SXSW Entry #10: Gepe - La Entrevista!

Perhaps the most exciting Club Fonograma-approved presence at SXSW was Gepe, who played two phenomenal shows while he was in Austin. After his performance at the Billboard showcase, we claimed a bench on Congress Ave. and sat down for a nice chat. I’ve edited all of Gepe’s cachais out, but just imagine each of his responses ending with “cachai?” and you’ll get the gist. Cachai?

Blanca Méndez: For someone who is such a big fan of yours, I don’t really know much about you outside of your music. So let me start with a basic question: What experiences led you to start creating music and why do you keep doing it?

Gepe: I’ve made music since I was so little that I can’t remember the motive. It became serious about five years ago, and it wasn’t until very recently that I considered myself a musician.

BM: What changed that finally made you say that you’re a musician?

G: When it became my way of earning a living is when the change happened. Now I live because of and from the music.

BM: Before that, were you working outside of music?

G: No, only music. I am also a designer because I studied graphic design in college. But when I was in college, I started making a lot of music, and after I graduated, I kept making lots of music and I started going on tour and working solely on music. SometimesI still do design, though. And I also make music for movies.

BM: Very cool. What movies have you contributed music to?

G: I recorded a Leonard Cohen cover of “Hallelujah” for Sugar.

BM: How do these projects come about?

G: People call me, usually the directors. Like for Sugar, Lynn Fainchtein called me to record the Leonard Cohen cover. She knew about me through Julieta Venegas, who had passed my music along to her.

BM: How do you decide what projects to go forward with? Do you read a script?

G: Mostly I talk with the directors to get a sense of what the film is about. Sometimes I do read the script, and then make a song.

BM: Do you enjoy making music with such a specific goal andset guidelines?

G: I really like to make music not using my name and background. I love not being me. I enjoy when people give me direction and tell me what they need. I liketo put myself at the service of others and to not be Gepe. It’s a break from being me. And I love playing with other people in other bands. I play the drums with Pedropiedra, and I only follow his rules.

BM: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. I know that you’ve worked with Pedro and Javiera Mena and a lot of other musicians in Chile. How does this way of making music differ from your solo work?

G: In Chile, we have a very close community of musicians, like Pedropiedra, Javiera Mena, Denver, Astro…they make very good music, very mature. And all of these people work with each other. I play the drums with Pedro and with Javiera, Javiera plays keyboards with me, Pedro plays guitar with me, and I play with Alex from Odisea. We are making an album together. The people who are making indie music in Chile are all very close. We’re all friends. We hang out a lot together. My girlfriend used to date another musician that’s part of our little community, so it’s like that. That close.

BM: Recently a lot of musicians in Chile are making a big mark on Latin American music. What do you think is happening in Chile right now that is so special?

G: I think it might be a generational thing. Around the year 2000 this group of musicians that I’ve been talking about started making music. What’s happening now, despite all of us sharing spaces, sharing friends, sharing girlfriends, is that we are all working on very personal projects. We all make very distinct music, each project has its own life, its own world, but at the same time there are similar qualities and all of the music is connected in some way.

BM: You mentioned that you’re working with Alex Anwandter on an album. How is that going?

G: We both have very personal projects and working together is having to cede certain things. In doing that we got to know each other more. I had never worked with someone else on lyrics and neither had Alex, and working together that closely, we’ve become even better friends. I think when you work with a certain level of trust is when work comes out better, and that kind of trust you get from friends. I’ve always worked with my friends. And this album is one that neither of us could have made on our own. It’s at the exact midpoint between the two of us, and it’s been such a wonderful process.

BM: And you can definitely tell when there’s a close bond between musicians who collaborate.

G: It’s like Animal Collective, the thing that I most love about them is the synergy between them. You can tell that they’re good friends, and there’s something special that emanates from that. Also, one of my favorite Chilean bands in the 90s, Tobias Alcayota, who were like my Beatles, had this same kind of energy. And that’s always stayed with me and influenced the way that I make music.

BM: How has your own style of making music changed over the years?

G: One of the things I like best about music and musicians is how what they do, the way in which they make the music, the way in which they dress, the attitude that they take on, changes over time. I love that the work gets enriched with time and doesn’t crystallize at any particular moment. The music that I make has evolved because what I do isnever closed. It continues to transform. What I want to do is always ahead. Like Animal Collective, what I like about them is that everything they do is a work in progress.

What are you working on now, and what are you thinking about for the future?

G: Right now the album with Alex is the first priority. I’m also working on videos for Audiovision, and I have some gigs in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. I don’t know, just making songs and keep playing. To keep playing is the most important thing.

BM: What videos are you working on?

G: The video for “Alfabeto” and “12 Minerales.”

BM: Awesome! “12 Minerales” is my favorite. And the videofor “Por La Ventana” is pretty great. It looks like it was a lot of fun to make.

G: It really was!

BM: And the song is fantastic. I love the yos in it and how it inserts some humor. How did you decide to inject a little hip hop into the song?

G: I was set on including the yos somewhere, so if it hadn’t been that song it would have been another. But I think it works best in “Por La Ventana.” That song and video came about very spontaneously. I love having a good time when I work. I don’t like directing, I like letting things happen on their own.

BM: That video is very much a group experience, and I feel that your music is often about shared experiences or that a song is in itself meant to be a shared experience. When you write a song do you have in mind the kind of experience it’s going to create for people?

G: Definitely. I like for the themes of the music to be as general as possible. I’ve tried to simplify my music as much as I can for it be as general and as simple and as raw as possible, the most direct in my language. Like “12 Minerales” was exactly what I wanted to say in the most direct way that I could. The general a lot of times feels like it’s nothing and so many things at once.

BM: I think that has to a lot do with your voice, which to me is on the surface so simple and straightforward, but at the same time carries in it a lot of wisdom. A lot of your earlier music was driven by your vocals, but your last album used a lot more instrumentation. How did you decide to go that route and how important is it still to you for vocals to drive a song?

G: I’m very influenced by traditional Chilean music and that music is played with one instrument and one voice. Usually it’s the melody of the voice that makes the song and the instrument is a much less important accompaniment. John Jacob Niles did something very similar in the States, and that influenced me a lot. But with time I started listening to people like Miles Davis and with albums like Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain became more interested in more involved instrumentals and more complex arrangements. And I think I’m going to keep going in this style of making music.

BM: Do you prefer making music in this way now?

G: What’s most important to me is for a song to work with only vocals and one instrument. Then I begin to build on that. If I feel like a song has a lot missing when I play it with just one instrument, then I don’t go forward with it.

BM: Do you remember what the first song you ever wrote was?

G: Yes, it was “Namas.”

BM: How did it come about?

G: I wrote it for a girlfriend, exactly what the song says. It’s not really a love song, it’s just talking to another human. More than writing about a relationship, it’s just something that I needed to say. In fact, it’s something that I never said to her in person.

BM: A lot of people I know really love “No te mueras tanto,” and I guess what I want to know about that song is what’s so funny?

G: What I mean by “no te mueras tanto” is don’t forget about yourself and take care of yourself. In this case I also mean “no te desesperes.” And if you do, it’s kind of funny, “muy idiota.”

BM: Why did you write that chorus in English?

G: That’s just how it happened. Since I listen to so much music in English, sometimes that’s just what comes to mind when I write. That line was the first one that I wrote, and I built everything off of that. I didn’t change anything about it. It just came out how it came out.

BM: Do you do that often? Just write songs without changing things?

G: No, that ‘s something I used to do. Now I change everything.

BM: Are you more critical of yourself?

G: Definitely. It’s like I have a lot less respect for myself and I change things over and over. The lyrics for me are always the hardest and I end up agonizing over them. Like right now I have about five songs that I’ve been trying to write lyrics for for a long time. And, like I said, I try to write as generally as possible. Not really saying anything to anybody, but at the same time speaking to everybody. It’s not important for me to say anything about myself, but I still impart something personal because it’s what I know. Sometimes I write songs with other songs in mind. Like Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up” helped me write “Esgrima” and “Estilo Internacional.” That song for me is paradigmatic.

BM: What do you like so much about that song?

G: The magic of the lyrics is so simple. The “columnated ruins domino” line is so beautiful to me. To me that song is perfect.

BM: I agree. The beauty of that song lies in its simplicity. Is that kind of beautiful simplicity what you try to achieve with your songs?

G: I love writing about simple things, things that won’t escape through your fingers. I do that because that’s what pop is about. The songs that I like, like Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” talk about simple things. I like doing that, writing about simple things, but giving them importance.

BM: You also mentioned earlier that you’re inspired by traditional Chilean music, which you can definitely hear listening to your songs. But also for me, your songs often sound the way I would imagine Chile to look like. Is creating a landscape with your music ever something that you do consciously?

G: I think more than creating a landscape my songs embody the Chilean people. I’ve spent all of my life in the same city, most of it in the same neighborhood and I write about what I know. And what I know is all very normal. Most Chileans are like me. We’re introverted, but we still talk a lot. We can talk a lot without saying anything. We have a certain timidity that can also be humorous. I think Chileans in that sense are similar to Mexicans. In the simplicity and the joy and the not having one ounce of European in them, and I think you can hear that in my songs. I adore my country and my people and it’s important to me to convey that in my music.

BM: Which one of your songs would you say exemplifies what you’ve just talked about?

G: I think “Alfabeto” in the way of not saying anything. The music that I like never tells a story. It’s always little bits of ideas and scenes and images, but never a story from beginning to end. And I think Chileans are like this, we never tell an entire story.