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Pijama Piyama: Tiny Desert Concert

In our latest installment of the Tiny Desert Concert series, we’re featuring a local psychedelic cumbia band called Pijama Piyama. The group recently treated us to an exclusive outdoor performance at Calle 16 in Phoenix, flanked by a pair of iconic Phoenix murals.

The band is playing Saturday, May 18, at Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix. They're led by Phoenix native Jonathan Saillant, and the idea was born when Saillant was living in Chicago in 2020.

After the band’s performance, Saillant spoke to The Show’s Sam Dingman about his inspirations for the music, which first came to him while he was trapped in his bedroom during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Full conversation

JONATHAN SAILLANT: I'm a minimalist in, in some sense. So a lot of the sound I think was dictated by just what I have. The keyboard you saw me playing the Casio, that was the first instrument I ever touched and we just had it growing up and that was with me in my bedroom in Chicago. I had a guitar, I borrowed my roommate's bass and a microphone. And so I thought, OK, well, and I had a SP404 sampler. So a lot of the sound was just dictated by what I had. And, and my experiences.

SAM DINGMAN: And how do you compose?

SAILLANT: I like to dance. And so I, I just start with percussion. You know, that's what I'll do when I write music. So I'll, I'll just put down some congas, timbales, ouida, bass. And that, that's usually how it formulates. If I, if I feel like moving, then we can move forward with the song.

DINGMAN: If I feel like moving, we can move forward. I like that. Well, that was actually going to be one of my questions for you is, as a composer, where did lyrics start to enter the picture? Because one of the things that is very cool about Pijama Piyama is, there's a lot of storytelling and lore stitched into the songs.

SAILLANT: Yeah, that started what, the time in Chicago is teaching toddler music classes. That was a very new thing to me and I was singing a lot, which is also new. But I also, I remember trying to bring out like nursery rhymes and, and just things to get these kids engaged and realizing they didn't know the nursery rhymes and stuff I knew. And so I had to connect with them and so I ended up kind of using them to formulate songs.

Hey, good morning. What, you know, what did you have for breakfast or like, what's your, you know, and then just like doing stuff like that. And so that, that actually got me into writing lyrics initially was for 3-year-olds and then, but there's a lot of storytelling in that and in the, in a way, I was trying to emulate the nursery rhymes that usually have a simple message. So that's, that's kind of how that started. I wouldn't say I'm still writing children's music, but ...

DINGMAN: Sure, but if I'm hearing you right, it's like kind of free associating with kids trying to encourage them to come up with songs, gave you permission as a newer lyricist, to follow your own mind wherever it wanted to go.

SAILLANT: Yeah, because we were just making things up and I, I think I was hung up on it for a long time and then I was like, oh, I can also just make things up.

DINGMAN: Yeah. So how did you come up with the the kind of mythology or storyline for the first record?

SAILLANT: Well, I came up with characters originally, I wanted to start a band. I was sort of starting to get that together. COVID hit, I didn't have a band. And so I was like, OK, well, I'll make up characters and like this weird band. And so I got into that, it was like kind of sketching stuff, drawing things, writing out little descriptions and just kind of creating a little, little storyboard. Almost as like a practice of like, how can I form a, an imaginary band in my bedroom where we then play with each other but not really. But they had silly names. Some of them were like, inside jokes at the kitchen I was working at, just like random things. ... El Pato Vato. Pijama Piyama himself was a character. So that was a nickname I had in that kitchen. They called me Pijama Piyama.

DINGMAN: Did you have personas associated with all these characters?

SAILLANT: Yeah, they were all kind of rough around the edges, like kind of people that I imagine kind of crawled out into existence. Some of them were described as like subterranean monsters. And I didn't have a vocal style at the time. I was trying to figure that out. So I, I guess maybe I leaned into that and thinking like, oh, this guy is like some subterranean monster. Like what's, you know, like, try and try and see what that sounds like.

DINGMAN: Are you thinking of the way the word lands in your mouth or?

SAILLANT: I mean, some, some of them because like, like the song we play "Sapo Verde," it's just three words, the green frog jumps.

[SINGING]

You know, it's just a, it's very simple. Just I like how these three words sound rhythmically.

[SONG IS PERFORMED]

DINGMAN: Hearing you talk about the music and the origins of it. It makes me think about prog rock in a lot of ways and kind of like concept albums from like the late '60s and '70s. Is that something that you're consciously channeling?

SAILLANT: I don't listen to prog rock. I don't know too much, but I, I do love like Imaginary Worlds, you know, and, and like Dream Logic. So like I'm a big, like Miyazaki fan and, and anime and just this idea of just painting worlds and painting something that would be kind of, would not make sense.

DINGMAN: You mentioned that Pijama Piyama was based on a nickname you had at a restaurant. How, how did you get the nickname?

SAILLANT: That was, I was a cook in, in the back and yeah, I don't know the, the other guy I was working with, I think he walked in. He was like, I don't know why, but I'm gonna start calling you Pijama Piyama and then it just kind of stuck.

DINGMAN: It is interesting, I have to say because you mentioned Dream Logic and if I'm not mistaken, Piyama means pajamas. So maybe he was, maybe he was onto something.

SAILLANT: Maybe.

DINGMAN: Yeah, I'm very tempted to imagine that there is like a whole Pijama Piyama Marvel cinematic universe that, that could emerge from the work, like there's the music, but then there's also the broader backstories of all these characters. The, the larger narrative that you know, you're telling in the songs. Is that something that you think about when you're writing, is the idea to explore the world of these characters more deeply?

SAILLANT: Yeah, it's also, I use it as a, a way to shift sounds, like this new project we're working on. We actually played one of them. It's called "La Nueva Trova Robótica." And that's sort of the new band I'm writing under is, 'cause before it, Pijama Piyama, El Grupo Afrutado, now it's Pijama Piyama y La Nueva Trova Robótica. So I do, I do use that to sort of like reimagine the sounds, like OK, they've, they've transformed.

[SONG PLAYS]

If you're in a band or know of one you'd like to hear play a Tiny Desert Concert, send us a note: [email protected].

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.