A man wearing an origami mask shimmies, bobs and headbangs to wave after wave of pounding computer-generated bass coming from a tangle of machines and wires in front of him. Beside him, a singer with big hair and an even bigger voice throws her lungs into every note, while strumming on her electric guitar. Gathered tightly around the small stage, the crowd feeds off the energy pouring from the two players, and nobody can resist moving in time to the beats.
One of Hong Kong’s most visually arresting bands, Deer have the sound and originality to justify the intrigue of their trademark antlered mask. Speaking to Young Post just before her band’s show at Clockenflap festival, singer Adriana Martinez was full of fire and raring to introduce a new crowd to Deer’s dark electro.
The other half of the band, Deer’s man-on-the-synths Miguel Bastida supplies the beats and electronic undercurrent that gives Martinez’s huge vocals and fuzzed-out guitar space to soar. It’s an arresting combination that recalls the sullen trip-hop of ’90s British bands like Massive Attack and Portishead, as well as the crisp Scandinavian electronica of The Knife, and the hard rock menace of Nine Inch Nails.
“It’s interesting how you wear an animal mask and you transform into something else. You can be whatever you want,” Martinez tells Young Post. Bastida liked the work of Australian animal mask designer Wintercroft, and asked him to make a deer mask inspired by a traditional Mayan dance which uses animal masks and costumes. Wintercroft drew up an origami template, so Deer would be able to make a new mask for each performance. But it gets hot in there for Bastida, so he performs the first few songs wearing the mask before he passes it to members of the audience to try on. It’s not just the heat that makes Bastida reveal his identity.
“We wanted to use the masks in live shows to see how people would react, and we found that it has a magical power,” Martinez says. “We ask people in the audience to dance with the mask. Sometimes people are shy, but when they wear the mask they transform, gain confidence and start raving. I love it! That’s why we not only like wearing it, but also taking it off – it also helps us to interact a bit more with the crowd.”
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Bastida and Martinez, who have been a couple since the band was formed, both studied music back home in Mexico City, Mexico.
“He studied classical composition, and I studied musicology, but had also studied classical guitar,” Martinez says. They both liked the same alternative rock bands, and played music separately, but hadn’t composed anything together. Then, inspired by the intense atmosphere at a Sigur Ros concert, they knew they had to form a band. Instead of trying to sound the same as the Icelandic post-rock group, Deer forged their own sound, which melded the duo’s separate musical tastes into something unique.
“Back then, Miguel would play more chamber or quartet music. I used to play more folk music – specifically Mexican folk,” Martinez says. Deer’s sound is defined by the singer’s soaring, almost operatic vocals, which is unusual in the world of electronica. She explains that this is due to the influence of Mexican musical culture.
“Mexican music is really dramatic, so you need a very strong and powerful voice.”
Big international music acts often only tour around Canada, the US, and Europe, and ignore Mexico – but that’s their loss.
“Mexicans are passionate music listeners,” says Martinez. “If a band they love comes to town, they’ll be first in line for the tickets, and start queuing outside the venue a week ahead of the show. It’s the place to play in [Latin America].”
She says that she and Bastida have plans to eventually return to their home country for good, but that they also want to tour South America and Asia to raise Deer’s profile outside Hong Kong. The city’s dense music scene makes it easy to discover new bands, but it also means Hong Kong bands can have trouble breaking out onto the international market.
Martinez says, “As a band, if we want to go further, it’ll be hard to do that if we only stay in Hong Kong.”
“We are really passionate, and want to share this with our audiences. I think it’s what sets us apart from local bands,” she adds. “I’m shy, but when I perform I want everyone to feel it and hear me sing.”