Stefan González is the oldest 28-year-old in Dallas. At least in musical terms, that is, which by his own admission are the only terms he understands. Best known as the drummer of jazz trio Yells at Eels, which he plays in with his father Dennis and older brother Aaron, Stefan is at the forefront of a sea change in the Dallas music scene, a shift that favors DIY aesthetics and experimental tendencies over conventional musicianship. In virtue of his reach, presence, chops and mammoth prolificacy, Stefan has become one of the most compelling figures in all of DFW music.
As a musician and percussionist, Stefan has a rap sheet 24 years long. With his father being an internationally renowned jazz trumpeter, Stefan was born into a household peopled by traveling musicians. Feeding off this environment, Stefan began playing drums at age 4, and by age 8 had successfully taught himself how to navigate the complexities of a full drum set. He was writing his own songs at 11, and by 12, Stefan was already playing in two bands: a grindcore/punk unit (with brother Aaron) named Akkolyte and the aforementioned Yells at Eels, in which Dennis plays trumpet and Aaron the double bass.
While both groups still exist today, Stefan has added a jazz-rock trio (Unconscious Collective), a free jazz quartet (Humanization Quartet) and a Latin/hip-hop/fusion supergroup called the Young Mothers (led by jazz giant Ingebrigt Håker Flaten) to his repertoire. Lastly, and most important, Stefan has recently launched Orgullo Primitivo, a percussion-and-voice solo project that ranks as one of Dallas' best live acts. Not exclusively a local artist, Stefan has played dates all over the globe, collaborating with the likes of Jandek, the Minutemen's Mike Watt and art-pop auteur Ariel Pink. He's even brushed shoulders with legends like Cecil Taylor and Peter Brötzmann along the way.
On a sunny afternoon in historic Oak Cliff inside Stefan's disarmingly tranquil childhood home, I sit with son and father discussing Stefan's creative maturation. "He absorbed it all, all the energy flying through this house," Dennis proudly reminisces. "He would just bang on the drums upstairs at night, and then one day a pattern emerged -- he had taught himself how to play."
"That's why, early on, I was so averse to being taught. I had done it on my own," Stefan responds. As a young man, he received instruction from acclaimed drummer Alvin Fielder (among others), but in the midst of a rebellion against his jazz heritage (via metal, industrial and hardcore punk), Stefan adamantly rejected all outside advice. "He was a kid, and these were legends," Dennis says with a laugh. "I couldn't believe it."
Although Stefan eventually embraced his jazz roots, he never abandoned the more discordant passions of his youth. In fact, he has really come into his own of late, a surge directly inspired by these early sonic interests -- what he calls "heavy music." In the wake of this hot streak, we have Orgullo Primitivo, his most unique product to date.
"Yells At Eels and growing up in this family is the reason that I have gone on to be a creative person, a musician," Stefan explains. "But Orgullo Primitivo is trying to separate myself from that and just be independent. This is something I have to have on my own." Dark and percussive with no sense of conventional song structure, the project is a singular beast. Anchored exclusively around Stefan and his creative whims, it's also entirely his.
"I've done so much in the jazz world, and so much in the hardcore-punk/metal realm, but I've always imagined something that was heavy but wasn't necessarily punk or avant-garde, just heavy music. Orgullo Primitivo is that concept," Stefan says. "These are those sounds I've been hearing in my head."
At Crown and Harp's Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions (which Stefan curates himself) on Lower Greenville, I catch a glimpse of Orgullo Primitivo in the flesh. With only a five-pound coil, two bass drums and a PA system (which is used for echo and loop effects), Stefan brings the bar to a standstill. The sound is refreshingly skeletal, free from the overwrought decadence that defines so much of Dallas' "experimental music." Apart from the music's two primary components -- driving, stannic percussion and primal growls -- it's the limited instrumental palette that makes Orgullo Primitivo so inventive. However, that wasn't always the case.
"I had too much equipment to lug around -- full drum set, coil, PA and vibraphone -- so, I was experimenting at home and realized that if I minimized the instruments it was even heavier than it was before," Stefan says. I ask Stefan about the coil, the item that all but defines Orgullo Primitivo's mechanized sound. "It was an accident, actually; my neighbor gave it to me," he explains. "That coil just changed me," he says. "It's like part of an altar to me; it represents something spiritual, almost like a monolith."
Had I not seen him perform just the night before, I might have mistaken these claims for embellishment. Under a shower of sweat and drumstick splinters, I witnessed Stefan deliver a series of violent blows upon his coil, the sort of exaggerated and focused brutality one reserves only for objects of affection.
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Back in Oak Cliff, Stefan and I talk about sleep paralysis. For most of his life, he has suffered from this rare phenomenon, an occurrence in which, either just before sleep or after waking, an individual experiences a temporary inability to move. The kicker is that sleep paralysis is often associated with terrifying hallucinations, visions that typically manifest as demonic apparitions or other equally menacing presences.
"A lot of my music is about that, about these things that visit me at night," Stefan says. In other words, Stefan's art is, in a very real sense, about exorcising demons -- those actual and fabricated tormentors that consume our subconscious. "This is my therapy," he says. "But sometimes it's a hard weight to carry."
It's no wonder Stefan's art often manifests in obscenely visceral, painfully alive eruptions. Yes, it often makes for a challenging listen. But there's just too much beauty in Orgullo Primitivo's folds of blackness to write it off as a purely dark, or worse, unthinking music. Stefan's ambition is nothing if not brutal sincerity. After all, there's nothing more frightening than digging deep into yourself and seeing what lives inside. Couple that with the project's heady use of space -- the elegance in its austere form and stabbing manipulation of percussive and vocal techniques -- and it's as compelling as any art Dallas has to offer these days.
"Well, other than family, music is the only thing I understand," Stefan says with a faint grin. Then, after a pause: "At all."