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Film composer Gustavo Santaolalla revels in his <i>rockero</i> roleThe Oscar-winning composer divides his time with the band Bajofondo, an eclectic mix of musicians that enhances his vision.

Gustavo Santaolalla in his Echo Park home.
(Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times)

When his band mates reach for a way of describing Gustavo Santaolalla, the Oscar-winning musician and producer, they frequently compare him to rock ‘n’ roll legends: “the Argentine Bob Dylan,” the “South American Brian Wilson,” and so on.

But if they really want to haul out the big-gauge superlatives, they turn to fútbol. (These are Latin Americans, after all.)

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“I don’t know if you’re a soccer fan,” says Adrián Sosa, longtime drummer for Bajofondo, the stylistically omnivorous band that he and Santaolalla belong to, “but I compare him all the time with guys like Maradona, like Messi. He can do thousands of things and put the best of him in thousands of things and be successful at all of them.”

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This year, like most years, the 61-year-old artist with the five-syllable surname (pronounced san-ta-oh-LAH-yah) will be stretching and testing himself with regard to that last point.

In a recent interview at his Echo Park studio-home, Santaolalla, who migrated from Argentina to Los Angeles more than three decades ago, enthusiastically ticked off a long list of his current projects. Among them are his first soundtrack for a video game (the post-apocalyptic “The Last of Us”), and a Broadway-style musical adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s allegorical fantasy film “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

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Santaolalla is also collaborating with Tony Award-winning writer John Weidman, director Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys”) and choreographer Julio Zurita on a dance-musical show, “Arrabal,” scheduled to have its world premiere in January at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre. The show relates the fact-based story of a young Argentine woman who enters the underground world of Buenos Aires tango clubs and gets drawn into the history of the “dirty war” campaign of torture and murder that Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship waged against its own people from 1976 to 1983.

“It’s very emotional, and it’s very touching and deep, but it’s very sexy,” Santaolalla says of the show. It’s also a subject he feels close to: As a hirsute aspiring rocker during that dark time, Santaolalla was regularly picked up by the police, harassed and even sometimes jailed for a day or two.

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“Basically it was to make your life miserable because they hated kids with long hair and they hated rock concerts,” Santaolalla says. “Now finally all the people that were involved in all those horrible years of killing and torturing, they’re all being judged, all being put in jails just like common criminals, which is what they are.”

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But this spring the endeavor that Santaolalla is most primed to discuss is Bajofondo, which has just released “Presente,” its third album of new material and first since the critically well-received “Mar Dulce” from 2008. The latest disc’s release marks the 10th anniversary of the eight-member, Argentine-Uruguayan ensemble, which Santaolalla co-conceived with Uruguayan composer-musician-producer Juan Campodónico.

Augmented on several tracks by a 35-member orchestra that includes theremin, harp, tubular bells and glockenspiel, “Presente” underscores Bajafondo’s gradual evolution from an experimental, studio-based project whose early music was built around electronic samples and beats to a full-fledged confederation of individualistic artists who’ve melded together through live performances (they’ll be onstage Monday night at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood).

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“By playing and playing and playing, the music started to mutate, and suddenly we started to be more like a band,” Santaolalla says, referring to the years between the band’s inaugural release, “Bajofondo Tango Club,” and “Mar Dulce.”

And though a number of high-profile guest artists appeared on “Mar Dulce,” including Elvis Costello and Nelly Furtado, “Presente” showcases Bajafondo’s core lineup of Santaolalla and Campodónico on guitars, vocals and sampling; Luciano Supervielle on piano and organ; violinist Javier Casalla; Martín Ferres on bandoneón; bass player Gabriel Casacuberta; Sosa on drums; and the Uruguayan singer and videojockey Verónica Loza adding audio-visual enrichment to the band’s theatrical live performances.

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“We felt that we had to make our artistic statement,” Santaolalla explains. “To say, ‘Listen, we’re a band, we’re 10 years old, we have developed this sound. We don’t want any guests on this album, we’re going to take all the tasks in our hands.’”

The result of this concentrated burst of bajofondismo is what Santaolalla characterizes as a concept album, albeit without a story line. The intention, he says, was to traverse the sonic and emotional landscapes of the Rio de la Plata zone that spans Argentina and Uruguay.

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That encompasses not only the traditional regional genres of tango, candombe, murga and milonga, he says, but also four decades of Spanish-language rock nacional, and “many years of listening from the Beatles to the Chemical Brothers, from Atahualpa Yupanqui to Mariano Mores, to classical music, to progressive rock, and to hip-hop.”

“Presente” is both the band’s most mature and riskiest record, from the Minimalist piano lines of “Nocturno” to the witty doo-wop harmonies of the a cappella “Oigo Voces” (I Hear Voices) and the high-definition African percussive rhythms that pervade the disc. Campodónico, speaking by phone from his Montevideo home, says he has heard Santaolalla refer to “Presente” as Bajofondo’s answer to “Pet Sounds” or the White Album.

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“We took the style that we have and we made it a little more profound,” Campodónico says in Spanish. “We were a little more adventurous in the arrangements, in the things we did. For example, I never had sung on a Bajofondo album, and I sang on this record. And this was true of other members of the group. There were people who hadn’t composed songs for the band before, and this time they composed.”

Santaolalla says that he always thinks visually when he makes music. He wrote his first score for a short film, about statues that spring to life at night, when he was a teenager. The first album he cut with one of his youthful ventures, the rock-folkloric band Arco Iris (Rainbow), contains long instrumental passages.

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Starting in Argentina (and then in the United States), Santaolalla helped usher in Latin alternative music as a producer of bands such as Mexico’s Maldita Vecindad and Café Tacuba. He also continued to filter and refine his musical ideas through the punk/new wave band Wet Picnic, which he founded with his fellow Argentine expatriate and longtime producing partner Anibal Kerpel, and through his influential album of charango instrumentals, “Ronroco.”

“Ronroco” caught the attention of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who was looking for a composer-producer with the experimental derring-do of Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois to score a then-obscure film called “Amores Perros.” The movie became a Latin cinematic landmark and helped establish Santaolalla as one of Hollywood’s leading film composers. He later would win Oscars for scoring Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and Iñárritu’s “Babel” (2006).

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“Gustavo has, beyond the talent, a very generous spirit, a very vibrant spirit,” Iñárritu says. “He naturally mentors people and inspires people. He’s wise enough to work with different kinds of musicians and bands and be transparent and invisible, apparently, but vital and I would say essential, like water.”

Soon enough, no doubt, Santaolalla will resume his multi-tasking, multi-platforming pace. But Monday night at the Fonda, he’ll revel in being a rockero once again.

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“I like to do my solo stuff,” he says, “but for me there’s nothing more rewarding than traveling around the world with a group of friends playing music that you think is great.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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