Basque trio brings radical rock to the States
Rock power trio Berri Txarrak may seem foreign—to American listeners, at least—on a number of levels.
For starters, they’re from Basque Country, the autonomous region in northern Spain. Further, their message has roots in a long-dead political rock movement. And, most crucially, frontman Gorka Urbizu writes and sings lyrics only in the Basque language Euskara, which is spoken by fewer than 1 million people.
Despite all this, Berri Txarrak (pronounced “berry char-ack”) remains one of only a handful of Basque bands to have reached Western audiences. They’ve toured extensively with American alt-rock act Rise Against; they recorded their 2009 album, Payola, with legendary American engineer Steve Albini; and they were recently in Los Angeles recording with producer Ross Robinson, who has worked on albums for At the Drive-In, The Blood Brothers, The Cure and Sepultura.
To understand where Berri Txarrak is coming from, it helps to look at the Basque Radical Rock movement, which, fueled by British punk and metal scenes, emerged in the early 1980s as a musical/socio-political force following the death of Gen. Francisco Franco and the end of his 40-year dictatorship in Spain. Berri Txarrak formed in 1994, several years after the movement ran its course. There have been a couple of lineup changes since then; singer and guitarist Urbizu, the only remaining original member, is backed by bassist David Gonzalez and drummer Galder Izagirre.
Urbizu said via email that, while the Basque Radical Rock movement has subsided, the band still strives to make rebellious music in that same vein. “I like the idea of rock music as a way to question everything,” he said. “Rock must be defiant—at least that’s the kind of art we love.”
And though Urbizu’s lyrics touch on personal subjects from time to time, he prefers to keep material opaque enough for it to remain universal.
“I think it must be the audience who finishes the song,” he said. “I kind of give them clues with the words and try to make them feel sensations and think by themselves. There isn’t one big truth, there are lots of interpretations.”
Given the language barrier for American listeners, Berri Txarrak’s lyrical subject matter is neither here nor there, but Urbizu believes the music conveys the message on its own. And listening to their songs, it’s striking how familiar rock ’n’ roll sung in a foreign tongue feels. The language issue is moot. For instance, in the bridge section of the 2005 single “Oreka,” everything strips down to a swaggering bassline, and it’s satisfyingly familiar when the extra-explosive chorus kicks in and fills the empty space.
Instrumentally, Berri Txarrak is all distorted guitars and rumbling bass, but vocally, there’s a clear emphasis on melodic hooks and except for the language, the band falls neatly in line with radio-friendly American alternative rock. (It makes sense that Berri Txarrak toured with Rise Against.) But Urbizu doesn’t wonder what heights of success his band could reach if he sang in English, nor is he concerned about whether American audiences are put off by his singing in Euskara.
“Obviously, it’s not the easiest way to become popular in the U.S., but we don’t really care,” he said. “We want to be the best band as possible and spread our message and music, but it must be our way.
“Music is able to connect people by itself—that’s a fact,” he continued. “But there are huge cultural lobbies, let’s say, that build barriers to diversity. That’s why, if you turn your radio on, you’ll only find music in English, and mostly songs without a message other than, ‘Have fun and try to not think.’”
The songs they’ve recorded with Robinson have not yet come together in album form, Urbizu said, but the band has “many surprises” lined up for 2014 to celebrate its 20th anniversary.