Omar Banos keeps trying to convince me that he’s boring. As much as I’d like to object, it’s hard to do so over the noise. Across the parking lot, a truck backs into a loading dock alongside the warehouse where mija mgmt occupies a single room, and the reverse signal is so loud it may as well be coming from beneath the coffee table.
The clandestine office space meeting with Banos — who releases synth-laden Bandcamp ballads under the stage name Cuco — put him in a new context. I last saw him at the Smell, where a sold-out headlining set solidified him as the star of the evening in horn-rimmed glasses. His fandom poured out of the venue and into the back alley, where members of the crowd exchanged the places from which they trekked for the show: South L.A., Whittier, Santa Ana.
Back in February, mija founder Doris Muñoz discovered the Hawthorne native on Twitter, where his awkwardly alluring handle is @Icryduringsex — and where he had already garnered 11,000 followers (last week, it surpassed 25,000). She crawled down the rabbit hole of his social media presence just far enough to realize that the 18-year-old’s internet following signified a rarity in the music world: an artist of color with a devout fanbase largely composed of Latina teens. After emailing Cuco a couple times to no avail, Muñoz did what any real fangirl would: She showed up at one of his house shows.
“When I talked to him the first time, I told him that I just didn’t want some white man in this industry to fuck everything up for him,” Muñoz says. “Obviously, what he’s doing is working and resonates with these kids, so you have to treat it very carefully and keep it in its truest form.”
Despite Cuco’s mild self-effacement, he’s definitely not boring — just coming of age. At the cusp of adulthood, it’s only natural to seesaw between a sense of invincibility and the belief that you must be the most awful creature who’s walked the earth. On top of that, Cuco doesn’t identify with the average candidate for a teen heartthrob, though that’s what he’s shaping up to be.
“It happened quick,” Cuco says of his rapidly growing support system. “I lose track of the rate it grows at. It trips me out all the time.”
He grew up shy yet seeking a source of expression, and performing provided a way for him to channel adolescent emotions into something slightly more graceful. At 8 years old, he picked up guitar, later moving on to keys, drums, bass, French horn and trumpet. His nostalgia-heavy songs — sung in English, Spanish or a combination of the two — subvert a set of machismo expectations that Cuco has never been able to associate with. He also challenges the sweeping characterization of millennials as detached or ruthlessly “chill” when it comes to love.
“It’s cool to be in your feelings and it’s cool to be sad and it’s cool to feel all of these things,” he says. “If you want to be expressive about something, do it. If you want to keep something to yourself, keep it to yourself. I have my own ways, people have theirs.”
Cuco’s rise suggests that our modern heartthrobs won’t be suave or cynical. Rather than appearing larger than life, they might revel in their realism, a quality that inspires rather than isolates fans. On “We Had to End It,” Cuco sheepishly recalls a time when he “felt so dumb” for thinking that the girl he liked could ever become his wife. Heartthrobs experience heartache, too.
Despite demonstrating a knack for penning hooks and dreamy melodies, Cuco is still coming into his own onstage. He originally played keys as a member of his own live band, but attending the Beach Goth festival inspired him to take on the proper frontman role by shifting focus to his vocals. Sticking to singing also has allowed him to confront a sense of unease.
“I’m not a singer,” he claims. “I double-track my vocals. I’m just not secure in my voice. I can’t do single-track — I sound weird.”
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His fanbase probably would argue otherwise. In closing out the Smell after The Tracks, Jurassic Shark and fellow mija mgmt act August Eve, Cuco sang in a way that moved those in the packed venue. With phones fixed in the air, many fans sang along right on cue, flawlessly navigating the occasional tempo shift. Their support urges Cuco to embrace the confines of his own voice and explore the new things he can do with it. In the meantime, he’s figuring out how to perform live some of his most vocally challenging hits, such as “Dontmakemefallinlove” and “Cupid’s Quiver.”
Next up is his 19th birthday, followed by a headlining slot in San Francisco later this summer.
“Nineteen could be your big year,” his publicist suggests from his own corner of the office.
“It could be,” Cuco says, sounding a bit suspicious of himself and of the fame materializing before him. But he can lean into his insecurities rather than fake it. For him, there's no better way.