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Los Bitchos’ Serra Petale: “Eddie Van Halen could make me feel just by playing the guitar. That's what we go for”

Serra Petale
(Image credit: Tom Mitchell)

As soon as Serra Petale, guitarist of Cumbia quartet Los Bitchos, dials into our call, it’s clear that gear is going to be fertile territory, with five guitars hanging from her living room wall alone. 

The band is fresh from a string of shows including a very sweaty stop-off in Margate, UK, where Petale admits they even pulled off a photoshoot in the Mezcal joint opposite. 

It’s that spirited nature that sums up Los Bitchos, a captivating four-piece hellbent on taking us down a cosmic rabbit hole of Peruvian disco meets ‘80s hair metal melodies with a bonus Greek bouzouki thrown in for good measure, all with the same wild abandon as you and your pals knocking back the cheap stuff at the bar. 

And, funnily enough, that’s exactly where Los Bitchos ended up bumping into Franz Ferdinand founder, Alex Kapranos. 

The frontman is behind the recording of the group’s debut album, Let the Festivities Begin! Concocted together at Gallery Studios (the same spot owned by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera), the album attests to the band’s gift for a bun-tight groove and penchant for percussion. Timbales, bongos and constant cowbells all make a righteous appearance in the mix. 

Ahead of their debut record release next month, Petale shares that retro rig, her longstanding love affair with the chorus pedal and why it’s so important to see the band performing live (with or without the Mezcal).

Despite growing up on a diet of violin strings encouraged by your mom, you didn’t pick up the guitar properly before Los Bitchos. How have you developed as a player since forming the band?

“Until Los Bitchos, I never saw myself as a guitarist, [so it’s] always been my aim to feel more comfortable playing lead. When I first started, I was really a rhythm guitar player at best. I had a lot to learn in a very short space of time. 

“One minute, we could barely play our instruments, and the next minute we've got a gig! As the years go by, you really want to make sure your performance is flawless, but I'm always dying to learn more things. 

“I actually had some lessons with David, who's one of our touring guitarists, recently. There's nothing more refreshing than having someone better than me teaching me tricks or getting me to think about things a little bit differently.”

Eddie Van Halen's ‘80s guitar tone is what I like, so when we started the project, I bought a chorus pedal and a secondhand distortion pedal for the ‘80s hair-metal screeching

You’ve said previously your intention was to sound like Van Halen and Cocteau Twins – but from Turkey. How did all the elements of Los Bitchos come together with such a breadth of nationalities in the group?

“The catalyst for forming the project was through listening to a fantastic Peruvian/Cumbia compilation called The Roots of Chicha. Because of Agustina Ruiz (keytar), we've got fantastic Columbia/Uruguayan roots. 

“My mother is from Turkey, so I have a lot of Turkish influence in terms of scales and melodies. Everything you hear in the track is just a rendition of things that we like, sounds that we love and rhythms that have inspired us. 

“Unfortunately, I'm not Eddie Van Halen – may he rest in peace – but his guitar sound and style of playing are forever one of my influences. I've always tried to emulate him, even though I can’t go that fast. It was the fact that he could make me feel just by the guitar, that's what we go for. 

“I just want to make people feel. His ‘80s guitar tone is what I like, so when we started the project, I bought a chorus pedal and a secondhand distortion pedal for the ‘80s hair-metal screeching.”

Los Bitchos

(Image credit: Tom Mitchell)

What are some of your essential pieces of gear that you use to produce and create that signature Los Bitchos sound?

“Number one is our stock standard Electro-Harmonix Neo Clone chorus pedal. There's something about that sound – I don't know what it is. It just gets me. Then obviously, you want distortion to really amp it up.”

For those raging solo sections?

“Exactly, so it can just be me, me, me. [laughs] I've got a Boss OS-2, a Big Muff and a Mooer Pure Octave pedal. I love that pedal because it can go all sorts of ways and you get these really mad sounds. I actually used one of the weird settings to supplement the sound of a bouzouki because, on our track FFS, there's a bouzouki part at the very start of the song.”

Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos was at the bar we were at. We were like, 'Shall we just ask him to help produce some songs?' The worst he could say is 'Fuck off. I hate you'

Speaking of recording, you headed into Gallery Studios with Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos on production duties. How did your paths cross?

“We met Alex at The Shacklewell Arms [in London]  when we were supporting our friends, BODEGA. Someone pointed out, ‘That guy over there, that's Alex Kapranos!’ and we saw he’d put up a video of us saying, ‘This band is really great.’

“The conversations in the weeks afterward were like, ‘We need someone to come on board and produce some music.’ Everything beforehand had been me playing demos on Ableton. I'd do loop samples. I'd play the bass. I played everything, so we wanted to get the energy of the group. We were like, ‘Shall we just ask him?’ The worst he could say is ‘Fuck off. I hate you.’

“Our manager, Keith, somehow contacted him and then before we knew it, we were in our manager's house talking to Alex about doing some songs. We did our first two singles and then we kicked on with the rest of the album! I loved how into a specific setting or a specific sound he got. 

“I learned so much about pickups, even. What does it sound like on the bridge pickup? What's the neck pickup doing? What does it sound like with both? I'd always just leave it in the middle and be like, ‘I don't know, I'll have both pickups going, whatever.’”

You play an Eastwood Ichiban K2L. I also spotted you performing on an Italia. How does that sit alongside the Eastwood and other guitars in terms of sound?

“The Lâg, that’s actually my first guitar that my Mum bought for me. Up until that point I'd been playing on my brother's Les Paul, which is so... you know, I was a small girl. It's not meant for little girls. They did not have that in mind! 

“It’s one of the easiest guitars to play. The fretboard is quite thin so you can just glide up and down. It's got an '80s funk guitar sound. You can hear that most evidently on Las Panteras.

“I've got a Fender Blacktop Stratocaster [with a] humbucker pickup [that has] a really powerful, warm sound. I've used it a bit touring over the summer, which was nice. The action is a little bit higher than my other guitars though, so I mostly use that for recording and then I've got my number one baby girl over there, my Italia guitar which I picked up in Nottingham five years ago when I was touring with my old band, Kid Wave. 

I think it's important for people to see us live. It's a different kettle of fish to what you hear on the album, but in a good way

“The thing that I love about it is that it's so simple. It's just got neck pickup, bridge pickup, middle pickups, and then one tone knob and volume knob.”

You’re performing in spring next year supporting fellow sonic voyagers La Luz and Spanish trio Melenas. Are you excited to get back out on the road again when people finally have their hands on the record?

“We're doing our UK tour in February which we're so excited about. In March, we're doing South by Southwest [festival in Austin, Texas] and then the huge European tour comes in April/May. 

“I think it's important for people to see us live. It's a different kettle of fish to what you hear on the album, but in a good way – the interactions with us on stage, people have really, really responded to because it feels like a bunch of mates having a laugh. That's exactly what it is!”

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Cheri Amour is a writer, editor and broadcaster intent on amplifying the voices of women and non-binary artists in print, online and on air. During her twenties, she played lead guitar in a touring two-piece, sharing the stage with The Slits and John Peel-approved punks The Nightingales. Formerly Deputy Editor at TGA Magazine, Cheri headed up its Tech section pouring over pedals with everyone to indie icon Debbie Smith (Echobelly/Curve) to multi-instrumentalist Katie Harkin (Sleater Kinney/Waxahatchee/Wye Oak). She's currently working on an upcoming 33 1/3 book on the unassuming influence of South Bronx sister troupe ESG, out in Spring 2023.