¿Quieren rock, putos?
Wearing a ridiculous rooster mask, Café Tacuba lead singer Rubén Albarrán (or Gallo Gass, or Rita Cantalagua, or Elfego Buendía, to name a few of the exotic monikers he’s adopted in recent times) taunted the audience at the Hollywood Palladium last year. The Mexican quartet had just finished performing a slow number in front of thousands of noisy fans who were clearly interested in the band’s more raucous material.
You want rock, fuckers?
Yes, they wanted rock. And rock the band did, the four Tacubos — more conventionally, in fact, than ever before. After spending over a decade developing a loopy, deliciously oblique sound cemented on the bouncy charms of a drum machine (until recently, all beats in the Tacuba canon were artificial and proud of being so), the foursome decided to turn the tables on us and bring a live drummer in. Onstage at the Palladium, Tacuba became a quintet, and the drummer’s relentless 4/4 attack limited the scope of the band’s music. A song like “La Locomotora” — frantic and eccentric in its original incarnation — sounded strangely flat. A medley of venerable rock en español classics by other bands (Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ “Matador,” Aterciopelados’ “Bolero Falaz ”) was equally uninspired, almost pedestrian.
There was no doubt about it. For the first time ever, the most innovative band in the history of Latin rock had taken its first calamitous artistic misstep.
* * *
By contemporary rock standards, Tacuba’s brand-new album and its first one for MCA, Cuatro Caminos, could arguably be hailed as one of the best releases of the year. Measured against the band’s own luminous trajectory, however, it disappoints. The news is not altogether surprising. Since its inception in 1989, Tacuba has re-imagined itself with each new album. In 1994, Ré established the band as the ultimate rock en español outfit, a group of four Mexico City art students who felt equally at home with punk and ska and cumbia and quebradita. Tacuba summed up the most transcendental qualities of the new movement — its miraculous ability to fuse mainstream rock with Latin roots and turn that bizarre fusion into something new and refreshing. 1996’s Avalancha de Exitos disguised Tacuba as a tongue-in-cheek cover band, the equivalent of a barrio jukebox that could play cheesy crooners like Leo Dan (“Cómo Te Extraño Mi Amor”) and earthy troubadours such as Juan Luis Guerra (“Ojalá Que Llueva Café”). 1999’s double-disc Revés/Yosoy presented Tacuba as consummate art-rockers. If the stunningly produced disc of bittersweet songs (Yosoy) didn’t manage to expand your consciousness, its counterpart, a thorny disc of dissonant instrumentals (Revés), surely would.
Four years later, Cuatro Caminos offers a perverse antidote to the lofty heights of the past. Here’s a novel concept: a no-frills, run-of-the-mill rock record. Tacuba with drums, minus the Mexican influences.
Should be a huge hit.
* * *
“We reinvented ourselves with this record,” explains Albarrán. “And that makes us happy.” Onstage, the singer’s explosive demeanor and cartoonish voice suggest a rock & roll version of Speedy Gonzalez. But on the phone he’s surprisingly gentle and contemplative.
“We were able to free ourselves from the traps into which we usually fall. Regardless of its commercial potential, this one’s been a successful project for us.”
“I find it surprising that after 14 years of playing together, we finally made the kind of record that we liked listening to when we were teenagers,” adds Emmanuel Del Real, a.k.a. Meme, Tacuba’s keyboardist and one of the band’s chief composers. “Back then, I enjoyed bands like Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.”
So far, Cuatro Caminos has been embraced positively by both the fans and the media. The domestic version of the album carries a sticker with one of the most absurd press quotes in recent times — someone from Alternative Press saying that the record “could be the rock en español Kid A.” But the accessible nature of the songs has opened up new roads for the band. The first single, a jarring experiment in electronic exuberance called “Eo,” has been getting radio airplay on the strength of its cheesy ’80s keyboard sounds and Albarrán’s Donald-Duck-on-crack vocals praising the art of the sonideros, or sound-makers, Mexico’s own answer to the DJ phenomenon.
The album’s slower tunes showcase Tacuba at its tuneful best — it’s quite easy to latch on to the pastoral beauty of “Mediodía,” a vibrant picture of a sunny Mexico City at noon on a Saturday, with bassist Quique Rangel observing the view from a window and wondering why he has no one to share it with. On the record’s most painfully honest song, “Tomar el Fresco,” guitarist Joselo Rangel (Quique’s brother) refers to the one-year sabbatical the band took before returning to record Cuatro Caminos:
If I don’t return
Nothing will happen
Sooner than later
Someone else will replace me
Isn’t that so?
“That’s what I love about this record,” exclaims Del Real. “Not only did we make a straight-ahead rock album, but we also included personal confessions that go way beyond anything we expressed in our lyrics before. It almost works as a confessionary of sorts.”
“Feeling claustrophobic is natural when you’ve been in a band for so long,” says Albarrán. “Perhaps our biggest achievement has been the fact that we stayed together. It takes a lot of balls to make compromises.”
* * *
Is the simplicity of Cuatro Caminos an inevitable reaction to the commercial failure of Revés/Yosoy?
“We always assume that people will understand our records,” says Albarrán. “But we’re often wrong. And we were definitely wrong with Revés/Yosoy. We weren’t able to find the appropriate channels for people to connect with the record. We failed to realize that maybe our fans weren’t interested in a CD of instrumental pieces.”
“The disappointment didn’t last long,” he continues. “Internally, as a band, we considered Revés/Yosoy a success, because making it was like medicine to us. It had a healing effect on the way in which we related with music, the way in which we interacted as composers.”
Revés/Yosoy was more than just Tacuba’s defining statement and unquestionable masterpiece. It was also the crowning achievement of the entire Latin-rock genre, its very own White Album, a mystically tinged record that challenges and dares you to embrace its uncompromising nature.
“The record company [Warner Bros.] didn’t quite know what to do with it,” recalls Del Real. “Sure enough, it was a complicated record, somewhat inaccessible. But it also gained us a lot of respect and appreciation. We spent two years touring behind it. Now people know that we’re capable of many different things. After Cuatro Caminos, we could very well do a record that’s all acoustic, or maybe one that draws solely from folklore. Who knows? Even I couldn’t tell you what lies ahead in Tacuba’s future.”
* * *
And the drums?
Ah, those drums. It was Albarrán’s idea to bring them in. And he doesn’t regret it one bit.
“Think of a painter who has a very special relationship with a specific color — say, orange. For a moment in his career, he abandons orange altogether and begins using other colors — blues and greens. When he returns to orange, he will have renewed his relationship to that color. In our case, I felt that it was time to give the sequencers and drum machines a rest. Playing with a live drummer was an amazing discovery for us. The day we return to the drum machines, we will have a completely new perspective on things.”
“At first I felt like I was losing a limb,” says Del Real, who’d been in charge of programming and triggering the sequencers in concert. “With the drummer, we all play louder now. It’s a different experience, but eventually you get used to it and fall in love with the new sonics. I still miss the drum machine, though.”
“Some songs work better than others,” admits Albarrán. “But I’ll gladly exchange that for the enjoyment that we’re experiencing. Perhaps we’re losing something on the artistic side, but that’s okay. What we originally tried to say with the drum machines has been preserved. It’s inside a hard drive or a memory card. We can return to it whenever we please. Maybe that’s why we’re not experiencing the change like a loss, but rather like a breath of fresh air.”
Café Tacuba perform at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, September 7.