Time means nothing to Manu Chao, who’s become a superstar in much of the world and increasingly popular here by doing things in the least traditional way possible. “Time don’t fool me no more/I throw my watch to the floor,” he sang in “Out of Time Man,” a song by his old band Mano Negra. He’s the kind of artist who prefers playing far off the beaten track — whether it’s in small rural towns in South America or for squatters protesting at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001 — instead of the usual major media markets. Mano Negra performed just once in Hollywood back in the late ’80s, and Chao had played only two solo concerts in L.A. since then (at the Palace in 2000 and last year at the Shrine Auditorium, each of which sold out in about two seconds) before he helped close down the last night of this year’s Coachella Festival.
The 45-year-old French singer-guitarist is one of the few musicians whose range is broad enough to appeal to both hardcore punks and the gentle souls who listen to KCRW by combining the uplifting idealism of Bob Marley and the surreal poetry of Bob Dylan with the frenetic energy of the Clash. While there have been a zillion bands that share those influences, there’s something uniquely enchanting in the way Chao blends rock, ska, funk, rap, punk, salsa, folk, heavy metal, cabaret and Gypsy styles on his two studio albums: 1998’s Clandestino and 2001’s Próxima Estación . . . Esperanza. There’s never been a song quite like Clandestino’s haunting “Welcome to Tijuana,” a lilting, loping slice of magical realism that subverts the border town’s seedy sex-and-drugs image with a dublike collision of yearning melodies, febrile reggae guitar, subterranean bass and a psychedelic montage of sound effects, disembodied voices, speeches and clips from movies.
One of Chao’s trademarks is the way he layers his tunes with such lost-and-found sounds, creating a hypnotic running dialogue with the ghosts in his head. You can hear his mark in the music of NYC Gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello (who covered Mano Negra’s “Mala Vida”) and in the disparate groups he’s produced, including the late, great Mexican ska-punk revolutionaries Tijuana No! and, more recently, the subtly mesmerizing blind Malian husband-and-wife duo Amadou & Mariam. At an interview over breakfast at Musso & Frank a few days after his breakout Coachella appearance, the Out of Time Man discussed his long-awaited new album (La Radiolina), this weekend’s big show at the Sports Arena with backup band Radio Bemba Sound System, and hanging out with his pals Diego Maradona and Subcomandante Marcos.
L.A. WEEKLY: When Mano Negra played Hollywood in 1989, was that the first time you’d been in Los Angeles?
MANU CHAO: Yeah. If I remember, I think we played with No Doubt . . . It was not a big place. But it was a long time ago.
When you were growing up, did you see American films and culture as something you loved or something you wanted to rebel against?
When I was a kid, I didn’t think about these things. I’d watch the movies and point. When I was a teenager, we already had in France enough things to get in rebellion against, so we didn’t think about the rest. Our problem was the neighborhood and the authorities in France, and our fight was that, no? We were not thinking, “Ah, what is Hollywood and not Hollywood?” Afterwards, of course. Later, we started understanding what was America, what was this kind of cultural imperialism. We started to think about that.
You didn’t come back here for 10 years. Was there a conscious decision to avoid the United States because of President Bush or the war?
No, no, the first thing I want to stay: We don’t tour like machines . . . Now, actually, it’s four or five years that I haven’t played in my own country. So it’s not that we don’t play here more than there; the problem is that the world is big, and we don’t work like other bands that tour, tour, tour. So it takes time to come back to countries. But, for sure, for USA it was a long time that we didn’t come. But they tell me the same thing in France. Because I take my time, more than everything. And, from our experiences with Mano Negra here, this was not the best country to come for touring. [There were] a lot of things I didn’t like too much. Like the way of working in the rock & roll business. Very . . . kind of . . . I don’t know . . . It was very strange for us to get the habits to work like people work here. They tried to [teach] us how to work in rock & roll, but we didn’t want to learn that at all. [It was] kind of very professional, maybe, but for me not in the way we like it. A lot of hierarchy, even in bands. We watched the way the technicians worked here [and were treated], because a band is a band, but a technician is part of the show too . . . A lot of competition also between bands. It was very strange for us. It was not our way to work. When we work with other bands in Europe, it’s friendship, it’s not a competition, you know? . . . Clubs close very early, you know, one minute to go . . . so it’s all very . . . it’s not very rock & roll at the end . . . It’s very cold: “It’s 11:30, everything is finished.” Opening band is opening band, and big band is big band, not a lot of gear onstage between . . . It was quite new for us.
Sometimes in Europe, people in the business say, “Manu, you’re silly. If you want to do something in the music business and there’s work for you in America, you have to go. Because America is like the Mecca of rock & roll.” But from the beginning, we said no. Why do you have to go to America to be big? So we always said, ever since we were teenagers, that USA is a country like any other country. So, no priority. Because in all the business, there’s [just] two priorities. If you’re a little Frenchie and they accept you in America or England, it was like “Ahh, thank you!!” But we said no. I remember at the time I was with Mano Negra the record company said, “Oh, it’s commercial suicide!” And I said I don’t care . . . I said to them 15 years ago, “I don’t want to go to the United States from Europe. One day I will go to United States coming from the south, coming from South America. And now it’s happening. I know that now the doors are opening for me here in the USA because I’m big in South America and I’ve got my crowd here. I’ve got my public. Because they’re all from Mexico, they’re all from Central America, from Argentina, so if I do a show in any part of the USA, I know I’ve got all the Latinos coming.
Of course, it’s very different in South America, where it’s more messy — sometimes too much. In South America, we’ve done a lot of touring apart from the classical way. We’ve gone on a few adventures. In ’92, we worked with a cargo boat through South America, all the harbors. We had a big cargo with a lot of bands and artists and theater, so we did some stuff on the boat and also played in the cities. It was good. We took the train all through Colombia and made shows in little places. In South America, you can go to a lot of countries, and of course they’re different countries, but the real border, for me, is between city and country.
You feel that way everywhere?
Yeah, it’s two different countries.
If you don’t mind, how old are you now?
Where were you born?
What’s your background?
My mother and my father are from Spain. I was born in Paris. My mother grew up in Algeria because of the civil war in Spain. . . . And my grandfather. My grandfather used to work in the telephone center. So his job — when Franco [was taking over the] city — was to blow up the center so [the Fascists] can’t use it. So, he was sentenced to death.
But he escaped?
And you also have ties to the Basque homeland.
My mother’s from there, Bilbao.
Do you support Basque independence?
I’ve never been a big fan of flags. I was raised in a culture in France in my neighborhood where the flag of France was something you didn’t like. I’ve never liked flags, so I’ve never understood what a country was. I try more to put borders out than to put more borders [in]. I think the world is going in this way. But I think it’s important in the case of the Basques . . . to preserve and fight for the culture of País Basco. A new country? I don’t care. But the culture? Yeah, it’s important.
So who do you root for in the World Cup?
I don’t know. Argentina always has good teams, but it depends. I like a nice game.
So you don’t care if it’s France?
No. In ’98, when France went against Brazil [in the World Cup final], I was the only asshole of my neighborhood that was for Brazil. I’ve never been a nationalist. I don’t care about borders.
Are you friends with Diego Maradona, whom you wrote about in the song “Santa Maradona” [from Mano Negra’s 1994 album Casa Babylon]?
Yeah. We know each other. I wrote this song about Diego years ago with Mano Negra. Now I’m working with Emir Kusturica, the filmmaker from the ex-Yugoslavia. He won two times in Cannes. I’m a big fan. He’s doing a movie about Maradona, so I’ve been collaborating and working with Diego.
Yes. About his life. So I’ve been collaborating, and we’ve been working with Diego. I [recorded] some music and sang — with Diego there — about a month ago.
Does Maradona sing too?
No. But at party time he can do anything.
Is his health okay? I heard that he was sick recently.
I was with him three weeks ago, and he was okay. Just after we left, he had his problem with alcohol, and I think he’s in the hospital [in Argentina].
It’s been six years since your last studio album, Próxima Estación . . . Esperanza. Are you still working on your new CD, La Radiolina?
Yeah. It’s almost finished. After mastering, it’s going to be released in September.
Do you remember where you first heard punk rock?
I remember perfectly. I was hanging around in Paris, getting drunk with my friends, doing nothing, only bullshit. I was in the street and we heard a sound check. I don’t know why it was open and we could get inside. And it was Stiff Little Fingers onstage.
Did you already know about punk rock before that?
I knew, but I didn’t know really because in my neighborhood all the gang were not punks. They used to fight punks. All the big guys. It was more kind of like rockabilly. So when we young kids started to listen to punk, we started bringing punk stuff into the neighborhood and risked our lives! [laughs]
How old were you?
Maybe 17, I don’t remember. It was 1977, the beginning of punk . . . My heroes were Dr. Feelgood and Wilko Johnson . . . Dr. Feelgood was the bridge between punk and old rock & roll, you know? And I really liked the Flamin’ Groovies.
What about American punk bands?
Of course, a really big band in Europe was the Ramones. They were really big there. We used to listen to MC5 and the Stooges.
Were you inspired by the MC5’s radical politics or did you just like the music?
We were very young. We couldn’t understand what those American bands were saying. We could understand the message of rebellion, and it was okay for us. But all the message of rebellion and political activities, however, were more with the local bands, where we could understand the lyrics, like Berurier Noir, a very important band of the time. Very important politically.
Do you remember your political awakening?
In our neighborhood of Paris, maybe we all played different music and we were from different ethos, but what made everybody get together was to fight against the neofascists. We had a problem in Paris because the fascist skinheads used to come to the shows and always fight, so the community got united — people that play reggae, people that play punk, people that play rock — against the fascist skinheads. That was the real political fight at the time.
What do you think about the current problems in France for immigrant kids, like the recent riots in Paris against the police? Is France going in a more conservative direction?
We’ll see on Sunday [referring to the French presidential election], but I’m afraid yes. France is going to elect this little Bush, his little personal Bush — [Nicolas] Sarkozy. No good, no good at all. The kids in the neighborhood are really upset, but it’s not new. For a long time in the neighborhood, there’s a lot of depression, and the kids are full of anger. It’s very difficult for them to transform this anger into something positive.
What was it like when you played the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2001?
Something really happened in Genova. A lot of very good things, a lot of very bad things — it was [history]. We played just the day before the G8, a big [benefit] show. There were a lot of people there in Genova! It was just after Seattle [and its anti-G8 protests]. In things like that, I can play music because that’s what I’m known to do, but these kinds of acts you do it as a citizen, not as a musician.
I would think politics would inevitably start to start to seep into the music.
That’s what happened in Genova. We came to make a concert to raise money for the activists, and then I got involved in politics because the government started to talk to me [through] TV [reports] saying, “We want to negotiate with Manu Chao [about] the security of the event, dee-ta-tum, ta-tum . . .” and I have to say “No, I don’t want to talk with you.” So they get upset, and the fight starts. I had a very strange relationship with the government of Italy, from Berlusconi — although they’re over and out, and I’m so happy about that! But it was not easy. Journalists coming [around] that were cops, they were not journalists. [You have to] be very careful that the cops don’t put some cocaine in your truck, you know? Politics.
You worked with Tijuana No. What was your reaction when you heard that singer Luis Güereña died?
I was so sad. Luis was a very close friend. I spent so much time in his place [a legendary tiny apartment underneath a parking lot in Tijuana]. It was like home . . . Luis is still there. The rebellion of Luis was not fake, he was a real rebel . . . Everybody was shocked [when he died]. Nobody expected that.
You collaborated with Tijuana No! on their 1995 album Transgresores de la Ley. Didn’t they record that in Bilbao?
Yeah. Luis was so happy in País Basco because there was a lot of rebellion, a lot of activists against the system. One night he called me and told me something totally stupid, but I really like it: “Manu, it’s like the Disneylandia of revolution! They have everything!”
Did you ever meet Subcomandante Marcos?
I met him in Chiapas.
Did you have any personal opinion of him as a man?
I should say — and he would agree with me — that my personal opinion about Marcos isn’t important. What is important is the movement. Marcos doesn’t want to be a protagonist or a kind of icon. The question is not Marcos, the question is all the community.
What was it like going onstage right before Rage Against the Machine at Coachella?
For me, it was a big honor to see Rage Against the Machine onstage. I’d never seen them, and it was a big opportunity. I’m a fan. I appreciate that the [slot] just before Rage Against the Machine at this festival was a hot place, so I want to say thank you to Rage that we got to be that lucky band. All my friends in the old neighborhood in Europe were very jealous not to be there to see Rage.
Did you like Gogol Bordello’s version of “Mala Vida”?
Oh, yeah. It’s an honor . . . We played with them in Central Park in New York, and that’s where we met, about six years ago. We had an incredible party in New York, and we’re real friends.
How did you end up producing Amadou & Mariam?
They started to get big in France, they had a hit. But I was not in France, I was in South America. And so when I came back to France, I put on the radio one day and heard them. I said, “Wha?!” I didn’t know the name, just one song, and I fell deep in love . . . I bought their CD and became a fan. “I need this music!” Medicinal music. One day I had the opportunity to meet them, and they asked me to produce their record . . . We spent a day in the studio, and the spirit was so much there, and the light. It was incredible.
Where do you live now?
My things are in Barcelona. I’m not there very often.
You’ve been to so many places that most bands don’t play. Are there any countries you want to go to that you haven’t performed in yet?
Oh yes, of course. The world is big. I don’t know too much about Asia. We’ve only played in Japan. Never been to Australia, never been to India. Never been to New Zealand; I’d like to go there. Never been to Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand. I don’t know these places. I hope to go one day. I’ve gotten propositions, but it’s hard to find the time.
Are you married? Do you have children?
I’m not married. I’ve got one child.
Have you ever been married?
I’ve been married one time.
How old is your son?
Eight years . . . He lives in Brazil. Something wonderful in my life is my son.
How did you find Radio Bemba? Were they already around or did you put them together?
Radio Bemba is a collective of all the things I do. Radio Bemba is a band, but it’s also a production. When I produce a record [by other bands], I sign “Radio Bemba.” It’s like a mark. I put the band together. All the musicians that are part of Radio Bemba, when Radio Bemba’s not touring, they do other things, other projects.
Is Radio Bemba based in France?
90 percent of the band are in Barcelona.
Do you still speak to the other guys in Mano Negra?
Yeah. In Radio Bemba, the percussionist is Garbancito [a.k.a. Philippe Teboul], who was part of Mano Negra.
When Mano Negra broke up, was there a lot of fighting or was it a natural ending?
It was a natural ending, but we were young and we didn’t know it was a natural ending. There was a little bit of fighting, like all bands. It’s normal. Bands are cycles. The end of Mano Negra was not very easy, because we experienced so many intense things in so few years . . . .Now everybody sees it’s cool. It’s a cool relationship with all the guys. They’re more in Paris, so I don’t see them too much. The one I see more is Garbancito, who plays with me, so he gives news from the others.
What inspired the Mano Negra song “Letter to the Censors”?
At the time in the USA, if I remember, there was a kind of law about censorship. When we came here the first time, there were a lot of words we couldn’t say. It was very curious . . . so I wrote a song full of bad words for them.
Have you ever performed on any of the Indian reservations in the U.S.?
It would be an honor. I’ve never had the opportunity or the contact. In South America, we played in a lot of indigenous communities because we’ve spent more time there. In Chiapas, we played in the Zapatista community. We played in Ecuadorian communities.
How many languages do you sing in?
I sing a lot in Spanish, French. And English, I do my best, I try . . . It’s okay. Now I speak good Portuguese because of my son and spending so much time in Brazil; it’s an incredible country. I’ve learned about the culture, I’ve been playing in all the bars. I’ve got a CD totally in Portuguese. I hope to release it someday. It’s just a question of time.
How do you decide which language you’re going to use in a song?
It’s environment. If I’m in this bar [Musso & Frank] and something happens that gives me an idea, there’s a 60 percent possibility there’s going to be something in English, 40 percent there’s going to be something in Spanish. For sure, not in French. The environment where you are in the moment where you get the idea is what decides in which language you’re going to sing. Sometimes the song comes from the most silly idea you can imagine. You never know how it’s going to come. It’s imagination, you know? Imagination is not rational . . . The idea comes, I don’t know why . . . If the idea is good, I have my fun finishing it, “Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-tut.” I have my pleasure with that. But I don’t decide if it’s in English, Spanish or French . . . It’s important when you get the idea to write it quick, not to forget. You have to attack. If you wait 24 hours, it’s gone. If you wait two hours sometimes, it’s gone.
In many of your songs, there’s a Greek chorus of film dialogue, samples and speeches that weave in and out of the musical soup. Do you hear voices like that in your head?
I need kicks and information [all the] time. When I come home, or even in the hotel room, I put on music, I put the TV on, I put everything on — I got the mix! Like in the street. When you’re in the streets, you get this mix . . . I live in that. Even when I sleep, I’ll leave on my music and the TV . . . It’s part of me.
You’ve been famous in much of the world for a long time and starting to get well known here. They say that power corrupts even good people. Are you ever worried about turning into a rock-star asshole?
Of course. Fame is fame, and fame is dangerous. Fame’s got its problems because a lot of musicians that are really famous, they have problems going out in the street, having a normal life, but personally I don’t have that problem. I can [go around] in Paris or Madrid or Barcelona; I’m always living in the street, I take the subway. Nobody recognizes me.
A lot of people do recognize me, but the feeling is cool. They don’t bullshit me. It’s only “Hey, Manu, cool” or girls who smile. It’s nice, it’s easy. Sometimes I’m in the subway, and there’s a young guy sitting in front of me. It’s a kind of ritual, no? Now, I know what’s going on. The guy looks at me and doesn’t even care. Then he looks at me again and you can see him thinking, “Fuck. This guy is Mano Chao.” You can imagine what he’s thinking (“No, it’s not Manu Chao. Yes, it is. I’m going to ask him”). “I’m sorry, are you Manu Chao?” I say, “Yes, I’m Manu Chao.” So the guy says, “No, you’re not Manu Chao. Manu Chao is taller!” Then I say, “Okay, I’m not Manu Chao.” . . . I’ve got a very good relation with the street, so no problem with fame. My problem with fame would be if I couldn’t be in the street anymore. Because I need to be in the street. For writing my songs, to be happy, I need the street. I like to eat in the streets; I don’t like to eat at home. I like to watch TV in bars, not at home. I don’t like to take cabs, I like the subway . . . Fame is a kind of sickness. I can choose now; I know how to handle it. It’s not a big problem. Sometimes it’s a problem when you go to a disco. All your friends are having a party, and you spend hours making autographs. But that’s part of the gig . . . It’s better to be famous than with no work and four kids to feed, you know? Some people say fame is a problem. It’s not a real problem.
I’m always fascinated how you’ll take a song like “Welcome to Tijuana” and change the arrangement and the tempo in concert or take a piece of one song and put it into another song. Why do you keep changing things?
Because a song is never finished. There’s a version of “Welcome to Tijuana,” and after you go and play it in a bar, consequently that makes you change the song, maybe because you’re jamming with somebody else. I don’t know. There are many reasons. And you find another version, and so it’s good too. I’ll use it. It depends. If I play on a big stage, I’m going to make a version of “Welcome to Tijuana” with the band. And if I play in a little bar alone with my guitar, maybe it’s not that arrangement that I’m going to use. Better for the bar, better for the voice. So every song must be able to adapt to the moment. If the song is good, if the lyric is strong, the music can change. Or if you’re in a hotel room and everybody is sleeping and you want to sing “Welcome to Tijuana” to a nice girl, you have to sing very nicely and slow. If you’re in a bar and 40 drunk guys are in front of you, you have to sing very loud. A song is like a good car. You can drive on the city highway, but also in the countryside.
Manu Chao & Radio Bemba Sound System play at the L.A. Sports Arena, Saturday, June 2.