Raising Standards: Marcos Mena Talks Time at CalArts, Making it as a Musician, and New Album

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Marcos Mena (Music BFA 20) takes a moment to check his tuning before unleashing an amplified flurry of rapid-fire notes. Armed with a mint green Ibanez guitar and innovative fingerstyle playing, he launches into a jaunty electric guitar track that resonates throughout B318 as students look on with rapt attention. 

Mena dropped by the Institute in February as a visiting guest artist in Guitar Forum, taught by Mirsolav Tadic, faculty in The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts, and co-taught with fellow faculty Thomas Leeb and Woody Aplanalp. Throughout the two-hour class, Mena discussed his band Standards, his time at the Institute, and his musical career and experiences, followed by a Q&A session with students.

“I’ve loved music my whole life,” said Mena. “I’ve played piano since I was five. I got into guitar when I was around 11 or 12 years old.”

He’d always wanted to be in a band, an ambition he likened to pursuing professional soccer: “Everyone wants to do that.” Mena also realized that many of the guitarists he met often did it as a gig or juggled other jobs on the side—very rarely as a dedicated career. He then resolved to commit to guitar wholeheartedly, and applied to CalArts.

When Mena was accepted at age 19, he was one of the only students playing electric guitar. His time at the Institute became a whirlwind of creating and experimenting, writing a book about finger tapping—a technique employing the picking hand’s fingertips to use slurs, or hammer-ons and pull-offs, in the same manner as the fretting hand—during his first summer at CalArts, and establishing his own band and taking on a rigorous touring schedule.

Standards, which currently comprises Mena on guitar and Moises Popa on drums, is a math rock affair synonymous with alternate tunings, shifting time signatures, and singularly danceable rhythms. The band boasts a fruit theme, which permeates its discography. It is also apparent in music videos for songs like “Cosmos,” a single from their upcoming album Fruit Galaxy, which will be released on Friday, March 22. Mena jokingly calls his genre “fruit rock,” since the arithmetical associations made with math rock can “scare people.”

Mena has played with several drummers since Standards’ conception, including fellow CalArts alum Kynwyn Sterling (Music BFA 18). “It felt like we were applying our studies in real life scenarios,” Mena said of their collaboration. Mena dedicated a song to Sterling titled “kynwyn’s birthday” on Standards’ eponymous 2018 album

One of the band’s first big breaks arrived in 2019 when they performed at the British rock festival ArcTanGent in Bristol, UK, opening for progressive indie rock band Covet. As Standards subsequently gained traction, Mena learned to maintain a balancing act between schoolwork and relentlessly booking gigs. Later in 2019, he took the spring semester off to tour with emo band Tiny Moving Parts, playing approximately 30 shows. At this time, Standards also planned to record an album with Topshelf Records. 

“It was very rewarding, but also very taxing,” Mena reflected. After approximately eight months on the road, he returned to the Institute in January 2020.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Navigating unfamiliar terrain, Mena, like countless other performing artists, was left to grapple with keeping a career afloat from within the confines of his residence. “How do you promote an album when you were planning to promote it on the tour?”

Despite the unnerving uncertainty brought on by tours being canceled seemingly overnight, lockdown provided Mena an opportunity to get back to what he enjoyed: playing guitar at home. As he continued to hone his craft, Mena steered Standards through pandemic restrictions and back to the stage, performing alongside acts like Polyphia and Plini. Standards is currently touring with three-piece rock band Elephant Gym, and plans to be on tour throughout the year.

Mena then opened up the forum to chat with the students. When asked about his writing process, Mena said that he eschews complicated chords characteristic of math rock in favor of melody and harmony. Adding contrasting sections to provide balance is also paramount while writing, he noted. “I always just try to get a really good hook and try to fit it in somewhere.” Mena also plays drums, which aids in his songwriting.

Mena emphasized the importance of versatility when asked about how he has come to establish himself professionally. In order to chart a successful career, he believes it imperative for musicians to acquire non-musician skills, particularly those related to business and marketing. Embracing a do-it-yourself philosophy keeps costs low while retaining the band’s image, explained Mena; however, he advised hiring professionals when possible, as trying to do everything alone will be detrimental to the music and the band as a whole.

“Music industry budgets are getting smaller,” said Mena. “Artists don’t get invested in by labels anymore. You need to be realistic about what you can do, and there are so many amazing tools that are available to you.”

This DIY approach has served Mena well, with an output of an album per year to show for it.

“I feel that Fruit Galaxy has a bit more technicality while still retaining the same catchy sound as the other releases,” Marcos shared in an email interview with 24700. “It also combines more production elements and effects with typical math rock sounds to create something I feel is a bit more unique than our other records.” 

“I’m still trying to craft my own sound,” said Mena. “And I think that should be everybody’s goal.”

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PUBLISHED BY Taya Zoormandan

As digital content and social media producer, Taya enjoys lifting up the stories and accomplishments of CalArts' students, alums, and faculty. She fancies herself a visual artist but is really more of an overzealous collector of art supplies.

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