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The Accent is on the Future

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.

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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.”

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(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.”

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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.

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“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.

Through its new association with Santaolalla and Kerpel, Universal holds the keys to what many believe is the future of rock en espan~ol, a cult genre that in the last few years has turned into a profitable niche, selling hundreds of thousands of records all over North and South America. Santaolalla is certainly optimistic about the future. He thrives on new musical trends and is always eager to work with new bands.

“It’s what keeps us young,” says Kerpel.

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One can’t help but wonder about the fate of the ultimate Mexican rock band if it had never met Santaolalla. With its second album, 1994’s “Re,” Cafe Tacuba proved that the rock en espan~ol genre was mature and daring enough to incorporate all sorts of influences. And the 1996 follow-up, “Avalancha de Exitos,” augmented the feeling of schizophrenia through a clever collection of cover songs, some of which were completely altered by Santaolalla and the band.

Studying his other productions, you recognize the Santaolalla touch in all of them. “I want my records to jump out of the speakers,” he says, citing George Martin, Brian Eno, Mitchell Froom and Lanois as defining influences.

“I’ve come to see that there’s something intangible about my productions, a specific energy I possess that gets stuck in every one of my jobs,” he continues.

But no studio gimmicks can replace real talent.

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“Ultimately, the sound is like the makeup on an actor, or the art direction in a movie,” he says. “The songs are the thing. If you don’t have good songs, there’s nothing that can save your ass.”

Santaolalla has apparently found enough bands with good songs to make for a hectic schedule. He just finished an album by Uruguayan group Peyote Asesino, and is producing Puya, a Puerto Rican band he describes as a cross between Rage Against the Machine and Tito Puente. Then there’s Molotov’s second album, and two Argentine bands, Bersuit Vergarabat and Arbol. And then there’s Cafe Tacuba’s next album, which will probably be recorded at the end of the summer.

Although the records he produced for Molotov and Tacuba lost to Fabulosos Cadillacs this year in the new Grammy category for rock en espan~ol, Santaolalla is philosophical.

“I’m very happy to see that we are recognized as a genre,” he says. “Before, you’d say Latin music and people would think of maracas and Mexican sombreros. This new Grammy is an acknowledgment of what we do. In that context, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as people finally start to appreciate our efforts. I think they’ve finally noticed that we are in the business of producing quality music.”

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Latin fans aren’t the only ones to notice Santaolalla’s touch. Several major U.S. labels have approached him about working for them full time as a staff producer of mainstream Anglo projects.

“He could produce anything,” says Universal’s Horowitz. “The Puya [project] is one the most groundbreaking records I’ve ever heard--a cross between salsa and mambo with speed metal.”

Though flattered by the offers, Santaolalla feels that it wouldn’t be right to abandon rock en espan~ol right now.

“What I’m doing is more useful and more important” he says, the passion audible in his voice. “My agenda right now is to develop this type of music. The world is going through a process of globalization, and the Latin influence will be huge all over the planet. The context of rock en espan~ol is extremely important, because context is what brings validity to any artistic endeavor.”

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