El Shirota performing at the 2019 Freakout Fest.
El Shirota performing at the 2019 Freakout Fest. Photo by Rachel Bennett | Courtesy Freakout Fest

Like every musically-inclined Seattleite, Skyler Locatelli spends a lot of his waking hours with the radio tuned to KEXP 90.3 FM. The Freakout Records co-founder and head honcho of the label's namesake festival, which takes over a half-dozen Ballard venues from Thursday through Sunday, has perhaps more reason than most not to touch that dial: he works at the station as a national sales executive.

But when KEXP's DJ Chilly and Albina Cabrera, hosts of the modern Latin music show El Sonido, conducted a live remote broadcast from Mexico City in February and March 2019 ahead of NRMAL Festival's 10th edition, Locatelli wasn't just punching the clock. Instead, through the magic of radio waves, he found himself with a front-row seat to live performances and interviews with the likes of Little Jesus and No Somos Marineros. Along the way, he discovered a kindred spirit. That epiphany culminates this weekend with a bona fide Mexican Invasion – à la the 1960s British Invasion, that is, not the kind that makes conservative news outlets foam at the mouth – as NRMAL curates nine artists from Mexico, Colombia, and Arizona who will perform at our local stages: AJ Davila, Carrion Kids, Cerrero, Los Esplifs, Los Honey Rockets, Margaritas Podridas, Myuné, Par Ásito, and Petite Amie.

"Their DNA and mission is very similar to what Freakout does," Locatelli said. With a healthy dose of psychedelic rock, shoegaze, synth-heavy dreampop, thrashy punk, and other permutations, NRMAL has established itself over the last decade as Mexico's premier independent rock festival. Freakout, meanwhile, has been quietly reflecting Ballard's blossoming into one of the country's best-kept secrets in live music even as marquee events like SXSW have primarily abandoned their roots in favor of chasing flashy tech and media programming.

The 2021 lineup.
The 2021 lineup.

Locatelli describes Freakout's and NRMAL's shared MO with a deceptively simple formula: "We're bringing like-minded people together over music." And miraculously, Freakout is going to pull that off even in a year that saw Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot continue to sit on the sidelines. (Giving credit where credit is due: CHBP promoters did rally to throw the laid-back Labor Day weekender Day In, Day Out.)

While Mexican bands like El Shirota and Mint Field rocked out at Freakout 2019 – Locatelli's fellow freaks-in-chief at Acid Tongue had also connected with some of these artists on a Mexican tour and El Sonido passed along some quick-hit recommendations from its Mexico City broadcast – this year's nine acts makes for a sizeable block of the festival line-up.

Exporting musical talent across borders this year is no mean feat. "It's been very difficult and required a lot of effort to make this collaboration happen, with months of uncertainties," NRMAL Festival Director Moni Saldaña told The Stranger. U.S. immigration and visa rules have thrown obstacles at independent artists touring on shoestring budgets for years – local denials of entry include Italian band Soviet Soviet in 2017 and an On The Boards dancer in 2019 – and a bumbling federal bureaucracy has foot-dragged reopening our borders for vital cultural exchanges like live music.

With NRMAL itself on hiatus in 2021, curating a shortlist of artists to ship up to Seattle has kept Saldaña's festival juices flowing. "Being able to end the year collaborating with Freakout Festival is super important and gives us motivation to continue nourishing our international community of music lovers," she said. And for those thinking of making the trip to CDMX once NRMAL comes back online, as I did in 2016 and KEXP did in 2019, Saldaña says the Freakout bookings are just a teaser. "We are extremely happy that we have these nine incredible acts from Mexico and Latin America to present in Seattle, but they are just a taste of the diverse programming that we normally have at NRMAL," she said.

For Mexico City-based musician Carlos Medina, U.S. tour dates have been a staple of his music career. He plays bassist in Little Jesus, which recorded a Live on KEXP session in 2019, but his new dreampop side project Petite Amie has had the chance to play just a few live dates in its short lifespan. "Shows are so important. They connect us with our fans," he told The Stranger in Spanish. Switching to English, he added, "It's the whole enchilada."

Freakout Festival kicks off this Thursday. We'll have more top festival picks on the blog this week.