Gustavo 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 Argentinas psych-folk-rock scene in the 1960s, L.A.s Latino Punk movement in the 1970s, the huge Rock en Español scene in Mexico during the 1980s, as well as working with some of Latin musics 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 hasnt 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 wasnt enough to just sing in Spanish, I felt that I had to play and express who we were and where we were from and thats 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 didnt 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 Ive never looked back, Im 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.
L.A. was also where you started your work in musical scores for film. What can you tell me about your first film score for She Dances Alone?
She Dances Alone was lost because the producer died and it never got distribution afterwards but its a very beautiful movie about the life of Nijinsky. It was my first musical score for a film and it was a great experience. But later, I dont really know why, but I was never called after that to do work on any other movies. So I just moved on and continued to produce albums until a few years ago when I released an instrumental album called Ronroco that impressed Michael Mann, who was the first one to call me to do movie work again. But the first person who I consider in some way a mentor to this facet of my career is Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu, who asked me to work with him on Amores Perros. After that came 21 Grams, Motorcycle Diaries, Brokeback Mountain and Babel.
And now you have an Academy Award for your work was film something you always wanted to be involved with?
Film is something Ive always loved since I was very young in fact I actually wanted to study to be a filmmaker when I was younger. I was already releasing albums at the age of 16 so I when I finished high school I said, "I have my band already. Im going to go study film. Thats when the government shut down the film institute because they believed it to be an institute for subversives. So I couldnt study film but I always kept that love for the movies. Im a fan of movies and Im very happy to be involved with that marvellous process of making movies.
When you left Los Angeles in 1983 you went on a two-year journey across Argentina to record folk artists in their environment. How did that trip influence your career?
Well when we made the trip for De Ushuahia a La Quiaca, when we travelled from Tierra de Fuego to the Bolivian border recording rural musicians, it really inspired me to get more involved with producing artists and really get into releasing my solo albums. So when I got back to Los Angeles I really jumped into the world of production and thats when I caught wind of a new movement happening in Mexico in the mid-80s.
The Rock en Español Scene
Exactly, I went to Mexico and started to produce Maldita Vecindad y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio, Caifanes, and the guys that would become one of my closest, life-long artistic allies, Café Tacuba.
And Café Tacuba is a great representation of a fusion of traditional elements and contemporary rock music something that you are quite the expert on. I think the best example of this in your career is Bajofondo. Where did the inspiration for this project come from?
The project was started by Juan Campodonico and I. Juan is from Uruguay and Im from Argentina and we always had this idea to start a Rio de la Plata band that would create a new language, a language that would represent us and our vision of what Rio de la Plata is like today. So, for us, that involved connecting things that had to do with the genetics of the music of that region, which is the Tango, la Milonga, el Candombe and la Murga. But also with things that had to do with where were from and our history from the Beatles to Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend to the Who and passing through Moby and the Chemical Brothers. Thats why we dont really like the label of "electro-tango because what we do has more to do with a rock band than anything else. What we are doing is creating music of today, contemporary music from Rio de la Plata.
Youre involved with so many projects, and always find a way to add on more projects on top of your ongoing work where do you find the energy and motivation to do so much?
I dont even know myself, brother [laughs]. I often ask myself that same question. When I start to think about all the things Im doing from running a label, publishing musical and literary works, producing artists, maintaining a band, theatrical projects, I have a vineyard, I do music for film, I produce films. The reality is, I dont know how I do it but the good thing is that at the end of the day, the albums are there, the books are there, the movies are there, the wine is there, the shows are there, everything is there. I work a lot thats all I can tell you [laughs].
So can we talk about a few projects that youre working on right now?
Im working with some new artists that, god willing, well be able to sign, from folkloric artists to pop artists and even a rock band. Im putting together a dance show based on the music of Bajofondo and Im working on Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritus new film, which is untitled as of now and is in Spanish, thats all I can tell you oh and its not a musical comedy [laughs]. Obviously Im playing with Bajofondo, were on tour and well be in Toronto and Costa Rica and then Chicago, followed by Korea and Japan. Im also going to Europe to meet with Alejandro and then Im going to a peace conference at the Peace Institute in Israel. Im very busy; Im booked for months in advanced [laughs].
So will there be time for an Arco Iris reunion?
Im very against reunions, because they always stink of money and of people that arent doing anything that makes them happy or satisfies them. Im very proud to say that at my age, at 56 years old, I can go up with a band like Bajofondo that puts forward something completely different in every sense because were from different countries and live in different cities and were all different ages. Were completely different aesthetically and everything and Im very proud that Im not on a stage somewhere trying to relive the success of my 20s and that Im still seeing a lot of success after all these years.