The La Bisbal (d’Empordà) connection

The afternoon kicks off in La Bisbal d’Empordà. We’re sitting outside at Escut, a café on the outskirts of town, with Jaume Pla (Mazoni) and Carles Sanjosé (Sanjosex). They’re both from La Bisbal, born in ’77, and musicians on the Bankrobber record label, which, to top it off, was also founded in La Bisbal. “This bar was called Long John in our parents’ day, but when we were young it was El Principal. In back, now it’s storage, but then it was a huge room with space for concerts. We’ve played back there.” The anecdote takes us back to their teenage days, when they were in Enderrock together, a band Jaume Pla started in 1991 with some friends from school and that Carles Sanjosé joined a bit later.

“Enderrock (the magazine with the same name didn’t exist yet) started off playing covers in English,” Pla remembers, “and little by little we started mixing in my songs in Catalan.” The Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits was a staple among these covers. Sanjosé played his Stratocaster fingerstyle, not so much to emulate Mark Knopfler as because he was the only one in the group that had studied classical guitar and knew how to read music, but he wasn’t used to using a pick. The group even recorded a demo of their own songs, and opened for Els Pets on the tour for their Fruit Sex album (1992). “Our songs were pure pop,” says Jaume Pla. “We liked to be in tune, take care in the melodies, but we didn’t use any effects, we just played straight. And we were very tidy.” “We’re from a generation of kids that studied hard, were organised and polite,” Carles Sanjosé adds. “I guess at that time people had certain expectations. Like if you worked hard, things would turn out okay. The generation after us was crazier, ha, ha, ha!”

Enderrock lasted until 1994. They rehearsed in the garage of their drummer, Toni Molina (Adrià Puntí, The Guixut’s, etc.), a place that was and still is a hub for the music scene in La Bisbal. “Everyone from our generation passed through there, like Miquel Abras,” Pla remembers. There was always a group of friends, other musicians, and they even started a cover band with members of different local groups, including Carles Sanjosé: “We were called The Wonderful Baby Dolls, and we covered songs by The Cure, U2, Police, The Clash… It was just for a laugh. But it was that group that got me laid the first time!” he confesses.

It’s a good time to mention that, despite being a small town (just about 10,700 inhabitants currently), La Bisbal has a very robust music scene. Before our friends, these included groups like Club Moriarty, Komando Moriles and Pixamandúrries, and later names like Sanjays, The Gramphone Allstars, Pau Blanc and Medusa Box. What’s behind this phenomenon? Sanjosé thinks you have to look at two things to explain the connection: “First, La Bisbal isn’t very exciting. We’re in the Empordà, but not on the coast. We don’t have the influx of people or the economic power of Palamós or any other coastal town, and when we were young, there wasn’t much to do. The second thing,” he continues, “is the music schools. There’s a long tradition of sardanas here, so there are sardana and classical music schools. There’s a tradition of formal musical training, both public and private.”

Jaume Pla agrees: “Being bored, like Carles said,” he remarks, “is what motivated us in the end. We had to make our own fun, and that meant holing up in a garage with friends and writing songs, and then suddenly you had the chance to play them for an audience to entertain the people in the town. It was a good plan.” Perhaps that is why, he adds, “As far back as I can remember, the thread has never been broken, not before or after our generation. There’s never been more than four or five years without an interesting new group popping up.” On the other hand, though without leaving the local coordinates, the Empordà has left its mark on the lyrics of both artists. This influence is very clear in the works of Sanjosex, with songs like Baix Ter-Montgrí and Plana. The songwriter says, “I’ve always felt this way. I think it’s really important for people to have a connection with their surroundings. If not, we’re not really human.” In a less obvious way, the work of Mazoni also takes these references into account: “Nature is quite present in my lyrics,” Pla says. There’s El riu (The river), Cap al mar (Towards the sea) and three or four other songs that take place in the forest. And, of course, when I’m singing about the forest I imagine the forest here.”

The afternoon carries on and conversation returns to Toni Molina’s garage. Among the friends who were always around, there were two guys their age that, although not musicians, had a huge impact on Jaume Pla and Carles Sanjosé’s careers. They were Marçal Lladó and Xavier Riembau, who in the new century became entrepreneurs, starting the music label Bankrobber. “In fact,” Pla remembers, “Bankrobber got its start because I was in a group, Holland Park, and we wanted to record an album. But it was impossible, and Marçal and Xavier said they’d take the plunge and do it themselves.” Today, Bankrobber and its artists are well known as the driving force behind the revival of Catalan music, which can never be celebrated enough, but the early days of the label weren’t exactly easy. Jaume Pla, who experienced it up close, says his friends “were coming out with good albums, but it took a whole lot of work.” The label’s breakthrough came with Viva! by Sanjosex and Somnis de llop by Guillamino, both in 2005, and with Esgarrapada (2006), Mazoni’s first album in Catalan.

This was a turning point not only for Bankrobber but also our guys, who came out with these albums under somewhat difficult circumstances. Carles Sanjosex, who had just finished his degree in Architecture, admits that he was “really fucked up at the time, emotionally. I was in crisis, personally, and I recorded Viva (in Toni Molina’s garage, by the way) because it was one of the few things that made me happy. I pretty much looked at it as if it were the last thing I would do in my life.” Even though Jaume Pla knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a professional musician, “when Esgarrapada came out I thought it would be my last album. I’d made one album with Mazoni in English, but I hadn’t done anything for a year and a half and I almost didn’t expect it,” he says.

What happened next is common knowledge. The success can be seen in the albums, concerts and collaborations that litter the CVs of these musicians who, now into their 40s, still look at their work as somewhat provisional. “Humility and a bit of naiveté,” says Carles Sanjosé, “is what allows me to continue. When I’ve pressured myself in the name of professionalism, that’s when I haven’t been able to do it right. I’m speaking for myself, but I think that type of pressure is anti-artistic. I don’t want to feel any obligation to come out with an album every so often, without fail: if I’m not feeling it, if I don’t believe in it wholeheartedly, I won’t do it.” Jaume Pla is on a similar wavelength: “I took the first albums as a gift, and I still feel the same way. When I start the year, I always think: shit man, will we be able to do this? And when it’s over, I say: hey, one more down!” Perhaps the real secret lies in the art of enjoying the little things…