Cafe Tacvba: Don't Call them the Beatles or Radiohead

PHOTO: Mexican band Cafe Tacvba

Courtesy of Cafe Tacvba

A couple weeks ago, iconic Mexican alt-rock band Café Tacvba dropped its first album in five years. The new 10-track release, titled El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco (The Object Previously Known As Record), thoughtfully explores and challenges what an album is in 2012.

For this, the band's seventh studio album, members Rubén Albarrán, Emmanuel "Meme" Del Real, brothers Joselo and Quique Rangel partially pulled back the curtain on the band's recording process.

Instead of heading into a studio with its longtime production team (lead by Gustavo Santaoalla), this past spring, the Tacubos recorded the album in front of audiences at sessions held in Buenos Aires, Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, and Los Angeles. Yet, Café insists this is not a live album (you don't hear applause or the band addressing the audience).

It's hard to measure the extent that this recording experiment molded the new effort. But when compared to the band's body of work, El Objeto becomes a solid, contemplative effort built with patience and steadfast maturity that demands a commitment rare to this 140-character-sized attention span age.

But after all, Café Tacvba's course and career has been anything but usual. For more than 20 years, "Cafeta" has proven that it is possible to make music for art's sake and still fill stadiums. They remain one of the most popular, groundbreaking, and influential in Spanish language rock bands in history.

So respected is the band that Rolling Stone magazine just named their 1994 album, Re, the #1 most important album in the history of Latin rock. The mag also compared them to the Beatles or Radiohead, prompting a slew of complaints from fans, and even a dramatic editor's letter from Rolling Stone Mexico distancing itself from such "reckless" claims by its gringo parent publication. Such are the heated emotions Café Tacvba fans feel for the group and its uniqueness.

We spoke with Café Tacvba's bassist, Quique (with the 'stache and green buttoned-up shirt, above), recently about the making of The Object—its process and its meaning—as well as the foursome's future plans. The following is our Q&A translated from the Spanish.

ABC-Univision: How did this new album come about? Earlier this year, we reunited in Tepoztlán, a city about an hour from Mexico City, to begin showing each other songs (because each member of Café Tacvba is a songwriter). Each one of us has different curiosities and different styles. After a few months, we realized that we had 10 songs. We sought out our head producer, Gustavo Santaoalla, and showed him those songs. There are times when we get to that point and he's told us, "Well I think you need to work a bit more [or] I think we have to work this way." But this time he said, "I think have a finished album—a mature album. And the only thing that's left is to see how you want to record."

Where did the live recording session idea come from?

Our singer, Rubén, wondered about doing a series of sessions that would involve the public. Recording an album is always something--I don't know if I'd call it secret, but it's an intimate thing--where only the musicians, producer, and sound engineer know what's going on, how the musical ideas are developing. How those musical ideas get cooked before they see the light of day as a finished record. And yet we decided to try out Rubén's idea. We wanted to see how the presence of an audience might mold or influence the way we record an album.

So living in Mexico, it was obvious that we needed to have a session here with all of the people who are in our everyday lives. Since Gustavo Santaoalla is Argentinean it was easy for him to set up a session there, where he'd be able to control the conditions (considering we were about to record outside of the studio and with the public). And being in Buenos Aires, it would be easy to go to Chile, where we have great friends. Chile was practically the first place in Latin America that received us--that accepted the music of Café Tacvba.

And lastly, we'd be mixing the album in Los Angeles. So our engineer, Joe Cicarelli suggested we hold a session at a concert venue in Argentina, a restaurant in Chile, a large concert hall in Mexico, and a studio in Los Angeles.

We chose [from] practically all of the sessions. There were intimate songs that were more apt for the Chilean restaurant. There were larger, more grandiose ones that sounded better in the space in Mexico, when the whole world was there and everyone was ecstatic.

But I'll say it again: this is not a live album. This is not a concert album. They were sessions that had witnesses. And the presence of those witnesses completely molded the results.

How so? And what did it feel like to record in front of an audience?

For me, it was strong risk. In fact, I was the most resistant to this exercise. For me, a musician works in a studio where few opine on his work and where he tries to find the best way to compose what'll ultimately be recorded.

With these kinds of recording sessions, one gives the public his best try. [Usually, in the studio,] you'd play some notes and someone would say "why don't you try to develop that section more." With this exercise, the people in front of you don't necessarily say, "I vote for this," but I noticed how people would react with respect to certain ideas that I'd try out in a song. I wouldn't know right away.

In next session I'd realize, "Of course, this part would work better if I did this." Then I would see that the people of that session would notice something interesting that I contributed--or didn't contribute--so that the vocals or keyboards would become more or less noticeable.

So there was variation among the sessions?

More like a dialogue. I realized there were things that I would need to change in order to generate the things I thought were needed at certain in moments in the songs. That changed how accepted this idea, which I didn't like but ended up enjoying.

When we started listening to all of the sessions that we made in all of the cities, I realized that each one had an interesting personality. Because, I mean, we're the same musicians. We recorded all of them the same way. They were the same songs. Yet I felt the energy of the people present in each of those versions.

So since the notion of an album has changed. Will people listen to this differently?

No. When we started to make this album, we always thought it would be an album. It was when we had to name it that we posed the idea that our generation continues to think in record, in groups of songs in a tactile form that's obtained at a store in a packaged object. And even though we upload it to a lot of gadgets, there's still a disc left around in physical surroundings. So we thought this would probably be the last object that we'll see with our songs.

I liked the idea of it not having a name. That it might only have a symbol: the symbol of the last record made by Café Tacvba. That its name would be x. The same way that Prince was "The Artist Previously Known As Prince" we said this record will be "The Object Previously Known As Record." Then we realized all the conceptual possibilities of that name. It was a joke at first but in the end, Café Tacvba takes these jokes to a conceptual extreme where they also can become reality.

What would you say the album is about? What's its overarching theme?

If this album were made by one person, I'd think the person is over 40, is in a very self-reflective moment in his life, and lives in a space surrounded by chaos and uncertainty. That person is assured of himself but wants to be able say, "I can have doubts"—and in fact, I think Café Tacvba is full of doubts—but I think that person's just try to understand himself and the place where he lives.

Speaking of self-reflection, in this album you've re-incorporated the drum machine and folkloric elements, which are both reminiscent of your earlier work. How did you all decide on that?

It came very naturally. In reality, we didn't have a preconceived idea of bringing back the drum machine or the electronic rhythms—which were an important part of our beginning. At that moment, it was really important to contrast the electronic part with the acoustic part—the contrabajo, acoustic guitar, jarana, folkloric rhythms. It became clear when we started adding those electronic rhythms to what we were playing that it was a sound that we liked—we loved.

Sonically, I think that the more important parts are Joselo's epic, or rather, panoramic guitar and the more basic, more prog-rock sounding synths by Emmanuel. And I'm extremely proud of the way in which, Rubén, who didn't come to this album with songs, took ownership of our songs with so much heart that it's become the best performance of the singer of Café Tacvba.

What's next for the group?

We've been performing here in Mexico since March-April. We realized people wanted to hear Café Tacvba and we've been doing a tour practically of greatest hits. The album came out a couple weeks ago but we want people to get to know it and demand its performance. We're thinking we'll do a world tour in March or April. We'd present the 10 songs live in concert--in Mexico, United States, South America, Europe--and recreate that moment when we recorded it in front of an audience.

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