Uruguay's experimentalis-in-chief lets Iggy in on his secrets
That’s the word Martín Buscaglia yelled periodically, while pogo-ing across the stage at the Mercury Lounge, eyes wild. It was the annual indie showcase at the Latin Alternative Music Conference, and while plenty of four and five-piece bands fit comfortably on the stage, it seemed far too small to contain the outsize personality of Martín Buscaglia, Uruguay’s one-man musical sensation.
The song, titled “Spam,” was composed entirely of the nonsensical English text he found in pornographic spam emails. “I figure I spend two minutes a day deleting porno spam from my inbox,” explained Buscaglia before the song. “That adds up to an hour a month. Over two years, I will have spent an entire day of my life deleting spam. It’s crazy.”
Buscaglia often performs with a band when he’s at home in South America, but for situations like these, he’s mastered the art of the one-man band like few others in history. Using a network of loop pedals, he constructs beat-box drum beats from scratch. Then he’ll pick up a bass and lay down a bassline, quickly fling it across the stage and pick up a guitar, then drop the guitar and take out a hacked children’s toy, then fall to the ground to adjust some settings, then hop back up to sing the chorus. It’s exhausting just to watch, and it’s just about the coolest sounding thing in the world.
Over the last fifteen years or so, Martin has risen to become one of Uruguay’s best-known musical masterminds, bouncing around from innumerable albums, side-projects, bands, and collaborations across the Spanish-speaking world. His music is a big, messy melting pot of high-art and crass pop— an off-the-wall mix of funk, rock, hip-hop and just about everything else. Whatever sounds he’s drawing on, there’s always a spirit of improvisation, experimentation and downright playfulness.
We caught Martin’s attention long enough for a chat about his madness and method while he was in New York as a featured artist at the LAMC. If you don’t know him yet, get to know him.
I love being on stage. I think it’s a moment that’s very different from just being on the street, so there is an implicit energy already there. When you play live, it’s always good to be conscious of the fact that this moment might be completely unique, unforgettable for you and for someone in the audience, too. It’s all happening in real time and it creates an energy of itself. What’s funny about live music is that it’s never the same, it’s not like a CD that you can listen to 100 times. The CD will always be the same, but at a live show, the moment can take you and move you in different ways.
Also, you do things a bit outside the ordinary, and you do it without fear. You were on stage by yourself, playing in a new country, and you were shouting and jumping all over the place without even thinking about how people would react.
I think that if you are making art you can’t stop and worry about what other people will say. Whatever you do, someone is going to connect with it and someone isn’t going to like it at all. There is no reason to be afraid of that. Art isn’t for the lukewarm. It’s about doing something and going all the way with it. Like I was saying, I’ve played music my whole life and I really enjoy being on stage. It’s a place where I really feel comfortable. I’ve played in places where they don’t speak my language, and I’ve proved that the music can get across. If you deliver, the people will give it back to you. Music is amazing in that way. I’m not afraid before I play — I’m anxious, I want to be on the stage already, to test out out the connection in a new country.
So what are you working on right now?
I just finished a new CD, that I mixed in L.A. three days ago. It’s a duo with a Spanish artist named Kiko Veneno, who is a mystical cult figure in Spain. He’s a 60-year-old poet, and was the first person to mix the flamenco scene with rock in the ’70s. So we composed the songs together, we recorded it in Uruguay and Spain, and then we went to L.A. to mix it. It will come out before the end of the year.
You have a very eclectic style. What is your musical foundation?
My first influences came from Brazil. It’s a musical paradise with a ton of genres, not just the most well known genres like bossa nova. They have rock, they have hip-hop, the tropicalia movment, experimental music like Hermeto Pascoal. It’s a very rich place, and Uruguay is right next door, so there is a big Brazilian influence. Also, I started by playing the bass, so I’ve always been attracted to music that has a groove, like funk. And lyrics are always important for me, so all the great poets have been a big influence: Tom Waits to Caetano Veloso. And The Beatles, who I think are an influence on any type of musician. The Beatles may be the only unanimous musical expression in the world.
I think maybe Bob Marley as well.
Yes, Bob Marley as well. You are right, he is the other example. A month ago I had the honor of opening for Paul McCartney in Uruguay, that’s why I brought up The Beatles. I really thought about it a lot and said, “Look, I’m here playing with someone who embodies the history of music of the 20th century and the 21st century as well.” It was super cool.
How does Uruguayan music influence what you do?
Acknowledging your roots in your music is really important to me. Even if I’m making experimental or electronic music, inside there implicitly needs to me some candombe, murga, milonga, tango… all the genres you hear in my neighborhood and in my country. From there, I can decide whether I want to show it or not, but those genres are always in my fingers. I’m not going to make hip-hop like somebody from New York. I love hip-hop, but if I’m going to do it, I need to give it some personal touches.
Give me an example – how do you incorporate those genres? Is it intentional, or something more subtle?
It depends on the song. I never officially decided that I was going to be “eclectic,” it just came out naturally. In my house growing up there were always instruments and musicians rehearsing, and you would always hear very different types of music. You would hear Earth Wind & Fire and then Ruben Blades, and then a protest song by Violeta Parra. It would go from one thing to the other and that’s how I learned to experience music, and I also think it’s the most intelligent way to experience music.
Each person chooses what fits them best, like when you choose your favorite foods. But you can’t always eat the same type of food. It’s bad for you and you are going to get bored. I never had a set genre like that. I listened to The Clash and to Chico Buarque. It happened naturally and it flows into my music as well.
At your concert, you performed one song with a Simon, the children’s memory-game toy from the ‘90s. Tell me about that.
I had an era a while ago where I was really interested in circuit bending, which is taking instruments and toys and take them apart to use them in different ways. During that time that my girlfriend gave me a Simon toy, and I made a song with it. I used a lot of electronic toys in my music, but the one I kept using was the Simon.
What interested me about using these toys as instruments, and especially the Simon, was that you were giving emotional qualities to something that isn’t inherently emotional. The Simon, for example, is something that was made by a Japanese guy on an assembly line, with set notes. But that’s the beautiful thing about art – you can change the focus. You can take a toy that is funny or robotic and use it to create a different emotion that seems distant from the original object. I love playing with that kind of ambiguity. It’s a way of working that I utilize a lot in my music.
You were playing a bunch of other weird things… what else was on stage with you?
I had a vintage instrument called a Stylophone, a tiny synthesizer which you play with a stylus. I use that one because it’s small and it fits in my suitcase. And loop pedals, of course. I realized that the simple vocals plus guitar format, which is a format I love, really limited what I wanted to say. I reached the moment that I started to incorporate other elements. I added a theremin and the loop pedals. I love playing on my own because I have the ability to vary it as I please in the moment. I’ve always played a lot of instruments, but no matter what instrument I use, the music will sound like me. The music is inside my own head and my personal sensibilities will always be more important to what instrument I’m playing at the moment.
You also play the banjo, which is something that doesn’t happen in a lot of Latin American bands…
But that’s like what I was saying before, I like to take things out of their context. I love the banjo. I also just bought a banjolele, which is a mix of a banjo and a ukulele.
I’ve heard you are something of an obsessive instrument collector.
Totally. I am a collector, but what interests me about each instrument is that each new instrument inspires at least one new song. If you don’t know the instrument well, you are going to play it in a more intuitive way and not with the technical knowledge that you would have from learning an instrument for years. With guitar and bass and piano, my hands are just going through the motions. I like taking these things out of context to create a new experience. I don’t play the banjo like a bluegrass musician. I play it like an Uruguayan artist who plays funk and candombe, and something new happens. First something new happens for myself, and then for the rest of the outside world, but first it has to generate inside of me.