Gustavo Cerati’s Central Park SummerStage concert in early August had all the ingredients of a superb live show—intricate guitar leads, soothing tenor vocals in perfect pitch, and a frontman with a captivating stage presence. But what’s amazing is that even with the accompaniment of a remarkable backing band, Cerati exhibited all of these live elements on his own, sometimes singing and improvising on the guitar at the same time. Cerati’s song lyrics are imagistic free-verse poems, and over the past 20 years, the Argentine multi-instrumentalist has created an extraordinary body of work, incorporating everything from electronica to orchestral arrangements into his compositions. His latest album, Ahí Vamos (“There We Go”), has a hard-rock emphasis, and Cerati delighted the SummerStage crowd with a juggernaut of raw, crunchy guitar chords during rockers like “La Excepción” (“The Exception”) and “Dios Nos Libre” (“God Frees Us”), while the somber “Lago en el Cielo” (“Lake in the Sky”) and his lovely new single “Crimen” (“Crime”) soothed exhausted fans. “When we were in the studio recording Ahí Vamos, we felt it was one of those records that would translate well into live performance,” Cerati tells me. “On stage, we simply play the material as we recorded it.”
Cerati is one of rock en español’s most important musicians. His career took off in the mid-’80s as the leader of Soda Stereo, Latin America’s most popular arena-rock band of all time. Soda was renowned for its energetic live performances, and as a solo artist, Cerati exudes a similar intensity on stage. So, do the expectations of fans influence his work?
“I’m never exactly sure who the audience is,” Cerati says. “Of course, I’m making records that will be distributed to people, but first, I must be excited about the material to convey this enthusiasm to others. I have just made a rock album, and there are people who will say, ‘I prefer the electronic stuff.’ I’m looking for love, but I can’t please everyone.”
Cerati needed to look no further than this adoring New York audience, a mixture of those who remember him from the Soda days and twentysomethings who came on board in the late-’90s, after he had begun his solo career. At SummerStage, he performed three Soda songs, including “Té Para Tres” (“Tea for Three”), a heartbreaking ballad that moved the full house to sing along. He also covered David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” As Cerati stood before a backdrop of radiating black and white lines, the late-afternoon sun sometimes glinted off his guitar as it does on the Ahí Vamos album cover. His SummerStage performance kicked off a United States tour and capped the week’s Latin Alternative Music Conference, an annual event that brings together artists, producers, publicists, and others involved with the creation and promotion of rock en español.
Gustavo Adrián Cerati was born in Buenos Aires, and began playing guitar in elementary school. He counts British rock bands and Argentine guitarist Luis Alberto Spinetta as early influences. “I was listening to a lot of English music during the ‘70s—Genesis, King Crimson, and others, and Spinetta was the only artist in Latin America who was doing something similar,” Cerati says. “He was living in Buenos Aires, my hometown, and he was so good, so engrossing, so important to me because his work inspired me to start playing. In the beginning, I was doing all I could to imitate him. And even now, I still do a little,” he adds, laughing.
The ‘70s was a difficult period for Argentines. Political instability and a failing economy gave rise to leftist guerrilla movements, violent retaliatory measures by the government, and the eventual overthrow of President Isabel Martínez de Peron in 1976 by a junta of Argentine military personnel. The authoritarian measures taken by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla’s government and subsequent administrations inspired a group of artists known as the folkloristas to begin challenging the government’s tactics by incorporating political messages into their music. The resulting Argentine nueva canción (“new song”) and its influences soon spread to other Latin American countries. I have to ask what impact, if any, this music had on Cerati.
He sips his bottled water and ponders the question. Although his gaze is hidden behind oversized, designer sunglasses, Cerati’s demeanor is so pleasant and disarming that I feel I could ask him almost anything.
“The protest songs were not attractive to me from a musical standpoint, with everything focused on the lyrics and political issues,” he explains. “That’s all well and good, but not what I needed. As a young musician, my ideas were quite the contrary. And people would call us plastic and frivolous, but I wanted energy—to move, to dance, to amuse myself. There were musicians like Silvio Rodriguez and [Joan Manuel] Serrat who nevertheless had an impact on me. But I needed something else—a contrary influence. I needed noise. I was living in the punk era.”
Cerati wasn’t the only one seeking an alternative to the folkloric movement. Another group of musicians—the roqueros—rose to prominence in Argentina in the ‘70s. Artists like Charly Garcia and Nito Mestre also addressed political issues in their lyrics, but because government censors scrutinized the contents of every song, the roqueros relied on humor and subtlety to get their messages across. “Sui Generis and Charly Garcia were politically engaged, but from a more playful perspective,” Cerati says. “And like most rock artists, they weren’t too serious, which I liked. Charly was one of the first of his kind to say, ‘Enough with folk,’ and still sing about political topics. He had ideas that were brand new at that time.”
“I needed something else—a contrary influence. I needed noise. I was living in the punk era.” In 1979, while studying advertising at the University of el Salvador in Buenos Aires, Cerati met Héctor “Zeta” Bosio, who would later become the bassist for Soda Stereo. Both men shared an appreciation for British rock, particularly groups like the Police and XTC, along with an interest in the work of singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. Cerati and Bosio began playing music together, exploring a vast array of musical styles and forming bands that crossed genres—skills Cerati would be identified with later as a solo artist.
They met drummer Charly Alberti in 1982, and together, the trio formed Soda Stereo. Soon they began playing gigs on the pub circuit, and in 1984 they released a self-titled debut album. Much of Soda’s early material was a mixture of love ballads and humorous, light-hearted songs with titles like “Por Qué No Puedo Ser del Jet Set?” (“Why Can’t I Be One of the Jet Set?”) and “Sobredosis de TV” (“Television Overdose”), which poke fun at self-indulgence, consumerism, and media culture. Some of these songs bear a stylistic resemblance to the Cure’s material, and during those fledgling days, the band members donned makeup and outrageous hairstyles. But as Soda matured, its members incorporated more diverse rhythms, sophisticated lyrics, and broadened their soundscape with advanced production techniques. On the commercially successful Nada Personal (“Nothing Personal”), a panflute, buttressed by an Andean folkloric rhythm, carries the melody of the song “Cuando Pase el Temblor” (“When the Earthquake Comes”), one of the band’s biggest crowd-pleasers. By the early ‘90s, Soda’s edgier rock sound and Cerati’s devastating vocals had propelled the group into the pantheon of rock legendry. The immensely satisfying “Comfort y Música Para Volar” (“Comfort and Music for Flying”), an MTV Unplugged recording, was released in 1996, but the following year, before an audience of 80,000 fans, Soda Stereo performed its final concert in Buenos Aires at the Estadio de River Plate.
Cerati was still a member of Soda Stereo when he recorded Amor Amarillo (“Yellow Love”), his first solo project. This 1993 release underscored his talent as a guitarist, particularly his ability to play a number of different styles, often within the same song. The result is an undulating tapestry of psychedelic riffs and ambient hooks that epitomize some of the most desirable characteristics of ‘90s electronica without a complete reliance on programming and studio tools. Has working as a soloist allowed Cerati to defy categorization as an artist?
“I don’t usually think in those terms,” he says. “Obviously, I’d like to be as complete a musician as I can, and I push myself to create songs with a heterogeneous quality. I am a pop musician and my understanding of pop music is that it doesn’t pertain to a particular scene or style. Like Led Zeppelin—they weren’t just a heavy rock group, but much more. They could take a folk song and mix it with Hindustani elements. I understand rock [and pop] in this manner—not just as a single musical style, but an ability [for artists] to nourish themselves with a number of diverse elements.”
Cerati’s penchant for combining disparate styles is displayed in his 1999 release Bocanada (“Gust”). His synthesis of soft keyboard harmonics with programmed beats and multi-genre guitar noodling creates a cool sonic complexity and richness that cannot be compared with any electronic music that preceded it. Cerati’s experimental acuity shows up again on Siempre es Hoy (“It’s Always Today”), his 2002 follow-up, a conglomeration of programmed rhythms with layers of electric and acoustic guitar that form an adult contemporary sound with avant-garde sensibilities. It’s a sharp contrast to the hardcore power-rock barrage of Ahí Vamos, his newest album, with which it seems Cerati has returned to his musical roots. He offers a different perspective.
“The time that has passed since the breakup of Soda Stereo is similar to when you split up with a girlfriend, and after several years, you reach a point where you might find her attractive again.” “I see it more as the result of an evolution and ties that I’ve established with the musical eras that preceded mine,” he explains. “With Ahí Vamos, I was searching for simpler, more direct musical and lyrical structures. My previous record, Siempre es Hoy, has more diverse songs, so for me, the next record had to be the opposite—more balanced, more rock-oriented. I might add that after the separation of Soda Stereo, I had begun looking for other types of sounds that were completely different from what I had done with the band. And the time that has passed since the breakup of Soda Stereo is similar to when you split up with a girlfriend, and after several years, you reach a point where you might find her attractive again.”
Cerati’s studio perfectionism and magnetism on stage has attracted a number of collaborators such as Charly Garcia, Colombian rocker Andrea Echeverri, and more recently, pop icon Shakira, an artist whose ubiquitous airplay and Grammy-award winning Fijación Oral (“Oral Fixation”), Vol. 1 have made her a worldwide fixture in popular music. Cerati worked with Shakira on both volumes of Fijación Oral.
So, what was it like to collaborate with Shakira?
“It was very good because at first I had some prejudices,” Cerati says. “She is from another world. But Shakira is a fan of my music and she insisted on collaborating with me, contacting me several times. She is such a sweet person, and she showed me her material, giving me complete freedom to select the song that I liked the best. If I found nothing that I liked, then [we’d say], ‘Ciao.’ I liked the song ‘No’ very much, which we made together, and later on, I composed a song for her and established a great relationship in which I also learned from her. She had called me because she was a fan of my music—she even called me ‘Maestro’—but after all, I also learned from her, from that world—how it is to work at a level of production with someone who is so prominent. Fundamentally, I think it is very interesting the way she handles her work. She pretty much does it all.”
Lately, though, concentrating on his tour is enough to occupy Cerati, who is looking forward to his upcoming performance in London on Oct. 12. “It’s going to be the first time that we’ve played London—a special occasion for me because I have always been a fan of English music,” he says. “Honestly, with all of these things going on, I can’t think much further into the future. I’m going to make a DVD of a live performance, but I don’t have any other concrete plans. I have a tremendous group of musicians with me and we are playing very well right now.”