Tomas Cookman, founder-president of exotic indie imprint Nacional Records, is nothing less than a self-propelled phenom. Although the label is just shy of 5 years old, it has consistently churned out scads of intriguing, idiosyncratic Latin pop, all of it of a wildly variegated order, from established rock royals Aterciopelados and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs to such brilliant techno upstarts as Nortec Collective, the Pinker Tones, DJ Bitman and the Mexican Institute of Sound. Even though he’s seated behind a desk at the label’s North Hollywood headquarters, Cookman is nonetheless a study in overstimulated kinetics. He rattles off dramatic accounts of high rock & roll coincidence and crafty insider maneuvering with the accelerated eloquence typical of native New Yorkers, his tales of life in the music business as unconventional and arresting as the label’s roster.
Even the physical setting itself is near-dizzying. The entire facility is festooned, floor to ceiling, with an eye-popping cumulative mosaic of folk-pop reinterpretations of Mexican and South American imagery, framed discos platino, a blizzard of posters, album art, photos, collages, recurrent themes of skulls and guitars, punctuated with sporadic blasts of Elvis Presley iconography. While Nacional specializes in Spanish-speaking artists, the prevailing philosophical modus operandi is anchored by two inviolate, universal golden rules. “I want to maintain the rock & roll attitude,” Cookman explains. “And it is very important that you don’t fuck anyone over along the way.”
The 48-year-old Cookman’s drive and passion, not surprisingly, can be tracked to punk rock’s late-1970s tumult. “I’m Puerto Rican, born in New York City, raised in the projects,” he says. “But I grew up in CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City — played drums in some bands, finally with one called the Colors, which was managed by [CBGB owner] Hilly Kristal and [Blondie drummer] Clem Burke — we were a fixture at CBGB’s.” After punk’s roar gave way to a conniving whimper, Cookman traveled to Buenos Aires and wound up spending the next five years there. It was a life-changing shift that, “because I’ve always had a highly managerial way of thinking and doing things,” led to a new career doing precisely that. He eventually represented such luminaries as Manu Chao, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and, at one point, even maxi Mexi diva Paulina Rubio. “Oh, no — you’re not supposed to bring that up,” Cookman groans. “I’d resisted going the pop route for a long time but finally thought, why not? It turned out to be a big mistake.” A more successful alliance, with Uruguayan telenovela star-singer Natalia Oreiro, proved particularly memorable. “Her soap opera swept the world, and was especially popular in Russia, and I ended up going with her to Moscow, where she sang for six nights — at the Kremlin.”
Along the way, Cookman also co-founded the Latin Alternative Music Conference, an annual five-day confab in New York, which features hordes of bands, labels, radio and media representatives with a heavy schedule of daily events that occur everywhere from the Bowery Ballroom to Prospect Park. Now in its 10th year (and expanded to include editions in Mexico City and Buenos Aires), the LAMC has exposed the well-connected Cookman to an entire new spectrum of offbeat new artists.
Cookman, who had an impressive stable of talent as a manager and was already producing the radio show The Red Zone and following the explosive post–Ricky Martin interest in Latin performers, was essentially compelled to start a record label. But it would not be one dedicated to Americanizing the likes of Martin or Shakira. As the stateside industry’s calcified tunnel vision narrowed further and its fascination with the mediocre intensified (Idol, anyone?), Cookman recognized that potential for growth in Latin rock and techno was hardly a matter of crossover; it simply had to reach the vast audience already here. All he needed was a name. “When I was in Havana with Manu Chao, we were staying at the Nacional Hotel, and I thought, why not? It’s perfect.”
Through a combination of rejecting the severely limited pattern of Latin-pop marketing and a well-established skein of contacts throughout the business, Nacional got off to a tremendous start. The fact that major names like Aterciopelados and Los Fabulosos were coming off their own contracts and looking for a sympathetic new home also bolstered his company; a distribution deal with ADA/WEA doesn’t hurt, either. Equally important, Cookman has developed a canny, semistealth method of street-level exposure, one that grew from a promo deal first struck at the LAMC. “We supply the music and Apple makes up these iPod cards for us, free,” he explains, gesturing to a stack on his desk. “Twenty tracks by different Nacional artists, and we just give ’em away. They get played in clothing stores, restaurants, bars. It’s an incredible tool.”
It is precisely that unlikely type of happenstance that seems to continuously fuel Nacional’s growth. “Someone handed me a Pinker Tones demo at the LAMC one year, and I just couldn’t believe how great they were,” he says of the Barcelona electro exciters. Cookman traveled the Warped Tour with them, and wondered how the punks would react to the Pinker Tones. They dug them. “And it’s amazing how well we do on the synch side,” he adds, “with video games, TV shows, movies. I almost see them as mad scientists in a laboratory, with a beaker in one hand and a laptop in the other.” Like DJ Bitman and the Mexican Institute of Sound, the Pinker Tones crystallize much of the label’s output — music characterized by a freethinking, borderless and adventurous musicality, but Cookman is never a slave to trend-meeting expectations.
The force behind MIS is Camilo Lara, the Mexican record-company exec, but, Cookman says, “He’s the record-company guy at the highest level, but his music is incredible.”
A notably eccentric addition to Nacional’s lineup is Señor Coconut, the nom de beat of Uwe Schmitt. “I’d heard about him for years, but I could never find his album, a Latin electronic tribute to Kraftwerk,” Cookman says. “Someone eventually burned me a copy of it and I became obsessed with finding him but never could, until I was backstage at a show in Chile and there he was. He’d heard of the label, which surprised me, and all I said was, ‘You have got to be on Nacional.’ That was it.”
Señor Coconut, for the record, is a pasty-white, bald, sickly looking little German guy, exactly the opposite of what his exquisitely lounge-infected, cha-cha–fixated ’tronics would lead you to expect.
Cookman is blissfully relentless. “I get so many demos, but I listen to them. My wife comes in and says, ‘I can’t believe you still get goose bumps listening to demos’ — but I do.” He laughs. On the wall behind him hangs artwork depicting a guitar with a line next to it that reads, “This Machine Kills A&R Men,” and a crudely etched laptop with the message, “This Machine Kills Major Labels.” “The payola world is still definitely very much alive, and I won’t have anything to do with it,” he says. “Why the fuck should I give money to some radio station in Texas to get airplay? If I want to know what the scene is in Houston, I go there. I go to Mexico City, to Buenos Aires, I travel with the bands, and I do my own bus tour of the United States every year. What can I say? It’s important to do what you like, and if you can, you’re very fortunate.”