Recording exec's funky flip side

Times Staff Writer

Camilo Lara leads a double life in the Mexican music industry.

By day he's the successful top executive of one of his country's leading record labels, EMI Mexico, known for discovering and developing acts that get both big sales (the teeny-bopper group RBD) and critical raves (alt-rockers Plastilina Mosh).

But come most Friday nights, Lara sheds the white-collar persona and takes on the character of his own teenage dreams, the one-man musical project grandiosely dubbed the Mexican Institute of Sound.

Luckily, the transformation doesn't require much of a wardrobe change. The businessman turned music man wears the same informal attire on stage and at his desk -- typically a T-shirt under a suit jacket with fashionably clashing colored Converse -- whether he's jetting off to international venues for overnight performances or making it back to Mexico City in time to start another week at the office.

"I think I'm a much better executive than a musician," said Lara during a recent business trip to Los Angeles. "I try to keep the two things separate, but it's still a problem because I'd like to spend more time on my music and less time at work."

Lara, 30, is the first of his generation in Mexico to assume control of a major record label, bringing an innate rock sensibility to a play-it-safe industry. Perhaps that's not surprising given that he grew up in the 1980s, when Mexico emerged as a powerhouse in rock en espanol with groups such as Cafe Tacuba and Maldita Vecindad.

"He's part of a small but growing group of people who are coming into power in Mexico with new ways to look at the market and the music. They're a little less afraid to take chances," says Tomas Cookman, organizer of a respected annual conference of alternative Latin music, the LAMC, and owner of Nacional Records, based in the San Fernando Valley, which issued Lara's CD domestically.

Lara makes his Los Angeles debut with the Instituto Mexicano del Sonido, as his act is known in Spanish, Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, sharing a bill with acclaimed artists from Spain (Bebe), Colombia (Aterciopelados) and Mexico (Reyli). His debut album, "Mejico, Maxico," is a quirky electronica melange that samples the mambos and cha-cha-chas of Perez Prado and the kitschy, lounge sounds of Juan Garcia Esquivel, to whom the CD is dedicated.

An obsessive record collector, Lara was raised in a music-oriented family with an older brother in an '80s rock band who would sneak him into gigs as a kid. He has worked half his life in the music business, starting as a radio DJ at 15 and coming up the ranks as radio promoter, label manager and, for the last year, general manager of EMI Mexico.

During his tenure, the label leaped from fifth to second place in the market. Much of that surge was due to the smashing success of RBD, or Rebelde, the TV-spawned group that Lara helped develop. RBD made history by drawing 60,000 fans to the Los Angeles Coliseum in March, the largest Latin concert in the city's history.

But Lara built his early reputation by taking chances on totally unknown, cutting-edge acts that went on to lead the new wave of homegrown Mexican rock in the 1990s. Aside from Plastilina Mosh, his discoveries include El Gran Silencio, the cumbia/hip-hop fusion band from Monterrey; he's also worked with Ely Guerra, the daring singer-songwriter from Mexico City.

Lara's experience in searching out and signing new artists evokes the days when labels were run by talent scouts, not bean-counters, says David West, head of Mexico City-based Westwood Entertainment, a management firm that represents successful young acts such as Sin Bandera, Reik and Natalia LaFourcade.

"Camilo is very open to all kinds of music, and that's why I like taking projects to him," says West.

"He's got a very good ear for what can work in general, even if it's not the music he'd listen to on his drive home, stuck for hours in Mexico City traffic."

Paradoxically, though, Lara's own music is heavily laced with references to styles popular before he was born. The 1950s big bands he now samples were washed up as soon as the first wave of rock 'n' roll stormed the Mexican music scene. Perhaps sensing the threat, those bandleaders were the first to adopt elements of rock, Lara explains.

He considers it an early effort at cultural fusion.

"We've always had this brutal obsession with mestizaje," says Lara, referring to the mixing of races that defines Mexico. "We are mestizos by nature, so I just love the fact that we try to tropicalize everything, in our own way. It was rock the way we understood it."

Sometimes, that meant Lara stood alone.

He discovered Plastilina Mosh 10 years ago playing at a tattoo festival held at the rail workers union hall in Monterrey. As the duo's Alejandro Rosso recalls, the band was new at the time and came on last, after all but one other person had left. That other listener was a man who had gotten drunk to endure the etching of a large tattoo across his chest. When the liquor wore off, the man started crying from the pain and went home, leaving Lara the sole person in the audience.

Rosso says he and his partner, guitarist Juan Jose "Jonaz" Gonzalez, were sure the group had ruined its chances. "He's definitely not signing us now," they thought. But Lara approached them afterward and said excitedly, "Great show!"

Rosso, whose band just released its fourth album for Lara's label, says, "I don't think we could have worked with a cooler guy, honestly. He has a passion for music so ... he actually understands your musical process and puts a lot of creativity on top of that too."

That's ironic praise for a man who doesn't fully understand the process of making his own music. Lara readily admits ignorance when it comes to technology. When he recorded his music on a home computer, he just kept working until he filled his hard drive. That took him five years. When he ran out of memory, he decided the record was finished.

Lara's tech problems also led to a clever title for a first novel he's writing. He bought a new Apple computer and was surprised to find it didn't come with Microsoft Word. So he started writing the book on e-mails addressed to himself, now 100 in all. He calls the book "Mails a Mi Mismo" (E-mails to Myself).

Lara says his music was not originally intended for public consumption. He turned it into an album at the urging of Love Monk, a Madrid-based indie label. His bosses at EMI gave their blessing, he says, but the multinational company is not involved in the release.

"My music was made by Cesarean," he jokes. "They sort of took it out of me."

On record, Lara is a one-man institute. On stage, he replicates the digital wizardry by triggering sequences on a synthesizer, with the aid of a second synth played by Oscar Castro, known for directing music videos.

Lara's music doesn't explore any new ground, artistically. But it definitely has character: a distinct Mexican character that Lara creates by looping a literary line here, incorporating a chorus from an old bolero there and punctuating tracks with the occasional guttural grunt that was Prado's mambo trademark.

On his CD cover, Lara resurrects a slogan that once appeared on all records made in Mexico during the 1970s: El Disco Es Cultura, which means Records Are Culture. The idealistic affirmation was tarnished when labels tried using it to justify tax exemptions granted to cultural institutions, Lara recalls.

But its spirit is still valid.

"To me, records are like books or paintings," Lara says. "Whether you like what I do or not, it's my only way of expressing what I have to say."

For his next album, Lara says only that he wants to finish it more quickly.

So he's getting a smaller hard drive.


Mexican Institute of Sound, others

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.

When: 7:30 tonight

Price: $10 to $115

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