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De-Genre-ate Friendship

Kevin Johansen + The Nada and Ricardo Siri Liniers are touring Latin America and Europe. While the musicians play, the artist joins them on stage and illustrates the songs in real time.

By Myriam Selhi
Photos: Noelia Vittori

Since 2008, Kevin Johansen + The Nada and illustrator Ricardo Siri Liniers have been taking their polyphonic party to countries throughout Latin America and parts of Europe. While Kevin and the band perform the eclectic rhythms for which they’re known, the creator of the Macanudo comic strip illustrates the songs live on stage and the result is a creative burst of ideas and laughter, breaking molds and defying classification.

De-Genre-ate Encounters

“The friendship came long before the show,” begins Kevin. “And continues in spite of it,” quips Liniers, barely suppressing a smile.

Now an unavoidable reference point for live mixed-genre performances in Latin America, this show combines real-time sound and images. “I do something you can’t see, and he does something you can’t hear, so we complement each other,” reflects the deep-voiced singer, speaking of their show together. Once the show begins and the first notes float from Kevin’s guitar, members of The Nada begin to play together, as they have done for fifteen years, and Liniers’s inspiration is reflected in colors and lines projected on a screen. The commentary, the room, and the production efforts all dissolve into the amazing sum of all the talent on stage. Suddenly, you’ve walked into a gathering of friends or a festive master class in creative freedom, taught by two longstanding accomplices.

“It’s Kevin’s mega-host capabilities that make him what he is. When you go to a barbecue at his house he makes sure everyone has a lot to eat, that they always have wine, a good dessert… He’s the same way on stage, he makes sure everyone goes home happy.” When the artist speaks of Kevin, he refers to him first as a friend: “We’ve known each other since 2001, when he returned from New York, and for about four or five years we’d meet at barbecues, birthdays, and concerts before we started experimenting with this.” The rest just came about naturally. “We chose each other for some reason. I think there’s a complicity, an aesthetic affinity. That sounds good anyway,” laughs Kevin.

This way of working emerged first as a playful experiment and, although it has evolved, the formula “music + illustration” has remained. “Kevin and the band provide me with a context in which anything I draw is placed inside the world’s best frame,” confides Liniers, who says that the ease he exudes on stage is due to their personal ties. “I’m not the guy who’s the center of attention at parties or a social dinner. At school, I was more of a nerd and pretty quiet.” And singer Johansen acknowledges that he found in Liniers someone exceptional who “frames the music amazingly.”

De-Genre-ate Adventures

And so, this show is the story of A meets B: A is an Argentine cartoonist with more than twenty books to his credit, award-winning album covers, collaborations in magazines in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America, and daily comic strips in some of South America’s most read newspapers. B is an American, born in Alaska to an American father who defected to avoid the Vietnam War and a Argentine socialist mother, and raised in Argentina. He came of age musically at the legendary CBGB nightclub in New York in the ’90s, has released six albums, and been nominated for several Grammy awards.

The adventure holds countless surprises and no one knows where it will all end, but we do know the show has become a classic after seven years of performances in Buenos Aires and abroad. Naturally, the show has gone through changes after so many performances and the relationships between the performers have evolved. “We brag about never rehearsing anything; things just came up and we incorporated them into the show,” explains the bandleader. Kevin has just one rule for both the band and the illustrator: “Be prepared to surprise us and keep on surprising us.”

De-Genre-ate Evolution

In their first live collaborations, Liniers drew off-stage and his drawings were projected on a screen above the stage. As the formula evolved, more integrated dynamics developed and he began to draw on stage, first painting murals, and then illustrating from a seat at his table. Now, to a certain extent, they direct the show together. “We coincide both personally and artistically. We just found a kind of framework that we find fundamentally entertaining,” reveals Kevin.

And so it is; they have fun joking between and during songs. During certain numbers they invite the audience onto the stage to dance; at other times Liniers uses the screen to comment on what is happening on stage, behind the backs of Kevin and The Nada. The singer is aware of the dangers of this situation: “He has a clear advantage over me: he has his drawings and a screen to display them on and he could betray me any time and do something funny in the middle of a ballad, for example.” “You can only betray a friend…” states Liniers slyly, always somewhere between irony and absurdity.

William Blake, Minimalism, and Joan Miró: Food for De-Genre-ates

The illustrator’s presence on stage allowed for an exchange of roles. At times, Kevin sits down to draw while the illustrator plays a few songs from his repertoire, one of which is a musical minimalist interpretation of a poem. “When I was younger, I learned William Blake’s poem ‘The Fly,’ to try to pick up girls. It didn’t work. Girls don’t like poems, or flies… and I wasn’t cool.”

When cartoonists set poems to music and guitarists swap their instruments for a paintbrush, in the space where codes get crossed, new meanings are generated, and the unexpected happens. “The music takes you a little bit away, your head takes you a little further… At some point in ‘No seas insegura’ I started drawing like Joan Miró. Five shows later, I realized that the lyrics said: ‘Yo vi como él te miró’ (‘I saw how he looked at you’)… It just happened, a joke born on the stage,” analyzes Liniers.

Both artists are nurtured by these crossed codes. “One thing I noticed about Kevin when we met was the way he didn’t just like rock, tango, or folk… he loved music. He wants to do everything,” notes the artist. This mixture of styles has become the musician’s hallmark. In fact, he refers to his style as “de-genre-ated.” “Hip pop,” “cumbia flamenco,” and “Celtic sambarera” are some of the terms used to classify his songs.

The range of genres covered is as varied as the collaborators who have contributed their music over the years: Colombia’s Andrea Echeverri (Aterciopelados), Spaniards Amparo Sánchez (Amparanoia), Kiko Veneno, and Albert Pla; Mexicans Leonel García, Lila Downs, Natalia Lafourcade, and Rubén Albarrán (Café Tacuba); Uruguaya’s Rubén Rada, Jorge Drexler, and Fernando Cabrera; Brazilians Daniela Mercury and Paulinho Moska; Ileana Cabrera from Puerto Rico (Calle 13), and Argentines Lisandro Aristimuño, Pablo Lescano (Damas Gratis), and the tango musicians from Orquesta El Arranque, to name just a few.

The artistic concordance between musician and artist is also evident in the way they create: “In the characters from Macanudo and the previous strip, Bonjour, Liniers’s “de-genre-ate” style is apparent: his creative process is very open to influences,” explains Johansen. “The same happens to me with comics as happens to him with music: I wasn’t looking to just make some Snoopy strip or some absurdist strip and “presto!” Everyone is looking around, combining references, and using their own sensitivity to create something very personal.

The show’s metamorphosis has left behind a number of jewels to mark the evolution of this collaboration between the artists: books like Oops! (2008) and Bis! (2012), published by Ediciones de la Flor, are co-authored by both, with Kevin contributing the lyrics of his songs and Liniers his drawings. Vivo en Argentina (2010) and Bi(vo) en México (2012), concerts available on DVD from Sony Music, are also testimonies to the transformation.

Future De-Genre-ations

At the time of this interview these two friends were touring Argentina and preparing their next tour. In keeping with their modus operandi, the duo opened their bag of surprises and added cartoonist Alberto Montt to the nine shows that took them from Antofagasta to Punta Arenas, passing through Temuco, Valparaiso and, of course, Santiago, last November. During the concerts, Kevin was flanked by an artist on each side, which inspired the tour’s title: “Amenaza a Trois” (“Threat of a Threesome”). They presented new drawings and surprising elements that became music.

Also in the works are tours of Brazil and the United States in 2016. “The beauty of the touring process was the vine effect it produced. It was very organic: from Buenos Aires we headed inland to Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, and Perú. We climbed up to Central America and México, and are now on our way to the U.S. and Canada,” says the musician. Will the “de-genre-ate” duo maintain the show’s format for the American public? “The show functions as a constant muse,” replies Liniers, suggesting what his buddy confirms: “We’ll have to wait and see; anything can happen.”