayan mother, was born in Brazil and lived in Canada. He traveled to Mexico in 2006 after his dad got him a job working with cousins in Cuauhtémoc, a town in the northern state of Chihuahua, home to some 50,000 Mennonites spread over several rural colonies.
“It was a big culture shock,” Paul says. “I was only fifteen and had suddenly moved to the Mexican countryside. I thought Mexico was all about beaches, but Cuauhtémoc is like a desert with a lot of apples. And then there’s this community of white folks that speak Low German, or Plautdietsch.”
Paul says there are different types of Mennonites. Most of the men are subsistence farmers who tend to reject the outside world and are very traditional when it comes to gender roles. But there are also Mennonites who now have cars, use technology and are more open to new trends. Paul, who now lives in Chihuahua City, says that during the three years he spent living in Cuauhtémoc he had TV, radio and a cellphone. He says people had booze, but mostly drank in private.
“I had an electric guitar,” he tells me. “I would play in my house alone, no one knew I had it. I never played in public and I didn’t really create my own music.”
Paul met Carlos, who played bass at the local church, in the Mennonite high school. Eventually both went to the state capital to go to college.
“My grandfather was one of the first in the community to leave anti-technology customs,” Carlos told me. “He also got a truck so he was shunned by one of the communities.”
Carlos claims his dad was a bit of a rebel as well. He says his parents kept an open mind about his transition to Chihuahua City, university and his music efforts. “My parents were very supportive. My mother loves my music, and my dad… well… he doesn’t quite understand it.”
Carlos says when he goes back into his Mennonite community to visit he sometimes gets dirty looks from the traditionalists. “I have long hair and dress very retro,” he says.
“He likes to go to the tianguis [street market] and buy used clothes, specially old Nike and Adidas jackets,” Paul says of his bandmate.
It was in Chihuahua City that Paul and Carlos really began to explore music. Sometimes they would order pizza and spend the evenings playing and experimenting with different instruments. It was the birth of their music duo, aptly named “Paul and Carlos.”
Constant access to the internet also opened up a new world of information. Carlos says he would spend hours discovering new bands, sounds and downloading music.
He tells me he was always intrigued by computers, so it was almost a natural step to start using software to mix and create their own rhythms, influenced by the sounds of indie bands Beirut and Ratatat.
The unusual musical duo, who have created songs titled “Computers take control” and “Lemon and Bean,” insist they're introverts, despite their antics on video.
“The first time we played live I was super nervous,” said Carlos. “A friend had this abandoned house in the center of the city and we just posted it on Facebook and more than a 100 people showed up. Estuvo chido.”
“Everyone sees us on the internet and thinks we are super fun but on stage we still don’t dance, we’re afraid but when we are alone we laugh and say stupid stuff. It’s really the moment someone else is there that we get all serious,” he adds. “We really came up with this new single Chihuahua 2000 because people told us they wanted something they could dance to.”
Paul and Carlos can’t make a living out of their music yet. For the time being Carlos works as a website developer and Paul freelances as a graphic designer. They try to do everything themselves, taking to YouTube to learn how to record, master their sound and even edit their own music videos. The duo says it decided to give their newest video an old-school VHS vibe so it would look shitty on purpose and not like the work of two very inexperienced dudes.
Now they get gigs from time to time, and recently got invited to perform at a small music festival. It's something that will only increase their hipster appeal.
“Yeah, we are Mennonites. That’s how people recognize us; there’s not a lot of white folks here so we are easy to remember.”