Interview with performing artist Cipriano Ortega

Photo by: Austin Wilson

Welcoming Nick G. as a contributing writer! Nick is a visual artists based in Denver. Follow them on Instagram.


Cipriano Ortega (they/them) is a performing artist based in Denver, Colorado. They are the vocalist and bassist for the band Cipriano, a two piece ensemble that writes minimalist music and blurs the lines between theatrical and musical performances. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with them one rainy day discussing how the band came to be, their identity and personal experiences, how they communicate with others through art, and the complexities of creating art in the era of “safe spaces.” You can follow Cipriano on social media: YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, Twitch. If you would like to contribute to Cipriano’s future projects, consider donating to their Venmo: @Cipriano-Ortega.


MetalNerd: You and Vitaliy [Minyaylo] make up the band Cirpriano. How did you two meet?

Cipriano Ortega: We went to the same high school, Denver School of the Arts, and he was a year older than me but that wasn’t necessarily how we met. We trained in Aikido for many years at the Aikido Nippon Kan and kind of knew each other vicariously through that. Then we always would just nod to each other in the hallways at school because he was a year older and he was too cool to talk to me; you know how that goes [chuckles]. Then we kind of just fell out of touch; I added him on Facebook one day and saw that he was a drummer when I was just starting to go to Regis and just messaged him and said, “Hey do you wanna, you know, jam sometime?” It kind of blossomed from there.

MN: Since then do you two have anything specific that you contribute to the band? Does one of you provide lyrics while the other provides the music or do you share the load?

CO: It all depends, generally speaking it’s me who brings either a concept or a full song to the table and Vitaliy either offers the drums or other instrumentation. He can play piano so he’ll offer piano and since it’s connected to midi it can become any instrument really. I primarily provide the structure and [Vitaliy] adds what he thinks compliments the piece. We then refine or bounce off ideas to make them more poignant. He’s taught me how to do that through the years. Primarily, he works more as the percussionist and instrumentalist/producer and I’m the main lyricist and composer.

MN: Your work aims to start conversations and challenge people’s perceptions of the normative. How do you feel about people drawing their own conclusions from listening to your art in comparison to interpreting what you are actively trying to communicate?

CO: I like films, plays, songs, and just overall artistic concepts that live in ambiguity. I like things that just end. There’s a Shakespearean play, Coriolanus, and in the film adaptation that came out of it a couple years ago the king is just killed. It’s a Shakespearean play put into modern times. The king is killed then thrown in the back of a truck. And the film just ends. Those are the kinds of endings that I enjoy. To answer the question, I like people’s interpretations. I like to keep lyrics vague enough to where people can make up their own mind on [how] they want to fill in the blanks. We kind of want our audience to fill in the blanks in terms of instrumentation too.

MN: I’m going to digress a bit. I read in Westword that you started out in theater as a kid and now you combine performance art with your music. Is it easy to differentiate between them?

CO: I went to Denver School of the Arts and my major was stagecraft, then I [transferred] to visual arts. During the summers I did theatrical productions at the Arvada Center so that was my acting opportunity. Everything was very compartmentalized from a very young age and it wasn’t until I went to college and discovered [that] music and singing involved performance that I realized it combined all the elements that I enjoy the most, which is all of the theatrics as well as the technical stuff behind it. Now that I’ve transferred to the two string slide [bass] and I’m physically playing an instrument, it’s a little bit more nuanced in the way that I deliver things. It’s more about facial expression and vocal execution and body movement. When I’m just the vocalist it’s definitely much more personified because all I have to do is focus on the voice and everything else is taken care of for me. That persona is Mr. Mundane and he’s definitely more of a theatrical performer. How I question that kind of stuff and how I kind of make it different than most is I really try to involve the whole concept of the beat poet or making some of these songs, right on the cusp of, “Is it a poem, or is it a song, and where is it that I live in between those two worlds?”

MN: Your music reminds me of progressive rock, jazz, 1990’s alternative/grunge, and experimental dream pop. How would you describe yourself?

CO: I think the reason why we call the band Cipriano is to kind of live again, in ambiguity, “we can be whatever we want to be.” For us, lyricism is very important. Everything lends itself to the vocals; all the instrumentation and the drumming is in dialog with the vocals. So, in terms of a genre, right now we’re identifying as low-rock. That comes from a term that was invented, I believe, by Mark Sandman of Morphine. The tie-on to that is also Low Rock, high art. We’re attaching the idea that this music is art. So in between the four on the floor, blues tunes, rock tunes/ grunge tunes; Lyrically the songs go much deeper. We come from a metal background, Meshuggah for Vitaliy and for myself TOOL. All of those kinds of bands definitely inform us as well, because we come from a very dark, sonic world. I think that’s why we were both attracted to the instruments that we play, the drums being so bombastic at times, but also because Vitaliy makes everything work. I mean, I can play pretty much what I want, obviously still in time and rhythm. But I know he’s going to be there and he never distracts me from my playing. [And] that’s the best kind of dialogue, because we’ve been working together [for] almost eight years.

MN: I’ve seen a few instances where you describe your work as minimalism. What does that mean to you? Does it change depending on the context since some see minimalism as art and paintings and others see it as a lifestyle or an aesthetic?

CO: Yeah, I think for me, it definitely is all those things. It’s definitely a sonic field but it’s also a way of living like currently, this is my wardrobe. I pretty much wear a white shirt and slacks everyday just to keep that simplistic approach, also as an homage to the beat poets of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Just trying to get into that embodiment of those characters, as writers and artists. But also, coming from [my] health background, I had health challenges for about five years with my voice, and really coming to terms of [my] limitations. I think human beings need limitations. They need some sort of confinement, and hopefully, that’s self chosen. Minimalism, both in performance and in visual arts, and just in everything overall, the simpler the better. I have more liberation. So I can lay down something that’s simple enough that just keeps a pulse and make the melody and lyrical content more distinct. I look at the bass frequency as if I’m building a house. It’s like the foundation itself is the bassline, then the drums are kind of the walls, and the roof is the vocals. If I can see everything that’s laid out, you know, visually, it also sonically, I just feel like I can understand where I sit in that. Does that make sense?

MN: I think it does. Since we’re on this topic of modernism, we’re living in an age of modern art. How does it feel to be someone currently creating in this age and what challenges do you face?

CO: I think the number one thing that really pops up for me, in terms of challenges, is how everything has become kind of politicized. There’s certain boxes and there’s certain roles that music and art are starting to take place. Especially in the political realm of music and art, everything has to have a certain aesthetic for it to be seen as progressive. I definitely am a queer artist and I definitely admire all the parameters that exist and what they’re doing. But just observing the public and what is seen is good, I think [it’s] not necessarily the truth. I think a lot of people nowadays, because of this illusion of open dialogue or safe space, a lot of people are afraid to really offend. With that limitation, I think it becomes very stifling. I want to transcend black and white, gay and straight, left and right. I am just trying to understand human existence and how one expresses themselves in a capitalistic society. I can’t encompass the whole world, but I want to be able to capture my emotions in the society that I’m living in. Me and Vitaliy have always said that we are the thorn in society’s side. We say that because we want to create music and art that reminds people [to] transcend [their] own perspective and really try to objectively look at the truth. The truth is subjective to the times and also to how one perceives them, we are both nihilists. We look at existence as: we are sentient beings that happened to be homosapiens. We want to be able to really objectively analyze who and what we come from, and why we say the things we do. So that means we always have to constantly be questioning [ourselves], especially myself. Questioning my prejudices, my assumptions, my racism, my homophobia. I’m honest enough to say, I [do] have those aspects in me, because I’m raised in a society where those things exist. Just because we say that we’re woke doesn’t mean that they’re abolished. Now with the “block mentality,” or the “muted mentality;” it’s, “I don’t like that so it’s blocked, it’s muted, it’s gone.” I’m definitely guilty of that too, but I want to push the threshold of, “Why is this pissing me off?” So for me, and Vitaliy, I think, we want to grab it and look right at it, whenever we can.

MN: How does your own music taste come through in what you write? Do these influences show up in obvious or obscure ways?

CO: I think it’s a mixture of everything. In terms of what I do with my voice it’s very, very subconscious. It’s the subconscious of my observations of other vocalists. So the keys that I choose to sing in, the melody notes that I pick, are just from years and years of listening to the people that I very much enjoy. Maynard James Keenan for one, Layne Staley, Mark Sandman, William Burroughs. The very obvious instrumentation has dealt with the two string slide bass, which was invented by Mark Sandman. That instrumentation I will never deny that it comes from Mark Sandman. I mean, even on the bass headstock, his last name is there because I want to respect and honor the world that he created. I just want to be a part of it. The second I heard that sonic field of the two string slide bass I knew I needed to play it. I’ve never felt a stronger gravitational pull to an instrument ever in my entire life. I played piano, a little bit of trumpet and trombone, and guitar; but I never was this motivated. Every day I pick it up, it just is becoming more and more a part of me. The frequencies themselves, I think, really lend themselves to the worlds that I like to inhabit. Artists like Leonard Cohen or Mark Sandman, inhabit this very, for lack of better words, depressive state, I think really attracted me. It’s just a great portrait of how I sonically feel pretty much all the time. It isn’t even in a bad way to be like, “Aw, I’m depressed.” Existence has suffering, I think suffering is just part of being alive. But it’s how one uses those things to be able to express themselves.

MN: You draw inspiration from a lot of different subjects including your heritage, personal experience, identity, and current events. How do these shine through?

CO: I think, for me, I want the music to accuse everybody. I want it to be super intimate and implicit because it comes from all of my experiences. I also want to make it vague enough to where people can fill in the blanks and make their own narrative through my lyricism. I want to paint it well enough that people can follow the story but I want to leave it vague enough to where it transcends my existence, because my existence, in my opinion, is insignificant. It doesn’t mean anything and I say that as a form of liberation because it’s true. I mean, it only means something to me what I make of it and the people I surround myself [with]. There’s something again, very freeing with the fact that nothing matters, in a very good way. Going to the lyricism in my indigenous culture, this is just one brown person’s perspective. But my lyrics, I try to transcend the personal to the global. I just went on Omegle and I played “Promise” to this guy from India. He lives in Canada and he works with people of color and indigenous peoples. He, without ever meeting me, picked out and saw exactly what I was trying to say. It was poignant enough to be like, “this is about indigenous people.” But it was vague enough to transcend just one indigenous person’s experience, because it encompassed three: myself, this Indian fellow, and the people that he works with. All these different experiences, I try to culminate into my experience, then transpose that to lyricism and just in the music.

MN: You didn’t set out to be a political artist and some of the topics you touch upon might not even be considered political. How does this type of art fit into a world where we encourage people to stay positive?

CO: The first thing that comes to my mind is capitalism, “How can we market this?” Positivism I think is very much the new thing to market. Back in the 1990’s because of Nirvana and Seattle grunge groups, the apathy that was around, that sound was only blown up because of Nirvana. I mean, there’s definitely other bands too but that apathy was marketed. So it was something that people wanted. They wanted to have the long hair, the torn jeans and sweater because it was a look. So that died off and hyper-pop started to develop in the early 2000s. So more of that was stripped away versus now it’s either what can be seen as positive or what is just vague. “I want to party to get high, I want to have sex. I’m a sexually liberated person and have very sexually explicit lyrics.” That’s the new thing. I try to objectively look at it as a sociologist. So this mindfulness, this positivism, this radicalism, this activism, all these -ism words, or this, this woke perspective, or how the internet has allowed us to express ourselves, it’s all very overwhelming, a lot of it is just bullshit. I don’t think people want to feel anymore. I think people want to live in certain worlds of denial, suppress things, and make everything a good time. For me, there’s something very dangerous about that and I think mental health awareness is coming up more and more, but I’m seeing how certain groups are trying to take that to empower themselves through their disability. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just, people want what they believe to be it. “What I say goes, and everybody else can have their own thing, but I’m right.” For me, it’s like, “We’re all wrong.” We need to figure out why or how we can make it a little bit more functional. It comes down to communication. I’m simply trying to communicate to my audience and I think communication has become harder because of all the different complications that we put on top of it. My music has been like, “What is going on?” How do you feel beyond, “I need to give the politically correct answer otherwise I’m going to be destroyed on social media or destroyed socially.” For me it’s not even trying to be a rebel. It’s more like, “Why can’t we just talk about this? Why can’t we step over the line and try to analyze the other side of this conversation?” I try not to hate people, I just try to either feel compassion, or just analyze. Going back to music, I think, and my art in general, is how I’m trying to figure out how I can coexist in this really crazy dynamic time. People just want to make conclusions really quick. I want to take my time and really look at things objectively.

MN: You told Westword that you didn’t listen to music when you were younger out of a desire to be contrary. How did that journey of discovery begin? Are you still a contrarian in any way?

CO: How I started [getting] into music was [through] film. Fantasia being one, Fantasia 2000 being another. Then going into martial arts and discovering Japanese taiko drumming, very percussive stuff. Then just discovering movie soundtracks and being like, “Oh that sounds cool it’s from this movie.” It was movie soundtracks first and then from that point it was Nirvana. I don’t really remember how Nirvana came to be but then I learned to sing those tunes and was doing all that during college so I wrecked my voice. The contrarian thing really comes from the fact that if everyone is saying “Go do this, buy this, wear this, say this, act like this.” I’m going to be more like, “Why?” I can guarantee you I think if I was a teenager and [in] the right marketing bracket when Nirvana was big I probably wouldn’t have liked [them] because everyone liked Nirvana. It’s contradictory but it’s also something conscious as well too; not wanting to do what everyone else does because I’ve always been raised to not follow. I think I would go as far as to say I was raised more to lead. Not being a leader of men or women or anybody but more so to lead myself. Trying to make my own logical, conscious decisions that are not influenced by, “What will people think of me?” I can’t be 100% honest because I’ll be seen in very negative ways I think, so I need to find ways to better communicate myself and that’s where the lyricism comes from. That contrarian factor is still inside of me. I’d much rather just wear what I wanna wear and say what I wanna say. I don’t want to create art or be in an art world or a music world or a queer world where it’s all superficial. Everyone thinks everything’s great but the second you constructively criticize something you’re either shot down or you’re excommunicated. I’ve always been taught to be honest and it sometimes bit me in the butt, but I don’t think there’s any other way. I just have a few things I gotta say before I die.

MN: How do you think technology has affected the way we make music and the musician’s journey to stardom? Is that something you aspire towards?

CO: I think I’d be denying myself and not being honest if I said that stardom was not an ideal goal. But the realist in me is also saying that I wanna make enough money to where I can support my loved ones and myself; just to be able to produce music to the audience that I need. I think it’s a very complex thing because back in the day you went to a record producer or they found you at a venue you were playing, wrote you a record deal, and you became famous. Now that the technology has been more accessible to the musicians themselves and it’s becoming easier to self-produce, one has to do a lot more footwork in the sense of finding the right audience. So you have to market yourself or just find the brackets where you fit into. For me [it’s] the Nirvana fans. [They] typically buy or like my stuff because it’s an homage to the past and it’s [that] nostalgia that I’m consciously capturing because I come from that background and that’s the music I like and consume. I think it’s all about what one wants from their music. I think some people make music for their friends, which is great. Some people make music because they want to fit into a clique, which is great too. Some people have a long history of connections to the pop music world and they become pretty big. [It’s] not that their work is lesser, none of the brackets I mentioned are lesser or better compared to the other ones. All of them are on equal planes in my eyes; it all comes down to what you want. My ideal for now is just producing the records that I have, marketing those to audiences that I’m building globally, and then setting off and making friends with the people that I know globally to do tours in their towns. Stardom would be great but I think we need to reanalyze what it means to be famous. We worship famous people as if they’re saints so any time they slip up we’re like, “How could they?” Looking at that objectively, I don’t think I’m going to be as big as Lady Gaga or Billie Ellish because I don’t want to be, I just want to make music for the people that enjoy it. I definitely am being conscious of how much I’m playing here locally but I’m thinking internationally at this point, because I’ve been received pretty well all over the world. I’m thinking not just microcosmic but cosmically in the sense [that] I love the Denver art community and music world, but it’s bigger than just this town. I really want to keep pursuing that.

MN: Going off of that, I want to know if you like any performance artists, aside from musicians. Who do you like?

CO: One of them is Joseph Beuys and he’s a performing artist from Germany, who really questioned modern art back in the day, I think it was in the 1960’s. So he’s somebody I’ve really been analyzing pretty extensively. Another one is William Burroughs, just how he transcends into the music world and all the people that he knew, I mean, Kurt Cobain was friends with him. He wrote Naked Lunch and analyzed how he addressed and took on his own queerness. When I first started discovering my own queerness, I turned to him and to the noir, like the detective, jazzy kind of thing. That’s where this all comes into the term “queer noir.” Filmmakers as well, Paul Thomas Anderson is one of them. Musical composers like Bernard Herman, who wrote the Taxi Driver soundtrack, all the Hitchcock films as well. I like David Lynch too. I’m a huge film fan, so I’ve heard people’s comments say that [my music is] very cinematic, or they feel like it’s the soundtrack to their own life. I’m revisiting Hey Arnold! right now, because [it] has a jazzy kind of noir sense. What made it so unique [is] it was even more realistic in the sense that a lot of the episodes didn’t really finish in a positive way. Hey Arnold! was really more about, “You just got to live with it. It’s probably not going to turn out the way you want it to, but you tried your best and that’s all you can do.” There was a note that I wrote about [it], that I wanted to express about “intentional emptiness.” It’s a double meaning like, there’s emptiness because it’s minimalistic, there’s not much instrumentation happening. But it’s also how I feel in this society. It’s also the feeling of [the] melancholic and embracing powerlessness, I think is really what my whole existence is trying to do. Just embrace what I can control but also ultimately realizing that control is an illusion. I’m going to do my best to not cause harm to others or receive harm. But if those things happen, I definitely live in a place mentally where, hopefully I’m prepared enough to deal with it.

MN: You’re also the child of two artists. Which for a lot of people can be a blessing and a curse. How have they influenced your journey?

CO: I think when I first was put into this world, I saw it more as a curse. I don’t think I really saw my blessings and I’m glad I saw them before it was too late. My parents, they’re both extremely supportive. Throughout my 20’s, I was always frustrated, like, “You’re 24 and you’re living at home, you’re 25 and you’re living at home,” etc. Now I’ve reached a point of being like, “I’m 30 and I’m living at home.” It’s great because I’m surrounded by two other creative types. They’re both very driven people. They’re very objective critical thinkers, very strong personality types. They look at my art, I look at theirs and we all constructively criticize and comment on each other’s work. We take each other’s comments and compliments objectively, and it’s been great. I’m living with two people that are pretty much like me because they created me. Does it get frustrating sometimes? Sure. But I think we all have an understanding. Not to mention, we all have our own separate spaces, we all have our own studios. We have a common living place, which is the dining room, the kitchen, and living room. Living with them is a gift and I treasure it every day because there’ll be a time where they won’t be around. I think our generation and America in general, are really ageist and the agism that’s developing is really sad. Once you hit 30 or 40 you’re old and what do you know? I surround myself with my elders and a lot of the people I’m really close with are in their 60’s and 70’s. I turn to them for wisdom and I think a lot of people are lacking that kind of knowledge, because they’re either not wanting nor do they know what questions to ask. In short, it’s now more of a blessing than it ever has [been], because it’s just living with two artists and they happen to be my parents.

MN: You build your own bass guitars! Have you ever considered offering classes or releasing a livestream of your process?

CO: There’s a lot of different factors with that question. I have definitely had a lot of people reach out to me, because this design itself is from a 1970’s Multivox Premier Bass. I’ve spent a whole year researching their construction and their overall aesthetic. I’ve had people reach out to me, and they want me to build them a bass like this, or build them a two string and make them the body. My honest reaction first is that “Yeah, I would love to.” Then the part of me that’s selfish, that looks to the year and a half I spent researching it by myself. I never understood why guitarists were secretive towards their guitar tone but now I can see. I think I’ll guide people and give them a little bit of instruction here and there. Even Mark Sandman, in all the interviews I studied, anytime the guitar tone or the guitar itself was brought up, he kind of always would give kind of an ambiguous answer, like, “Yeah, I found it at a pawn shop and I tried a few different strings and this is what came up.” So I think I kind of want to keep it like that. But I also want to teach a youth group. Just an educational program where I teach younger kids to make three string, cigar box guitars, because I want to show kids that guitars can be inexpensive and can also be a lot simpler. That kind of desperate, lack of funds kind of DIY thing. I just want people to experience that on their own. I think I would be doing somewhat of a disservice to people if I were just like, “Here’s a signature two string guitar.” Not to mention it’s a very coveted thing for me at the moment. Even the pickup in this one is a very specific vintage pickup, but that’s all I’ll say. If it’s enough of a pull, that people want to have somewhat of a semblance of a similar guitar, then perhaps, but not at the moment.

MN: That’s totally understandable. Due to the times we live and the subject matter of your art, do you ever find yourself too exhausted to create anything? How do you combat burnout?

CO: I think that goes back to my fortunate circumstance of being able to be a professional artist 24/7. But before that, dealing with my health issues, working at the Denver Art Museum, and before that at the Arvada Center; being physically and mentally exhausted from those jobs, I would use that frustration in writing. The little mantra that I tell myself is that every experience can be seen as something creative. So whether you’re in the hospital receiving a procedure, or you’re sick in bed, it’s all an alternate state. You can use those alternate states of mind to create things. So whether you’re doing drugs, or you’re drinking, or you’re sick, or you’re exhausted, or you’re having a fight with someone, or having a good meal. All those things, if you see them creatively and say “What am I doing to respond to this?” That’s why I write so much. I’m always writing because certain rhyme schemes come to mind or certain imagery comes to mind. So whether you’re sketching or you’re writing something down, or you’re moving, that’s all creation, it doesn’t need to be some grandiose, masterpiece. I think if you walk away from any kind of experience feeling like a better person, that’s art. I think when I hit those roadblocks, I just know, it’s a temporary moment in time because again, spending five years with health problems really teaches you that tomorrow is another day. So just keep swimming [chuckles].

MN: Solid advice. What other outlets do you have besides music and art? You told me once you like to keep busy.

CO: Swordsmanship, martial arts to some degree; I don’t train [with any] school anymore, because I really got tired and burned out with the hyper-masculine world of martial arts. I’ve been training in swordsmanship for probably 14 years now. That keeps me busy in the sense of just being able to keep my body in shape. I like to take walks and just contemplate or write things down. I like to travel [and] I like to eat good food. Currently, it’s all just music and just marketing that and just really immersing myself into that world. I don’t really go out much. I like to dance, I go to clubs sometimes. I watch cartoons, but even then, I’m objectively looking at what narrative is being told. I think the way I like to see it is that I always try to stay busy, because there’s definitely a good time to have leisure, but I know being self employed and being a full-time artist, you can always be doing something. I think if you want to be a professional artist, you have to create a world in a cocoon. All the artists that I’ve admired, that I’ve known, and that I’ve researched; the number one answer that I’ve always heard from people who knew them was they were always working. It’s all cyclical. There is no downtime, in that sense.

MN: That’s a good mentality to have. Lastly, I want to know what you’re currently listening to and how you listen to it.

CO: I go off of what I’m listening to first. Royal Blood, Leonard Cohen, Jackson C Frank, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Treat Her Right, Eddie Harris, The Black Keys, Todd Baker, Bauhaus, White Stripes for sure. Getting back into Nirvana again. Predominantly [I listen] on my iPod but not always, I just got Spotify a couple weeks back so before that it was YouTube and iPod. I always have liked music that I discovered myself versus like, “everyone’s listening to it so I’m going to listen to it.” I discovered Jackson C. Frank through the movie soundtrack [for] Joker and it’s those kinds of films that I’m very grateful to because they pick a character that’s kind of like an anti-hero but the music that they choose to carry that narrative through that film pretty much, usually, I like to listen to. That’s how I discovered Morphine, [is] I was watching The Sopranos and one of their songs came on the intro track and I was hooked. It’s through watching movies and TV shows as well. Being like, “Oh that’s a cool song, who did it?” That’s how I get into certain bands. Bauhaus as well, “Bella Lugosi’s Dead” I discovered that through David Bowie’s The Hunger, he plays a vampire. Pretty much all of the bands I’ve discovered have been through films.