Chile has become, over the past few years, one of the hottest spots for Latin American indie pop, delivering high quality songs that bridge the gap between nostalgic and current, always chock full of hooks. Smack in the center of it all is Quemasucabeza, the label responsible for some of the most lauded acts from the South American country over the last decade. Gepe, Javiera Mena, Pedropiedra, and Mostro got their start in the ranks of Quemasucabeza, and all of them (with the exception of Mena) remain attached to the label. Quemasucabeza are not showing any chances of slowing down, thanks to fresh discoveries like Ases Falsos, Protistas and Diosque, as well as their old roster still churning out inspired albums. The indie record label has also taken steps to branch out, beginning with the opening of an office in Mexico. That gave as good an excuse as any to talk with labelhead Rodrigo Santi about the Chilean scene, their legacy and what awaits in Mexico.
First up, why choose Mexico as your new satellite headquarters?
Up until now, we’ve had a great response from Mexico with what we have done and we wanted to fortify that relationship. There’s a lot of empathy, Chileans and Mexicans get along great. I think that everyone who visits [Mexico] falls in love with it. We would also love to have an impact on more people. It’s pretty common in Mexico to have two different music festivals at the same time, like NRMAL and EDC. We used to go to México up to four times a year, so it became a necessity to make a hub there, and to support what we have done in Chile. We tried being in contact with people we thought were like-minded; now I think it’s necessary to establish a team of people there and keep building on these contacts.
Do you think Mexico is a platform for musicians to be known in more places?
Mexico is a strategic point from which to broadcast the musical work we do. Obviously the internet has cleared some of those physical boundaries, but you can’t depend entirely on that. What happens in Mexico has an impact on other places on the continent, which is not necessarily the case in Chile. So strategically, it’s a great place to have a center of operation, but it’s not like we’re moving here. We’re from Chile and we love life there, but we think it’s important to have a base in Mexico, where we can be better connected. If you see a festival like Vive Latino, you realize there’s people [coming] from Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile, Colombia; everybody comes together and, historically, that never happened before the festival got established. I think Chile’s role has been to provide content instead of building an industry, we export artists. The industry aspect in Mexico has a lot to do with its size, that’s why stuff like the festivals work there. There’s a lot of audience appetite for everything because there’s a ton of people. Everything is bigger and there’s more money involved. It allows them to be more ambitious.
Do you think this ambition you were talking about will rub off on the Quemasucabeza roster?
If it inspires them to make better quality music, then that would be amazing. But to tell you the truth, I hope there’s no correlation. Industry stuff shouldn’t have anything to do with artistic output. My thought is that the artist should work on his or her craft, and then it’s our job to show that craft to the people outside, so they get to know them. Most of the time, when an artist starts worrying about that aspect, it negatively affects the quality of his or her output. Historically, this is what I’ve seen at least.
I asked you this because in your case, these artists are doing tremendously in terms of popularity. Take Gepe, for example, who played Viña del Mar and now headlines huge places in Chile. What do you think of their growth and the direction they have taken?
They’ve really put in a lot of effort, and have done a lot of sacrificing to get where they are. Stuff like that can pull the rug out from under you, but artistically, nothing has allowed them to get comfy. [Many of these artists] have yet to achieve the level of economic stability to allow them to record wherever they want, without worrying about how to make to the end of the month. The scene has grown, it’s better known; but it’s still hard, nothing is assured.
What do you think of the internationalization of the Chilean scene?
It’s cool. It’s weird because there actually aren’t that many bands here, but most of them try to go abroad. People who don’t live here think they can just walk into any random bar in Chile and find a mindblowing band, and that’s not the case. The ones making interesting music have made a point of taking it seriously. I’m thinking in Diosque’s case, for example; they’re from Argentina and felt like what they were doing wasn’t really in sync with what was happening on the rest of the continent. Through us, they’ve been building an audience. Perhaps we’ve been around for a while, we know festivals and people, we have built a circuit.
You mentioned that these artists are playing bigger places and touring the world, yet they’re still struggling to make rent. Do you think we’ll see the day when independent musicians in Latin America will see some economic stability? I mean, considering the economy in general is in the toilet, not to mention big music business…
It could be better. We could have better infrastructure, but it’s still hard. Our strategy has been to not cover too much ground, work with a small catalog. Once we feel like it’s getting out of hand, we stop and we focus on a select few of the artists we have a close relationship with. We get a ton of proposals, and listen to stuff that’s very good, but we know that our infrastructure just won’t allow us to do a good job with them.
Do you think it will grow, then? In Quemasucabeza’s case, do you think there’s a brighter future?
It’s still a gamble. The results have given us hope that we’re not planting in infertile earth. Things happen that motivate us to keep going. There are a few missteps, sometimes we make mistakes, but we don’t have a guide on how to do stuff. None of us are businessmen, really; mostly we’re musicians.
Everything still operates on a DIY level.
Right. That makes things go slower, but it makes the good things more gratifying, and it also makes us stand on more solid ground. You can build sturdier things there.
How do you see the Latin American independent music world right now? What do you think needs to be sorted out?
We have to develop the circuit more, build connections. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, people are eager to go to festivals. In Europe, they’ve been getting bombarded with opportunities to see music for years, so sometimes when a band plays there, people only come out if they’re in the mood. But if there’s an international band coming to Chile or another country in Latin America, people get much more excited to see them and for sure they’ll go out. There’s a lot more life here, and now there are things bubbling up in Colombia and Costa Rica.
Before, it was far easier for a Chilean band to tour in Europe than in Latin America. It was easier to get in touch with people doing shows over there. There was nobody doing that in Perú or Ecuador, but now there’s people doing that in those countries. Perhaps they have been there for a long time, but we’ve only recently come into contact with these people, we’re meeting them and doing stuff together. It would be amazing if there was a Latin American band that toured every city on the continent. It hasn’t happened on an indie level, but it’s developing. It’s been slow but we’re getting there.
Lastly, what do you think will be Quemasucabeza’s legacy in the future? Do you think you’ll always be associated with Gepe and the artists who helped the label move beyond the local scene, or would you rather continue to develop rising talent? Do you think in the coming years there will be a “Quemasucabeza sound”?
It would be gratifying. It’s happening to some degree, but I wouldn’t want it to end there. I would love people to think of Quemasucabeza as a label where they can also discover new things. Sometimes I think of labels like Sub Pop, who had the grunge sound but kept releasing interesting things with each coming year. They are still relevant. I would love to be like that. The challenge is to be constantly evolving and growing.