Gustavo Santaolalla is a living legend. From his beginnings as a long-haired hippie-rockero in ‘60s in Argentina, to a relocation to L.A. where he eventually become the most sought-after Latin alternative producer worldwide, to becoming a multiple Oscar-winning composer of Hollywood movie soundtracks, Santaolalla has shaped and reshaped our musical landscape multiple times during the last four decades.
As the indefatigable visionary, producer and musician he is, in the early 2000s amidst a new wave of tango revisionism he formed Bajofondo. It started as studio project where he shared his tango, hip-hop and electronica experiments with other producers (like Juan Campodónico), guest musicians and friends. But eventually Bajofondo became a band with a steady list of members – a band that not only made unforgettable songs with the most refined arrangements, but also delivered some of the most mind-blowing live shows ever.
After a series of successful side-projects, the Argentine-Uruguayan collective founded by Santaolalla is now ready to release its third official album and ultimate masterpiece: Presente. Dropping on March 5th, Presente is an ambitious 21-track concept album to be released globally by Sony Masterworks.
We were lucky to get the busiest man in Latin music show business to sit down and share a few minutes of his precious time to chat about all this, and what else is cooking in the Bajofondo multiverse.
There was a huge change in the transition from your debut album, Tango Club, to Mar Dulce, because Bajofondo went from a producer-led studio project to a band with steady members.
Exactly. By the time we got to Mar Dulce we already had a band. It was becoming more live. And that’s how we did that record. It still had guests, you know, people like Elvis Costello, Gustavo Cerati and Nelly Furtado. I also feel that at the time we still didn’t capture what the band was doing live. The band wasn’t there yet.
So I guess that will translate into another big change between Mar Dulce and your new album, Presente.
One of the things we had in mind when doing Presente was that we needed to kind of reinvent ourselves. I mean, we had discovered a whole bunch of stuff. We really wanted to venture into other territories. We wanted the record to translate the power that the band has live. We wanted this record to be a statement. That’s why for us it was so important that the record was only made by the band—without guests. The album, at the same time is a concept album, even if it doesn’t have a story line. The album is like a trip, it’s a journey though a lot of different landscapes. It can be emotional landscapes or geographical, or musical because we tap into so many genres.
Was the decision not to use guests partially because of the difficulty of reproducing it live?
No. We managed to do it in the past, doing those songs in our versions. People don’t seem to mind that we do it that way. That wasn’t the reason. The decision was based upon the idea that we really wanted to make this a band album. We had never put a photograph of the band inside of a record. The cover continues with our traditional iconography but inside of this record there is a picture of the band. We are a band. We’re not just a collective of people that gets together. The album is not a collection of songs. This is a whole piece of work that functions together, one track leads to another one and take you in a journey. That’s why for us I think this is a landmark record. For me, I think, it’s the best stuff I’ve done in a long time.
I think by now we make Bajofondo music. It sounds like Bajofondo, it doesn’t sound like anything else.
You don’t have guest stars doing vocals but you have the support of an orchestra.
In all of our records we had that, and we certainly wanted to have it on this one. The orchestra was an element that connected us to the tango world, the classic tango orchestras like Aníbal Troilo, Mariano Mores o Francisco Canaro. In this case in particular, we were doing a concept album, inspired by concept albums that marked our lives like Pet Sounds, The White Album or Sgt. Pepper. This record was made like that, with the band playing all kinds of instruments and then orchestral support. That’s how we came to the decision of making this album. As a reinvention, as an artistic statement and as a concept album.
But you won’t be bringing that orchestra on tour with you, are you?
You know, there is a possibility. We actually have played last year at the Disney Hall (in Los Angeles, CA) with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas—an amazing experience. We’re hoping at some point to do some shows with orchestra.
You mention the iconography of the cover, and one thing that stands out is the fact that this time around the female leg covered in fishnet is of a darker skin-tone, presumably of African descent. Was this also a statement about the African roots of tango?
Absolutely. In the video there’s a black girl coming from Uruguay to Argentina. We always felt that it was so important. As you know tango, milonga, candombe, they’re all African dialect words. Lots of people don’t relate tango as a music genre connected to African roots. One of our greatest tango masters, Horacio Salgán, was of African descent. Yes, it was a statement.
Outside of Bajofondo’s main albums you have released solo side-projects by Bajofondo members like Supervielle, Santullo and more recently Campo. I was wondering if one day we would see a Bajofondo-related solo album by Gustavo Santaolalla.
We love the idea of continuing [to] do solo albums. You mentioned something that I thought about and it’s so funny because nobody has asked this before. Yes, I’d love to do a Bajofondo presents Gustavo album. Doing a solo project but in the school of Bajofondo. Now we’re really concentrated on this because this is big part of the next couple of years. I’m sure Luciano is gonna keep on doing his stuff and I’m sure Campo is going to do another album too. I, myself, have a soundtrack for a huge Playstation videogame that’s going to be released as a soundtrack album too. And then I have a release of my own instrumental record before the end of the year, which is kind of a continuation of Ronroco. But that’s not related to Bajofondo.
Since the release of Mar Dulce you received a lot more mainstream exposure in the United States, outside of the traditional Latin market, thanks to your Oscar-awarded movie soundtracks. Are you counting on that to help bring more attention to Presente?
I hope it helps. The band is a band, it’s not Gustavo and his Bajofondos. But we are totally open to get whatever we can get to have people listen to it. So I hope that whatever accomplishments I‘ve got, if they are useful for people to say “hey let’s listen to what this guy did,” if it helps the music of Bajofondo to be listened to, we welcome it.
Another big change that Bajofondo went through between Mar Dulce and Presente was switching record labels from Universal to Sony Masterworks. How did that affect the project?
For us it’s been unbelievable. We’ve never felt this good! Remember then the label was on our own label (Surco) and we were a joint venture with Universal. We were not directly signed with Universal. Now, we’re signed directly to a major, Sony Masterworks and Sony Latin. We never had that with Universal. Now the record is being released simultaneously in the US, in Germany, in England, in Japan and everywhere in Latin America and Spain. It’s the first time that we have a global release. It’s a very different phase in our life and in our careers.
In the past you always made a point to not label the music Bajofondo does as tango electrónico or Electrotango. How do you describe it now with this new album?
Anybody that truly listens to our music and says that it’s electrotango, it’d truly be someone who’s totally ignorant about music. I think it’s impossible to qualify our music as tango electrónico or electrotango. I think that’s such a narrow description. I think by now we make Bajofondo music. It sounds like Bajofondo, it doesn’t sound like anything else. What we really want to do is to make music that shows who we are and where do we come from. We come from Río de la Plata, from Argentina and Uruguay, we grew up listening to all kinds of music and we want to do music that represents that part of the world: candombe, tango, milonga, murga are going to be there, because they’re part of the genetic landscape we grew up in. But also we grew up listening to classical music and jazz, and The Beatles and then Radiohead, Chemical Brothers, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and all that makes what Bajofondo is. That’s why I think it’s very hard to define. I think the best way to describe the music of Bajofondo is saying it’s Bajofondo music.