Revolutions Per Minute: Matías Aguayo Takes House Music to Paris, Buenos Aires, and All Points In Between
- Words: Walter Wasacz
- Photo: Bastien Lattanzio
That voice, mellifluous from the start, confident and full of grace to the end, is the perfect introduction to Matías Aguayo.
He's in London; I'm in Detroit. Over the small speaker in my cell phone, his ear for English comes across as extraordinary; but so does his German, Spanish, and French, one would imagine. Language is his primary instrument, after all, and he practices it endlessly. For 70 solid minutes, the interview I intended instead becomes a wide-ranging conversational drift through places, people, politics, culture, memories, inspirations, rhythms—and how Aguayo uses all of them to create a sound that makes a mess of most conventional definitions of electronic dance music. He's found his niche, building a unique career in the footnotes of sub-sub-sub-genres, and he sounds like he's having a blast.
"I rather enjoy staying on the cultural periphery," says Aguayo, explaining why he chooses to live between Buenos Aires and Paris. But it might as well describe his productions, live performances, and still-fermenting projects that combine his love for techno, house, electro, disco, and pop—gleaned from European and North American sources—with Latin openness and romance. "I can focus more freely on what I want, keeping away from things that might distract me, taking advantage of where life has taken me."
All of these things manifest themselves on Aguayo's new full-length for Kompakt, Ay Ay Ay, and on his Argentinian label/dance collective Cómeme (Spanish for "eat me"), which brings the music directly to the people in the form of BumBumBox street parties in South American cities. The events are also staged with an eye toward linking fans of infectious good times all over the world via YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and other social-networking communities.
"In Europe, the scenes still depend on how the music is distributed. Discovery of new music is mostly limited to collectors," Aguayo says. "Cómeme came out of a freer, more wide-open approach in South America. We discovered great music from Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, Angola, and other places that could change DJ culture for the better. Instead of the usual club sets based around Chicago, Detroit, and European models, we are finding something new and exciting out there."
Special Beat Service
Aguayo was born in Santiago, Chile in 1973, the same year that President Salvador Allende was overthrown in an infamous coup d'état and replaced by the commander-in-chief of the army, Augusto Pinochet. Two years later, Aguayo's family left an increasingly oppressive Chile for Europe. His story is similar to that of iconic minimal star Ricardo Villalobos, whose family left Chile for Germany in 1973. (The two know each other, Aguayo says, "but we are not super-close.")
Aguayo found himself in Cologne throughout the fertile 1990s, when Wolfgang Voigt—then known variously as Mike Ink, Love Inc., and Studio 1, among other aliases—Michael Mayer, Jürgen Paape, Robert Babicz, and Dr. Walker were all part of a movement reimagining and recasting the future of German techno as a polka-dotted, global party machine ready to take on the new century.
But just as important was another inspiration that came from a place closer to home: a friend of his father was a DJ who introduced young Aguayo to some killer jams via cassette mixtapes. "I was exposed to funk and disco records, and then started putting together my own tapes," he says. "The influences for me were coming from all directions."
Soon, Aguayo was getting DJ gigs at Cologne's legendary Liquid Sky parties and began working with Mayer in the group Zimt, which packaged acid house with Euro-pop and disco. 1998's "Shake it!" was Zimt's sole claim to fame, but its simple ambition to make the club experience universal and inclusive matched the direction being set for Kompakt.
"We all were club kids who had an open relationship with pop music," Aguayo says. "I liked vocals in songs, and hook lines. We had the influence of New York and Chicago house, but it was new wave and punk that we grew up listening to. We thought we had stumbled upon something new."
Aguayo's next project emphatically proves his point. Closer Musik, his partnership with Dirk Leyers, introduced a spaced-out sexuality that had been lacking in the fledgling Kompakt empire. Minimal techno in 2000 was dominated by the clicks-and-cuts dialectics of Frankfurt's Mille Plateaux imprint. It was smart but dry, intellectually engaging but emotionally bereft.
But Closer Musik's "One, Two, Three (No Gravity)" helped change the temperature. It dared to tell a story, led by Aguayo's dreamy, interstellar vocals—"Floating free/Eternally/Planet E is far away/Where I am is where I stay"—on top of layers of atmospheric, synthetic wash, jazz guitar, a rapid rhythmic pulse, and booming bass drum. Nothing at the time sounded like it. Slow, fast, warm, cool, listening-and-dancing music all going off together at the same time. It still holds up 10 years after the fact, a rarity in techno.
Closer Musik - "One, Two, Three (No Gravity)"
The follow-up single was even better. "You Don't Know Me" spun an even darker but funnier tale, mounted on wicked electroid synth and bass lines, driven forward with vivid imagery of sexual desire and dancing all night long. Aguayo sings: "I love to dream of love/I love talking to myself/I love to listen closely/I love to hear my voice/I love to touch myself/I love the poster on the wall/I love to keep a secret/I love to lick my lips/'cause I'm lonely/But I'm not the only one." Sleazy and self-centered, yes, but the bravura, honesty, and elegance in Aguayo's performance helped make him a dark prince of the growing pop minimal scene. The gorgeous b-side, "Maria," also made a-list DJ charts and the full-length, After Love, was one of the top electronic dance LPs of 2002.
The group fell apart the following year, Aguayo and Leyers going their separate ways into solo careers (Leyers relocated to Berlin and has worked with new wave disco stars Justus Köhncke and Eric D. Clark, among other producers and vocalists).
Of Cologne, Aguayo says that the scene worked so well in the 1990s and early '00s because "the city is small, but has its own identity, its own rhythm. The people don't follow trends, they make their own trends. I liked the personal approaches to making music."
The "inner Latin" in Aguayo also found the cultural currents of the town, founded in 50 A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, to his liking. "It's an old Roman city, a Latin city, a Catholic city," he says. "I find such places and the people in them very attractive."
Which puts commuting from Buenos Aires to Paris with contacts remaining in Cologne all into a greater context? "Well, yes, I hadn't really thought of it before," Aguayo ponders. "There is something about these more open, romantic places that appeals to me. Maybe it is the Catholicism—the cultural aspects, not so much the religion itself—that does it for me."
In 2005, Aguayo released "De Papel," which cheekily channeled a group of the same name created for Mexican television in the early 1990s, on Kompakt's Pop sub-label. The track also appears on Are You Really Lost, his first solo LP issued the same year. The music begins a thematic departure from the twisted narratives found on the Closer Musik sides, but only slightly, with greater emphasis on simple vocal phrasing ("So in Love," "The Green and the Red"), pounding percussive elements, and effects. The title track has a trippy, sci-fi synth line and bites down harder on the low end more than any of his previous work. That same year, he remixed Mayer's "Lovefood," making the track sound more mysterious and villainous than the original.
But Aguayo's current course might be traced to a period that began with his release of a four-track EP on London's Soul Jazz imprint, known largely for remastering rare and classic archival recordings, but also for selecting contemporary artists who fit into its funky parameters. In 2007, Soul Jazz issued Aguayo's A Night at the Tilehouse EP, which contained the original version of "De Papel" and three new tracks ("Argento," "Uno," and "Lineas") that saw him delving deep into his Latin roots.
His slap at the music that brought him early fame, 2008's "Minimal," continued the trend of mixing topical self-referencing humor, funky guitars and basslines, crazy drum patterns, and Southern hemisphere disco flavors—and it contains a killer verse that indicts the scene for having "no groove, no balls."
Eat to the Beat
Aguayo credits the "funny, freaky people in the scene in Buenos Aires," and others associated with the Cómeme ideal, for his present inspiration to make music the way he does. "It's opened me up to new possibilities, more interesting to me than the way I was creating music before," he says. "The people in South America and Mexico are more loose, crazy, weird, and beautiful in their relationship to music. I still keep some of the discipline of the way things are done in Germany and Europe, but the Latin spirit is more fun and unpredictable."
The Cómeme artist with the most buzz is Mexico's Rebolledo, a Latin disco new-waver who combines old and new beats in his mixes, produces quirky cross-genre tracks, and has teamed up with Superpitcher as part of the Pachanga Boys, who contributed "Fiesta Boys" to Kompakt's Total 10 comp last year.
(Attempts to track down Rebolledo and other Cómeme artists via Kompakt reps in Cologne were unsuccessful. Aguayo was sympathetic: "[Laughs] Sometimes even I have a hard time getting them on the phone! But they are great, and what we're trying to do is so refreshing, by bringing the music to an audience that may not have heard it before, literally to the street. The responses we get in places like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Medellin, and Santiago are fantastic.")
Buzz has also been kind to Aguayo's most recent productions on Ay Ay Ay, clearly inspired by the organic BumBumBox scene. Recorded in South America and Europe, the LP also features a growing fascination with trance-inducing African polyrhythms, vocal experiments, and straight-up chants and howls.
"Juanita" is a hypnotic, foot-stomping, mid-tempo cow-punk jam with accordions, handclaps, and wailing vocals, the perfect soundtrack for a lost weekend in the Yucatan; "Mucho Viento" shakes and stammers, with Aguayo purring and moaning in time to the loopy, strangely syncopated beats; on the breathy, menacing "Menta Latte," Aguayo appears to sing in multiple languages, the only words breaking free from the verbal maelstrom being "I need a drink."
"Desde Rusia" sounds most like it would fit with Aguayo's earlier work, largely because it has a song structure, but in the end its weirdness prevails over anything resembling pop convention; and "Rollerskate" skips along without a care in the world, round and round and round, a mutant acoustic-based disco track that seems to make itself up as it goes along, changing speeds, adding and subtracting voices, before simply fading out of consciousness.
Aguayo says his productions and performances have blurred over time, each having influence over the other. He is not a typical studio rat, more an innovative practitioner of the live electronic arts, unafraid to take on risks and collaborators for his journey through music. His shows are more like social experiments, a means to engage communities, make new discoveries about what keeps his motor running. His combo live/DJ sets include a microphone, drum pads, maracas, and a flute. He sings, he dances, jumping on the floor and bouncing to his own tunes. No, he's not a typical club performer either.
"More and more, for me, it's about making contact with an audience, communicating and interacting with them," says Aguayo, who needs to get off the phone and finish a video shoot in a London studio. We're almost done, except for the punchline. "At the same time, it's become more loose and improvisational, it's become more fun for me. I try to make what I do as intense and vital as possible each time. Otherwise, why should I do it? I have to enjoy it and be with people who are having fun. I'm an entertainer, but I want to be entertained at the same time."
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