Polen Records’ office is located on the second floor of a house in Bogotá’s Zona Rosa neighborhood, surrounded by bars and restaurants. The indie label’s founder, Felipe Alvarez, welcomes me into the office kitchen, which is decorated with posters of Delirium Tremens beer, Russian Constructivism propaganda and Fellini’s 1970’s film Amarcord.
Over coffee and cigarettes, we talk about the upcoming 8th anniversary of his record label, and how it's become a home to a new wave of Colombian acts that include hip hop, electronica, and folkloric rhythms.
Alvarez is a dreamer and a music-lover, but also a seasoned businessman.
“Taking my bands to the Roskilde festival. Seeing how Liliana [Bomba Estéreo’s singer] has transformed into a diva,” he says of some of his proudest moments. “Even the small tours show me a little light that lets me know we can keep doing this.”
Alvarez was working as a sound engineer/producer when he started Polen Records in 2006. He realized the big record labels in Colombia would never pay attention to the kind of music he and his friends were recording—sounds different from vallenato, pop, or reggaeton normally heard on Colombian radio.
Felipe Alvarez at the Polen studio. Photo by Camila Alvarez.
Alvarez was determined to create a new platform where fresh, alternative, Latin sounds from Colombia’s indie music scene could thrive.
Polen has since become home to many of the most avant-garde Colombian acts such as Bomba Estéreo, one of the few Latin American acts to perform at this year's Lollapalooza festival, as well as Mitú and Cero39, other bands that have captivated crowds across the U.S., Europe and Latin America.
I discussed with Alvarez the history of the label, and what he looks for in bands. He also gave us a little gift - the premiere of a remix to Bomba Estereo's "Champeta Aki Suena" by Skip&Die. Enjoy!
Fusion: What was going on in your life when you decided to start Polen Records?
Felipe Alvarez: I had been recording albums and making commercial music, and I don’t know why I suddenly started feeling depressed. I started thinking that we were never going to be able to match the taste of the multinationals with our own taste. And by “we”, I mean my own group of friends, the people who I used to make music with.
The labels used to give us 18% for every 3,000 units, and that was nothing, but 70% of 3,000 units was something, and that was when I had the idea of creating a music label. I also thought the albums were very expensive. Everybody was complaining about it and I wanted to sell them for a cheaper price.
Fusion: Who were your friends?
Felipe Alvarez: The guys from ChocQuibTown, and Pernett. We were all interested in the same kind of sound, but to establish the label, I knew I couldn’t start a label with new bands only, so we released [influential punk and new wave band] Bajotierra’s Los Días Adelante, an album that I like a lot, and then we released the other bands’ albums. We knew that one out of those three bands was going to make it, and effectively, ChocQuibTown and Bomba started to be recognized internationally.
I especially remember SXSW in 2009. Both bands played and they rocked it. People loved them. That was when I said to myself after about three years of Polen: “maybe this label idea will work”. [laughs]
Fusion: And who else worked for Polen back then?
Felipe Alvarez: I was the director, and I had a secretary, she was an accountant, and also a girl who was in charge of all the press, her name was Maria Clara Espinel, who was then replaced by Laura Camargo. Laura was a huge Bomba fan, and we did many crazy things together (crazier than the idea of starting a label), in an effort to promote this band. ChocQuibTown and Pernett were might have been more popular at the moment, but the relationship we had with Bomba was very solid, and we liked that.
Fusion: What crazy things did you do?
Felipe Alvarez: Going on tour in the US and Europe in 2009 and 2010. I closed my office in Bogotá and we went for it. We spent a lot of money…
Fusion: Whose money was it?
Felipe Alvarez: My own, kind of crazy [laughs], but I was convinced I was going to be able to make it back. The clubs were happy, the fans were happy, and the band was happy. It was a win-win situation.
In that same year, we realized the band was very popular in Denmark, Spain, Miami, Brazil, Japan and in New York. So it became pretty obvious to me that Bomba Estéreo was going to be a popular band.
Fusion: How does Polen work in relation to what you do for the bands and what they have to do by themselves?
Felipe Alvarez: I realized that we are generators of opportunities. We give artists opportunities, but they have to materialize them. When you have a lot of bands, you can’t do everything for them. The idea is to work as a team.
With Bomba Estéreo, we selected a group of bookers around the world, and Camilo Sarabia ended up managing them. He also generated and developed other opportunities. We did the same thing with Mucho Indio, but on a different level. It just worked really well with Bomba.
Felipewith Bomba Estereo and Mitú's Julián Salazar.Photo by Camila Alvarez.
Fusion: What labels inspire you?
Felipe Alvarez: Rough Trade Records from London. I admire their publications and how they established themselves. They just opened a record store in New York. Who does that? That’s pretty awesome. I also like Festina lente, a Colombian label.
Fusion: Let’s talk now about the bands. What criteria do you use to pick the bands you sign?
Felipe Alvarez: They got to have a solid live show. I’m interested in fresh, original acts. I’m not interested in the next Madonna, or the next Juanes. I don’t like things that are similar other things. I also look for acts that have a similar sound to the one we’ve been cultivating at Polen. That’s why I loved Mitú so much. They were the only ones doing the global bass thing in Colombia, and I loved that. Nobody had explored that sound, and it worked for the dance floor.
Fusion: And how do you “package” a band, since genres are not how you market them anymore?
Felipe Alvarez: Each band is a story that’s completely different from the others. I don’t see them as products. The products are the albums, not the bands. Artists are human beings with life experiences that will have their moment on earth. I think those personal stories behind the bands are what’s important for me, as well as the professional, or commercial or ones— what they’ve done, what they’ve achieved, the circuit in which they move around.
For example, Mitú’s circuit is not the same as Crew Peligrosos’. There are some bands that could work for countries, for cities, or for audiences that other couldn’t. Those are the kind of things you got to look at.
Fusion: Any exciting things for Polen this year?
Felipe: We recently released Balnear—Mitú’s new album. Cero39’s will come out soon! We have a relationship with ZZK, the Argentine label, that I think is about to bear fruit. We have the idea to produce a show -- ZZK vs. Polen. They’re about to buy it for a festival in Oslo.
When I went to my first WOMEX [renowned world music conference in Europe where he is now a regular] and people asked me what I did, I said I owned a record label in Colombia. They were all like: “What? Are you fucking nuts? It will be very hard for you to make it. Be careful.” Now we have an seve-year-old child who each day gains more self-awareness.
This post is part of La Sopita Series: sounds, beats and clicks from the Colombian underground to the world. My goal with this series is to function as a bridge, connecting emerging Colombian artists to American audiences. La Sopita, like homemade rich, yet simple soup, will give you an intimate taste of the different indie delicacies being concocted in the underground musical kitchens of my bloody, yet beautiful country of Colombia.
Find Camila Alvarez on Twitter at @CamiAlvarez7