José Oyola

Preparing for Liftoff

On Wednesday night, José Oyola & The Astronauts played Cafe 9 as part of Astrophest, a back-to-back mini-festival of local bands organized by Oyola himself. At the end of the night, Oyola unrolled a gently glowing violet-orange flyer and announced that on November 7, Oyola and the Astronauts would be the first local band to headline the newly opened College Street Music Hall.

Oyola is intent on standing out. The rule holds from his musical ambitions to his hairstyle—a Jupiter among hairdos. And while he dreams big, he’s no space cadet. He has a vision for his band and the organizational wherewithal to get it off the ground—maybe even to the stars.

But liftoff is a complicated process. It takes risk. It takes funds. And it takes a strong crew for the voyage.

Thus, The Astronauts—a band that formed in 2012 to accompany singer and songwriter Oyola—and roof shingle repair work, which provides some of the funds. As for the risk, “I’ve got nothing to lose,” says Oyola. “Maybe some money, but it’ll come back around again.”

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Oyola’s journey here began in Hartford, growing up on hip hop and the salsa music his Puerto Rican mother liked to listen to. He was a particular admirer of the album Reflection Eternal by Talib Kweli, and of Kanye West minus the antics. He still has the receipts for two rap songs he recorded when he was 16 years old. The songs themselves he’s hidden away. “Hopefully no one will ever find them.”

The trajectory of his music underwent a radical rerouting when a friend introduced him to The Mars Volta, a band from El Paso, Texas, that mixed Spanish lyrics into its progressive, experimental brand of rock. For Oyola, the band sparked a new interest in making music with bands and a reconnection with both salsa and the Spanish language he grew up speaking. One night he dreamed he owned a classical guitar, buying himself a black Ibanez the next day. “I think I went without paying my phone bill that month.”

Like many young musicians, Oyola was often living by a shoestring. But he could still afford to organize concerts in his apartment. He and his friends would throw the furniture into the hall, keeping one room for the band and one for spoken word, using the fire escape as a hangout spot. “I don’t know how my neighbors let me get away with it,” says Oyola with a smile.

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Inspired by the stage antics of the Flaming Lips—whose lead singer has been known to make dramatic entrances inside a giant see-through beachball, amid barrages of confetti—Oyola is partial to adding entertaining twists to his shows. For a while he performed on stage with a staff he made from a piece of antique clock, a foam ball and colored Christmas lights, waving it around at concerts until it broke.

Yet Oyola’s playful stage presence endures. On Wednesday, The Astronauts got on stage at Cafe 9 with lab coats, safety glasses and a small megaphone full of sounds that would have worked in an old Godzilla movie.

At the show, Oyola and his band played songs both from their first album, Give, Give, Give, Take, Take, Take, and their coming release, Hologram. Whereas the first album was written with Oyola’s singing and guitar at the forefront, Hologram is clearly written with a band in mind. On top of the standard guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and vocals, Hologram’s soundscape includes trumpet, accordion, synthesizers and more.

What hasn’t changed from the first album is Oyola’s distinctive mix of Spanish lyrics, his fascination with outer space and his old love of hip-hop. Local rapper Ceschi (“chess-key”) makes an appearance on Hologram, as does local Ifeanyi Awachie who both opens and closes the album with some of her own spoken word.

Oyola’s charisma and knack for getting diverse talents to cooperate is one of his greatest strengths as a bandleader. For the show at College Street Musical Hall, Oyola is planning to muster all his resources and then some. “The stage is 34 feet. I’m only 5 feet tall,” jokes Oyola. There are some extra surprises in the works for the big show, and while Oyola doesn’t want us to let the cat out of the bag just yet, he’s correct when he says “it’s going to be big.”

He wants New Haven to be big, too, and sees the music scene as an important cultural vein to mine. “Bands are like ambassadors,” Oyola says, adding that if he ever came into money, he’d start a non-profit to help fund the tours of local bands. “Money shouldn’t have to hold artists back.”

Right now, money is still one of Oyola’s biggest stumbling blocks. Every day he isn’t working on music he spends repairing roofs—hammering shingles in the heat, sweating and feeling surly. But, he says, when he stops to think about what he’s working towards—that big record release show at College Street Music Hall—he knows it’s worth it.

José Oyola & The Astronauts
Bandcamp | Facebook | Record Release Show

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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