By Calli Ferguson | May 19, 2022
Seeing City of The Sun live makes you question what you thought you knew about the acoustic guitar and drums. The sounds these musicians get their instruments to make is nothing short of enchanting. And that enchantment is probably how the group turned heads in NYC Subways when they were starting out. One could imagine their instrumental sounds can transform the most mundane of spaces into another world. A world of influences from around the globe, bright hues, and celebration. Maybe if there was a city on the sun it would feel like this. It’s a city that goes wherever their music does, and one that took over the Sultan Room’s beautiful, intimate Bushwick venue every Thursday of this past May.
The spell they cast over their audience was immediately evident. But maybe our favorite part happened in the middle of the show, when we had this moment (a very sweet one, turns out) of “technical difficulties.” Perhaps a broken string? how does he not break every string, every song? Maybe that gives you an idea of how these instruments are played… (if their art was drawing, they would have what we call a “heavy hand”) and it makes the fiery energy of the music all the more visceral. Quickly, we got some words from the drummer, Zach Para, some cheeky smiles from everyone on stage, and then, this beautiful little improv. “I think I’m just gonna jam,” Zach quips.
Two of them do– “just jam,” creating this beautiful little riff for our indulging ears. It’s what we crave in this sort of music: a jam. The whole show even up to that point had this jazz-like philosophy where sounds, instruments, and musicians were building off each other, telling a story that is at once intuitive and unexpected.
Historically, that improv-driven quality when applied to these instruments is known as “Gypsy Jazz” (which… maybe we should rename?). The genre is believed to have originated in Paris– famously around Parisian flea markets– and it has these lovely global influences grounded in the sounds of the strings. Inspirations aside, the band themselves describe their work as “cinematic dance music,” or music with a dance element that is also “very visual.” Watching these musicians play off one another, the dancing of their audience, and the vibrations bouncing through the walls of the Sultan Room had to be the highlight of this performance all along. Whether you want to call it jazz, jams, or “cinematic dance music,” it is unique to feel a part of it, just by listening.
If you’re new to the group and thinking about throwing their name into your Spotify search bar when you finish reading this, here’s what we would tell you: City of The Sun makes the kind of music you can drive on open roads to, question the meaning of life to, star-gaze to, or dare we say fall in love to. It’s a “romanticize my life” button.
But don’t forget: the essence of this band is their live performance. After all, they describe their music as “very visual,” and you have to be their live in order to understand the full picture. Frontman John Pita put it best himself: “when you see it live, it’s a whole different experience. ” The spiritual adventure you get from seeing this music in person feels so natural, so uncontrived, that you have to imagine it was a spiritual experience to create it too. So go ahead, get a ticket to their next show, and take a trip to the City of The Sun. You’ll be the victim of their spell, and you probably won’t regret it.
We sat down with John and Zach after soundcheck where they answered a few questions for the groovement:
What was the first concert you attended?
John: In Ecuador, where I’m from, there were a lot of backyard punk rock shows. I was like 14, but I fell in love with it. I had never seen someone play an electric guitar. That was in 2002, and I came to the states in 2003.
Zach: I grew up in Seattle and there was a very strong music community. I was around the jazz community a lot, and at the high school, I would always go to the football games with my mom since my brother was in the marching band. And it was like “Oh, I wanna be in that someday!” I remember liking the drum section. The first venue concert was probably some hip-hop concert in Seattle though. I was going to this festival called Folklife in Seattle since I was like 14 or 15, and it was a huge festival. I saw Wu-Tang Clan headlining, and I saw some other big hip-hop names and that was when I was 14. It was definitely memorable to see thousands of people for the Wu-Tang Clan.
So when did you get to New York?
Z: I went to school in Boston for four years to study music, and I arrived in New York in summer 2012, then met John in July of 2013.
How did you guys meet?
We had a mutual friend, who I met at Arlene’s Grocery playing this jam session called “The Lesson.” I knew their drummer Lenny and he would have me sit in, and a friend saw me playing and told me he knew of this band and asked me if I wanted to listen to their music. I was leaving town at the time, going back to Seattle. So I listened to the music, and John and I actually talked for a month before meeting in July of that year. We went to my practice space, and the A/C was actually broken at the time and it was really disgusting and miserable in there. He was like “Why don’t we go to Bedford Ave, Soho.” I wasn’t expecting to busk with them.
Awesome story! When did you first pick up your instruments?
J: I actually picked it up sort of late compared to others. I’m 32, so I guess it was a long time ago, but late compared to my friends. Everyone picks up guitar at 14, 12. But I picked it up when I was 17 because I was really into classic rock. I love Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and all that stuff. So I started hanging out with this one friend in the Summer of ’07, and he was just playing music everyday with a guitar, and I loved it. Eventually my mom got me a guitar, and I finally decided I would give it a try. But it was all self-taught.
Did you know right away that you wanted to be a guitarist?
J: I think a year in I was watching a lot of documentaries from Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Paige, and I decided I wanted to be like that. In my head, I created this dream, you know, when you’re young you believe those things.
But now it’s real! So cool. What about you, Zach, when did you first start playing the drums?
Z: Like I said there was a strong music community in Seattle, and my mom had a lot of friends who were involved in different musical happenings around Seattle. I started in fifth grade in an after school music program, and chose the snare drum. I knew that there was a middle school and high school jazz program that traveled the world playing, so that became my goal. When I got to middle school there was the whole drum set in the jazz band, so I asked my dad if I could get a drum set. He said “Well I’m not going to get you a full drum set. But I’ll get you two drums. If you show me that you’re good enough at that, we will add more drums.” So he made me earn it. I had to practice. So quickly after starting I was practicing like four or five hours a day thinking to myself “I have to get these drums!” Eventually, I got into the jazz band.
Later, my mom talked to a friend whose husband ran a community jazz ensemble, who eventually called my mom and said that I could have a weekly gig every sunday, and that I would get free barbecue as my payment. I had only been playing like four or five weeks at that point, I didn’t know shit. I told my mom I couldn’t play a weekly gig, but she said that they were counting on me and that I had to do it. So I was pushed into it. So I started doing that every week, and I ate a lot of barbecue. I was 13 at the time.
What is the instrument you put on your ankle during your performance?
Z: These are goo goo bells that Indian classical dancers would wear. You would have the tabla, the sithar, then the dancers who would wear those bells around their ankles. So that’s like my hi-hat. When I’m trying to adapt the drumset to the cajon, that’s what I use to create a hi-hat sound.
How would you guys describe your music either by genre or general vibe?
J: I would call it an experience. It has many different layers, not musical layers, but just places we go with the music. Obviously people that like acoustic, stripped down music like it, but there is also a rock ‘n’ roll edge to it. So cinematic dance music is what I would call it. There’s a dance element, but it’s also very visual. There’s a lot of imagery that comes to people’s heads when they listen.
Z: Essentially what he said plugs world music sensibilities. Most of the time when people ask me I’m just like, “just go listen to it.” You gotta be there!
J: Listening to it is not enough. It is chill when listening to it, but when you see it live, it’s a whole different experience.
Totally agree, and we have felt that distinction between listening on headphones and seeing you guys live. Who or what do you draw inspiration from?
J: All my life I’ve listened to classical piano. I love the way it makes me feel. A lot of our early songs, if you listen, there are a lot of elements where it could be piano, but it’s actually guitar, with the way I’m adding the bass and the melody at the same time. I love that, and also the past couple of years, I got really into dance music. Like I love going to clubs and listening to DJs. So those are my two inspirations.
We can totally hear both in your music! What about you Zach?“
Z: I spent a lot of time studying a lot of rhythms from around the world. So that’s definitely part of the world music vibe. I was kind of thrown into this situation to play the cajon, cause I didn’t really play the cajon, I came from a drum set background. I was taking all the beats I knew from the drum set and trying to play them on this cajon. Sometimes my hip-hop roots come out, a lot of the world music stuff too, but also playing with the band early on, they have put me on to a ton of EDM music too. So I have been trying to make this trance rhythm to bag all these things up. I’m trying to emulate a lot of the electronic sound with amps and stuff.
Who do you hope to inspire?
J: We hope to make people feel the way I feel when I listen to certain music. Certain music I listen to, specifically cinematic music, makes me feel a certain feeling in my stomach. I love that.
Z: Everybody. Inspire everyone.
What’s your dream venue to perform at?
J: Red Rocks.
Z: I’d like to do an experiential set in the middle of the desert for like 500 people. Just an experience where you are isolated out there with the music and people.
And you both have been living in New York for a good amount of time. What is your ideal night out in NYC?
J: That also has changed. For the past six months, it has definitely been seeing a DJ, which I enjoy a lot.
Z: Probably seeing a really good band. Not a big concert setting, but more of a jazz club or a similar vibe. And a cool after hours hang after that, too. I like going to see DJs, but I definitely love to see live music and feel something that is improvised where everyone has a heightened sense of music together in the moment.
📸: shot by Miles Kirsch