Daniel Riveros, known to Chilean music aficionados simply as Gepe, is sitting alone at a table, checking his cell for Whatsapp messages (or maybe emailing, I didn’t lurk). You wouldn’t guess it from his relaxed and easygoing demeanor, but he’s one of the guiding lights of Chile’s indie music scene. Without fear of hyperbole, I’d venture to say that he’s one of the best artists doing some of the most inspiring work in the entire Ibero-American music scene. Combining Andean rhythms, pop melodies and sonic experimentation, Gepe has been able to crossover multiple times into many scenes and stages. And though he’s an independent artist, he’s steadily finding bigger audiences for his music, playing the famous Viña Del Mar festival, selling out big venues in his native Chile, and becoming a huge draw at festivals like Vive Latino. He has achieved all of this by following his own vision and inspiration, never compromising his sound. Nobody in the world sounds like Gepe right now, and not many artists can say that.
Riveros first made the rounds in Santiago’s underground scene with his band Taller Dejao. He went solo in 2005 to record for the venerable Quemasucabeza label (which has remained his home), and cultivated his sound along contemporaries like Javiera Mena, Pedropiedra and Mostro. Now, Gepe is about to drop his fifth, as yet untitled album, which has already spawned the (quite excellent) single “Hambre” featuring Peruvian internet meme/sensation Wendy Sulca. The track pushes him even deeper into his signature mix of Andean folkloric instruments and classic pop structure, and it promises to turn more heads his way – aided by a surreal new video directed by award-winning Ian Pons Jewell (who recently worked with Sam Smith), premiering exclusively on Remezcla. Set in one of Bolivia’s now-famous “Neo-Andino” banquet halls, the video is a perfect complement to his futurist folklor sound.
We caught up with Gepe in person to talk about his new work, what comes after up-and-coming, the Chilean scene right now, and yes, working with Wendy.
What was your mindset when you went into the studio this time?
I like doing things like they’re new. Writing the songs, making the record, the way the songs start coming out here and there; it’s always like starting from scratch. It’s a job that I’ve never gotten tired of doing and will probably do forever.
What motivates me to make a new record is to capture a new moment. For me, albums are not sequels. They are a new chapter that has little to do with what came before. This one does have a little in common with the last one [2012’s GP] in terms of sound, though.
Since your last album, you’ve been playing bigger stages, and traveling to places you probably never imagined with your first bands.
There have been some surprising developments, like playing in Viña or touring so frequently, but I’ve maintained the essence of what I started with. I’ve been very honest in what I’ve done. Nobody has ever told me what to do, everything has stemmed from trying new things and failing, and doing it all over again. I don’t feel far from my roots.
But there was no precedent in the scene where you come from for this kind of underground music to get international attention. Were you ever worried that the essence you were talking about would get lost along the way?
Musically in Chile, speaking from the point of view of my generation, I don’t think we have many prejudices when it comes to what we listen to. In the Nineties, I think most artists were shy and liked to keep to themselves. If you listen to Los Tres, their lyrics are very closed off. [In our scene], you can be very pop or very critical or self-referential, it doesn’t matter. Everybody just spills everything on the table and jumps from there. I think the world lacks this approach, the ability to just jump and show your world nakedly. In general, music in Chile right now is made by people who take risks and experiment a lot. They ask themselves “why don’t we play this with a cello?” —I think Dënver was the first band to play with real strings— or how Javiera asked herself “what happens if I make an electronic folk album?” I think this generation embraced that approach and took over. Yes, we make mistakes but when it works it feels really good because there’s more at stake.
You’ve also thrown caution to the wind when it comes to stuff like touring. For example, you’ve toured in Mexico since the beginning almost.
I don’t know why Mexico has been so responsive to us, and I think it’s an important market. What would have happened if we played in Paraguay instead? I don’t know.
You’ve never played in Paraguay?
Never. It’s closer to Chile but it’s easier for us to come play Mexico, or in the US or Spain than it is in Perú or Bolivia. Even touring Argentina is harder.
Going back to the sound, you don’t shy away from catchy melodies, but now there seems to be more emphasis on that.
Our generation is very receptive to pop. In the Nineties, I would only listen to music in English, that had a very poppy quality. We didn’t listen to our folk music or very heavy music, except for grunge. The Eighties in Chile were very much informed by England: The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode.
It was pretty much the same here in Mexico.
My favorite band from that era is Talk Talk, definitely.
“Hambre,” your first single from the new album, has Wendy Sulca singing on it. How did this come to be?
I met her last year at a friend’s house in Santiago, he was making a movie with her. She’s very nice and we became friends. I wanted her singing this part because I thought it needed to be done by a Latin American girl – to make it sound almost like a call to arms or something. But that wasn’t what I was most interested in doing with her. I asked myself “why don’t we mix up our contexts?” It was an exercise to see how plastic music can be, not “plastic” as in superficial but as in malleable. “What happens if I get together with a singer that comes from another sphere?” It’s about presenting a new context for both of us, it has nothing to do with what we’ve both done before. It’s about inhabiting a new, darker world, perhaps, I don’t know. I think it comes through in the video.
Have you had any negative comments about the collaboration yet?
Yeah. Some people got pissed that I did that song, but that’s okay, the same thing happened with the first single off my last album as well, “La Naturaleza.” That time it was on a smaller scale, because I wasn’t as popular then, but it happened. Like “why did you make a reggaeton track?” Almost always, the first song I release clears the way for the rest on the album. I don’t know if it’s the weirdest song on the album… Yeah, it’s the weirdest.
The most radical song of the bunch?
Yeah, and once they hear it, people are prepared for the rest of the album.
Do you think you have to be more responsible nowadays, now that more people know your music?
Without a doubt. Fans in Mexico and Chile, the really hardcore fans, are very tough. They believe in me more than I believe in myself. It was a bit complicated for me to understand that at first, but I think I’ve got the hang of it now – I think there’s an ongoing dialogue between us. Before, I didn’t know how to redistribute that love. I remember a year or so ago here in Mexico, there was a signing session and all the fans [waiting in line] starting singing “Amigos Vecinos” – and that kind of stuff makes you feel like you have a responsibility to people. There’s a deep relationship we have, I love them and they love me. [Gepe lets out a big yawn]…sorry for yawning so much, I slept very little last night. I dreamt that I killed someone a long time ago and I felt that they were about to catch me. It was very weird.
I bet, those dreams can be stressful. Are you surprised at how much your music and that of your contemporaries has been accepted and grown over the years?
Yes! It’s surprising. I feel like I’m part of the big time in Chile, and I think most of us Chileans have this feeling…that it’s strange that people are paying attention to us, and we feel embarrassed about it at first. It happened to a lot of us, but now we’re getting over it. The beautiful part is that all of us have arrived at this place of making good records, shows, videos, etc. It feels more professional, and I’m not just talking about the artists. Managers, labels, the fans; everyone has really matured. Chilean audiences are shy, same as the artists, but now they go to shows and break stuff, they express their opinions on Twitter, they scream, scratch cars…my car has been scratched a couple of times, outside my home.
Is the scene more cohesive nowadays? What can you tell us about what’s bubbling up in the Chilean underground?
I didn’t get to experience the Eighties. But in the late Nineties, it was crazy. That’s all I listened to. I never went to see [mainstream rock bands] Los Tres, Lucybell or Los Prisioneros; but I would go see Asamblea del Fuego, Congelador, Supersordo. That was my world, the underground, and it was awesome. And now it doesn’t exist anymore. The scene now is either noise —extreme sound explorations, sometimes involving performance art— or hip-hop. What I really liked back then was that you could see stuff like contemporary music, noise, prepared piano, free jazz, and stuff like that, along with the bands on the same bill. It was awesome.
When you think about what you want to achieve with your own music, what do you imagine?
There’s a song on the new album called “Fiesta Maestra” and it involves everything I like about my music, conceptually and aesthetically. The Latino thing, the dance thing, the programming thing, the grimy atmosphere. That song is like a cornerstone of what I want to achieve – and I did, at least with that song.
Look, I love NGUZUNGUZU, James Black, FKA Twigs. I love them but I haven’t been able to make something like that yet. I simply like it, it’s not easy for me to make a sound like that and I’m not interested in copying them.
Do you think your success has given you a certain amount of freedom to achieve what you want artistically?
I think, production-wise, I wouldn’t have been able to do a record like this before. It’s great to have the possibility to keep going and going, and to create a bigger language. There are other artists’ careers I would like to model mine after, with all due respect, of course. For example, Caetano Veloso, who can make a record like Araça Azul, which is very experimental, and then make Otras Palabras, which is very prog, and then Fina Estampa. He goes from here to there but there’s always a thread tying everything together. I would love that.
For more on the Neo-Andino architecture featured in the video for “Hambre,” check out our interview with the mastermind who originated the innovative style here.