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El Mago 

Gustavo Santaolalla’s portraits in sound

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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Gustavo Santaolalla closes his eyes and contorts his face in a frightening grimace, lost in the rapture of the music. Astride a rolling chair, he cranks the volume, taps the rhythm with his foot and spastically shakes his head. Now he’s doing some air guitar, and chanting along in a strident falsetto -- just like a lonely teenage boy locked in his room, dreaming dreams of rock & roll grandeur.

But this isn‘t the bedroom of a suburban adolescent. In fact, we’re inside an elegant studio in Echo Park, the heart of the kingdom where Gustavo Santaolalla and his partner, Anibal Kerpel, record and produce some of the most innovative artists in the burgeoning genre of rock en español. It‘s also the headquarters of Surco, the duo’s record company, currently enjoying a five-year, multimillion-dollar deal with Universal Music Group. This is the space that has seen Santaolalla climb his way up to reach the stature of an icon in Latin rock. He‘s the magus. The alchemist. The guru.

Today, on a crisp autumn morning, Santaolalla is excited because he’s found yet another artist with something special. But then, he‘s always excited about something new. He continues to cultivate working relationships with musicians he considers important, but he’s on the lookout for fresh new voices. That probably accounts for why Santaolalla and Kerpel look like a couple of guys in their early 40s, though they‘re actually about to turn 50.

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Today, Santaolalla is excited about Erica Garcia, an Argentine rocker with the face of a model, the body of a feline and the voice of a seraph. Surprisingly, Santaolalla finds the time to be a music geek, avidly collecting anything related to popular music, and he’s known about Garcia since her days 10 years ago in Buenos Aires, when she sang with the punk group Mata Violeta. Santaolalla even owns bootleg live videos of Mata Violeta, and he‘s been wanting to produce a Garcia solo record for a long time.

These days, Santaolalla can produce pretty much anyone he wants. He’s already worked with the biggest names in the genre: Cafe Tacuba, Julieta Venegas, Molotov, Bersuit Vergarabat and Maldita Vecindad. When you ask him about the remaining heavyweights in the Latin-rock game, like Aterciopelados or Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, he‘ll tell you a story about how he almost ended up producing their albums, too.

So delighted is Santaolalla about the record he’s making with Garcia that he makes me listen to yet another track, though the vocals are far from finished. Santaolalla‘s biggest obsession is creating the perfect vocal line, or, as he explains in technese, “I’m a freak about doing the vocal comps.” He records his singers on a dozen takes for each tune, then begins the laborious process of editing words -- make that syllables, even microbeats of vowels and consonants -- stitching the minuscule moments from each take that he hears as the absolute best. So if Garcia sings “el amor,” “el” will be culled from, say, take 12, “a” from take 3, “mo” from take 11 and “or” from take 12 again.

In order for me to appreciate why vocal comps are of such crucial importance to the finished product, Santaolalla plays a Garcia song with one of the regular vocal takes mixed in, then plays the same tune with the finished comps. The difference is remarkable. Then I listen to the song while looking at a computer monitor where a needle indicates (much as in an Avid movie-editing system) the vast number of vocal edits that have shaped this particular mix.

“I‘m showing you the secrets,” he sighs, a hint of regret in his voice. “I’m taking you backstage and showing you how the rabbits are pulled out of the magician‘s hat.”

Then Erica Garcia enters the studio. She gives us all a fleshy sort of smile, showing a lot of perfect white teeth and giving Santaolalla a soft peck on the cheek. She’s part Barbarella, part Lolita, a playful little girl hidden in the body of a grown woman. She sits down, throws her purse on the floor, and listens to the new mixes with palpable enthusiasm.

Santaolalla wants me to like Garcia. He champions all of his artists passionately, and no doubt because he‘s experienced my admiration for many of them (I think Tacuba and Venegas are the very best rock en español has to offer), he does a pretty convincing job of showing me how superb each one of his new projects is. a

So Garcia and Santaolalla play another song for me, only this one doesn’t have vocals on it yet, just a soft, lilting cushion of keyboards and guitars and drums. And Garcia and Santaolalla sing the tune for me, live, harmonizing together, Garcia taking the spotlight, Santaolalla complementing her. They‘ve chosen a tune that talks about a woman loving a man, but deals with it honestly, with plenty of contradiction, not with the usual idealistic B.S. you hear on your average pop tune. No, Garcia sings about doing the sweetest things to her beau while stepping on him, because she adores him so. The bitter and the sweet, the Eros and the Thanatos, the virgin and the whore.

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