"It was heartbreaking, the toughest thing I ever had to do," Díaz said this week on the eve of launching her solo career. "The reason is really simple; it's just like what happens with any other band. I just wanted to start doing something new. I wanted to see what else is out there for me, how much more I could grow and challenge myself."
Her reemergence shows that breaking up may be hard to to do, but it can lead to unexpected and fruitful places.
Díaz will be testing her limits all this month in a series of weekly showcases leading up to a Nov. 1 concert at the Echo celebrating the release of her first self-titled solo album, which she'll be pitching for distribution. That show will be followed by a Day of the Dead procession through the Echo Park-Silver Lake area, where she lives and works, leading fans from the club to an unusual Sunset Boulevard location that has served as an artistic incubator for her new work.
It's called Quiksilver SiteLA, a corner storefront operated by the Huntington Beach-based fashion firm as an alternative way to introduce its new women's collection. But there's no clothing or surf gear anywhere in sight. Instead, the company turned the 1,800-square-foot space into a combined studio, gallery and performance site to be used by Díaz and five other women -- an architect, a car designer, a visual/performance artist, an activist and a fashion writer -- chosen as "visionaries in residence" for a year.
The "underground" marketing is meant to create a grass-roots groundswell around a brand identified with cutting-edge creativity. Come to think of it, that's pretty much how Los Abandoned created its own identity.
The band, self-described as a cross between Blondie and Café Tacuba, was started in 2002 by Díaz, a native of Chile, along with L.A. guitarist David Green. They attracted almost instant attention with their kinetic, bilingual mash-up of punk, pop and new wave, with quirky songs such as "Stalk U" and "Van Nuys (es Very Nice)." The band went far beyond its Latin alternative base, winning critical acclaim in English-language media, touring internationally, signing with Neil Young's Vapor Records and appearing on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
They appeared to be at the top of their game when news came that they had split. "We were as surprised as everyone else," said Bonnie Levetin, Vapor's general manager. "We had high hopes for the band. If they had continued, I think they would have had much success." Green, who now plays with singer , another up-and-comer on the alt-Latino scene, said Los Abandoned hit a creative wall when it came time to do a follow-up to its successful "Mix Tape" CD.
"When it was happening, it was really natural, and that's why it was so enjoyable," said Green, who co-wrote many of the songs. "Unfortunately, as much as I hate to admit it, I don't know if we had another one in us. . . . It became very clear that we weren't going to like each other if we kept trying to force it."
Díaz said she no longer sees her old bandmates much, except for bassist , who recently resurfaced as part of El Quickie, an experiment in creating an instant band for a short time. Despite the old disputes, the singer said Los Abandoned parted on a positive note. "We all did something really . . . cool and we did it as long as we could," she said. "It was great."
When I interviewed Díaz last year before the breakup, she seemed anxious about the future. She was still broke after achieving so many goals, wondering about the meaning of success. She confided in her father about her concerns, and he suggested that maybe she should take a cue from Los Lobos, a respected band that had its biggest commercial success with "La Bamba." Maybe Los Abandoned should go commercial and give people what they expect of a Latin band.
"I think I was clueless . . . no, scratch that," she now says. "I feel like I know myself so much more now than I did before. I know my limits. It's like finding yourself and knowing how much you can do and being OK with that. The most important thing is staying in tune, staying in balance."
Díaz seemed much more relaxed and self-assured when I caught up with her this week just before dress rehearsal at SiteLA. The residency has obviously allowed her to decompress and re-focus. Quiksilver offered no stipend but provided the space and other support for participants to complete their proposed projects.
For Díaz, a graduate of Cal Arts, it was like going back to school. She could work in a nurturing environment without the pressures of CD sales, tour dates and promotions. Quiksilver gave participants clothing and project resources, with no strings attached. Her solo work started last year when a neighbor approached her with written lyrics and music left behind on a faded page of sheet music by his late father, Eduardo Maytorena, an accordion player. It was Maytorena's only composition, and his son, Eduardo III, wondered if Díaz could finish it.
The result is "Perdido" (Lost), a mournful song she describes as "almost a dirge" that nevertheless expresses "a sense of hope to pull you out of that abyss." Working on the song helped her reconnect with her musical roots.
"It was really great because I hadn't worked with written music in a long time," she recalled. "So it was like tapping back into all the things I had learned. It was going back to being a musician and not being so worried about being the front person of a rock band."
Díaz also reconnected with artists from her college days, many of them musicians who share her interest in the visual arts. Her shows will feature strong visual elements, including an altar created for the Day of the Dead concert.
Her new music is less rockish and frenetic. It's more subtle, textured and intimate. Plus, she sings primarily in Spanish, incorporating echoes of Andean music in her soulful, melodic work. But it still has an edge, as she's quick to point out. She's escaped the constraints of the rock-band format and gets a little giddy with the idea of adding trumpets or strings or whatever suits her songs, or her whimsy.
One instrument remains a mainstay: her trusty ukulele. She brought it to her interview for the residency before a panel of women, saying, "I'm just going to play a song for you guys." When they asked what she proposed to do, her answer was as simple as strumming the little guitar: "What I've been doing all my life, which is a mix of styles and languages."
Pilar Díaz performs 8 p.m. Thursday and Oct. 23at Quiksilver's SiteLA, 2522 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. Free. www.sitela.org.