Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Combine Sai Baba with the suffix “sonic” and what you get is Babasónicos: an enigmatic name for a Buenos Aires-based band that neither practices meditation nor follows any gurus. The band’s sound—a fortunate blend of psych, funk, and traditional Brit rock—isn’t intent on making the nationalist statements that characterized some of the bands epitomizing the Rock en español movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Babasónicos are tough on themselves and that’s palpable in the nine records they have released over almost two decades. Their lyrics have a complex simplicity and an everything-but-obvious relationship with the songs’ musical structures; even subtler is their way of conceptualizing and delivering each of their albums. Enter Adrián Dárgelos, the band’s front man and songwriter, whose onstage persona at times reminds me of Brian Eno at his most exaggerated with Roxy Music. As Dárgelos performs, his alter ego takes over—it sings triumphantly about his obscure fascination with women and dealings with the devil and reflects the audience’s worst fears and desires. Isn’t that what we expect from a cathartic performance? Babasónicos, unlike many of the Rock en español bands, grew from the bottom up and hence remained ahead of the curve. In this age of digital downloads, though any medium allowing them to reach their audience is good enough for them, the immediacy of the live show is their credo.
Laureana Toledo When you started the band, the Rock en español movement in Latin America was at its peak—some Argentine bands like Soda Stereo, Charly García, and Ilya Kuryaki and the Valderramas were getting a lot of attention then, since they were supported by big record labels that were tapping into the Latin American market. What was the context in which you emerged like?
Adrián Dárgelos We formed the band at the end of ’91. There were some mainstream bands—the ones you mentioned, certainly—but we felt that no one was representing the generation that came after them. In the underground circuit a lot of bands sprang up in the early ’90s in response to this—we were one of them.
LT Some of the more mainstream bands sounded very Latin. Your sound was different, or at least the part of your output that was heard outside of Argentina.
AD We were already Latin, so we didn’t need to make ourselves sound Latin. We weren’t like other bands at the time that were incorporating folk music elements into their sound, like Café Tacuba in Mexico, for example. Ilya Kuryaki were projecting themselves onto the Latin American scene, while our music was a bit more hermetic. We were after a specific sound—our first albums were more experimental, since we also got to produce them.
LT How did you go from simply making music with your friends to making music your profession, your business?
AD We had a band in school and we played as a hobby, but when it came to becoming a part of the work force after graduation, we had no luck getting jobs. We had no option but to become musicians; we would have starved otherwise.
LT What would you have done had music not worked out?
AD Nothing! The system in Argentina marginalized us to the extent that we became musicians. Being a musician back then wasn’t a business at all; we were all déclassé. The market we know now didn’t exist 18 years ago.
LT Of course not. Argentina actually paved the road for bands from other Latin American countries, with its successful producers, business models, and bands.
AD Yes, it also exported a lot of its talent. Argentina is too small, so once people make it there, they often want to go elsewhere. A lot of the people from the ’80s scene emigrated to Mexico. This wasn’t the case for us; we evolved gradually till we became one of the biggest bands in Argentina. In ’95 we started touring in Latin America and part of the US, especially in Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. We toured after each album and kept growing slowly, without being aware of it. We didn’t depend on publicity; it was the other way around, our success depended on how our work evolved and on the audiences’ response to our live shows. Our music was never played on the radio either—it was actually banned from the radio.
LT So you didn’t have to worry about making songs that would make it to the top of the charts.
AD No, although I would have loved our music to be played on the radio actually. Reality was harsh then.
LT I hear that you’re making music to be downloaded from cellphones.
AD CD sales are falling so much we thought that the only way to still have access to our audience is through this type of medium.
LT Does it worry you that the quality of the work you produce for months in the studio could be lost in a digital format?
AD Our younger listeners grew up listening to music downloads, so they can’t tell that their quality is lacking. Music is exciting to people or it isn’t, that’s the only criterion that matters now.
LT Fans of your music will only know what it really sounds like in a live performance.
AD Babasónicos never stopped playing live. We try to make it attractive for people to see us live.
LT Talk about your alternate persona. It’s as if you were an actor who is in character as soon as he gets on the stage.
AD I arrived at that character through songwriting. Around 2002–03 the character started coming out automatically as soon as I set foot on the stage. The songs themselves prompted the character to become bolder, more insouciant. But it happened ipso facto, there was no previous construction.
LT Unlike Bowie saying, Now I’ll be Ziggy Stardust.
AD I never had that self-reflection, I was just going with the flow, doing things I was embarrassed by. That’s what I do: I expose myself to embarrassment. I come out on the stage and catch people’s attention by making a complete fool of myself.
LT Your gestures and costumes are completely exaggerated, yes. You’re nothing like that in real life.
AD I wouldn’t be so sure. (laughter) This character comes out of my imagination. I’m a medium more than a composer, because I know that as soon as I’m done with a project, I’ll need to go out and search again for material for a new one. My thing is not to materialize my plans, but to always remain searching. To realize a plan would amount to speculating on what the end of my search would be.
LT That’s sweet.
AD I do what others don’t want to do: meet frustration head on. I spend seven or eight hours a day sitting down waiting for an idea to pop up in my head, but I don’t despair because I know that something always lies ahead.
LT Often it’s not perseverance but—
AD It’s to know that you won’t be harassed by frustration. You have to go to the cave every night to see if the dragon comes out—if you happened not to be there when it came out, someone else will tell you about it. This process gives me the confidence to stand there on the stage in the role of that character who is a hero, in the mythical sense, for he cannot be judged by the same standards as other mortals. People don’t see his fissures; they accept him, though he’s shameless. No one sees the strings dangling from his mask.
LT You write most of the Babasónicos songs, right?
AD Well, I write, first and foremost, to please the band. They’re my main audience. I test my songs on them, see their reactions, what they’re willing to put up with. They’re very demanding and don’t let me get away with slacking. If something doesn’t hook them, then I have to get rid of it.
LT At the end of the day the dynamics between band members are a lot like marriages.
AD Absolutely. What’s best is that since we don’t fuck each other, there’s still respect. Somehow fucking is related to losing respect.
LT So sex spoils marriages? (laughter) Could you sing something you didn’t write?
AD I’ve sung fragments of lyrics that Mariano wrote, and I’ve written lyrics for Mariano and Diego to sing. For instance, Mariano wrote “El Ringo,” which has a part I love to sing: “Ella es esclava de su voz” (She’s a slave to her own voice.) In Babasónicos, things aren’t negotiated; there’s no lobbying. You just do things. The more confident one always gets his way. You get your square foot and you have to be the best within that square foot you control.
LT You collaborated with Ian Brown, the British singer. It must be weird to hear your music be sung in English by someone else.
AD Yeah, it was great to be invited to do that. There haven’t been any Latin bands that do crossover stuff with Anglo bands.
LT Collaborations of that sort are difficult. David Byrne, for instance, does something similar, but in the opposite direction. His project is different in that he preserves the purity of the bands he presents to Anglos. Babasónicos, on the other hand, was transported into English by Ian Brown; the band wasn’t presented as an exotic export product, but rather as “people like us.”
AD Though Byrne’s view on Latin culture is clichéd. It’s as if Latin culture were something exotic to be studied in a laboratory.
LT But he focuses on the American vernacular as well. And he preserves and highlights the clichés of American culture, and that’s one of the great things about him.
I know you’re very well read. The literature by the authors you read—Marcelo Cohen and Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill from Argentina, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Pynchon, Alexander Kluge, Flann O’Brien—enters your lyrics in a non-pretentious, subtle way. You don’t overcomplicate them and your writing style is remarkably different from that of other people writing pop music. How much of the literature you process enters your lyrics?
AD The amount of time I spend reading translates into my having a plethora of grammatical structures and poetic devices at my disposal when I write. I did something different when I was writing for the last album: I didn’t have a particular focus, so I allowed for all kinds of improbable stories in the lyrics. The characters of the songs have superhuman powers. I wasn’t expecting them to pop up; I just happened upon them in the process of writing. What I like about those lyrics is that I don’t give people all the clues to understanding them—there’s complicity with the listeners, since they have to fill in the blanks.
LT Right, the lyrics are not didactic at all. Something similar happens with the covers and titles of your albums. The album Jessico has a picture of a cactus on the cover. It makes one stop and think about what that name juxtaposed with a cactus image could possibly mean.
AD Our music has a spatial dimension that graphic designers haven’t gotten yet. We shy away from referents that anchor the listener in a single position; we prefer to trigger a broader field of referents. That’s why our albums are allegorical and don’t carry a single message.
LT It’s remarkable that all your albums’ titles consist of single words.
AD All but the 1994 album called Trance Zomba (Zomba Trance).
LT It’s difficult to arrive at a concept that can be summed up in one word. It’s got to be a pretty powerful word. Though conceptual, your titles are nothing like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars.
AD Which is all the more wonderful precisely because it’s got more than one word. There’s a lot of abstraction in our album titles; all the experience we’ve gone through as a band is embodied in a single, abstract word—
LT It’s hard for a single word to describe a certain experience; the exception might be your recent album Mucho (Much).
AD It’s a wink. The idea behind Mucho is disproportion—to give a lot when people expect nothing. While the music industry is more and more stingy, Babasónicos gives it all (but subtly). It’s funny, too, because there aren’t many songs in the album; what there is a profusion of in the album is quality. There’s also a high level of inspiration. And a certain arrogance, for sure.
LT That’s in all of your albums, to a varying degree. (laughter)
AD It’s a game that we’re all conscious of playing. Rock and roll has an inevitable way of telling the truth—musicians stand there arrogantly and belch out their truths.
LT They play the game of arrogance much more than sculptors, for instance.
AD Audiences applaud your efforts immediately. How could you not be aware of your arrogance?
LT Once a girl started crying at a show of mine because she liked my sculptures a lot. Still, after an art show, there’s no giant ovation—I go home not knowing whether people actually respond to my work or not.
AD Musicians don’t get feedback when they’re recording in the studio, but as soon as they set foot on the stage, the uncertainty is over—they get a different kind of security through performing. The audience’s constant reassurance notwithstanding, I do suffer when I have to share with the public what, up to that point, had been the soundtrack of my imagination.
LT Did you ever think about publishing poems?
AD I work specifically for this context. I write songs because I know the language of songs—I’ve known it since I was a child. I’d have to revise my method entirely were I writing novels or poetry.
LT You’d be writing sonnets had you been born three centuries ago.
AD Yeah, I guess I would have been a poet had I been born in a different era. Poets have no value in modern culture; the issue for me has been to find out the way to deal with the notion of self-destruction, implicit in poetry, in modern culture.
LT You’ve written soundtracks for movies—the one for Las mantenidas sin sueños (Kept and Dreamless), for example, directed by Vera Fogwill. The film got a lot of attention a few years ago.
AD I enjoy doing it because it’s the one time my music needs to follow requirements and be functional. Otherwise my music performs no function and I don’t care if people respond to it or not. People who like Babasónicos like the band precisely because we do what we like to do. All I have to do, when writing music, is think about what I really want to do.
LT You have to keep defining it over and over.
AD Discriminating is the most aberrant act, but it is the only one that produces the distance that art requires. You must constantly discriminate between what is beautiful and what is not beautiful.
LT Art is a process of elimination.
AD You first have to imagine the form hidden within what you’re trying to extract something from, like a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble.
LT How do you grow when you’re touring and people keep asking you to play your greatest hits?
AD We’re neither demagogical nor too accessible, and, in our live shows, when we play older songs, it’s only those that, to us, relate to the newer material. We’re never too retrospective; we’re anchored in the present. Our repertoire is always made up of our two latest albums.
LT You actually don’t have a greatest hits album.
AD We don’t. Our recording label has done compilations, though we’ve never had anything to do with them. What we want is to pollute with our work. Culture and ideas advance chaotically; you can never predetermine the result of an idea that you’ve decided to implement, and you never know which ideas will stick. All you can do is ensure that a great number of them are put in circulation.
LT What comes next for you? You’ve had to start a new cycle after Gabo Manelli’s death in early 2008.
AD He was the band’s bass player and a lifelong friend…. We’ll recover; we’ve always confronted vicissitudes head on. In the past we thrived on adversity; discredit is the starting point for any musician in Latin America. There’s no secure place for rockers in our societies. In the Anglo world, being a musician can be a professional option. Not here.
Translated from the Spanish by María Espejo.
Laureana Toledo is a multimedia artist from Mexico City. She’s had solo shows at the Galería OMR in Mexico City, and Space d’Art Ivonneamour Palix in Paris. Recent group shows include Migration Patterns at the Whitechapel Gallery and Art Sheffield in the UK. Her book The Limit is due out next spring, with texts by Cuauhtémoc Medina, David Byrne, and others.
Originally published in
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.