Maná’s Fher Olvera Talks Past, Present & Future of Latin Rock

Photo courtesy of Warner Music.

“I think Latin rock is going through a very flat stage. It’s not that there are no bands out there, they just don’t find a niche,” Fher Olvera, Maná’s lead singer, tells Remezcla from his recording studio in Mexico. The Latin music icons of more than 30 years are one of the best-selling Latin music bands in the world with over 25 million record sales worldwide.

The band from Guadalajara, Jalisco has always been a source of contention and discussion: Some argue that they are the most hackneyed band in Latin America while others compare them to a sort of Latin Nickelback. They have also been protagonists of an incessant, eternal, and a rather childish battle over whether Maná (or any band) is “real rock” or not. Whatever “real rock” means. It’s safe to say that everybody has an opinion about Maná.

But if you walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you will find their star next to Juan Gabriel and Los Tigres del Norte. And, if you google their awards, you will find several Grammys, Latin Grammys, and Billboard awards to their name. They also hold the attendance record in Los Angeles’ Forum, beating Kanye West and The Eagles; all accolades from conquering the United States—singing only in Spanish.

Rock is more of a philosophy. It has no rules.

Today, Maná’s work is nostalgic. Their repertoire is made up of hymns that are a must in the history of contemporary Latin pop music such as “Rayando el sol,” “Clavado en un bar,” “En el muelle de San Blas,” “Mariposa traicionera,” y “Eres mi religión.” Their songs are the soundtrack of many high school sweethearts, as well as simpler times. Surely, records such as Sueños líquidos o Dónde jugarán los niños or Falta Amor will be played for many years to come.

In the last decade, rock has gone to another plane of reality: a less commercial one, definitely not on the front seat. Seeing bands like Maná sell out 35 dates with just one single and no new album speaks of the time we live in. We spoke with Olvera about making new versions of their hits, the status of Latin rock and the music industry, his career, the band’s current position in the popular imagination and more.

This interview has been translated, lightly edited & condensed for clarity purposes.

Are you comfortable with Maná’s position in popular culture?

I think popular culture is what has consolidated Maná the most. It is its foundation, its solid base. People may like more its rock and roll or its Caribbean-reggae phase but, for me, “Mariposa traicionera” or “Te lloré un río” are songs that have given the band cultural support, which I like a lot. And, in fact, I think we needed to promote ourselves more in popular culture, but it is what it is. We lean more into pop and rock music in order to position ourselves as a band.

You will never see a Grammy in my house. There are no awards, just the value of popular culture.

People are incredible because when you go from being a pop band to being a group of the musical culture of a country, or Latin America, you are in another place. I love listening to [my songs] in mariachi, marimba, in a trio. One day in Cuba, a blind guy was singing “Mariposa traicionera,” and I approached him and started singing with him. He literally jumped with excitement because he recognized me and we continued singing together there in the little square. That’s what I like the most about what happened with Maná, more than the Grammys, to be honest. You will never see a Grammy in my house. There are no awards, just the value of popular culture.

You guys could have retired years ago, ensuring the quality of your work and some of your less acclaimed albums. Where does a band like yours find the strength to keep going? Why keep making music?

We could have already retired, you’re right. When Sueños Líquidos was released in 1997, we thought that was it. Then Revolución De Amor came out with “Tú eres mi religión,” which is the song we are making now with Joy [from Jesse & Joy], and “Mariposa traicionera.” There is a song called “Sábanas frías” with Rubén Blades that didn’t receive enough credit at that time, 20 years ago, and it is a mixture of Latin American rhythms and rock because we had the influence of our collaboration with Carlos Santana “Corazón espinado.” And then we released Amar es Combatir which includes “Bendita tu luz” and “Labios compartidos,” a song I love playing live.

I think that as long as you don’t lose interest in doing things, you keep going. As long as you still have chemistry with your friends and you have that desire to make music, you will keep making it. The truth is that Maná has no need to do that because we haven’t released a record for five years, and the last time we toured in the United States, we sold 35 shows with “Rayando El Sol” Ft. Pablo Alborán. And I don’t like to talk about numbers, but you can imagine.

Maná. Photo courtesy of Warner Music.
Photo courtesy of the Warner Music Mexico.
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You are currently making new versions of your hits. “Eres mi religión” Ft. Jesse & Joy. “Rayando el sol” Ft. Pablo Alborán. Don’t you think this is a little risky or unnecessary?

Such is art. On one hand, it doesn’t burden us because when you have a status like Maná, and I mean it humbly, you have the license to do certain things, and this is one of them, you can make new versions of your music. I remember that Carlos Santana once told us that he needed to make a new version of “Samba pa’ ti,” because he no longer liked it, or “Oye como va” because he had played it too many times. At the end of the day, it’s like everything in life, you have to see the fun side. It’s somehow risky, but in the end, people have access to both versions. It’s better to do it than playing it safe. For an artist, it sometimes takes a lot of guts to reinvent himself, not just in art, you always have to take risks to improve. Life is risky, and it’s ok.

Being such a big band with such a wide audience limited the creative capacities or artistic ambitions that you could have? Have you ever stopped experimenting to satisfy the captive audience you already had by making music more comfortable or with tried and tested formulas?

It probably happened unconsciously. But I have always been a fighter. Since I was young, I always thought differently. In fact, there is a song called “Combatiente” on one of the albums, and it says: “I never like to be from the herd.” I’ve always had that mindset since I was a kid. I come from a matriarchy of five women with whom I grew up. My father died when I was a kid, so I have a different way to see things. So I’m not scared. I understand that many people will like it and others will not.

You always have to take risks to improve. Life is risky, and it’s ok.

For example, there is an album called Drama y Luz, and there is a collaboration with a great musician, Kiko Cibrian, and he once said that this was his favorite album, a musical gem, and he is such a great musician. The same happened with Chris Martin from Coldplay. It’s about perspective. Sometimes you are ahead of people’s taste, and sometimes you are behind or not in the same frequency. You must defend all your repertoire, but some records will have more quality than others.

How do you see the status of rock in Spanish today?

I think rock in Spanish is going through a very flat stage. It’s not that there are no bands out there, they just don’t find a niche because people have been getting used to the same rhythm for many years, like reggaeton. There have to be new exponents because they are out there, they just need to come to light. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, all these countries have rock exponents. So we need to find a niche for people who bring another expression such as rock in Spanish. Now I feel that we are going through a rough patch musically, we don’t see too many bands, the record companies do not show support.

I think rock is something that mutates. It’s a way of seeing the world and that vision can be in any genre nowadays.

Totally. Because if rock is as free as many rockers claim, why not take the liberty of mixing it with Latin music? Rock is more of a philosophy. It has no rules. So you can’t pigeonhole rock, it doesn’t matter if it’s transcendental or not, because that’s being an absolutist and with that mindset, you lose. In that sense, the philosophy of rock is a way of seeing and thinking about things and giving yourself the freedom of being rebellious. It’s always worth the risk otherwise, you would get stuck in one place, and music would not evolve. People have to understand that this has to evolve because that’s how art works.

Photo courtesy of the Warner Music Mexico.
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Have you ever felt pressured to shut up Maná’s critics and show that “Maná is rock”?

Maná exploded in 1993 with the album Dónde jugarán los niños? The company was about to kick us off, and suddenly 4 million copies were sold. It is the best-selling rock album in history, more than Mecano or Soda Stereo. Some people, not all, but especially Mexicans, don’t like seeing other people succeed. So two of our ex-teammates left the band and went to talk shit with the journalists and did their own tour to mess with us because we weren’t a “rock band.”

There are better bands, the problem is that they only play in their garages.

One day a journalist asked me: “You are not a rock band, right?” And I said: “Of course we’re not. We are more than rock.” Because “Te lloré un río” can’t be rock, it’s a Cuban-Mexican bolero. We managed to escape the limits of rock and roll and break that world to aspire to have a new sound and not be under the shadow of the Rolling Stones and all of them.

Do you think there could be another Maná today?

I don’t think so. There are going to be better bands, in fact, I’ve always said that there are better bands, the problem is that they only play in their garages. When we get an award we always say: “This goes to all the people who have no name or face but have an exorbitant talent and who could be or are much better than Maná.” The truth is that great fusion bands are going to come out sooner or later.

Reggaetón and its artists are credited with the fact that they did not need to do crossovers in English to gain a global audience. You did that long before in the United States by singing only in Spanish. Why do you think the American public connected with your music in a way they perhaps didn’t with other acts?

It is something multifactorial. First of all, what reggaetón has accomplished is very interesting and highly respected because the Spanish language must be praised in the same way we take in the English language, it is about sharing cultures. On the other hand, Mexican people in the United States, who are about 30 million, have been a huge support. From playing in a 500-person venue in Los Angeles, we became a record-breaking monster, beating the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Kanye West, and other acts they had… it’s a multicultural place, and that, in the end, made the band grow. I think music has interesting ingredients, especially on the melancholic side, a feeling of nostalgia that resonates with the heart of any Latin American.

How difficult do you think it is for a Mexican band to enter the US market today?

It is absurdly difficult to get on the radio with a rock or a rock-pop project nowadays, but I think there are ways. If a Venezuelan or Colombian band, for example, is comfortable with staying in their city, that’s fine, they don’t need to aspire to be global. The truth is that happiness is not measured by pounds, not even art. And if the Beatles transcended, that’s ok, but if they hadn’t done it, that’s ok too. It’s not about who sells more, it’s about how comfortable the artist is with what they’re doing.