For Enrique Bunbury, life is often as simple as a coin toss. That's how the 49-year-old rock en español icon decided to move six years ago to L.A., a city that he says has since allowed him to lead a normal life — away from the inescapable fame he has in Mexico, South America and his native Spain.
Because while nobody on the patio at Bricks & Scones on Larchmont recognizes the well-preserved Jim Morrison look-alike wearing all-black denim and sipping cups of herbal tea, there are millions of Latinos around the world who would.
They've diligently followed the singer-guitarist for the last 30 years, from the day he signed his first record contract with seminal Spanish rock band Heroes del Silencio through his prolific solo career, which started with 1997's experimental electronic album Radical Sonora and continues with his most recent release, a long-awaited MTV Unplugged set.
Despite the fact that many fans long for the days before Heroes del Silencio separated, when his sound was more straightforward hard rock, Bunbury continues to fill stadiums from Bogotá to Buenos Aires and Mexico City to Madrid. He puts on a theatrical live show, playing songs from his eight studio albums, each divergent from the last.
But in L.A., he's "a kitchen celebrity," as he calls it — a reference to our city's predominantly Latino restaurant staffs. "I'm famous in the kitchens."
Bunbury's cultlike following is more than just a testament to his distinctive, brooding vocals and intense, virtuosic guitar solos. Unlike most artists from rock en español's late-'80s golden years, Bunbury doesn't just play the hits. In fact, he's rejected the offer to do so multiple times, except for one six-show reunion tour Heroes did in 2007, which sold out its only American date at the Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center) in Carson.
Even his MTV Unplugged album (subtitled El Libro de las Mutaciones, or The Book of Mutations) isn't so much an acoustic greatest-hits record as it is a reimagining of old songs, including some from the Heroes del Silencio catalog, that weren't originally popular but that he felt deserved better recognition. With cameos from ranchero singer Pepe Aguilar and the frontman of contemporary Latin-rock band Zoe, the collection features snippets from Bunbury's last three decades, updated with arrangements and new instrumentation that align with his current creative process.
"I've never been very enthusiastic about the idea of looking back and doing a review of my career," he says. "I have to have a personal reason to do things, one that's emotional and artistic and interesting for me."
Like his idol David Bowie, Bunbury says he's not content with what he's done before. He's always evolving, reinventing himself with each record and, in the rare moments when he's not touring, living like a nomad by exploring new locales, absorbing inspiration in each place. He's lived in Cuba and backpacked through Asia and Africa. He wrote an entire album while traveling through Nicaragua and Peru.
With his instantly recognizable voice, mess of global influences and successful solo ride, it's easy to think of him as a rockero amalgam of Morrissey, Manu Chao and Sting. But really, he's just Bunbury.
"Yes, I'm a rock musician, but I'm a rock musician that listens to other music," he says. "My fans sometimes tell me I'm not a real rock musician, and that's something that I don't really care about, because just listening to rock music is such a narrow view of music and of the world. I think music is a beautiful expression of human beings, and to lose the big picture and just take that small part is not enough for me."
Bunbury's quest for eclecticism has taken him to parts of the world where rock en español doesn't sell out stadiums — or even nightclubs. He's booked shows in Japan and played Finland and Poland multiple times. In 2010, he launched a 30-city bus tour across the United States, a country where he had previously played only midsized discotecas in select, heavily Latino markets. The tour was documented in the new film, El Camino Más Largo, and shows him playing shows for a few thousand in Detroit as well as a few hundred in Salt Lake City.
He could have easily done his usual arena tour in South America and made more than enough money to get him through the year, but Bunbury says it was worth it for him to go city-to-city in the United States, playing for a growing Hispanic market that increasingly lives outside of traditional Latino hubs.
"I love to go to places where I don't know what is going to happen," he says. "It's not important how many people are coming. The important thing is to go there and to start a relationship with the audience. Life is not only to get things. It's to live things."
The 2010 tour paid off not just for Bunbury but for rock en español as a whole. It set a precedent for his contemporaries who want to play more shows in the United States by proving that there are now Latin audiences everywhere who will come out and support. Thanks in part to the more recent involvement of companies such as Live Nation and AEG, who now book him and other rock en español artists at traditionally Anglo venues, Bunbury has been noticing a gradual change.
Now, instead of only the five major markets (San Francisco, L.A., Miami, New York and Chicago), a U.S. tour can include several dozen shows, in previously untapped cities such as D.C. and Denver. Much of the new audience in these markets is younger and bilingual, reflecting a cross-cultural identity that blends deep Latin pride with American comforts. It can be seen reflected in everything from modern Mexican cuisine to this year's Rock Fiesta, a Coachella-like music festival in Arizona that exclusively featured Latin rock bands.
"I think there's a new generation [of Latinos] who are embracing both," Bunbury says. "They love their roots but they go to high school here and they have American tastes. They enjoy both things, and I think that's great. It's a revival but it's also a consolidation of both worlds at the same time."
To see this in action, look no further than his adopted hometown. When Bunbury first started playing in L.A. about 20 years ago, he says, a typical concert was held at a Latin nightclub where the DJ would stop just long enough for his band to chug out a few songs before the dance music returned. A few years ago, however, he filled the Greek Theater. He'll play at the Hollywood Palladium on May 19.
For a nomadic rock star from Spain, living in any place for longer than a few years is suspect. But after six years in L.A., a perch from which he can continue to build an American audience for rock en español, he doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.
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"I love this city. For a European, you always think about the U.S. as having a very narrow-minded mentality, and then you come here and it's different," he says. "You can do whatever you want. You can be as freaky as you want and you're going to find some other freaks who are freakier than you."
HOLLYWOOD PALLADIUM | 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood | Thu., May 19, 7 p.m | $59.50-$99.50 | ticketmaster.com