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The Accent is on the Future

Producer Gustavo Santaolalla has brought rock en espan~ol to a new level--and now he's got major-label backing.

July 05, 1998|Ernesto Lechner | Ernesto Lechner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The loud funk attack of the hip-hop en espan~ol band Molotov is something to behold as the controversial Mexican quartet makes its Los Angeles debut at the House of Blues. The audience is loving tunes such as "Perra Arrabalera" (Low Class Bitch), which combines a sledgehammer wit with obscene puns.

Just before barging into "Use It or Lose It," one of their most musically adventurous songs, the twentysomething band members invite two men onto the stage who look old enough to be their fathers.

Wearing glasses and the stern expression of a dedicated high school teacher, one sits at a Hammond organ at the back of the stage. The other, whose sweet, angelic features suggest a chubby choir director, plugs in a guitar.

However out of place they may look, both fit in perfectly musically, adding extra layers of funk to the band's aggressive groove. And the four members of Molotov treat these guests with an affection that wouldn't be expected from a group whose forte is irreverence.

But there's a good reason: Gustavo Santaolalla (on guitar) and his sidekick Anibal Kerpel are the production team that single-handedly brought rock en espan~ol to a new level of respectability.

These are the men who during the past decade produced three landmark records by the Mexican group Cafe Tacuba, demonstrating that an album of Latin American rock 'n' roll could sound as professional, mature and original as the real thing.

Think of Santaolalla as the Latin equivalent of Daniel Lanois--someone who's obsessive about creating richly atmospheric environments on a record without sacrificing the artist's identity.

"He's not a 'musical director' type of producer," says Manuel Del Real, Cafe Tacuba's keyboardist. "He listens to the group's music, and becomes one with its philosophy and its future direction. He literally becomes another band member."

(Like Lanois, Santaolalla also makes his own records. His latest, "Ronroco," an exquisite journey through Andean folklore, was released this year on Nonesuch.)

Santaolalla and Kerpel are especially excited these days because they have inked a deal with Universal Records to finance and distribute their own label, Surco. The deal applies to the next 18 records that Santaolalla will produce and has an overall value of $5 million.

"Gustavo is a musical genius," says Zach Horowitz, president of the Universal Music Group. "He's constantly pushing the edges of the envelope and challenging the use of conventions. He's a combination of Phil Spector, George Martin and Daniel Lanois all in one. You really want to try whatever deal you can make with him just to be part of his creativity."

Whereas Santaolalla is more in charge of the artistic side of the productions, Kerpel specializes in the technical aspects. Still, his feedback applies to every little detail in the recording process. "Anibal is more than a professional partner. He's like my brother," says Santaolalla. "In theory, he's the co-producer, but he's also instrumental in creating that very special vibe, a comfortable space where musicians learn to trust us and give us the best of themselves."

Santaolalla, 46, is in a playful mood as he arrives at "La Casa," the remodeled studio behind Kerpel's Echo Park home that houses most of the pair's recording sessions. He takes off his raincoat and asks Kerpel for a cup of coffee, and a mock argument ensues, the kind of silly bickering common among young brothers. Santaolalla jokingly offers to pay for the beverage, and Kerpel finally obliges, preparing steamy cups of strong Argentine espresso for everybody in the room.

As quiet and precise as Kerpel, 44, seems to be in his dealings with the outside world, Santaolalla is at the other end of the spectrum--scattered, animated and always eager to express his point of view.

You can immediately see how the men complement each other in their artistic partnership. As a boy in his native Buenos Aires, Santaolalla would listen avidly to his parents' vast, eclectic record collection, which ranged from Nat King Cole and Argentine tango to folklore legends such as Atahualpa Yupanqui. He started taking guitar lessons at age 5, formed his first group at 11, and never looked back.

In the mid-'60s he created Arco Iris, one of the first rock en espan~ol bands. The group's sound was deeply influenced by folk and traditional South American music, and Santaolalla became a celebrity as its leader.

"In a way, I became very famous too young," he reflects. Back then, Kerpel was an ambitious keyboardist with the progressive-rock outfit Crucis. In the late '70s, both musicians migrated to Los Angeles separately, looking for opportunities to express themselves away from the oppression of Argentina's military regime.

Soon after their arrival, the pair formed the new wave/punk outfit Wet Picnic and released a record in 1981. Then came the first gigs as producers for artists such as Mexico's Maldita Vecindad, Argentina's Divididos, and Cafe Tacuba.

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