Ismael Quintanilla III

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Treasure MammaL: Underrated and 'Grammy Nominated'

With Treasure MammaL releasing 'Grammy Nominated' in 2020, frontman Abe Gil discusses the story of the eclectic Arizona outfit.

For most of this century, Arizona’s Treasure MammaL has been an enigmatic force of nature – a musical presence whose very existence is indefinable, yet still manages to receive acclaim for just about every move that they make. Their live shows are exuberant affairs, their music is kaleidoscopic and genre-defying, and their following is strong and ever-expanding. But to most, Treasure MammaL is something of a well-kept secret, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

At its core, Treasure MammaL is Abelardo ‘Abe’ Gil, a veteran of the Phoenix music scene, and the creative force of the project since its inception 18 years ago. While Treasure MammaL (often spelled with a capital ‘L’, in keeping with its esoteric nature) is equally referred to as either a band or Gil’s own musical moniker, its origins can be specifically traced back to November of 2003.

As Gil explains over a surprisingly-clear phone line from his home in Phoenix, Treasure MammaL first emerged during his time as a student at Arizona State University. Having been living in a “band house” which hosted shows, he had been performing a number of “sad” Radiohead-inspired songs in a band called Clementine, while also played in a still-sporadically-active “experimental noise band” called Paper Tiger Trio, which had formed two years earlier.

“Paper Tiger Trio was with a music composer that got their Masters in Music Composition at ASU called Andrew Tholl,” Gil explains. “So we were able to make experimental music with synthesisers with weird rhythms and stuff, and that was exciting to me.

“I was just thinking, ‘Man, I can’t do this shit anymore. I want to have fun, and I want to let other people have fun. And I want to make music that’s almost indescribable.'”

“But there was one moment when I got home from ASU and I wasn’t having a good time; I wasn’t happy with what went down at school and I wasn’t happy with my job,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Man, I had a shitty day at school, I’m not happy with my job, and here I am sulking with these songs.’

“I was just thinking, ‘Man, I can’t do this shit anymore. I want to have fun, and I want to let other people have fun. And I want to make music that’s almost indescribable.'”

Reflecting on this time as being at something of a crossroads, it was this moment almost 18 years ago that served as the basis for Treasure MammaL, with Gil deciding that making fun music was set to be his path in life. Recruiting Nick Kroll on percussion (both acoustic drums and drum machines), Gil rounded out the duo that would become the first iteration of Treasure MammaL with his skills as both a guitar and theremin player.

It didn’t take long for Treasure MammaL to expand and evolve though. While the group’s first self-titled release emerged soon after their formation, their sound was as rough, unique, and rambunctious as the album’s opening track – “No Professional Training” – might have implied. However, while the following release, Secret Treasures, showcased a slightly more evolutionary sound, so too did the band’s lineup begin to change.

While Kroll soon found himself going off to Cornell University in New York state, Gil’s desire to keep the group going saw him trying new things, including having his girlfriend join as well.

“I was like, ‘I want to do this project for a long time, and I’m just going to let it evolve on its own,'” he recalls. “And then I started incorporating the dancers just on a whim.”

“It had evolved and solidified in this weird kind of space, but it just felt right.”

As he explains, two girls approached him prior to a show and stated their belief that it could be a good idea for Treasure MammaL to incorporate dancers. Willing to adapt and try new things, the band temporarily featured dancers in their lineup before Gil again found himself playing solo. More releases followed before the lineup again changed when close friends Jef Wright and Matt Wood (otherwise known as Jef Wright and Jef Wrong) joined as drummers. However, their inclusion in the band was born out of tragedy, as Gil explains.

Image of Treasure Mammal

Abelardo Gil has been the core member of Treasure MammaL since its inception almost 18 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Ismael Quintanilla III)

“Out of darkness there’s light, out of death there’s rebirth,” he states. “It’s an unfortunate story, but I’m at peace with it. Basically eight years ago, I found one of my best friends dead in the bathtub. He had taken his own life, and it was a really sad time and everybody was trying to come together to cope and to be there for each other.

“And one of the things that happened was that I started playing with these two drummers for a performance for my friend Mark, who had passed. I wanted it to be really special and because Matt and Jef always had this dream to play in a band with two drummers. Then all of a sudden it just became the thing.

“Then it kept growing more, like, ‘We’ll have the drummers, but we’ll have the dancers, too,’ and then it really felt like ‘This is what it should be’. It had evolved and solidified in this weird kind of space, but it just felt right.”

By this point, it felt as though Treasure MammaL had hit its stride. With a solidified lineup and a stable presence within the local music scene, the group’s profile continued to expand, with live performances continuing to confuse, befuddle, and – above all – mesmerise the crowds that would come to witness the band’s shows. With the usage of props including exercise bikes and inflatables on stage, Gil admits that he loves to see audiences completely mystified by what it is they do.

“When I hear things like that, I get really excited,” he admits. “Like, when people walk in and ask what the hell is going on, I love that. As an artist, when people look at a painting or a picture and they ask questions, then you’ve done your job.”

“As an artist, when people look at a painting or a picture and they ask questions, then you’ve done your job.”

Though it can be hard exactly to gauge what it is that serves as the general appeal of Treasure MammaL, Gil assumes that the larger, communal nature of the band lends itself to greater participation from the crowd, and therefore a more enjoyable time.

“I guess it’s easier to have two drummers and two dancers while you’re performing,” he muses. “It’s easier to make a welcoming environment with more people than it is with just one person.

“I’ve started many dance parties and weird happenings on my own and that’s real fun, but I feel like when you have two drummers and two dancers and maybe even more of each, it’s like a tractor beam. You’re pulling the audience in, and when there’s more people, people feel more comfortable. They’re like, ‘Okay, well these people are having fun, so maybe I should have fun, too.'”

For many fans of the band, it’s a sad fact that Treasure MammaL’s appeal has been limited almost exclusively to Arizona and surrounding US states. It’s entirely likely that the closest that most music fans had previously got to the band was when the group had appeared on The Flaming Lips’ 2014 With a Little Help from My Fwends Beatles cover album, serving as a featured artist alongside Zorch and Grace Potter on “Good Morning Good Morning”.

With a sound that is as unique and immersive as many other mainstream outsider artists, and with a live show that’s more unifying than a local band’s mosh pit, it seems to go against logic that Treasure MammaL’s name isn’t more known to fans the world over. However, as Gil explains, this could be a blessing in disguise, with larger crowds and greater fame holding the potential to ruin the intimacy of the experience the group provides.

“When I did my teacher’s training in the mid ’00s I was travelling a lot,” he recalls. “I did my training in Houston, Texas, so I think my goal at that time was just to totally take over Texas. I’d play every small podunk town on the map, and eventually it’s like when all those people leave the small town and they’re kind of a weirdo, they end up in Austin. So playing in Austin has been like a second home.

“But one of my goals is to tour in Europe and just do some more touring in the United States,” he admits. “I do wish the band had a greater reach, and honestly I think it will just over time.”

Image of Treasure Mammal performing live

A typically-unifying Treasure MammaL performance taking place at Austin, Texas’ North Door in July of 2016. (Photo courtesy of Ismael Quintanilla III)

While it remains to be seen when Treasure MammaL might tour Europe, it would seem as though the chances of an Australian tour would be even further away. Notably, Treasure MammaL did perform with Newcastle’s The Gooch Palms in Phoenix in 2019, though any chances of the Aussie outfit reciprocating the live show experience was halted when The Gooch Palms announced their split early last year.

However, Gil looks back to the final show that Treasure MammaL played before the advent of COVID-19 as an indicator of positive happenings down the line. Performing at The Crescent Ballroom on March 10th of 2020, the show was in support of fellow enigmatist Dan Deacon, who would frequently draw comparisons to Gil, and vice versa.

“It was an incredible show,” Gil notes. “My daughter was there and she’s 12, well she was 12 at that time, and it just happened that she danced with us. And that really blew my mind in a lot of different ways.

“First of all, it felt really good to be open enough to let that happen, and to share that was just a really big deal for me. Because I did think that would happen at some point but I didn’t know when. But now that door has opened with us I would feel really good about touring together. And that would’ve been a reason why I couldn’t tour. Like, ‘I can’t take the kiddo out on tour,” but it’s a little different now.

“But I think it would be awesome to have a larger audience, and it could take away from the intimacy of the performance, but I think it would be fun and challenging to somehow create an intimate show with a larger group of people. That is the question I have been asking myself.”

It was in the middle of 2020 that Treasure MammaL announced the release of their newest album, the somewhat loftily-named Grammy Nominated. Arriving five years on from their last effort (I Will Cut You With My EBT Card), the record had been in the works for a number of years, and served as something of a long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel for Gil, who had spent the majority of 2020 fixing up dilapidated houses in the small Arizonan city of Globe-Miami.

“Basically I bought a house for $1,000 in Miami, Arizona and all I did was go to that house when I wasn’t hanging out with my daughter, and I’d just work on the house,” he explains, “and now I have a family of six that’s living in there right now.

“There’s probably less than 2,000 people that live there, and I got the house at a county auction. I flipped a synthesiser on OfferUp and I made $1,000 off it, and then I bought the house for a $1,000.”

However, while the impact of the pandemic was, in Gil’s own words, “fucking terrible”, it was effectively just another obstacle in a far-too prolonged period that led up to the record’s release. While some of the songs from the record had been ready since 2016, he admits that a different version of the album likely could’ve been released back in 2018. However, much of the reason for its delay centred around numerous issues outside of Gil’s control, in addition to his nascent focus on fixing dilapidated houses.

“I went through a career change of being a teacher to something that I didn’t really know anything about at the time,” he explains. “So there was that, there was money that was involved and then personnel changes were an issue, too. It was weird, because it was like every turn that we took to make the record, there was a snag.

“We got the records pressed in the Czech Republic through Related Records and then there was some type of weird mix-up or miscommunication with them and it took like six months longer with them.”

“I’m not going to give up on this no matter what because I know at least some of these songs will help people get through the day, [make them] smile or something, and I think it’s going to change people in a better direction, given the opportunity.”

In a post made to Instagram upon the eventual release of Grammy Nominated in November, Gil elaborated on some of the delays in the process leading up its arrival, noting that in addition to moments that saw him wanting “to give up or quit”, the album itself features themes of the resilience he showed, in addition to accepting oneself for who they are.

“It was hard because especially for the last run of delays for the record, I felt like I got burned out on promoting it,” he explains. “But then also at the same time, I feel like some of the band members weren’t interested in promoting it which made things difficult. But also it felt kind of weird and selfish to be asking people to be doing things for the band in mid pandemic when everyone was struggling.

“I mean, I understand that the project ultimately lands on my shoulders, but the way I tried to view it was that, ‘I’m not going to give up on this no matter what because I know at least some of these songs will help people get through the day, [make them] smile or something, and I think it’s going to change people in a better direction, given the opportunity.’

Ultimately, Grammy Nominated sees Treasure MammaL showcasing a sense of evolution once again, with Gil looking to expand the sound of the project once again and make something that’s not as expected as previous efforts.

“Emotionally speaking, I didn’t want to put out another album where everything is happy,” he reveals. “Even though it did make me feel uncomfortable to be sharing more of an emotional side, I think it’s better. Whenever you’re doing things that make you feel less comfortable with creativity or with just learning in general, it’s always good for you.

“But it is weird when a lot of people, the way that they’re familiar with your art is in a party atmosphere, and that’s what’s expected of you. So it feels interesting to be creating and writing lyrics that are a little bit more sad than usual. But it’s interesting though because once you make a dancey song, or have a danceable rhythm, people just kind of forget that what you’re saying might not be fun or happy – it might be self-reflective or something.”

“Emotionally speaking, I didn’t want to put out another album where everything is happy.”

While the record does show some more uncomfortable themes, so too does it explore notions which are close to the hearts of some people. On such example comes by way of “Online Dating”, a track which had been recorded back in 2016 and serves as something of a spiritual successor to previous song “Missed Connections”.

Much like the classic “No Aphrodisiac” by Australian icons The Whitlams, “Missed Connections” was created by way of lines taken from actual missed connections ads (in addition to being recorded the day after a hefty experience with cannabis edibles), with the connection to the later “Online Dating” coming by way of the shared theme of searching for someone.

“Doing that whole project was really amazing, because some of [the lyrics] were taken from online dating profiles, and some of them were just real, and some of them were just a mixture of things,” Gil explains. “Like, the whole emotional spectrum of all the versions of that song were just really amazing.

“But it also kind of goes back to people feeling lonely and reaching out for love or companionship or whatever. Whether the people on dating apps are trying to hide something or not, I realised quickly that what people have to share can be really beautiful or sad, eye-opening and ridiculous.”

Undoubtedly though, one of the most intriguing songs on the record comes by way of “Brahstralia”, which in addition to name-checking the likes of Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, and Steve Irwin, also features a prominent sample of Men At Work’s “Down Under”, didgeridoo, and even utilises a quote from Crocodile Dundee as its main hook. It might not seem possible, but the previous sentence doesn’t even come close to summing up the content of the track and how it not only showcases the majestic brilliance of Treasure MammaL but the musical experimentation that the project encompasses.

“My buddy Ben Braman, who does a project called Amethyst Seer, he was doing a lot of chopped and screwed remixes with a vaporwave kind of feel,” Gil recalls. “We had collaborated a lot on this record, and he had made the beat for ‘Gem Show”‘ and another one of his band members – there’s another band called Glob that Ben is in – and one of the members, Matt Bridges, helped me record ‘Selfie Stick’ as well.

“Anyway, it just happened, and we were just hanging at his place, fooling around with synthesisers and stuff, and he just had it there, and it just felt like the magic that I needed to be a part of. I don’t know, everything sort of lined up.”

Interestingly, “Brahstralia” also features something of a musical point of pride for Gil who, as a self-described “instrument hustler”, managed to utilise a Mellotron Mk VI that he stumbled upon for the end of the song.

As he explains, he happened to find what is effectively an “archaic sampler” while at an estate sale which had advertised a number of Yamaha keyboards, but neglected to mention the mellotron. Attending the sale with Owen Evans of ROAR and AJJ, the pair discovered that the instruments had belonged to “a big alien enthusiast” who played music in an attempt to contact with extraterrestrial life.

Clearly on the cusp of a rare opportunity, Evan was forced to hide his visible excitement as Gil traded a synth of his own along with $1,000 to obtain the vintage instrument ,which now takes pride of place at the end of “Brahstralia”.

With Grammy Nominated officially being released six months ago, the question of what’s next for Treasure MammaL is one that doesn’t particularly have an answer. While recent months have seen Gil utilise the recurring Bandcamp Fridays to release a pair of compilations featuring rarities and unreleased material, this year also sees Treasure MammaL offering up a cover of John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” for an upcoming tribute album.

Elsewhere, Gil says he’s been able to use the events of 2020 to spend more time with his daughter, and focus on a new album. In true fashion, his creativity has began to emerge out of a period of evolution, with a newfound focus on the bass guitar lending itself to the creation of new music.

“Usually when I write, I’ll write the whole song on one instrument and then I’ll start breaking it down and putting it into a bunch of different instruments at different points in time. Which just takes too long sometimes,” he explains. “But with the bass, it’s really good because I can just write the whole song in one sitting and there’s nothing else there.

“I’m going to make a posi-doom concept album. So I’m really excited about that, exploring that. I’ve already written like three songs for it.”

“I’ve thinking about it for about the last week, because all the bass songs I’ve been writing have been very doom-y sounding, so it’s something I’m very excited about – I’m going to make a posi-doom concept album. So I’m really excited about that, exploring that. I’ve already written like three songs for it.

“I’m also just excited to play something. It’s fun in Treasure MammaL to just sing and do the songs and do the dances, but I’ve also just fallen back in love with actually playing.”

It remains to be seen what the immediate future holds for Treasure MammaL, but whatever it is, you can expect it will be as unexpected as ever. And you know what? We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Treasure MammaL’s Grammy Nominated is out now, with physical copies available via Related Records.