Caetano Veloso x Beck Hansen:
Caetano Veloso is one of the central figures of Brazilian music and a leader of the Tropicalia movement. His music spans over 4 decades with a body of work that stands along side that of the best songwriters of the era. We met and performed together in the mid–90’s during one of his rare tours in the States. I spoke with him last year about music, touring and Tropicalia. Here is part one of that conversation. –Beck
BH: Hi Caetano! So you’re well?
BH: What time is it there?
CV: 2 in the morning. 2 am.
BH: Are you a night person?
CV: I am a night person.
BH: It comes with performing?
CV: I couldn’t live in Los Angeles. I remember once I went out with you in Los Angeles and we went to a place that didn’t seem to be anything from the outside and then inside it was full of life and lights and good food and talking and we stayed there until late. But normally you don’t find things in Los Angeles if you don’t know people.
BH: The city doesn’t reveal itself easily. So what are you doing?
CV: I’ve been traveling a lot around Brazil with the new show.
BH: Brazil is a large country–vast.
CV: It’s one of the biggest. It was bigger than the United States, but then the United States kept on growing and growing and buying territory.
BH: How long does it take to go from one side of Brazil to the other if you were driving?
CV: I don’t know. For example, to go from Rio to Bahia by bus it takes 25 hours.
BH: And how many cities are you visiting on this tour?
CV: I don’t even know anymore how many state capitals there are in Brazil now because there are new states, you know?
BH: There are still frontier areas?
CV: Most in the Amazon. And they became states. There used to be 22. Now there must be 27– I don’t know!
BH: Is it like in America where you go to the smaller towns and you see more of the strains of older culture? In America, the bigger cities, especially in the last few decades, they’ve become more and more similar.
CV: I’ve noticed in Brazil cities are becoming more similar to American cities.
BH: How is touring there?
CV: It can be wonderful. I’ve come to the conclusion that Brazilian audiences have become very noisy. I mean, the very idea of loud PA’s that came with rock n’ roll has contaminated the whole show business in Brazil. I remember once when David Byrne came to play in Rio and the sound was perfect. It was some years ago now when he was doing this more electronic thing. It was a show that was basically electronic. He used computers and programming, whatever. And it was very theatrical too! And he was mostly alone on stage. The sound was perfect to my ears. But in Brazil they have taken the idea of having a Rock N’ Roll show with loud PA that some people were screaming “Sound! Sound! Louder!” in Portuguese. In Brazil they want the sound to be loud and if it’s an American group that’s presenting itself, people think that it should be even louder because they’re richer and more powerful.
BH: That reminds me of something I encountered when I went to Brazil for the first time. When we played on a festival it seemed like the bands people responded the most to were the heavy metal and the hard rock ones. Being so influenced by Brazilian music I thought there’d be more of a possibility for a connection there on that level.
CV: Some festivals have heavy metal audiences and they rule. (laughs)
BH: I wrote this song after that trip called “Girl from R.I.P.onema.” The cliché of the Brazilian beach girl was really a metal head.
CV: People told me it [the show] was very good. Very beautiful. But still most of the audience was waiting for something else.
BH: Bringing the influences of that music and the Brazilian rhythms there was probably naïve. But one of the aspects I thought was interesting about Tropicalia, that cultural mirror being held up back at the States and England.
CV: American music has become global since the 1920′s. At least. So, nothing American is local anywhere. You can do American things in Holland, in Brazil, in France, in Africa. Anywhere. Japan. You can have a jazz band or a rock n’ roll band or a rap group in Portugal or Spain. Anywhere. You cannot say that it doesn’t belong to them or that they are just imitating because people just grew up listening to those things. They were exposed to that kind of sound and feeling. American pop culture is international. It’s the only real world music. (laughs) So, it’s different. You cannot deny that it’s different if you are American or if you are dealing with American musical procedures. If an American tries to make Japanese music or Brazilian music, it can be beautiful, but it can sound as something that that special person is doing. It can be good or not. But it’s risky. On the other hand, if Brazilians or French or Spanish or Japanese play American things or imitate American things or make developments from American nuclear forms they just seem to be more natural. They are not even trying to be original because it belongs to everybody in a way.
BH: That’s true. And I think that there’s been a slow move here in some circles towards music from places like South America, Africa, Turkey, Thailand–bringing those influences in. Not as some form of cultural robbery, but as an awareness to other sounds or perspectives and their power to help push music somewhere it hasn’t gone yet or needs to go. These kinds of dialogues have always been around really. I agree about American culture being a global currency.
CV: Now I am doing this show and I was complaining of the noisy audiences in Brazil now but the thing is when I come to the quieter parts of the show they go on talking loudly! You know? Some parts of the songs are loud. I use loud guitar and rock n’ roll. It’s a power trio. But we make very quiet things too. In some places, audiences go from extreme sound stimulation to voids of silence and concentration, you know? But in many places, they just don’t go. They like the whole thing, but they go on making noise when you’re not talking through noise anymore. It’s funny.
BH: When I see footage of concerts from the fifties and sixties, when they cut to the audience, the audience isn’t moving. They’re completely frozen. The music could be riotous, but they’re sitting like it’s a recital.
CV: But it can change. A few months ago, Radiohead came to Rio. They played in a big, huge, open-aired venue. And the audience was singing along all the songs and making silence to listen to Thom Yorke’s voice when he was doing more lyrical songs. The audience was very connected to the shape and stage of the show. It was a good event. But, that depends on a band having become something that is a cult among a big number of young people and that happened to Radiohead.
BH: Yeah it did. I’ve toured with them over the years. I played with them when they first came out, then I toured with them a few years ago and their audience is now extremely reverential and connected to them in a way that’s almost religious.
CV: Yeah, it’s an international cult. So, this kind of clarity sometimes depends on previous approval that has been, for many reasons, and the quality of the band might be one of those reasons in many cases, but not in all. You know? On the other hand, there is a messier environment for the musical business in Brazil because in the mid and late 60′s what we did was, the tropicalistas, we included rock n’ roll procedures and language, you know? Because we had imitation of rock n’ roll and following of rock n’ roll in Brazil but not from a respectable area of creators. Of composers and musicians. When we did what was called Tropicalismo. We included rock n’ roll procedures in the thing we were doing and that created many reactions against it and everything, but basically it was successful. And it helped create new kinds of audiences that decades later would be wanting to listen to Marisa Monte. You know? In a very loud PA. Which is not that adequate to the music she does. Not necessarily. Sometimes you think, why do you use this loud PA for this girl who is singing? It becomes more in your face. Marisa Monte is an artist of nuances, of shades of tone.
BH: There’s a flattening out. You hear it in recordings now too. If you look at the wave forms on modern recordings, even recordings from 10 or 20 years ago, let alone 40 years ago, there are peaks and valleys. There are parts where it gets quiet and loud. And now they just make everything loud.
CV: Records are very loud! When we recorded the new record this year, I worked with young people, three young musicians and my son who was producing it and they didn’t want to compress the way most new records are and we found out that even very, very good records are too compressed, you know? It’s always loud! From the very first note it’s loud!
BH: On my recent albums, I’ve mastered them in a more traditional way and then in a modern way and played them sided by side. I personally like the traditional one that’s less compressed and less altered. But we end up putting out the one that’s more compressed because people now are so attuned to hearing music that way. I don’t know if they’d connect as much with something quiet and uncompressed. It would just sound like it’s not alive or something to ears that have been conditioned to a more exaggerated sound. There’s a need for a kind of stimulation. It’s hard to reconcile these elements. I know other bands have had the same problem. They say, “Well, I really like the naturalness of the instruments when it’s not over-compressed but the other one really leaps out of the speaker and gets peoples attention.” I guess some people think it’s harder to get people’s attention now.
CV: If I go around with just my acoustic guitar and just play, most people like it more easily. But it’s a different crowd. You have in Brazil and everywhere in Europe, everywhere you have people who just go there and keep very quiet and silent and they pay attention because you see that guy alone with his acoustic guitar and singing quietly. Joao Gilberto has gone so radically against loud PA’s that his latest shows in Brazil, I’ll tell you, I almost couldn’t hear anything. It was SO quiet. He demanded that his PA would be very quiet and he was asking for it to be quieter and quieter and he sang quieter than ever and he played even quieter. So it was beautiful because it was very radical. I took my 2 younger songs to see Joao Gilberto for the first time because he doesn’t sing every year, you know? It takes 7 or 10 years for him to come back on stage. So I took my two sons, one is 17, the other one is 12. And I was very proud to show him to them and very happy that they had the opportunity to see him. But they were not amazed the way I would have liked them to be. But not because it was not good. Mostly because it was too quiet. But for me, and for many people, it was kind of a statement. It was so scandalously quiet. (laughs)
BH: (laughing) That’s very brave. As a performer, sometimes you count on that volume for your confidence. I’ve played shows where there wasn’t even a real PA and it was so quiet that if somebody said hello to you from the audience you could hear them perfectly. And those are the hardest shows to perform.
CV: It’s a different kind of pleasure. If you have a quiet, concentrated, and clear message, you have a different kind of pleasure. You must learn to be able to know when one or the other is needed. Even at the same show.
BH: Yeah, you have to have those moments. I used to play a harmonium in the middle of the concert without the band. It was striking how that presentation could alter the feeling of the show.
CV: The guitar player who plays with me now has been a friend of my son since he was seven so I’ve known him since he was a child. Now he’s a very good guitar player. He told me that he saw one show of yours in the United States somewhere, maybe New York? I don’t know. Anyways, he had your latest record and he told me that the show was immensely better. I remember clearly the first time I heard somebody talk about you before I saw or heard your music. It was my ex-wife. She saw you on TV and she told me, “You’re going to like this.” It was some awards show I think. Like the Grammys or whatever. I don’t know. Something she saw on TV. I was recording and I came back home and she told me, “There’s this guy Beck. Don’t forget this name because you’re going to like him.” She was explaining to me the way you danced and moved and the suit you were wearing and you were very white! (laughs) She was very precise about that. “The fact that he’s so white is very important when he moves the way he does.” And I was curious so I saw you and I told her she was right. It was very revealing.
BH: That’s funny. At that time it seemed like any kind of dancing or ‘performing’ was slightly suspect. It wasn’t very fashionable to move and put yourself out there, at least when it wasn’t within some pop or R&B context. I think for bands at that time, ‘performing’ had become equated with show business. There was such a fear of things being slick or showbiz. Rightly so, especially after the 80′s.
BH: I was thinking about when I found your music. I was raised hearing several Brazilian records. My mother always played Jobim. I guess it was music from her childhood. I heard all those records playing in the house growing up and it became such a strong reference for me. Just as much as the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or the Ramones… We went to very few concerts growing up and actually the only concert that I can remember being taken to was Jobim with his family. I was very small but I was struck by the music. He had his whole family playing with him!
BH: So maybe it has the nostalgia for something from childhood. I’m so happy to have seen that music at that age.
CV: I’ll tell you, nothing since I heard Joao Gilberto has ever had half the force that that music had on me. It was in 1959. I was 17 and it was a big disaster and enlightenment. It was everything at the same time. It was so beautiful. So powerful. In fact, having seen and listened to so many things along the decades, I have never met anything that has become more important musically to me than Joao Gilberto. Still now when I listen to him singing I think, “There’s nothing like this.” But even Bob Dylan in Bringing it all Back Home, he wrote “People may like a soft Brazilian singer, but I have given up all attempts at perfection.” And in his chronicles, his autobiography, he mentioned Joao Gilberto, and doesn’t mention Jobim! (laughs) This is very Dylan-ish. He mentions Joao Gilberto, Roberto Menescal, and Carlos Lyra, who really were very important in Bossa Nova, but he doesn’t mention Jobim! (laughing!)
BH: (laughs) In what context does he mention them? That he was listening to them?
CV: He said this, “While we were doing those things in New York, I felt that we were creating a new environment, a new world. I knew that we were not alone because while we were doing those things in New York, in Brazil Joao Gilberto, Roberto Menescal, and Carlos Lyra were creating Bossa Nova.” Before “Like a Rolling Stone” and Bob Dylan become rock n’ rollish, the people who he lived with and hung out with in New York listened to a lot of Bossa Nova. They respected refined music and they even reacted against Bob Dylan when he put the rock n’ roll band together to play with him. So he quotes these people in his book.
BH: That makes sense because that must be where my mother picked it up. She was a teenager in Greenwich Village during the early ’60′s. That must have been part of the soundtrack of that time and place. She had those records well worn out. But I think that there’s something that he hits on the head in that there is a perfection in that music. There’s such a calm and strong quality to it because it is so perfect that it doesn’t have to be loud of forceful. It makes the same impact as much louder music with such restraint. I think that it’s something that slowly sank in hearing those records. It’s very powerful without a lot of effort, which is the hardest thing to do, to have that impact without a lot of effort being applied.
CV: No doubt.
BH: When I first started performing, I thought I would literally have to set myself on fire in order to engage or interest the audience. But I’m drawn to performers who can just stand there with a good song and don’t have to do anything else to create an effect on people.
CV: No doubt. But again, not only back then but even now, some people in Brazil would react to what we were doing, saying that we were just imitating cool jazz. And in a way we were. But you listen to Chet Baker, and you know that Joao Gilberto heard that, but what he really produced is so incredibly original and different from that. But the reaction that came to Gilberto and his peers was of enormous originality, something entirely different from cool jazz. The rhythm, the ideas, and the phrasing was so particular.
BH: Yeah, what he did with it and what he chose not to do. The things that are absent were a part of that music.
CV: It’s true.
BH: I first heard you towards my late teens. One of my best friends would do odd jobs and save up money, then spend half of the year traveling. One year he went to Spain. He had a tiny room in a rooming house and I used to take over the rent when he was gone. When I was 19 or 20, he went to Brazil. At the time it seemed incredibly far away. When he came back, he spoke fluent Portuguese.
BH: I think he went down there with little money but somehow managed to stay for 6 months. When he came back he spoke Portuguese, had stories and a bag full of cassettes he’d bought on the street. We sat listening to the cassettes while he told me the stories about his trip. Taking a boat down the Amazon, going to places way out in these rural areas. He gave these detailed descriptions. It was my introduction to your music. I think he had a cassette of Jorge Ben as well and a couple of others. He would translate the lyrics for me. We listened to those tapes over and over. It’s funny because back then there was very little information on what this music was, what the stories behind it were, the historical background… those are all things I learned about much later, but the music just hit me. I fell in love with it and absorbed it. At that time you couldn’t go on the Internet and get the stories. So it remained mysterious. Later on I tried to bring that influence in. I was so taken with those records. As I was traveling on tour, the only place I could find a lot these records was in Japan. I would get up early and go to record stores and every once in a while I would find one. I remember finding one of your eponymous records–I think there’s 3 or 4? I love that you have 4 eponymous albums.
BH: There’s one with the white cover and it has The Empty Boat?
CV: Yeah, with my signature on it.
BH: Yeah, with your signature! I remember finding that and it was like when you find a record that you’d imagined existed but hadn’t known where to get it. Working on my first few records, incorporating this cut-up technique I’d heard in musique concrete and in hip hop, this idea seemed to pre date in Tropicalia as well . My grandfather was an artist involved with Fluxus and a little bit with Warhol. He did collage work with cigarette butts and Hershey bar wrappers. I was really taken with this idea of cutting up discarded styles of music and putting them together. When I heard an Os Mutantes record I thought “Wait, they already did this! (laughing) 35 years before.”
CV: It was the best.
To be continued in Pt. 2.