Sparks are flying inside a Van Nuys recording studio, where Mexican group Cafe Tacuba is recording its new album.
The most famous production team in rock en espan~ol, Gustavo Santaolalla and Anibal Kerpel have locked horns during the mixing of "Esperando" (Waiting), an intimate, 40-second solo song by Quique, the band's bassist.
Santaolalla has decided to create a theatrical effect by pushing the bass to the front of the mix. And Kerpel is quick to disagree. "It's too loud," he says. "The bass would never sound like that in real life."
"That's precisely the point," Santaolalla answers. "Roll the tape."
It's immediately clear that Santaolalla is right. His decision has enriched the tune with an airy feeling, as if Quique had recorded the song within the blurry boundaries of a dream.
It's a moment that typifies the ambition and daring that's going into "Reves / Yosoy" (Reverse / I Am), Cafe Tacuba's fourth album.
The two-CD set, which comes out Tuesday, includes one disc of edgy instrumentals and another of mostly gentle songs. It is one of the most accomplished and rewarding efforts the genre of rock en espan~ol has produced.
Even by the band's standards, the 15 songs on the second disc, "Yosoy," are surprisingly rich, achieving a marriage between tuneful melodic exploration and meaningful lyrical content. The opening "El Padre," a huapango with drum machines and eerie guitar effects, establishes the theme of old versus new, telling the story of a man who wakes up to see his face in the mirror bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father's image.
"La Muerte Chiquita" is an elegant waltz that evokes the vivid imagery of a Diego Rivera painting. As close to hummable pop as the disc ever gets, "Dos Nin~os" explores with disturbingly upbeat instrumentation the sexual awakening of two teenagers.
The album will be widely watched as an indicator of whether Cafe Tacuba--and Latin rock in general--can join the likes of Ricky Martin in crossing over to the American mainstream. Fittingly, this is one of the first albums in the field to be released domestically by a major American label.
After a bidding war that saw companies such as Virgin and Universal fighting for Tacuba, it will be up to Warner Bros. Records to sell a recording that is not only sung in Spanish, but is also a double album filled with highly experimental music. As part of an unusual agreement, Warner Bros. will promote the record in the Anglo market, while sister label WEA Latina will do so in the country's Hispanic sector.
"Marketing this record to mainstream America will certainly be a challenge," says Peter Standish, Warner Bros.' vice president of marketing. "But we're undeterred by that, because the music is so great. Great music transcends boundaries."
Standish says there's an audience that will have no problem accepting Tacuba's quirky sensibilities.
"We are definitely going to pursue college radio," he says. "I also see this record being a hit with the most avant-garde elements of the mainstream, like the KCRW crowd, which embraces adventurous, cutting-edge music."
The members of Tacuba have taken a philosophical approach to how the record will perform in the Anglo market.
"We'll see how much effort they put into promoting [it]," says Ruben Albarran, Tacuba's lead singer, who goes by his first name and is also known as Cosme, Anonimo and a variety of other names. "We feel [the people at Warner Bros.] are very enthusiastic about it. But seeing is believing."
Even if the record flops in the Anglo market, however, the members of Tacuba have no reason to worry about their future.
"Tacuba never sold millions of records, but they are still considered one of the real heavyweights of rock en espan~ol," offers Kerpel, the album's co-producer. "They don't need to have a No. 1 album in order to be a No. 1 band."
Indeed, with the exception of "Chilanga Banda," a song from their last album that was a moderate success and won a "people's choice" award on MTV Latino in 1997, Tacuba's history has been devoid of hit singles.
The band became a cult sensation in 1994 with its second album, "Re," one of the first demonstrations that the mixture of such Anglo genres as alternative rock, punk and metal with Latin American stylings could be a winning combination.
Tacuba's 1997 follow-up, the stunning "Avalancha de Exitos," was a collection of cover songs the four musicians recorded when they bogged down working on their original material. (For the second disc of the new set, the quartet recorded the songs it abandoned at that point.)
"Avalancha" went gold in Mexico (sales of 100,000) and cemented the band's presence in the Latin rock landscape. Rave reviews soon appeared in mainstream Anglo publications such as Rolling Stone and Spin. It was becoming clear that you didn't need to understand the lyrics to appreciate Tacuba's sensibility.
The band's success and a grueling tour in 1997-98 brought tensions to the partnership, and for a while it wasn't clear whether Tacuba would remain together.
But the recording of the instrumental tracks that make up the new "Reves" disc revivified the group.
"It was like starting on a blank page again," Albarran says. "Recording 'Reves' had a medicinal sort of effect, because it relieved us of the friction and the bad feelings that were rooted within the group. It made us remember the reasons why we like each other, why we clicked together in the first place."
Singer Albarran and bassist Quique (Enrique Rangel) met while studying graphic design in a Mexico City university. With Quique's guitarist brother Joselo, they formed a band in 1989 influenced by British rock acts such as Prefab Sprout, Everything but the Girl and the Smiths.
But the Latin American influences kept creeping in. Inevitably, the group would end up playing boleros and rancheras. It was then that they invited keyboardist and drum programmer Meme (Emmanuel Del Real) to come on board and decided to create music that was more attuned to their cultural roots.
The group's name was inspired by the Cafe de Tacuba, a Mexico City restaurant housed in a colonial building that serves food that is both European in its influences and native in character. "It was the Europeans who brought cafe [coffee] to the Americas," Meme says during a break from recording. "On the other hand, 'Tacuba' is a Nahuatl word. The [band's] name is mestizo, just like our music."
In August, Tacuba will be headlining the Watcha Tour, a conglomeration of rock and rap en espan~ol groups that will reach 12 major U.S. cities, ending with an Aug. 15 date at the Greek Theatre.
Warner Bros. is hoping that Tacuba's superb live shows will spur sales of the album.
"The band is outstanding live," Standish says. "They elicited a strong emotional response in me when I saw them live. I couldn't help but being overwhelmed by [the show]."
One thing is for sure: "Reves / Yosoy" will stand as a measure of how far a Latin rock act can go in the name of art while still maintaining some commercial credibility.
"I have the feeling that today's listeners are more than prepared for a record like ours," Albarran says. "In fact, I still think we could have gone a step further with our experiments. Everything has already been done in music anyway. You just come up with a different way of doing things."