By August Edwards
One of the greatest things about life is gaining loving friendships that stand the tests of time and hardships; but it's even more of an honor and privilege to write, perform, and learn alongside one another throughout such friendships. Side Montero is a band who found brotherhood through kismet collisions and music.
The Albuquerque-based fourpiece is comprised of Aaron Lee (vocals, guitar), Ben Work (bass), Levi Maes (drums), Jaren Robledo (lead guitar). Their debut album In the Loop, released in December 2021, is the indie band's push towards professionalism. Recorded with Jesse Samuel of Elephonic Studios, In the Loop maintains a charming bedroom-pop atmosphere with a jazzlike backbone.
We hope you read along while we talk more about the album, the lifetime of memories the bandmates already have together, and the strength and resilience it can take for a band's capacity to bond and grow.
ABQGR: How did you guys come together to form a band?
Levi: We all lived in the same neighborhood. Jaren and Aaron started playing music together, and Aaron’s older brother got a drum set and brought it to his garage—it was all dusty, but it was in good shape, it was well-tuned. I started practicing with them, didn’t even know how to hold the drumsticks right, or the proper way to play the drums. Aaron taught me a little bit of that. The first song we played was Blitzkrieg Bop. In high school, that’s when I met Ben. Me and Ben are the same age, and Aaron and Jaren are two years older than us. I’d told Ben that we have a gig coming up and we don’t have a bass player, but we were having auditions. I invited him over, we played, and then we were like, “Oh, we gotta talk it over and make sure it’s okay with us that you’re in the band.” But like, we didn’t have anybody else.
Jaren: He’s the only one that showed up!
Levi: He’s the only one who showed up.
Ben: Hardest I ever worked for a gig, for sure. It was homecoming week, and me and my friends were sitting outside, and Levi was in that group. We were talking about if we were going to homecoming. And I asked Levi—not to homecoming, but if he was going—and he said no, that his band had a show. I was a bass player, and I didn’t know any other bass players. So, I asked, “Oh, who’s your bass player?” and he goes, “Well, our guitarist is playing bass.” I was like, “Oh. I play bass. So…you know.” And that was like, Tuesday. And I had a rehearsal with them on Thursday, and I had a rehearsal with them the next day, and then the show was Saturday.
Jaren: [We played] Sublime covers, some Artic Monkeys. I think we had three or four originals. But that was really it—me and Aaron bonded over guitars when we were in third grade. We all lived in the same neighborhood since we were in third grade—longer. We’ve known each other our entire lives. Me and Aaron graduated in 2016, and Ben and Levi in 2018. That school year, me and Aaron went to college on the East Coast, so the band took a hiatus. Our first break back was how we got the band name. Up until then, we’d just go by crappy, temporary band names.
Aaron: We were all hanging out one night at our friend’s house—we were just being boys and feeling confident. We were going home, we stopped at this dirt road. It’s called the S. I don’t know why we decided to go drifting, but we did. We took Levi’s Mitsubishi Montero—which is a pretty top-heavy car to begin with—to this dirt road in the shape of an S. And I hit it first, did it well. And then it’s Levi’s turn, and he hits the first turn well, second turn really good. And then outta nowhere, I don’t know what happened—it came around the corner, but then it fishtailed around [Aaron makes a fishtailing motion, then illustrates that it tumbled over on its side]. We rolled. It was intense—the whole thing was super slow motion. I could feel it coming in the brakes. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. We landed on our side and kind of were just in shock. Like, “Oh my god, what the hell?” We got out and tried to lift it up on its wheels. But it was so heavy, so we couldn’t. Then we found some stoners across the street who helped us, and eventually we got it back on its wheels. But it was totaled at that point. We got in trouble that summer, but that’s how we got our name. Yeah, landed on our side and driving a Montero.
Jaren: That summer was a rebuilding summer. We didn’t hang out at all—we just worked. Levi was grounded—Levi’s dad was like, “You’re never gonna hang out with them, ever again.”
Levi: I was like, “But Daddy, I love them!”
Ben: He was allowed to hang out with me because I wasn’t there when they rolled.
Aaron: It was a reawakening for our band. We thought, “Life happens at any moment. We can make a bad decision and things change.” After having another year to go and do our own thing, we started to make music again and find that passion. I felt like for a while there, like towards 2018, I just thought Green Atmosphere was gonna end—that was our original band name. I thought we were gonna fizzle out, and I was super sad. And it just took us bouncing these ideas off each other again. And the birth of Side Montero just happened.
You guys had to overcome a lot to make this project happen. Why continue through those hardships—what specifically has made it so pertinent in your lives?
Jaren: Me and Aaron had been on the East Coast for school for most of the year. His school goes on the term system, so we’re not on the same breaks. The whole band will be together for maybe two weeks out of the year, plus summer breaks where we get a three-week window. This last sequence of breaks, we were recording the album. It’s kind of hard navigating. ‘Cause the band itself is still relatively young, and we haven’t had the chance to be together for a while. That’ll change this summer when Aaron, Ben, and I will graduate this semester.
Aaron: I think what’s really kept us together is the fact that we’ve been friends since third grade. We go way back. That’s a brother type of relationship. Even when we’ve had like two weeks to kinda like, be home, I was always reaching out to these guys and trying to hang out. They’re my brothers.
Ben: I’m lucky to get to have lots of opportunities to play music. This is one of the few opportunities I have where I can say that I have equal control with my friends over stuff that we like to do. That’s a big deal. It’s a lot of fun to be in a band and get to play and to write, but also, it’s even more fun to know that you have control over how you are shaping the music. It’s what we all enjoy—writing together. Even though it can be testy at times, it’s so rewarding to get to write stuff and after you put so much time and energy into it you get to share it with people.
What was the process of creating In the Loop last year? Was there anything that stood out to you, or maybe something valuable that you learned?
Levi: Recording the album was a fun process, but not the experience that I would have liked to have during COVID, you know. But it’s something that we needed to get done. It had it’s ups and downs. I had a fun time in the studio, and having fancy equipment and mics and stuff to record the drums. We knocked it out in two weekends. We did the first half of the album in October, and the second half was in December.
Jaren: Everything that we’ve done has been self-produced bedroom pop. Our most expensive microphone was maybe a hundred-dollar bundle pack thing. And none of us are super into engineering and mastering. This project, I think, was the transition into being a more serious band, because we worked hard on it, we’re proud of it, and I think it’s marked the direction we want to go. With the studio experience we had, now I know I don’t think we need to spend as much money as we did. You learn these things by doing them. I think, for the future, there’s nothing wrong with self-producing.
Ben: What it showed us was something that we knew. I think when you’re paying for it, it really teaches you. But going into the studio knowing your parts so well that you don’t need more than four or five takes is—that should be a baseline for everyone who’s trying to record as good of a sound as they can in their studio. I think that we knew that, but I don’t think that we were as prepared as we should have been, which ended up costing us more money. We were excited about the process of studio recording, but I think we were upset that we ended up spending so much, but that was mostly on us because we didn’t do our jobs the way they could have been done. But I love the studio. That was some of the most fun time I’ve ever spent with these guys—in the studio, one of us is recording, the rest of us are going over parts or talking about another song, there’s food runs, it’s just a lot of fun. That’s an atmosphere I wanna work in again.
Aaron: The guy that we worked with, Jesse, was pretty laid back. Kinda just a random funny story, the first time I met him, I was holding my food and my coffee, and I went to say hello and boom, my coffee just spilled all over him and the floor. I was like, alright, I’m Aaron. After we moved past that—that whole experience taught us about efficiency and bring professional and getting what we needed to get done. We'd been arguing and wasting time, but after that, we made a plan, and every session got more efficient. I’m glad we documented the whole thing. Hopefully soon we can get our own place and we can make our own studio.
Jaren: I think we were super naïve. And we still are, in a lot of aspects. And I think one of our next transition phases is to be more professional, in terms of putting stuff out, how we talk to venues, how we market ourselves and how we network. We’re still writing and all of that, and we have our sights set on the next couple batch of songs. Right now, our biggest focus is branding ourselves and making ourselves more known.
I would say people do recognize you guys as a young band—what that truly means, I don’t know—that being said, what do you think a band’s relationship with social media should be?
Levi: It’s so stressful. I’m taking a break from social media right now. Recently, I was sending people the album, finding people in Albuquerque, and just introduce who we are—it was going door-to-door, like a salesman, but it was Instagram DMing people. I would just stay up late messaging everyone I could find, just sending them the album. It sounds creepy and weird. But some people responded, some people gave feedback. Some person sent me back another band’s music. It was fun, but it takes a lot—your eyes hurt, and your body, it hurts. Creating an image for yourself is very time-consuming and being online can be a grueling process. For your mind especially, ‘cause you’re like, “I want people to like me, or I want people to like our music.” Then you start doing it for people to like you, and that’s not the right reason to start doing stuff.
Jaren: And I think that’s why it sucks. ‘Cause you need to have a presence. You need to keep up on social media. Like Levi said, it can be at the expense of yourself. With our social media image, we wanna be as transparent as possible. We’re not trying to be something that we’re not—we’re not putting on a rockstar front, we’re not putting on a pretty-boy type thing. We feel like it’s the epitome of ourselves, then we’ll post something. It’s a weird dynamic you gotta balance, ‘cause you either fall off or your mental state takes a toll.
Despite the hardships of being geographically far, you did prioritize playing shows. Last December, you played at Sunshine Theater opening for Lovelytheband. What are standout moments for you as performers? What does performing do for you or your band identity?
Ben: This band is one of those bands where, you gotta see us live. Yeah, the album may be good, but we’ve always had trouble capturing our live energy in our recordings. I think one of the standout moments for me was a couple of years ago, pre-COVID. We were in Provo or Salt Lake in Utah. We were playing a show at Bill Harris Music. I remember I’d just drank a bunch of coffee. I don’t get performance anxiety, at least not with this band, but I had a full-on panic attack—I was seizing up, I couldn’t speak right. But then we started playing, and I was like, oh, I’m fine. It immediately subsided—I was able to move all the panicked jitters out. It ended up being one of our best shows up ‘til then. That’s what I feel these shows are for—it’s for us to do our best to play music that we like for people who also maybe like it.
Jaren: We’re a live band. Live shows, there’s something about them that we just thrive in. It’s an outlet for us. We bottle all this energy up until the show, and when the show comes it’s a huge purge. I love it. That’s my favorite thing, getting to go travel to Utah or Idaho to play music.
Aaron: I’d say, ironically, public speaking and performing publicly give me a lot of confidence. We care a lot about this, and we’re out here sharing for fun, people are into it, and that makes me excited. It makes me want to keep creating. I’m gonna get really traditional here—I think music is medicine, and it really does something to my soul. Whenever we’re practicing, when I’m singing and playing a song, God, I feel invincible. I feel like I can take over the world and heal everybody—I feel so good about myself and about our group. We’ve come this far, and we’re just some kids from Albuquerque who also can put in work and put in and make some beautiful sounds and unique stuff and tell a unique story. For me, it is medicine. I love jamming with these guys, even though sometimes we’re all brothers, we fight sometimes. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t do it with anybody else, and it really does heal me and help me deal with other personal things that I’m going through.
Levi: Yeah, I love performing. You’d mentioned the Sunshine show—I was hella nervous for that. That was the biggest show we’ve played. You walk up on the stage, and you see everybody, and they don’t know your sound, they’re here for Lovelytheband or Cannons or something. And we had a small little group of our fanbase. It was nerve-wracking. But when I start playing, and I look at Jaren, and he gives me a little “heehee” smile, or I look at Aaron and he gives me a nod, or when I look at Ben and he’s always right there by my side jamming with me—all those nerves go away, it’s like I’m just jamming with them in my mom’s garage. It will always feel like that no matter what the crowd is. That’s how I feel when I’m performing. Whenever I look at the guys, it just feels like they’re right there with me and it’s awesome.
Jaren: I think we’re lucky to have the support that we do. It’s evolved from our parents being like, “Oh, cool,” to our friends coming, and they bring friends. We’re lucky that people fuck with us the way that they do, and we’re grateful for that.
What is special to you about the Albuquerque music scene?
Jaren: It’s incredibly unique. Albuquerque in general is one of those places that is unique—there’s nowhere like it. The music scene has evolved since we first started. We couldn’t find a gig, there was nowhere that would have a band—especially not 16-year-olds. Over the past couple of years, it’s grown. When we started, it was cliqued-out. It was mostly hip-hop and super heavy, heavy metal. Not really environments you want your kid to be in—there was heroin at our first show. But there’s talent here for sure. There’s some insanely good musicians and producers. But yeah, there’s more bands now—there’s more people coming up. It’s getting better.
Ben: I think the thing that’s cool about it here is generally, because it is small, usually you’re friends with everyone. Your band makes friends with other bands around town. You can make friends with the different venues, you make friends with the sound [engineers]. Even though a lot of it is DIY, you need to make stuff for yourself, you do have people who are willing to help you however they can. I think that’s special—you can’t really get that in a bigger scene because there’s just too many people.
Aaron: We pushed ourselves to get shows and make a presence, but seeing other bands [do the same thing] really gave us subconscious motivation. “Wow, other people are doing stuff, we should be doing stuff. We should be trying more.” We started meeting more bands around New Mexico, just started building better relationships with them, going and jamming with these people just for fun—other people have encouraged us to continue this and slowly build this scene. Hopefully we can get more people from out of state. That’s how we had to start. There were no shows here, so we went out of state, made some friend there, and now our goal is to bring those guys to ABQ, and then we can start going from there—build a better, bigger indie scene.
Jaren: If people recognize your genuineness and hard work, you’ll be supported here. That’s the cool thing that we’ve experienced—people have been super supportive now, getting shows. Other bands will ask us to play shows and we’re cool with some of the younger, smaller bands. I don’t wanna say we’re hot shit or anything, ‘cause we’re not. But we’ve gotten lucky, and we’re grateful to come up in a scene that feels like it’s growing.