Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs
Follow The Big Takeover
Photo by Dina Regine
It takes a lot to survive and thrive in New York City’s downtown rock scene, but Ursa Minor have been doing just that for two decades now, making themselves a particularly beloved live act. In June, they released Sian Ka’an (which is Mayan for “origin of the sky”) via Velvet Elk Records, which is their first studio album in a long time (their last one, Silent Moving Picture, came out in 2003). During a recent Zoom video chat with vocalist/guitarist Michelle Casillas, drummer Robert DiPietro, and bassist Rob Jost, they discussed how they (along with guitarist Tony Scherr, who produced this new album) returned to recording, what makes their live show so special, and how fate brought them together in the first place (even though a bad wedding band almost kept them apart).
How are you feeling as you’re putting new work out into the world?
MICHELLE CASILLAS: I think it’s always exciting to put out something new. It’s always a little bit vulnerable. And it’s always a little bit different than what came before it. This band has been together for a long time and been through a lot of different manifestations. It started out with me just playing piano/keyboard, and now it’s really guitar-centric, and it keeps changing. So that’s always kind of like, “Are people going to get this?”
It’s been a long time since your last album. What made you decide to do another one now?
MICHELLE CASILLAS: We’ve all been involved in lots of different things over the years, and so we’re all constantly playing music with different bands. Like, I was working with Jesse Malin and his band for several years. And Robert was touring with Norah Jones, and Rob was touring with Imogen Heap. We’ve just been sort of bouncing around doing a lot of different projects. We’ve maintained a friendship the whole time, and then we get together and play music. This is what came out of that.
What was your actual songwriting process like for this album?
MICHELLE CASILLAS: I took a trip down to Mexico and it was super inspiring. Sian Ka’an, it’s the name of the album, and it’s a protective biosphere. And it was just a really super magical place. It was cut off from society, basically. It was some years ago, but it was a super powerful trip, so the songs started to come out of that. Something happens when you immerse yourself in nature for some time. For me, anyway. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience where you can really sort of strip away all the daily stresses and concerns, and you can just get back to your core. It was really nice to write from that perspective.
When Michelle brings in a song, how do the rest of you go about putting your own mark on it?
ROB JOST: When Michelle brings in a new song, I think I remember where I was every time. It’s always a big event, musically, for me. And a lot of times, the parts just kind of happen and I end up with something really cool that I wouldn’t have played with anybody else. This band brings out a certain kind of music-making in all of us, so that it’s a very natural, easy, yet also very exciting process. It’s a really special vibe of creativity amongst the four of us.
ROBERT DI PIETRO: I think the most direct thread that runs through this band is if you go back to one of the songs from the very first album, “Damage Control.” That was the very first song we played together. And the very first time we played together, we created those parts. To me, that is an indicator of how any time any of us play together, it’s this weird balance between being open to expressing new ideas, but at the same time, there’s always something very articulate happening.
MICHELLE CASILLAS: There was a chemistry from the first time we played together. I remember it just felt like we had been playing together forever.
How did you all meet in the first place?
MICHELLE CASILLAS: It was at college. All three of us were studying music at NYU, and Robert was a drum teacher that came in to do a workshop on Latin music. He’s a bit of a Brazilian expert, among other things. So he came in to teach the class, and I loved the music that he was sharing with us. And then I found out that he was doing his master concert a few weeks later, and I went. I was like, “his guy is amazing!”
ROB JOST: Yeah, I was there, too!
MICHELLE CASILLAS: You were there, too, but we didn’t know you. We hadn’t met yet.
ROB JOST: I also had the same thought, that he was amazing.
MICHELLE CASILLAS: So it was amazing. And then Robert left NYU and I never saw him again – or so I thought. I was like, “How am I going to find that drummer?” Years later, I happened to be working at Birdland, I was running sound there. And one of the waitresses had a gig, she was a jazz singer. I went to her gig as a friend, and there was Robert on the drums. I was like, “Oh, my God, I found you! We have to start a band! We have to play music together!” So it was this amazing serendipity that I lost him and then found him. And then he was like, “We have to bring Rob Jost into the band.” So I called Rob, and this is funny: I said, “Hey, I just started playing with Robert DiPietro, and he’s raving about you, and we have to get together and play.” And you were like, “I’d love to, but I’m really busy right now with my band Night Moves.
ROB JOST: Are you kidding me? That was a horrible wedding band that I joined for like three months!
MICHELLE CASILLAS: Yeah, well, we were number two and Night Moves was number one. I just have to say that I’m still hurt. [laughs] Eventually, you ditched Night Moves.
ROB JOST: I ditched it hard. Oh yeah, that was a bad situation. But really, was that what I said? Wow. Crazy times.
MICHELLE CASILLAS: And then I met Tony. I was no longer working at Birdland. I was doing sound at Tonic, and Tony would show up on bass, on guitar, on every instrument under the sun. Tony had a home studio that he was making records out of, so he invited me to check out his studio, and it was amazing. An analog tape studio. The studio where we recorded our first album. He heard us and then was like, “Maybe I’ll play a little guitar on this.” And then it was all over and that was it. That’s the band!
What is it about this band that has kept your fans loyal to it for the past twenty years?
ROBERT DI PIETRO: I think what people like about the live shows is that every time we play the songs, they’re different. They are three of the best musicians I know, so they manage to keep me on my toes. We try to do that for each other, I believe.
MICHELLE CASILLAS: There’s a lot of leeway in our songs for improvisation, and I think that that is, for me, one of the things that keeps me coming back to playing music and playing with a band. I’m not really interested in doing the exact same thing over and over again. And also, to answer your question about the fans, I think that people [who] come out to our shows love the excitement of the solos. What I’ve heard is that they can tell that we don’t even know what’s happening next. So if we’re on that edge, so are they.
Anything else you’d like people to know about this new album?
MICHELLE CASILLAS: I would hope that people check it out with open ears. I listen to music on lots of different levels and there’s some music where I’m really listening for the lyrics and there’s other music where I’m really listening for the beat. And then there’s other stuff where the counterpoint is fascinating. There’s so much different music that is such a part of me that I feel like we’re tapping into in this album, and I hope that people can appreciate it, the different levels that I’m aiming for, the things that excite me about music.
Buy/stream Ursa Minor’s latest album, Sian Ka’an, here:
More in interviews