Cafe Tacvba on Artistic Reinvention, 'Jei Beibi' Album & Playing With an Orchestra
Café Tacvba have cracked the code: Over the course of a 25-year recording career, they have somehow remained thrillingly mutable as other rock bands broke up, burned out, got stale or settled into an old hits routine.
In May, the revered Mexican group released Jei Beibi, their first album as an independent act after a long period of affiliation with Universal Music Mexico. This fall, they're supporting the record by embarking on their biggest ever tour of the U.S.; for good measure, the band will end the trip with their first ever live collaboration with an orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Billboard spoke with Emmanuel "Meme" del Real, who handles keyboards, among other duties, about Café Tacvba's new status as an indie act and the challenges of constant reinvention.
What was it like to be an indie act while you were working on this album?
We pretty much stopped the creative process to put together the whole team around us again. Once that finished, after six or seven months, we started again working on the album. From then on, it was six months until we finished the album at the end of last year.
We tried not just to go with the idea that independence is the way. We worried independently we would have to put more time into the decisions around the music [rather than focus on the music itself]. That's why we wanted a good team around us and just leave the band, even if we're going to be more involved, to have a healthy situation to work creatively on songs and music.
And with all the technology now, the digital platforms for music, it's easier to share music. It's a new adventure. We're enjoying it. Everything seems to be fine at least for the moment.
You recorded your last album in front of a studio audience -- did you go into sessions for the new record with an overarching concept?
No. It was: go to the studio and just work with our creative team, especially producer Gustavo Santaolalla. This album, he produced the whole thing. We recorded some ideas in Mexico City, as we always do, and then we went to L.A. for tracking sessions with Joey Waronker playing drums.
There is no drummer in the band. There's a drummer touring, but the band doesn't have a drummer. We start working with acoustic instruments -- double bass, acoustic guitar, one keyboard. Then a drum machine, and it develops to sequencing, sampling, more electronic stuff. When we start working on songs, the four of us, the rhythmic part is an electronic thing. Sometimes it works as it is. In this case when we went into the studio, it had some incredible keyboards, and Joey had some incredible ideas about drum sets. Then the electronic part started vanishing. I think it's an incredible interpretation of the primitive ideas. At certain points, the electronic part gets a little more commanding. But I think if you listen to the whole album, it's really well balanced.
What's the nature of your connection with Gustavo?
We have developed communication now where you don't have to explain much. It's family -- you know each other so well that we trust him to make some decisions that are complicated for us as a band. We need his external point of view, the big picture, to get the best. Since the beginning, we realized that his point of view has helped us get incredible results.
Probably the most difficult part of this band comes from all of us being songwriters. I think it's better to have different points of view. It enriches the thing, for sure. Sometimes to pick which songs are the best for a project is difficult. Each one of us has an interest in it. Gustavo helps to choose what he believes are the best songs. Sometimes he says don't change it; sometimes we have to start from the ground up.
You start the album with "1-2-3," which is kind of dissonant -- a very joyous melody mixed with a reference to the 43 students who disappeared in Mexico.
It's very energetic, kind of a pop song, but we wanted to put a message in it that talks about situations that happen in Mexico. The conversation was, how to do it in a very subtle way? You won't find literally what that song's talking about. But if you scratch just a little bit, you'll find something very delicate and sensitive in our society.
On the single "Futuro," the lead vocals are pitch-shifted like they might be on a Prince song.
It's a song by Quique, the bass player. He came with this demo; we loved it. We had this idea to make kind of a cumbia -- why don't we push the tempo a little bit to add some instruments, and then we come back to the actual pitch and tempo, and when we came back, the pitch of everything changed. The vocal sounded incredible, very, very expressive. So we said leave it like that, and start working around that.
The ballad "El Mundo en que Naci" is a breathtaking centerpiece of the album.
This is a song I brought. It's a very personal song, questioning about the cycles of life, when in the future you are gone and what's going to happen with your kids. But at the same time thinking about where you are coming from, your parents and stuff. It was a simple demo, and at the very end, we chose to just leave it like that and add some string arrangements to bring it more into the narrative of the album. What you hear in the keyboards and the vocals is the demo, the first take. Gustavo said it's good like that, but the potential of it if we add a nice arrangement is going to be bigger. We worked with David Campbell [Beck's father] to make the arrangement; we knew that he had such a sensitivity that he would bring some great artistic ideas. That's what happened. He tracked it with a quartet in 15 minutes.
You're famous for artistic reinvention; does that ever become burdensome?
We are the four members, so that will always be similar. But we can change the way we approach recording, try to find new tools or some system that will bring new results in the creative process. We often make big mistakes to find out what we like. Of course we want to see if people like it or not, but at the end of the day, we need to do it. If we don't at least try to find a new language each time, there's no sense in being in Cafe Tacvba.
I'm not sure any band has managed to do it as long as you guys have.
It's not easy. We have learned through the years that it's very difficult, but we love the chance to have a new album, a new tour. This is what compensates for the other thing.
How many new songs are you playing on tour?
We're playing eight or nine songs from the new album on tour. We're learning how to put them together with other songs. We also went to the vaults and grabbed some songs we haven't played in years -- or haven't played before -- to blend with the new songs. Then we play some songs people are expecting and it's pure energy; people react immediately.
We're making a big effort on this tour to bring really good production to the stage. We have a couple of buses, a couple trailers, investing in presenting a different-level show. Even if we try every tour to improve something, this is a big bid to present to everybody what we can present in some shows -- Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterey. Hopefully it brings a lot of joy, satisfaction and more work in the future.
You're playing a show with the L.A. Philharmonic?
It's going to be a complete new thing for us. It's a show that will have some Mexican traditional music played by the Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the first part of the show. Then we're going to play some songs together. Then at the end there will be a part where the band just plays by itself. It's going to be different for us. The chance to play with this Philharmonic, to blend and not separate genres, is a great opportunity.
Has the political climate in America been reflected at your shows?
It's a different energy for sure. I feel people have fear and some tension. People come to really dig it and enjoy it and liberate energy that is holding, holding, holding. We are some excuse to liberate it. Our work hopefully helps us to unstress that a little bit.
Upcoming Cafe Tacvba Tour Dates
9/28 - Miami Beach, FL @ Jackie Gleason Theater
9/29 - Lake Buena Vista, FL @ House of Blues
9/30 - Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
10/1 - Raleigh, NC @ The Ritz
10/2 - Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel *
10/3 - Boston, MA @ House of Blues
10/5 - Silver Spring, MD @ The Fillmore *
10/6 - Charlotte, NC @ The Fillmore
10/9 - Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre #
10/11-12 - Sacramento, CA @ Ace of Spades #
10/13 - Fresno, CA @ Woodward Park Rotary #
10/14 - Primm, NV @ Star Of The Desert Arena
10/15 - Los Angeles, CA @ Walt Disney Hall (with Gustavo Dudamel and LA Philharmonic Orchestra)
10/17-18 - San Diego, CA @ Observatory North Park #
10/21 - Phoenix, AZ @ Veterans Memorial Coliseum
10/21 - Indio, CA @ Fantasy Springs Resort Casino
# Flor De Toloache Opens
* Vicente Garcia Opens