Frank Cruz tries to make sense of son’s death with music

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“Writing the record helped me build a story out of something that didn’t make any sense,” began Frank Cruz when he sat down with The Daily Californian days before the release of his new album, Ofrenda. Cruz was a student in the graduate department at UC Berkeley when his 5-year-old son, Zachary, was tragically struck down at the corner of Derby and Warring streets in the winter of 2009. Even five years later, community members still constantly leave gifts and mementos at the roadside memorial of Zachary’s Corner.

Cruz chooses to avoid the area and instead has been working on a greater piece of dedication to memorialize his son. Since the accident, he has channeled his energy toward keeping Zachary’s memory alive with Ofrenda, his indie-rock album whose sounds liken to Bright Eyes. The album title borrows its symbol from the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, when loved ones honor the deceased with “offerings” — the English translation of “ofrenda.” The cover of the LP features a painting by Zachary, the inward folds hold his image, and select tracks share his voice — this offering becomes one of Zachary’s own legacy. Cruz describes it as a “sonic altar in Zachary’s honor.”

The tracks focus on the grief surrounding the aftermath of the accident. “I know that indie rock is not supposed to be about this … but I guess at its core, rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be a release,” Cruz said. “It’s supposed to be some kind of emotional release … a visceral letting go, a cutting loose.” Along with lifelong friend and collaborator Chris Dixon, Frank Cruz produced an album that sways between this realm of indie rock and that of singer-songwriter.

Cruz wrote the entirety of the lyrics and appears on lead vocals for each track, while Dixon covers the guitars. Swaggering piano, ambient synths and subtle drumming accompany most pieces, and the violin and cello soar for others. The harmonica makes its only appearance in “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” a subtle cry that runs through the track.

Aside from the haunting, heavy lyrics and instrumentals, Cruz reminds listeners that “(Zachary) was a really happy kid. But as the years went by, we felt that it was important to document what that time (of grieving) was like so that we wouldn’t forget.” As can readily be seen throughout Ofrenda, Cruz rests between the fear of losing his son’s memory and his wish to move past his grief.

Cruz seems unlikely to ever let Zachary fade from view as he reminisces on small memories such as Zachary marveling at his Fisher-Price turntable, a gift from Dixon. This image was a primary influence that drove their decision in printing the album on vinyl. To further commemorate his son, Cruz created an endowment for transfer students and student parents at UC Berkeley, as he himself was only an undergraduate at UC Berkeley when Zachary was born.

As an avid Cal supporter and growing musician, Zachary could not have been honored in a more suitable way. His days as a Bear were unfortunately squeezed only into his childhood, but his influence on the campus and community will far surpass his time.

Sasha Chebil covers music. Contact her at [email protected].