Pro Bono: The FADER Manu Chao Interview

September 04, 2007

We spend a lot of time and energy making every issue of The FADER beautiful and intelligent, but we know not everyone has the time to find it on a newsstand or the energy to download it for FREE. So, when appropriate, we will reprint articles from the current issue in their entirety on this website. Today we're putting up Edwin "Stats" Houghton's interview with Manu Chao after the jump because Chao's La Radiolina is now on shelves. Enjoy.

Gypsy Punk

The lost, found and borrowed sounds of Manu Chao

By Edwin “Stats” Houghton

If anybody’s got sustain in their game, it’s Manu Chao. Lynchpin of the Paris punk squad Mano Negra back in the ’80s when being called “the French Clash” was more avant than retro, Chao survived the group’s meltdown on an infamous tour of Latin America by train and just kept on touring, buying an old locomotive to cross areas of Colombia where the army couldn’t go—performing unscheduled street concerts at every village along the rails and picking up sounds from the Latin street as he went. The outcome of this gypsy punk existence was a new band called Radio Bemba Sound System, comprised of members from Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, and recordings that ultimately became the 1998 masterpiece Clandestino. Clandestino and its follow up Proxima Estacion: Esperanza made Chao a global superstar—at least outside the English speaking world. After another extended stint of nomadology comes La Radiolina, Chao’s first internationally-released album since 2001. La Radiolina is a recognizable descendant of those classic Chao lullabies with their sirens, snatches of soundsystem chat and speeches by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. But the Eno-ish endless guitar of “Rainin In Paradize” and the harder edge of “Politik”—which could blend seamlessly into the Wyclef and Elephant Man’s “Five O”—throw the formula into a time warp, simultaneously asking for and defying descriptions like “dated” and “ahead of its time.”

There’s been a long break since your last album, does this new LP pick up where Clandestino and Proxima Estacion left off?

Well, it’s still me.

Was it made in the same way of working or recording?

Yes, the same way. I write new lyrics as I’m traveling and I like to record in the place where I had the original idea. Sometimes I rerecord when I get back to Barcelona because I have more-power studio there. Clandestino was very quiet, on this new record there are more heavy guitars maybe, more [aggressive]. As we say, you cannot put everything in a good dish.

Are you traveling all the time?

I’m in Barcelona two months out of the year, the rest is traveling. Sometimes I’m touring, sometimes just traveling and sometimes recording with other artists. I produced a record for Amadou and Mariam which was mostly recorded in Bamako. Now I am working on a record with their son [Mamadou], who is a Malian hip-hop artist, and I’m working with a little radio called La Colifata. They run a little radio inside a psychiatric hospital in Argentina. I’ve done recordings with them before—just little pirate things—but now we’re going to do a real record with a proper release.

Are they a band?

Some of them play musical instruments, but mostly they do talk [radio], talk about their experience: medication, electro-shock, love, the city, every subject. They broadcast in a radius of about ten blocks around the hospital in Buenos Aires.

How did the record with Amadou and Mariam come about?

I was a fan for about two or three years before I met them. I actually didn’t hear them when they first became popular because they were big in France first, not in Spain where I was at the time. Then when I was back in France I heard them on the radio everywhere and I became a big fan. I spent two days in the studio with a guy who did recording for them and through him I met them and they asked me to produce for them. It went well so I did the whole record for them—after the first session we went to Bamako and did most of the recording in Mali.

Did you come away from that experience with different ideas about your own work?

Mali music, especially the guitar style, is very close to me: kind of hypnotic guitar, kind of a trance guitar—similar to some of the guitar sounds I use on Clandestino. I was already influenced by Ali Farka Toure and Amadou and Mariam. Mali is a huge country with so many different cultures styles: Tuareg, Tamachek…but I think the Bambara style which is around Bamako [was the most influential].

Your work as a producer is more of a collaboration, do you try to bring your own sound to the recordings or leave it out?

I’m not a real producer, so if someone asks me to produce, it’s only because they like my sound. I’m not a professional, all I have is my own way of doing things, my little tricks.

What kind of tricks?

My best capacity is to edit. If anything, I am a specialist at editing: my usual approach is to record a song very long. In the beginning just jam, jam on and on. Then break the song and play with it. If we have one idea for a song when we record the session and then come up with something totally different after the editing, to me that means it’s a good session.

You incorporate so many traditions into your style, especially from Latin America.

Well a lot of that comes from the tour I did across Latin America by train in the ’90s…Mexico, Colombia, Brazil [recording the songs that became Clandestino]. We went by train across the whole of Colombia, through areas where the government was not in control. We had to deal with guerrillas, deal with paramilitaries, something different at every stop. Colombia is an a amazing country, very African on the coast, very Indian in the mountains—you can tell it’s a nation made by nature, not ruled by culture.

Do you have some kind of framework to hold all those influences together into a signature style?

No, I try to be naïve with that as much as possible. I listen to things like a kid, try to be naïve in a good way—and maybe in bad way. My approach is very sensory, not intellectual. All those rhythms I picked up from South America, I don’t use them in the right way. Sometimes I don’t even know the name of all the different rhythms or styles. It’s not a formal thing, I let things happen casually. A lot of people say my songs are political, but that’s not by plan. It’s because I never found a place where everything is OK, so I just write about what my reality is, follow my instinct. If I’m alone with my brain it could be very bad company, so I’d rather go with this [taps stomach].

Posted: September 04, 2007
Pro Bono: The FADER Manu Chao Interview