By Sergio ElmirGustavo Santaolalla is probably best known for his Academy Award-winning score for Brokeback Mountain, as well as critically acclaimed scores for Amores Perros, The Motorcycle Diaries, 21 Grams and Babel. But before Santaolalla was making moves in Hollywood he was helping start Argentina’s psych-folk-rock scene in the 1960s, L.A.’s Latino Punk movement in the 1970s, the huge Rock en Espańol scene in Mexico during the 1980s, as well as working with some of Latin music’s biggest crossover artists including Molotov, Juanes, Calle 13, Café Tacuba and Orishas. Most recently, Santaolalla has been busy with one of his side-projects, Bajofondo, and the release of Mar Dulce, the follow-up to their Grammy award-winning 2003 release, Bajofondo Tango Club. With an ear for talent and a career that spans decades and leaps continents, Santaolalla hasn’t taken a single moment to rest as he attempts to define his identity through his music, while influencing generations of Latin music fans all over the world.
I wanted to start with the early rock movement of the 1960s in Argentina and the beginning of your career… And the beginning of Rock in Argentina, really – which was influenced, of course, by the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks, bands from the British Invasion. But before that I started playing folkloric Argentine music. At the age of 15, I composed my first Chacarera. But obviously, I later went through a period influenced by the British musicians and later on with my band Arco Iris I realized that it wasn’t enough to just sing in Spanish, I felt that I had to play and express who we were and where we were from – and that’s the reason why the concept of identity has always been present with everything I do, from Arco Iris to Café Tacuba and passing through artists like Juanes and Bajofondo.
Was the political climate in Argentina as influential on the music as it was in other counter-culture movements around the world at the time? Well in those days in Argentina, alongside rock music and the birth of this global movement, we were all going through some very difficult political moments that eventually pushed me to leave Argentina. So everything we were doing was musical but with a very clear and important counter-cultural theme.
And I assume that the music was as influenced by psychedelics as it was everywhere else in the world? Well, all my psychedelic experiences, I had when I was much older. When I was in Arco Iris, we became a spiritual community, with a focus on Eastern teachings. So really, although it was all coming from a very psychedelic era and we made music that had elements of the psychedelic culture of the time, my psychedelic experiences didn’t happen until I was much older.
Is it true that, although the government of Argentina was very repressive at the time, you still decided to wait after the ’78 World Cup in Buenos Aires before you left the country? Oh yeah. You see, what happened was, as Argentina started to win games and kept qualifying; I kept pushing back my trip so that I could watch the end of the World Cup.
So why did you choose to move to Los Angeles? Because I had been in Europe and had spent time in New York – freezing – and California had that whole hippie world that I considered myself a part of. Really, it just seemed more of a laid-back part of the world and in the end I had to make a choice and I’ve never looked back, I’m very happy I picked L.A.
And it was obviously a good move because in L.A. you involved yourself with the punk and new wave scenes, right? Correct, exactly. Because when I arrived in Los Angeles, I was coming from a place where the music had a very distinct and important counter-culture vibe, and all the bands that were doing really well in the U.S. at the time were horrible. Bands like Kansas, Styx, Boston, corporate rock bands. But also at the time, in ’78, the Sex Pistols went on their last tour which ended in San Francisco. Between them and the Ramones, a very strong movement was created that, for me, had, again, something to do with counter-culture that was against the system and the established order.
During those years, you worked with legendary Latino punk band the Plugz – tell me a little bit about the Latino influence on American punk rock. There were always Latinos involved in the movement in L.A, especially in punk music in those days. There were a lot of great groups, groups like the Brats and guys like Carlos Guitarlos who played with Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs. There were always Latinos around in those days. It was a little bit like being back home, but it was something very different and I sometimes felt a little out of place within that movement.