Cristián Heyne: The Visionary Producer Who Dreamed Up Chile’s Indie Pop Paradise

Photo by Rodrigo Ferrari

On a Saturday morning in a noisy Brooklyn cafe, heavy with early brunch traffic, sits a tall, broad man. He resembles a linebacker, but dressed in all black. Hidden behind long shaggy hair and angular glasses, Cristián Heyne is a simultaneously intimidating and withdrawn figure. Queues taken from bands like The Cure, The Velvet Underground, Cocteau Twins, and Joy Division are quite apparent in his physicality, but given that he refers to the aforementioned artists as his four pillars, there must be more to what makes him one of Chile’s most influential musical minds. He began his trajectory in high school as part of Christianes, a pop band that achieved mid-90s success in Chile. That journey has led him to become the architect of the South American nation’s now ubiquitous (though often pigeonholed) indie pop sound.

Cristián Heyne was born in Santiago in 1973 at the height of Chile’s military dictatorship. Raised in a middle-class family, Heyne grew up largely unscathed by the regime, going to school and forming Christianes at age 15 along with Christian Arenas. A few years later, vocalist Evelyn Fuentes and Juan Carlos Oyarzún joined the lineup.

He remembers his musical childhood and home life quite fondly, thanks to his mother’s influence. “The radio was on all day in my house. When I woke up, it was on, and when I went to bed, that’s when we turned it off. When I was listening to Prince and Michael Jackson, I had no idea we were living in gruesome times. I only began to find out about what was going on as I got older.”

Related: 10 Chilean Artists You Need to Know Right Now

As a young adult, Heyne attended journalism school while juggling band duties, and in 1995 Christianes landed a megahit with “Mírame Solo Una Vez.” The group disbanded shortly after, but Heyne carried on with an experimental solo project called Shogún. “I originally hated that people listened to my music, and even today I get uncomfortable knowing people have heard it. Shogún is very much my music, and I’d love to be able to work on it full-time, but there are many aspects of the project that wouldn’t work for me, like live performances or playing the songs more than once. It’s freeform pop, with some structure, but not easy to replicate on a stage.” Heyne has released nine albums and three EPs as Shogún, but the music is difficult to find.

Through the 90s Heyne continued to make his own music, but industry peers had already taken notice of his production skills. In 1997, opportunity finally rang. “I studied journalism because I wanted to write and travel, both things I enjoyed very much, though I didn’t have the money to travel as much as I wanted. My first big trip was in ’97, when I went to Mexico to work on La Ley’s [then] new album [Vertigo]. [Lead singer] Beto [Cuevas] had heard my music and we’d collaborated on a song back in Chile, but he wanted me to work on the new album. The Mexico sessions weren’t going the way we wanted so we then came to New York, which was a crazy, eye-opening experience.”

“Pop music has to be ‘incorrect’ and ballsy in order to be transcendent.”

Suddenly, Heyne’s career went into hyperspeed. The golden age of Chilean pop was approaching. “In those days I worked with Koko Stambuk,” he reminisces, “a great Chilean composer and producer, with whom I put together Supernova and Estereo 3, who went on to be major pop acts. It was a lot of fun making that music! We really enjoyed making pop that wasn’t disposable. There are many layers, textures, and aesthetic decisions in those songs. Supernova was a triumph because we felt connected to the work. It wasn’t ‘correct’ or traditional. Pop music has to be ‘incorrect’ and ballsy in order to be transcendent.”

Related: 20 Years After Chile Changed Indie Music, a New Pop Paradise Emerges

Fast forward to 2016. Cristián Heyne is widely recognized as one of the foremost names in Chilean music production, a figure who has helped mold the careers of the most successful indie stars in Latin America. His credits include all of Javiera Mena’s albums and Gepe’s latest three LPs, as well as records by Alex Anwandter, Marineros, Fernando Milagros, and Camila Moreno. When asked how this scene emerged, he cites Soda Stereo frontman and Argentine rock icon Gustavo Cerati as its progenitor. “I think Cerati is the father of this whole hipster scene. He was a pop icon who in the early 90s made a jump into indie and experimental, and only progressed in that direction the further he went,” he argues. “[Soda Stereo’s 1992 album] Dynamo was the blueprint for what Latin indie is today. A lot of people started making music after that album. The idea that indie and pop could work together was already happening in Europe, but in Latin America, it was Cerati who brought about that way of thinking.”

Heyne’s success in streamlining the sound for the current crop of Chilean artists has been met with some resistance from the younger generation, who aren’t looking to emulate or be marketed as the next Gepe or Mena. To that he says, “Chile is like a giant workshop. There’s always a new scene coming up. Right now there’s an exciting new rock movement with bands like Patio Solar and Niños del Cerro breathing a fresh perspective into the music.”

Heyne also cites a thriving but oft-neglected hip-hop movement. “Jonas Sanche is a great MC right now, and Hordatoj, everything he produces is good. I’m working on getting some compilations out, the first of which was Pop de Guitarras, and we’re trying to complement them with books written by local music journalists. We started working with [journalist and Super45 director] Cristián Araya back in 2014, with the idea of showcasing this new wave of music. Our second compilation is going to be hip-hop and the third probably about hardcore. These are scenes that have been thriving for quite some time, and if you go on YouTube you’ll see their videos have millions of hits and they pack a few thousand people into venues around Santiago. Honestly, it’s easy work; the music is already recorded, we just want people to hear it.”

There is no doubt that Cristián Heyne has left an indelible mark on Chilean music. In addition to his hefty catalogue of solo work and numerous production credits, Heyne founded two record labels (Unión del Sur and the newly minted netlabel Demony) and is working on a mysterious new collaborative project with visual artist Begoña Ortúzar called Tormenta. The man’s musical process sidesteps cookie cutter formulas in favor of letting the artists reach their own conclusions, with his own brand of helpful encouragement.

Dynamo was the blueprint for what Latin indie is today.”

His work with (Me Llamo) Sebastián, which recently saw the light of day via the baroque piano pop of “Las Polillas,” is the perfect example of this creative vision. In the spring, Heyne worked on the final mixes of his collaborations with Sebastián in New York. “I think he’s opening himself up to a new way of composing,” he says thoughtfully. “I keep telling him to focus on three chords, three chords…not 12 [laughs]. Simpler, simpler. Some people feel like the flamboyance is keeping him from blowing up, but I think there’s something about his music that is difficult for the listener to grasp, which I’m trying to simplify. He is an amazing singer and performer, so my job is to showcase that skill and let it shine through.”