[7 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Alex Cuba is a storyteller. Ask him a question and he’ll thread together different stories to illustrate his answer. He gives a completely honest point of view and offers more insight about his life than your childhood friend probably would about theirs.
His openness also extends to his music. He doesn’t approach music with a formula in mind or abide by trends. From the balmy sway of “Directo” to the urgency of “En El Cielo”, it’s clear that the songs on Alex Cuba were conceived and executed without checking off boxes. There’s a spontaneity to the styles that dress each song. Like his gift for understanding visual aesthetics, Cuba intuitively knows what sounds belong together and how to render them in a creative and compelling way. “The album has to have a certain amount of tension to last”, the Cuban-born Canadian resident explains about his approach, “otherwise it becomes a piece of plastic. It’s the tension of imperfection. It’s the line between perfection and imperfection, which is spontaneity. That’s the way I do music”.
Cuba demoed 32 tracks for the Alex Cuba sessions, grouping songs that he wrote ten years earlier with songs he wrote as recent as the day before. “It’s amazing how the truth speaks to you in the studio”, he says. The result is a consistently rewarding album that never stays in one place too long but never strays from Cuba’s considerable talent for writing hooks that leave a permanent imprint. Though nearly all of the instruments were played by Cuba and the his co-producer Joby Baker, the album sounds completely live, an approach he’s considering for his next album. “I’m going to bring the band into the studio and we’re going to do about 90% live”, he shares. “I think I’ve written the right songs to do it”.
At the moment, Cuba is celebrating the US release of Alex Cuba with high-profile gigs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Cambridge, Massachusettes. Audiences can expect to hear Cuba and his three-piece band create a symphony of sounds that rouse the body, mind, and soul. Only days away from appearing at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, Alex Cuba brings PopMatters closer to “The Spider Man of Latin Music” in this latest edition of 20 Questions. (Note: due to the time constraints of Cuba’s demanding publicity schedule, the second half of “20 Questions” includes more truncated answers than the first half.)
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Iron Man 2 (2010). It made me cry with anger. I was so mad at how they were throwing the money away with a bad script and violence everywhere.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Wow. These are really good questions. You’re making me think. Spider Man. All superheroes have the mission to save the world but I like Spider Man’s costume (laughs). In principle, I feel through my music that I’m doing the same thing as Spider Man, especially coming from the Latin world where music for some weird, strange reason got locked in a box and is having a hard time leaving the box in order to achieve evolution. I feel like I’m the Spider Man of Latin music.
3. The greatest album ever?
That’s a great question. I’m more of a singer-songwriter lover. I’ll go with The White Album (1968) by The Beatles because they wrote such beautiful songs—the simplicity, creativity, and intensity of the melodies. It happens quite often with me that I write something without fully understanding what I wrote. Like “Tierra Colora”, every time I found a way to understand it, I realized that there was another way to understand it. It took me about three weeks to come up with my own interpretation of what I wrote.
If I could have a second album to add, I would also say Kind of Blue (1959) by Miles Davis because of the mood that was achieved on that recording. The mood from every note, the moment in time that it catches, is simply unbelievable and unrepeatable. You put it on and you forget that it’s on but slowly it’s going to start crawling inside of you. The melodies are going to stick with you so much that they’re going to become like little ear worms singing you the melodies but you don’t where they’re coming from.
I find that when music does that spontaneously, without the force of a marketing campaign or radio promotion behind it, it lasts longer. The music that is imposed on us through the channels…they do it in a fake way. They make you dizzy, they make you sing the song, and then after three weeks you hate the song. You’re not going to love it anymore. Once a fan of mine told me that he has a circle of friends who are all fans of my music and they consider Alex Cuba like their unknown neighborhood restaurant—they enjoy the food but no one knows about it. I said, “I don’t want to give anyone a stomach ache or anything with a virus!”
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars—the whole thing about how it was made, what George Lucas went through to get it done. For an independent artist like me who is trying to build his own empire—I own my masters and have my own record label—the movie is pure inspiration.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Listening to one of or all of my kids singing one of my melodies without them realizing that they’re doing it. It recharges me and cleans out my brain, bringing new cells into it.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Something occurred to me on the plane as I was coming here. Up to this point, I haven’t spoken openly about it in my career, but it’s getting to be more and more that people approach me and ask me about my personal life so I’m going to say it: the accomplishment that I’m most proud of in my life is the accomplishment of finding the right partner in my life, finding the woman who I’ve been with for the last 15 years.
That’s it for me, because anything else can be done! To find the right soul mate…many of us don’t get to experience that in life. I’m proud that I made it happen. To start a relationship, it’s an agreement in which both of you are going to give up many things and pick up many things. It is an accomplishment, in my opinion.
The same thing I’m doing with my life, I’m also doing with my music. When I started understanding my gift, I went through many phases and one of them was I didn’t understand why I was so happy in my music. I even thought that there might be something wrong with me because I was “too happy”. Soon after that, I realized that that’s exactly what the world needed—happiness. Many writers go to music when they are frustrated or upset, depressed. The music is like a therapy for them but what they write is not necessarily on the positive side because they’re telling a story of how sad they are as if they’re the only one in the world to feel that.
In my case, it’s completely opposite. When I’m depressed or sad, the last thing I think is to grab a guitar because it offends my gift. To me, it’s using my gift in the wrong way. When I’m happy, chances are I’m going to grab a guitar and come up with an amazing song.
Behind the musician, there is a man that might be putting illusions in people’s minds through music. I understand the power of that and that’s why I go day after day believing the possibility of being loyal in a relationship and control the power of hallucination. Women see me onstage…I have panties thrown at me or (they ask) “What are you doing tonight?” I count to three and say, “No, I’m not going to go”. The next morning I feel on top of the world. Most people think power is money or power is to sleep with a different woman every night. In my opinion, power is the ability to commit to something and truly live it.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
I want to be remembered as a man who came from Cuba with a dream and never gave up. It’s not a secret to anybody that it’s hard to make a living as a musician in North America. I come from a country where music is a job. You have to pass the test, go to school, graduate. If you don’t go to school, you have to take the test independently and according to the level you’re approved, that’s going to determine your salary. The lower level you are, the more shows you have to play. The higher level you are, the less shows you have to play. It’s a wide-respected job. To walk the street with a guitar or a bass in Cuba, it’s like a doctor or engineer or a businessman walking down the street.
In North America, when one of the kids picks up a guitar, the parents go, “How is he going to make a living?” There is a lack of encouragement. I live in a tiny town (north of Vancouver) where it’s unheard of that anybody before me made a living from music, and not only make a living but make a good living. Now, I’m on a level where I’m super comfortable. I own two houses up there and business is going. We don’t stop working. I enjoy it. I found a soul mate that supports me every step of the way.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
The truth is that growing up in Cuba, I didn’t really get access to a lot of that kind of information. I probably built up my ideology about my heroes on rumors and word-of-mouth…maybe somebody like Jaco Pastorius, because I was a bass player.
On another note, I have recently studied Jimi Hendrix and what attracted me to his life is what he did and how he did it, musically and culturally. I believe that if he were to have stayed in the United States, he would never have been comfortable. He had to go to England. Psychologically, which I’ve come to realize after living in Canada for 11 years, Hendrix was exotic to the two white guys he played with, so they would always respect him on the music level. To them it was the coolest thing in the world to play with this black guy. That is brilliant. It’s human nature.
In the US or Cuba, it wouldn’t be the same. I go to Cuba and people call my hair “bad hair”. I moved to Canada and I learned really quickly that there’s no such thing. How are you going to qualify what God has given you? In Canada, if I charge money for people to touch my hair, I am this close to believing that I’m going to make more money than I make from music just by letting people touch my hair.
Jimi Hendrix grew up to be such a visionary. When he came to the United States and some black organization asked him, “Would you come and play for us?”, he said, “No, my music is for everybody”. He wouldn’t have said that if he hadn’t gone to the U.K. to see the world from a different point of view. I don’t aim at the Latin market because in my opinion….you go to school to become an automobile mechanic. You love engines and taking them apart. Then, you get a job with Chrysler. They’re looking for a mechanic so you go with them. Your friend is driving a BMW. One day, he calls you from the road. He broke down two miles outside of where you live. He gives you a call. He needs your help. Are you going to say, “I only understand Chrysler engines” or are you going to say, “I can take apart and put back together any engine in the world”?
That’s the way I think about music. If you are a musician, why do you need to specialize yourself in one kind of music? That’s what’s happening with Cuban musicians. They only play this one kind of music. To me, you have to start opening up and realize that there is only good music or bad music, from the heart or not from the heart. When the album gets done, it aims at the whole world, not just Miami. If you go to my shows, you’re going to see that room with people from everywhere, which makes me so happy.
I had a situation here in New York City about five years ago. My first album was released in the US by a label from New York City. They got me a gig at El Museo del Barrio in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Manhattan. We showed up there and it started raining after we sound-checked. The museum has a beautiful theater inside but because it was sunny before they decided to set-up a stage outside. We showed up there and did the sound check. It started to rain. It was an hour and a half before we realized that we’re going to run out of time. A lot of people showed up and they were inside.
I go inside the the museum and I see the theater because I didn’t see it at the beginning. I said, “Why don’t we do something here? Why don’t we bring at least half of the PA inside and with just the conga player—back then I had a bigger band, I was still very rootsy and traditional—and me on guitar? We’re going to do a mini set here for the people that came to see us and at least they can go home with something”. They said, “What a beautiful idea. Let’s do it!” I set up inside. I get on the stage and started playing. I didn’t really know what language to speak because as an artist I formed my identity in Canada so I’m more comfortable directing my shows in English than in Spanish.
I started speaking in English and said, “How’s everybody doing?” Some people said, “Espagnol! We are not gringos!” That made me mad. I said what kind of people am I playing for? I kept playing, talking very little. Then something similar happened again. I was going to play for 30 minutes. I played three songs. I got up and said, “Thank you”, and walked off the stage.
The label was there. They got super-upset at me. They came backstage and said, “You shouldn’t have done that! Puerto Ricans help keep Latin music alive in the US You owe them”. I said, “We don’t have to talk now.” They said, “That’s true. Later tomorrow. 11:00AM at the office”. I went to the hotel and went to sleep. The time came. I was there.
Four people at the table and I am in the corner. They started talking. They all were expressing a lot of anger about what they thought I did. I let the four of them speak and I waited patiently. I knew that I wasn’t going to get far with them so I was ready to kill it. I prepared myself to have fun doing it because it was the most ignorant point of view I’d ever heard in my life. When they were done, I said, “You guys done?” They said, “Yeah what are you going to say?” I said, “It’s simple enough. I have two kids (back then I only had two). The mother, who I love with every cell in my body, is Canadian. I am Cuban, which means my kids are half-Canadian and half-Cuban. If I tell them that Cuba is better than Canada, I’m negating their mother. If their mother tells them that Canada is better than Cuba, they’re negating their father. When we came together, we did it because we felt love and it made us realize that love is international.
Nobody is better than the other. You have no vision whatsoever and you obviously don’t get the point of my music. I have nothing else to say. My music speaks to the world. I don’t care about a Puerto Rican in a corner of New York City that is not happy with the fact that the Americans, who they are calling gringos, are allowing them to be here, number one. They should be happy that they’re here. The situation is not like Cuba where the Cubans are here but they’re not allowed to go back to Cuba. Puerto Ricans can get out of here whenever they want”. I don’t understand segregation. That’s the reason I don’t live in a city. It’s hard for me to understand how the city works and how the city relates in all of its mini-cultures. To me, it’s a limitation. It’s a big space but people are so separated. We miss so much by doing that.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Maybe I already wrote it and I don’t realize it yet! It won’t be called “masterpiece” by me, it will probably be called “masterpiece” by other people.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I’m a stylish person by nature. I understand what it is to make something look good.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“No matter what, always stand on your own two feet”—my grandfather.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My first steel-string guitar. Coming from Cuba, that’s an incredible departure because everybody uses nylon-strings there. I wrote a song and I heard the sound of the steel in my mind and it awoke something in me.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
(Laughs.) There’s a Canadian brand of jeans called “Silver”. They are my favorite. I feel good in those. I’m wearing them now.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I would come to Manhattan around 1969 when music was explosive.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Can I say something different? I would choose to face it on my own and figure out what it is that is actually stressing me. That is the beginning of the antidote to the stress, once you identify where it’s coming from. It’s not so obvious sometimes.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Something else—love, which is a food in its own way. My love for music heals me. I could be sick as a dog and when I start playing something, it goes away.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country, it could be the countryside in the US but I like the quiet. I like nature. I like to see the clear sky.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
That’s a good question because you’re asking a Cuban from an American about a Canadian! “Don’t say ‘Yes’ every time to the government of the United States! Be tough!” (laughs).
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?
My next album. Just yesterday it showed up by itself. I wrote a song two days ago that made the whole album come afloat. I have a group of 15 songs now that I think are as consistent as I will ever be with my music. They don’t need any instrumentation around them to stand on their own. I can’t wait to go into the studio and record them. We’ll probably release it in a year.