Things are not good between the U.S. and Mexico. Potentially the only time when things were worse was in 1836, after the Battle of the Alamo, which technically wasn’t even between Mexico and the U.S., but between Mexico and a fringe state that would splinter off and become the Republic of Texas, which wouldn’t even become a part of the United States for another 10 years. President Donald Trump currently seems intent on building a “badly needed” wall between the two countries and insists that the Mexican government pay for it. Every week, there are stories of I.C.E. agents detaining men, women, and children suspected of living in the U.S. without authorization, including some who have no criminal background. “That’s weird for us—for everybody!” Emmanuel del Real of Mexican rock band Café Tacvba tells me. He and the rest of the band are visiting Manhattan a few weeks before the release of their eighth studio album. “This country is so big, so powerful because of the way they allow a lot of cultures to be part of it, and now they say they don’t.”
Café Tacvba has been making music for 25 years, and they are one of those great rock bands—say, like Radiohead—that any attempts to explain why they have been so influential ultimately fall short. You could list the number of albums sold or awards amassed—but that would only give you an idea of the size of the audience, and wouldn’t get at the reason why their fans are so engaged, after all these years. As the New York Times has written, the band is adept at reinvention, and their sound has always been a mix: blending regional Mexican styles like norteños and boleros with Anglo rock sensibilities. Their latest album Jei Beibei, which dropped last week, takes this level of experimentation to another level: there are ‘70s-heavy synths on some songs, romantic acoustic guitar on others, anthemic arrangements all around. It feels like both a blast from the past and a look at the future—and yet it also feels decidedly of-this-moment.
Jei Beibei (pronounced, yep, like “Hey baby”) was recorded in Spanish. That doesn’t mean it’s just a record for Spanish-speakers. I caught up with Emmanuel del Real, who also goes by Meme, and Enrique Rangel, who also goes by Quique, while they were in New York doing press, and asked them about how politics influence their work, how the band has become more socially conscious over time, and what their kids think of their music.
The first question I want to ask is about the new album. It’s got this very ‘70s, psychedelic sound to it. What can you tell me about the process of making this record and what felt different about it this time?
Emmanuel “Meme” del Real: It’s very interesting what you say about the ‘70s factor. It’s probably true, because we grow up in the ‘70s and we have a lot of influences [from that era]. You don’t know when and where these influences are going to come back and show up and grow with you, and [the ‘70s] that’s a reference that for sure is in some of these songs. But I do believe there are other references that probably haven’t showed up [in our work] until this album, or the way they present themselves today is different from [the way they showed up] the past.
But this album for me has a wider approach. I feel that, as the band’s turning 28, and with each of us pretty much in our 50s, there’s this eclectic thing or this freedom in the creation department that is shown perfectly in this album. And I like that, I like to see the translation of [what] Café Tacvba is now. These [‘70s] references probably came about unconsciously. I mean, we didn’t talk about it like: Why don’t we do a song that has this element or this factor?
It was more organic.
MM: Yes, exactly.
Where was it recorded?
Enrique “Quique” Rangel: It was recorded in Los Angeles, in Burbank. When we were making demos in our studio, some of the tracks were used in the final mixes, but it was recorded in October last year. We gathered there with Gustavo Santaolalla and the producers, and also with Joey Waronker, who is a drummer who we admire. He worked with us on an album we did in 2003—this time, he recorded 12 of the songs on this album. Some of the songs, we knew what we had in mind, but some other songs blossomed around the rhythms he proposed and it was very interesting to see, to be part of this process in our own songs, seeing how they could be shaped in a different way than you imagined, in a better way.
That sounds pretty quick—didn’t the first single came out in the fall of last year?
QQ: Yes, but that first single didn’t make it to the final album. It did help us develop a relationship with Mick Guzauski. He was the mixing engineer, and he has worked with Daft Punk. That was the first song we worked with him on, and it helped us to imagine him working on the final mixes of the 13 other songs.
So the fall was right around the [U.S. presidential] election. Was the album influenced by that at all? Did you find yourself reacting to the things happening in the U.S.—or maybe in Mexico—at the time?
MM: I think that all changes in life affect you, from your day to the way you live to the way you create. I don’t know if—and I’m asking probably myself this—I don’t know if I will see those changes, those life changes, those political changes, reflected in this album. I’m sure they are there—actually, there is a song on the album that specifically talks about a problem that happened two years ago in Mexico. Well, it is not that specific about the thing—
QQ: Not in a literal way.
MM: —but it is there. I think those changes make you think or create in a different way. And I’m sure all those changes—those political changes, those media changes—put us in a position to create something that can be listened to as today’s music, even if we are not a young band. What is for sure is that each of us—and as a band—we’re pretty conscious about the problems and the relation we have [to them]. In this case, as Mexicans or as Latin Americans now with the States. But at the same time, we are very pleased and comfortable working [in the U.S.], knowing how uncomfortable the situation is for a lot of people.
So how do you translate that into the music, into the lyrics? Some artists will do it literally: Yes, I’m very comfortable with this, in fact. But to start, we are probably not that kind of artist. We are the kind of artists who have a posture about [these things], and we try to be very consistent about that. The moment we really see that is when we perform live. We’re gonna start a new era with this new [U.S.-Mexico] relation and with these new politics around immigrants, around the people who have been [living] here for years, but who probably had some issues with their papers and now they are non grata in the States. That’s weird for us—for everybody! This country is so big, so powerful because of the way they allow a lot of cultures to be part of it, and now they say that they don’t—that’s weird. That’s… a powerful thing, and we’re gonna start living that and [our audiences] are going to confront it now as we come to play here. We will see what happens.
This is a nice transition to another question I wanted to ask: I saw in February you were thinking about making some changes to your song “Ingrata” to show solidarity in the fight against feminicide. As a band, you’ve spanned many decades, and it seems like all of the members of the band have changed with time and become more socially conscious, so making a decision about whether or not to play “Ingrata” sounded very important to you as a band. I’m wondering two things: What did you decide to do with the song? And also, what do you think the role of artists is today when it comes to speaking out about politics?
QQ: We decided not to play it, at least in this period. The lyrics in “Ingrata,” it’s a parody of the way a lot of Mexican traditional songs are written: I love you, but you don’t love me, so I’m going to hate you until I kill you.[laughs] Basically.
I’m Mexican so—
—I know what kind of music you’re talking about.
QQ: But now, suddenly we are aware that maybe it’s not that funny anymore—and a way to get people’s attention on the subject is to take the song out of our setlist. And to make people aware of a problem that is culturally and socially, in a way, accepted. But that maybe it’s time to see things differently.
And so the other question: What do you think an artist’s role is in this—
QQ: Ah, I think artists have a right to make what they think is better for themselves and the society they live in. For us, it’s difficult for us to take a political stand and say: This is the right way to live your life and this is the wrong way of living your life. We’d rather take the attention for our music and for ourselves and try to redirect it to the problems we think are worth taking a second look at. Even now in this age of information, people sometimes need other people who they follow or admire to [take cues from]. If we tell them, take a second look on this, we are not—we don’t think we are going to change the minds of people, but at least to build some awareness. If our music is useful for these things, we think it’s worth it.
Another thing I wanted to ask is: Café Tacvba is one of those bands that is incredibly popular in Mexico, but you can also say the name to anyone in the States, and they know who you are. Even though there is this idea among English listeners that Latin music is for Spanish-speakers, or for Latinos, or for people who don’t live in the States—that hasn’t been the case for you guys. So I’m wondering how you would respond to that idea, and how it fits into how you make music, thinking of your band as one or the other.
QQ: We make music as a need of expression. And we express ourselves in Spanish. When we bring our music to audiences, you don’t have to pass an exam on your Spanish, or how qualified you are to understand our lyrics. In the same way, we heard a lot of bands singing in English, not knowing what the hell they were saying, until we grew up and said, ‘Ahhh, OK, he was worshipping the devil.’ [to me] Osbourne! [laughs] We haven’t had the need to communicate until now in English—of course, maybe we could sell more records, but it would be dishonest to make [music in English] only because we could sell more records. There must be another reason for making [music in English], and I think this situation in the States, it’s a good reason. [laughs] But not yet.
You guys typically wait a couple of years between records. These last couple of records, it’s been like four or five years between albums. Is there another record coming after this one, and will we have to wait another five years for it?
MM: Hopefully not. Hopefully not to the second thing. And no to the first thing, another album is not coming right away because we don’t have it. But we would like to think that now, since we are going independent—or we are not signed with a transnational label—now we are trying to work the most time we can, with a new team behind us, with a team that is taking care of our music and how to release the music, how to share the music, so that has us really in a very exciting moment.
Is streaming something you guys think about now when it comes to the album distribution?
QQ: Now we have to be aware of streaming. Until this year, I didn’t get any—
QQ: No, no.
What do you have now?
QQ: Now I have these things called records. [we both laugh]
I’ve never heard of them.
QQ: Tapes? No, I have Apple Music. I’m not into any social media, so I don’t understand that way of thinking. The main thing for me about getting into streaming is that I’m listening to a lot of records that I haven’t had the chance to listen from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
That’s what my dad said when he got on—or actually, when iTunes launched—
—that he could like, buy any album.
QQ: Yeah, I hope it’s going to make me aware of what’s happening now in music. Not to be that grumpy old man who used to say: Music when I was 20… ! [laughs]. No, no. Not yet.
What new music have you been listening to recently?
QQ: The xx.
Great album that they just put out.
QQ: Great. Also, Sleaford Mods.
MM: I listen to Barney, because I have a family now. Mainly in the car, listening to kids music. [laughs] Nah, of course I listen, but most of the time, it’s like: Hey daddy, put on… again and again and again.
QQ: It’s interesting. I am also a dad, and my two-year-old daughter is discovering The Beatles. It’s amazing as kids music.
MM: And it’s amazing, you realize why some artists like The Beatles, Michael Jackson are so good. It’s like, poom. [The kids] are one year, two years old, and there is some connection [that they have with the music] that doesn’t have to have an explanation. It just happens. It’s fantastic. Actually [it happens] with some new stuff, too. So you listen through the kids’ ears, and you can tell which music is going to stay around for long time, just through the taste of the kids.
Do they listen to the old Café Tacvba hits?
No, the kids.
QQ: Ah, yes. Actually, my daughter is very aware of this last album.
She’s heard a lot of it?
QQ: Yeah. She likes it, yeah.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.