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Café Tacvba: Rides Again

Latin America’s leading rock band is releasing a new record, their first in five years, and embarking on a world tour to promote it. Shortly before taking to the stage at the Festival Verde de Cultura Musical (Green Festival of Musical Culture) in Panama, where they headlined with a fiesta of hit songs, the group’s charmingly charismatic vocalist, Ruben Albarrán, spent a few minutes chatting with Panorama of the Americas about the recording process and the concept behind the new album.

By: Roberto Quintero
Photos:  Noelia Vittori

Café Tacvba must be Latin America’s best loved rock band. We all know the band’s important role in propelling Mexican and Latin American identity into surprising new musical dimensions. Their success has been proven many times over in a career spanning twenty-four years and eleven albums (seven studio albums, two live albums, one anthology, and one EP), not to mention their many awards. Their place in history was secured long ago ―no doubt about it. But I’m talking about the place of honor the band occupies in the hearts of people all over the Americas and the endless affection they inspire in their fans. I’m talking about the love and insanity audiences unleash when the four chilangos from Mexico City hit the stage with their positive vibe and wild desire to rock the house.

As a fan of the genre, I’ve listened to these guys, famous for their hits La ingrata and Las flores, since I was an adolescent in the early 90s. I can assure you that ever since…I suppose you could say forever…the Tacvubas have earned the affection and respect of audiences, critics, and the media. Their charisma, similar to that of Mexican television idols El Chavo del 8 and El Chapulín Colorado (created by comedian Roberto Gómez Bolaños), transformed Café Tacvba quickly from a major band on the Mexican music scene to the Latin American act everybody loved. And they’ve remained at the top for nearly two and a half decades.

My mother used to say, “Sow affection, reap affection,” and this motherly pearl of wisdom makes me think that even my mom must be a Café Tacvba fan. Rubén, Meme, Joselo, and Quique love music, and they love to create songs and play them for people. With their dedication, and all the beautiful melodies they’ve given us, who could resist loving them back? And this love and desire to create never stops; after five years they’ve just put out a new album called El objeto antes llamado disco (The Object Formerly Known as Record), which was recorded in different parts of the Americas. The album features many friends and special guests, as the band looks for new ways to involve others in the creative process they find so enjoyable.

Tacvba’s recently visited Panama to headline at the Festival Verde de Cultura Musical (Green Festival of Musical Culture), and we had a chance to chat with the band’s charmingly charismatic lead vocalist, Rubén Albarrán. He was kind enough to give us an exclusive ten minutes of his time to talk about what went on behind the scenes of this new record. And don’t worry, fans; although he didn’t give us any specific details about when the tour will start, he did announce that the band will soon be playing the new material in México, the U.S., South America, and Europe, and that they’re planning a tour next year to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

First, let’s talk about the new album’s concept and recording process. You recorded in different cities in the Americas, always in front of an audience, and yet you don’t consider it a live album. What were you looking for?

It’s not a live album, but we did invite friends to join us at the recording sessions, people who might be interested in watching this part of the process. We hoped their ears and eyes would transform our performances and make the songs grow and mature as they were being recorded. We also hoped that somehow the emotions and thoughts of the people who accompanied us would leave a mark on what was recorded. And we wanted to have some fun, which is why we recorded in places where we have friends and enjoy going out to eat and having a good time, like Buenos Aires, Santiago, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. We wanted to expand our intimacy without destroying it completely. We kept some of the intimacy that is always there in the studio to some degree, so even though we included other people, the recording sessions weren’t a live show. For example, we asked everyone to refrain from clapping at the end of the songs. This kept it from being a concert album and made it more of a studio album influenced by contact with other people. That was our basic intent.

I find it interesting that you mention intimacy. I’ve had a chance to see you live in different cities and I’m always left with the feeling of having seen you play as if you were at home. Wherever you perform, the band and the audience, no matter their nationality, become one big Café Tacvba family. How does it feel to be the leading Latin American rock band and have this kind of intimacy with an entire continent?

Thanks, but we don’t really feel like we’re leading anything. A twenty-four-year career does put us in a special place, one for which we’re extremely grateful. It’s great to be treated as if we were playing on our home turf every place we go. We’ve had a really happy career, which has given us a lot of satisfaction. We can travel to Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, and México and everywhere we go we feel at home.

What can you tell us about the title of the album, El objeto antes llamado disco? What’s the concept? Are you referring to music industry formats or was it just a random decision?

Yes, there’s a concept behind it, but it’s also playful. Many of the things Café Tacvba does are the result of jokes we make when we’re together. Quique suggested as joke that the record not have a name –just a symbol. And this reminded us of when [U.S. musician] Prince stopped using his name and his record company had to refer to him as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” That’s where it came from, and it also reminded us of [Spanish filmmaker] Luis Buñuel, whose work we really like. The name made us feel somehow linked to him [because of his film That Obscure Object of Desire]. And, of course, we also wanted to say that music isn’t about formats or the record industry.

Music is something else that will always remain vital because of the vital relationship musicians have with the music: they’re constantly working with it and creating. The way music is presented to people is something else; it might not always be in such good shape, like right now, with the industry being shaken up by the question of formats. What we wanted to say with this record is that it’s the direct relationship with the music that’s important, and this relationship is doing just fine.

So you’re not worried about piracy and the future of the record industry?

We’ve lived through the worst kinds of abuse from both the industry and piracy; so, actually, we’re ready for anything. Our relationship with the music is healthy; it goes beyond formats and the industry. We don’t sell a huge number of records and our lifestyle isn’t based on sales; our lives are based on going out and playing. If the industry collapses, we’ll keep playing.

Next year the band celebrates its 25th anniversary. It’s kind of a cliché to ask about the secret of your success, but it’s valid to wonder what keeps you together when so many bands have fallen by the wayside. How have you kept things going, both musically and personally, and maintained the desire to create together?

I think it’s due to a number of things. On the one hand, we admire each other and have a lot of fun doing what we do. We also give each other space and that’s very important. At the end of each of our creative cycles, which go from getting together to write the songs for a new record until we finish a tour, we give ourselves space and we all take advantage of it to work on individual projects. This is very healthy, because it gives us permission to get involved with other people in other projects and observe other ways of working; this definitely enriches the band. It’s like a non-monogamous relationship, an open relationship that allows us to really, truly enjoy ourselves. And afterwards, we come back to Café Tacvba with new ideas and a real desire to play together again. This has really worked for us.

It’s the songs and the work that keeps us together, like the songs on El objeto antes llamado disco. That’s what continues to unite us and why we continue to have a good time. The moment of creation is very important, because that’s where we charge our batteries and prepare to go out on tour, which is perhaps the hardest part, when a certain friction can arise.

There’s friction in creation too, but that kind of friction is precisely what creates light and keeps things moving. On tour it’s a different kind that has more to do with logistical decisions, which in a way are what run down your batteries. But when we get together to write songs and create, we get recharged and ready for another two or three years.

So can we expect another twenty-five years of Café Tacvba?

Of course! Why not? [laughs].