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.
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.
Perhaps because I’ve been doing this music-writing shit for a little too long, I suddenly feel that I‘m in the presence of a Rock & Roll Moment — that red light that goes on. And so red-hot is the light at this very moment that I feel close to blowing up . . . I realize Rock & Roll Moments are manufactured on a daily basis in order to impress innocent journalists, but I swear, this one is as real as it gets.
Anyway, the song ends, Garcia exhales its last breath, then there’s this Movie Moment, the “it is accomplished” sort of thing where she looks around her, at me and Kerpel and Santaolalla, and smiles mischievously.
I tap her on the shoulder.
“Who did you write this for?”
She smiles nervously. “Well, you know . . .”
Santaolalla says sternly, “You don‘t have to answer.”
“Why are you getting involved in this?” I bark back at him. “I’m asking her, not you.”
For a brief moment, there‘s an expression of utter disbelief on the man’s face.
“What do you mean, why am I getting involved?” he says, heatedly. “She‘s my artist!”
“They always ask me that,” says Erica, in a futile, conciliatory digression. “They want to know how, where and when I write my songs. They ask me these real specific things.”
“Of course we do,” I say. “We want to see Picasso at work. We want to study Einstein’s brain.”
“I don‘t believe this!” screams Santaolalla. “We get together. We take all of our clothes off. We get butt-naked just for you. And as if that wasn’t enough, now you wanna stick your finger up our asses!”
Loud laughter ensues.
I discovered Gustavo Santaolalla sometime in the early to mid-‘90s, when I first started to write about Latin American music. The majority of rock en español releases that had come out up to that date had convinced me that the entire genre was utterly worthless. Most of the Latin rockers from the ’60s to the ‘80s had done nothing but shamelessly rip off the ever-pervasive Anglo rock and pop.
By 1997, however, I was acquainted with Tacuba. I was listening to Molotov, a raucous, hip-hop-influenced quartet with a lethal sense of humor. And to “Rara,” an eerie, emotionally charged song by an Argentine singersongwriter named Juana Molina. Strangely enough, these disparate records sounded alike in a weird sort of way. While the stylistic directions they followed were in sharp contrast, there was something about the spatial relationships of the elements within the music, a three-dimensional feeling about the productions, that made you understand that this was the work of a producer of the caliber of a Phil Spector, perhaps a Daniel Lanois.
I realized then that there was magic in Santaolalla, for every artist he laid his hands on emerged a better musician. He’d been instrumental in the development of Latin rock not as a performer, but as a facilitator, a liberator, a discoverer of potential. He was the man who allowed Tacuba and Venegas and Molotov and Bersuit Vergarabat to transcend their stereotyped roles and become something far more interesting than a bunch of Latin American rockeros.
Santaolalla‘s artistry is best experienced on two very dissimilar albums. The first is Ronroco (Nonesuch, 1998), Santaolalla’s latest solo work, and one that has nothing whatsoever in common with rock en español. A collection of 12 delicate, impressionistic vignettes, it relies mostly on South American string instruments such as the charango and the ronroco. Half the tunes are completely abstract, creating evocative washes of sound that rely solely on mood. The other half consists of gorgeous melodies, lullabies for the soul, mesmerizing in their construction and perfection.
Ronroco is a very short album, and it introduces the rock listener to the bridge that exists between Santaolalla the rocker and the folklore of his native Argentina, which explains why, in his role as a producer, he has encouraged his artists to heed the musical roots of their respective countries; Santaolalla‘s productions exploit the electrifying dynamics of rock, but are suffused with the comforting presence of a past well lived.
In Santaolalla’s case, this past involves superstardom at a young age. During the early ‘70s, he was the leader of the pioneering folk en español group Arco Iris, which became a sensation in Argentina. But the political climate of his country didn’t sit well with Santaolalla. He moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, formed a new-wave group called Wet Picnic, met up with Kerpel (also a presence on the Argentine rock scene of the ’70s) and began producing records.
The other model of essential Santaolalla is RevesYosoy (Warner Bros.), the 1999 release by the Mexican group Cafe Tacuba, and the unequivocal masterpiece of the entire Latin-rock genre. The double-disc RevesYosoy is the fourth album by the Tacuba foursome, and the fourth for which they recruited the services of Santaolalla as producer and spiritual guide. One disc is made up of smart, intense, poetic songs; the other is entirely instrumental — dissonant, subversive and lovingly psychedelic. Many of us expected RevesYosoy to be the one record that would catapult the rock en español cult genre into the mainstream. It was easy to imagine Tacuba on MTV, Tacuba on the cover of Spin, Tacuba the big winner at the Grammy Awards. As it turns out, the album got the band an opening spot on a Beck tour and not much more. It was Latin rock‘s crowning achievement, and its best chance for a “crossover” into the American collective subconscious.
“Yes, the growth of the movement will probably be a slow one,” says Santaolalla, referring to the album’s disappointing performance. “And although that can be frustrating to those of us who have invested in it, it might be better that way. It‘s more organic. At least you know that the people who discover this music and become fans are doing it out of genuine interest and not because Latin rock is the flavor of the month.”
To speak of Santaolalla’s agenda for the next year is to speak of the future of the rock en español movement. 2001 will see him releasing albums by groups including Bersuit Vergarabat, El Otro Yo, Arbol and La Vela Puerca, as well as the Erica Garcia disc, a possible solo record and the long-overdue soundtrack to the successful Mexican movie Amores Perros. There‘ll also be a box set summarizing his career, in conjunction with the release of a documentary film, and the unveiling of an official Surco Web site. In addition, Santaolalla has envisioned a compilation disc of hardcore bands from both sides of the border, a record that would act as the imaginary soundtrack for the adventures of a new comic book heroine as aggressive as the music itself.
Curiously enough, for Santaolalla there’s no nervous breakdown in sight. With Kerpel by his side at the studio, a wife and three kids waiting for him at home, and just one personal assistant taking care of his frantic schedule, he‘s found a way to manage his empire without losing his mind.
“Sometimes I do feel like my head is splitting in two,” he says with a smile. “The key to avoiding that is to focus wholeheartedly on what you’re doing at a specific moment, and being able to switch your attention from project to project.
”Back when I didn‘t have so many things on my plate, I’d focus obsessively on one single project and, more often than not, ended up destroying it. It was sick. The schizophrenic pace of my life right now allows me to focus my obsession on many different things, put distance on them and thus preserve my sanity.“