Scene and Heard: Fez the Immigrant

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Not many people have heard of the genre "meme rock," but that might be because Ricardo Tafolla coined the phrase.

"Mariachi indie" is another way that Tafolla describes Fez The Immigrant's music online, which he says is something people take too seriously. He admits the group would be more accurately described as alternative indie, but that just doesn’t roll off the tongue like “meme rock.”

Tafolla, a third-year media arts student, started recording music under the name Fez The Immigrant two years ago. He describes the band as a “long-distance relationship.” Bassist Julio Barragan lives in Bluffton, South Carolina, Tafolla’s hometown, and drummer Mirco Cavallarin just recently moved to Columbia.

Band practice is a kind of back and forth. Tafolla records something on guitar. Barragan sends back a bass riff. They put the pieces together when there’s a chance to see one another. Fez The Immigrant always performed as a group until recently when Tafolla started playing acoustic sets solo when the other members couldn’t make a trip. 

After growing up in Mexico, Tafolla moved to Bluffton when he was 15 years old, but he spent sixth grade as an exchange student in Phoenix, Arizona. This was when Tafolla remembers watching Green Day on YouTube and Billie Joe Armstrong inspired him to pick up the guitar.

“I saw him strumming with confidence and I thought, ‘Man, I want to be this guy,’” Tafolla says. “So I picked up the guitar and learned ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine,’ and I thought I was the s---. Then I realized I’m not the s---. I had to practice more.”

Tafolla started his first band, I Hate Vegans, when he was still living in Mexico at 15, and he got his first taste of criticism when people seemed to miss that the name was a joke. Tafolla laughs about it now. “There was so much hate coming from people in so many different countries.”

Even though the humor behind I Hate Vegans didn’t pan out like he thought it might, that didn’t stop him from seeking out names with a little shock value. At 19, Tafolla started recording under the name Fez The Immigrant. He says he originally got the idea from moving to Bluffton during the era of “That ’70s Show” when people constantly told him he “looked and talked like Fez.” He figured it might be useful to use that to his advantage.

“When you see people perform, you don’t always remember their name,” he says. “Maybe this time they’ll think ‘Oh, that guy that looks like Fez,’ so it’s easier. I just added ‘immigrant’ for the shock value.”

Reactions vary when people hear the name Fez The Immigrant, but he says that’s part of the fun. During the group’s first performance together, the open mic announcer refused to say “Fez The Immigrant” over the loudspeaker.

“It was hilarious,” he says. “I think he just didn’t want to sound racist. People have this really strong connotation about ‘immigrant,’ like when you hear that you think ‘illegal,’ but it’s nothing like that at all. People just like to misinterpret things.”

Fez The Immigrant’s mellow, lo-fi, synthpop sound paired with a goofy stage presence is most accurately compared to one of Tafolla’s influences, Mac DeMarco. The studio recordings paint the picture of a much more serious indie group, but jokes are slipped in throughout if you listen closely, like Tafolla melodically singing “Take me out, Take me out, like a garbage bag” in “Tell Me To F--- Off” on their second release, Cielo.

Starting out, Tafolla planned on rocking a lot harder. Their chill-wave sound stemmed from Tafolla recording their first album in the studio solo and having no access to drums. He experimented with sampling beats from artists such as Indian Indian and Washed Out for many of the songs and liked what he came up with, which set their music off to where it is now.

Time in the studio is great, but he says performing live with the rest of the band is the most fun. According to Tafolla, Fez the Immigrant wouldn’t be where it is today without the support of Columbia’s music scene. “Everyone here helps each other out,” he says. “Maybe that’s because the scene isn’t gigantic — it’s definitely growing, but it’s not huge. I never felt exclusivity performing here. You can play wherever you want and that’s awesome.”

And even though he’s networked with other musicians through venues such as New Brookland Tavern and Conundrum Music Hall, house shows are where Fez The Immigrant is in peak form. With a brand like “meme rock,” Tafolla takes advantage of intimate settings as a way to make the crowd laugh. Any live performance is a good time, but the more formal the setting, the harder it is to talk to the audience.

“We’re not professional at all. We’re going to tell some meme jokes,” he says. “If it’s a small crowd, you really don’t give a f--- about what’s going on, like, let’s just have some fun. But also if there are a lot of people, there’s this whole energy going on, and that really pumps you up.”

They joke, but the band is something Tafolla and his bandmates take seriously, even if it’s somewhat of a hobby. They’re currently working on a third album, which Tafolla hopes to finish by January. The future of Fez The Immigrant is unsure at the moment. Each of them are perusing individual goals, and Tafolla is going to study in Korea for the spring semester. 

At the end of the day, Fez The Immigrant is an outlet where the members can enjoy themselves, and to Tafolla, if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? 

“Whether it becomes popular or not, I really don’t mind. I just do it and share it because it’s something I really enjoy,” he says. “Memes should be shared with everyone — everyone should enjoy memes.”

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