Si*Se’s small output yields big following

Boston Globe, July 29, 2011

It feels like less is more for Si*Se.

Ten years ago, the New York band broke out with a self-titled disc of downtempo grooves with lyrics in English and Spanish, foregrounding lead singer Carol C. and the production work of cofounder Cliff Cristofaro. It offered an artsy, bilingual sound at a time before the combination of Latin rhythms and loops became a recognized international trend. The record appeared on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and earned Si*Se the chance to tour worldwide with the former Talking Heads maven.

That was 2001. Since then, Si*Se has put out exactly one album – “More Shine,” in 2005, on the obscure Fuerte Records label – and one EP, last year’s “Gold,” which the band released independently. Yet despite the slender output, Si*Se enjoys something of a cult following. Its Facebook page and online reviews brim with declarations of love from fresh fans smacking themselves on the head for only just now discovering the band.

Putting out “Gold,” and working on a long-rumored new full-length album, has moved Si*Se to hit the road and perform a few gigs outside New York.

They visit the Middle East in Cambridge tomorrow. It’s a chance to not only just catch up with their new supporters but also to give their songs – which are far from canned synthesizer electronica, but textured, full-band pieces that even feature a violin – the stage workout they deserve.

The principal reason for the gaps between records was that their label deals fell apart under the pressure of industry changes, says Carol C. on the phone from her home in Brooklyn. But she says the band has no regrets about its business strategy.

“Not at all. I feel like we were extremely fortunate,” she says. “David Byrne, being an artist, was always very understanding of our side of things. We loved having him as a mentor.” Both label deals, she says, were with supportive partners. “But we had to move on. It feels really great to be independent now. We have control over when our music can be released, which was an issue in the past.”

“Gold” finds Si*Se exploring much the same soundscape as in previous records. The sound is still chilled-out, lush, atmospheric, and Carol C., who is Dominican-American and grew up in the ultra-Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, still flows with equal grace in both languages.

Connoisseurs may notice a subtle evolution. A bit more of a pop feel to some pieces. More assertive guitar work. There’s a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” At the same time, the band’s iconography asserts what is unchanged. The jacket image on their debut album showed Carol C. and Brooklyn-raised Cristofaro standing on an outdoor, elevated New York subway platform. Now, their video for “The Chain” has the five-member band riding the subway to hit the attractions at Coney Island.

All the band members were born and raised in the city, Carol C. says. “That was the one thing that linked us all; we all spoke that New York City language.” She herself has a classic urban immigrant upbringing, keeping one ear on the salsa and merengue of the community, and the other on Kraftwerk, the Cure, and Depeche Mode.

“It’s not that I rejected Latin music, but I preferred otherwise,” she says. “But as I grew older I started to appreciate the music my parents listened to, and that’s kind of how Si*Se was born. I wanted a percussionist who could play Latin rhythms, but I wanted loops and that whole electronic element because I loved Depeche Mode so much.”

Before forming Si*Se, Carol C. was a DJ in the East Village scene in the 1990s, a craft she still exercises, along with scoring commercials and films, and that experience influences her own music. “I come from a drum and bass background,” she says. When she DJs now, she says, she might spin dubstep, Natacha Atlas, James Blake.

In the years Si*Se has been around, they have become less and less of an oddity. “When Cliff and I started the band and we would do interviews, people were so puzzled by the whole thing,” Carol C. says. “I was like, I don’t know, it’s not weird to me; it’s kind of my music collection all blended together.”

Now, “Latin electronica” is an umbrella term for a slew of overlapping scenes, from electro-cumbia to Brazilian electronica to the lounge-like sounds of Thievery Corporation or the chic Buenos Aires soul of Federico Aubele and more.

No longer an outlier, Si*Se is more an American entrant in this world, one for whom Fleetwood Mac is as fair game for a cover now as Oran “Juice” Jones’s over-the-top ’80s R&B hit, “The Rain,” was on their first album.

“The Latin sound that they represent is the New York sound,” says Ruben Perez, general manager at the Greenwich Village venue (le) poisson rouge, where the band often performs. “It’s that urban sound where you’re listening to hip-hop, house music, disco. That’s what’s always going to set them apart.”

Having been present at the parties for all three Si*Se releases over the years, Perez says he’s feeling a fresh energy in the room, not just the old cult following. “There’s a clear-cut presence of new faces that only know their new material,” he says.

Carol C. credits the new attention to the Internet buzz and social networking that were not available a decade ago. “We’re being featured on blogs, getting lots of traffic, from people who had never heard of us,” she says. “It’s nice, this whole new world, it really is.”