OUR STORY BEGINS IN THE EARLY '90s, ON A NIGHT WHEN Gustavo Cerati happened to be in London and went to see the Orb in concert. That evening occupies a special place in the history of Latin music, for that night Cerati discovered electronica, and thus rock en español was reborn.
At the time, Cerati was still the leader and songwriter of Soda Stereo, the Argentinian group responsible, together with Mexico's Caifanes, for ushering in the second coming of Latin rock. They were the first outfits to successfully fuse Anglo rock and pop with a sensibility that was distinctly Latin, steeped in the humor and folklore of their native continent.
In the beginning, Soda Stereo sounded pretty awful. One of its early hits was entitled "Nada Personal" ("Nothing Personal") and was particularly insufferable, the kind of bouncy ditty that teenagers make a summer anthem. Inspired by the cheapo sound of new wave, the trio strove to emulate the Police but showed none of the British group's instrumental sophistication or rhythmic bravado. Cerati's fateful encounter with the Orb would change all that.
"I remember that show as a very important moment in my career," Cerati says. "It was very psychedelic, but also marked by a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor."
Back in Buenos Aires, Cerati announced to his incredulous bandmates (bassist Zeta and drummer Charly Alberti) that he had seen the light. It was the dawn of the computer as a soulful music-making companion, the birth of a million textures. "You have a traditional rock band, and one of its members buys a computer," he says. "What do the other band members do? Inevitably, there's something a little solitary about the process of making music with a computer. Some people were really upset that I got into electronica, because they didn't perceive it as part of rock culture. If you listen to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, though, you'll hear many passages that are imbued with electronic music."
Soda Stereo became a new band -- the incandescent mantle of electronics gave Cerati's simplistic pop melodies an air of sumptuous elegance. The group's 1995 swan song, Sueño Stereo, even included a shimmering ambient instrumental, entitled "X-Playo."
Before finally breaking the band up, Cerati had experienced a self-imposed exile in Chile and recorded two oblique solo albums that further emphasized his fascination with technology. Soda retired with a series of concerts that left the fans and critics moaning about the singer's apparent coldness.
"I wanted the band to have a dignified goodbye," he says. "I couldn't start crying from the very first song. My message to the people was that we were always about the music, and that was the way we were going to end."
Cerati's 1999 Bocanada (BMG Latin) is a seamless batch of pop perfection in which the language of samples, sound effects and electronic beats flows with mesmerizing fluidity. It was recorded in Cerati's own studio in Vicente Lopez, a picturesque, upper-class Buenos Aires neighborhood blessed with a constant cooling breeze emanating from a nearby river. Cerati worked alone, then invited a few friends over to record overdubs.
At its best, Bocanada sounds light and effortless, such as the opening "Tabú," a noisy and joyful beat that combines tribal exuberance with lounge camp; the mystical James Bond of "Verbo Carne," where Cerati goes John Barry with the help of the London Session Orchestra; or the title track, which uses as a starting point an operatic sample by Focus, the Dutch progressive-rock band from the '70s.
CERATI HAS PLAYED HIS NEW MATERIAL ON STAGES IN Argentina and other Latin American countries, to initially grudging then enthusiastic response.
"I was afraid that people would want to hear the old Soda Stereo songs too much. But people came -- in Buenos Aires, we sold out six nights at the Gran Rex Theater, which is incredible, considering everybody's broke there." In Mexico, loyal fans chanted his name and the new material was accepted wholeheartedly, even though Cerati relies on plenty of prerecorded tracks; on "Verbo Carne," he croons atop a taped symphony orchestra.
"I wanted to give the fans a sonic collage, reproducing the cut-and-paste vibe of my record," he explains. "The mixture of machine and blood . . ."
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The au courant electronic bravado of Bocanada tempts one to believe that the simpler Soda Stereo was just a stepping stone for Cerati, on his way to grander heights.
"I'm not about to deny the importance of a given moment," he says. "But when I get involved with something, I tend to forget whatever came before it. The truth is that you can't do what's already been done. You have to look forward."
Gustavo Cerati appears at House of Blues on Sunday, February 27.