(We begin a new week at NCS with Comrade Aleks‘s interview of Brian Ortiz, a member of Xibalba and the creative force behind the California death-doom band Tzompantli, whose debut album was released last year by 20 Buck Spin.)
A tzompantli was a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations, which was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims. Also it’s a death-doom band from Pomona, California.
Started in 2019 as a solo project of Brian a.k.a. Big o))), Tzompantli first shot out the EP Tlamanalli in 2019. Brian has been the guitarist of death metal / metalcore outfit Xibalba since 2007, so he knew how to deal with a lot of instruments and recording witchcraft too. His efforts were noticed by 20 Buck Spin, who soon signed the band. As result Brian’s next album Tlazcaltiliztli was recorded with G-Bone and Mateotl Gonzalez (both perform many of the folk instruments) and saw the light of day through this label in May 2022. However these songs are far from folk and embody the extreme, meat-grinding and bloody side of death-doom.
Now Tzompantli has a full live line-up and I can’t skip a chance to learn more about Indigenous Mexican death-doom from Brian.
Hi Brian! How are you doing? What’s new on Tzompantli’s side?
I am doing well. Just working and writing music for Tzompantli as well as my other band Xibalba. Nothing new to share with Tzompantli unfortunately, other than just writing new material.
And what about Mortuary Punishment? Nothing new as well?
Nothing at the moment, I have a few riffs and ideas but nothing that I have worked on at the moment. I have been locked in with my two other bands writing-wise. But I know when I hit a block, I will most likely shift my focus on to Mortuary Punishment briefly. When I do that it helps me when I revisit what I have written with Tzompantli & Xibalba with fresh ears. Then new ideas start to trickle in and I can finishing or improve the music.
Brian, let’s start from 2019 when you started Tzompantli as your solo project. Was it your plan from a start to make everything on your own?
I didn’t have a real plan. I just had music that I wanted to use and record myself at my home and thought I would try. I also wanted a project to focus on Indigenous mythology, history and spirituality. I got good feedback from friends of mine about the music and thought it would be cool to do a release.
You recorded the EP Tlamanalli (2019) alone — how difficult was it for you? What were the hardest parts of recording this material?
To be honest, I am not really tech-savvy so setting up the mics and interface to my computer was the hardest part. Everything after that was pretty easy because I always go into any recording prepared and ready to get locked in.
Your lyrics are focused on ancient Prehispanic cultural traditions in Mexico, and you performed it in a doomy death-metal way. So how was the very concept of Tzompantli born?
I have always wanted to do a band that was centered around Indigenous Mexican history, lore and mythology but do it in a more death doom style. I saw a lot of black metal bands doing this and it inspired me to do the same but in the death doom style (my favorite style of music/metal). There aren’t many death metal, doom metal or death doom bands that are using native themes and instruments in the music. I thought it would be perfect; tons of bands write about gore, satan or the occult, why not sing about real rituals that were performed. While I do appreciate a lot of bands that sing about those topics, it is not who I am.
You played didgeridoo, animal flute and shells in Tlamanalli. Where did you learn to play them? And how did you decide to integrate them in this material?
I taught myself how to play them by watching others do it. I chose to use them to help with the atmosphere and vibe that I was trying to convey.
What happened after the Tlamanalli release? Did you search for a label and new companions. or did all of this just happen naturally?
I released it as a digital download first and figured I would save up to eventually put out the cassette but a friend of mine (James at Transylvanian Records) hit me up and asked if he could release it on cassette. I was a fan of his releases/label so I instantly agreed. He actually had his friend bring up the mix a little bit.
How long did you work on the Tlazcaltiliztli album?
I worked on Tlazcaltiliztli from about late 2020 to about early/mid 2021 and recorded in June of 2021.
“Tlazcaltiliztli” is a ritual of “nourishing the fire and sun with blood”, so is it a conceptual album? What is your message behind these songs?
No, it wasn’t a concept album. But there are lots of references to sacrifice, so it seemed fitting. There is no particular message to the songs other than sharing indigenous stories and history.
Where did you learn about all of these things you express through the band’s lyrics? Did you study Mesoamerican culture or just read whatever you like about that?
Yeah I read and study a lot of books as well as learning from certain elders and experts. I also wanted to focus on the spiritual aspect of the culture.
What drew your attention to the spiritual part of this ancient culture?
It was mostly reading about and reconnecting with the old ways that drew my attention. It made more sense to me than the christian religion did, as a kid. I have always felt this inner self pulling at me, and the last 10 years I have done what is in my means to reconnect with it and try to understand why this is happening. I have realized and interpreted that it is my ancestors that are guiding me and my intuition.
How important is this brutal spirituality for you today? Do you care for these old ways or is it just a thrilling subject for you to explore through music?
It is very important today but should be executed differently in modern times. I care for the old ways deeply and it has helped shape who I am today. I feel like I know myself a lot better from relearning about the old ways. I feel like a lot of the inspiration came from my ancient ancestors speaking through me as well as a deep connection to the earth.
You used even more folk instruments in Tlazcaltiliztli. And I remember that one of Kranium’s members told how difficult it was back in thelate ’90s to record all the folk parts they tried to integrate in their music. How did this recording session go?
It was fun. I just went with the flow with certain instruments. But others, I had a clear vision of what I wanted these songs to sound like. So I worked on them patiently to see what worked and what didn’t before I went into the studio.
What was your original vision of this material?
It was to create really heavy music that was very primal and simple sounding but at the same time felt very ritualistic and ceremonial.
Do you feel what this material attracted people’s attention to Tzompantli? Do you plan to support it with live gigs?
I think it definitely grabbed people’s attention. I feel like there aren’t many death doom or death metal bands incorporating indigenous folk instruments or themes into the genre, so it makes us stick out a little bit more in a genre that is on the upswing.
What are your plans regarding gigs? Do you see Tzompantli as a band which can play and tour regularly?
My plan is to just play a gig from time to time. I want our shows to be special like and not something like, “oh, Tzompantli is playing again? I will catch them next time they come to town.” There are not plans just yet to tour and play regularly. We all have work and family life that is the first priority.
That’s all for today, thanks for the interview Brian! Did we skip something important?
It seems like we got everything covered! Thank you for showing interest and wanting to interview me. Tlazokomati (thank you)