Working Towards An Organic Sound: An Interview with Lucas Santtana

By | 21 April, 2015

We are huge fans of Lucas Santtana, a Brazilian artist who has now firmly established himself on the international music scene. At the tail end of last year he released Sobre Noites E Dias, his sixth record and third to be released internationally. Containing collaborations with artists such as German DJ/producer Daniel Haaksman, Brazilian trio Metá-Metá, tecnobrega innovator Omulu and a series of French musicians, including Féfé, Vincent Segal and Fanny Ardent, the album saw Santtana refine his sound, finding that holy middle ground between experimenting and accessibility, between electronic and organic textures, and between Brazilian and global influences.

Leading up to his performance at London’s Southbank Centre on Tuesday May 5th we spoke with Lucas about his current band, his influences, his time working with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, and how he crafts his unique soundscapes.

How are you feeling about coming to Europe?

I love playing in Europe! We first started touring Europe in 2011, and this is the 6th tour in 5 years! So it’s a long story… We have passed through so many cities in Europe. I enjoy playing here since the public is very different from the Brazilian audience – in Europe they respect you, waiting for the last note to finish before they start clapping. It seems that people go to see your show in Europe because they want to see you play, whereas in Brazil it is a chance to catch up with friends, have a drink, have a good time and, if you’re lucky, hear some music!

How many people are travelling with you on tour?

In the band there are two more, Caetano Malta and Bruno Buarque. We formed this trio in 2011. My band in Brazil was originally much bigger, but I reduced the band to be able to travel outside of Brazil. We travelled as a trio around Latin America and Europe, and as we toured our sound developed so much that when we came back to Brazil I decided to finish with the big band and keep just the trio. So this trio formation is super important in the evolution of the album Sobre Noites e Dias.

What instruments do the other musicians play?

It’s a very different formation, even though we are playing traditional instruments such as guitar, bass, keys, synth, we also use lots of electronics. For example, I use the Monome, which is a handmade controller made in Philadelphia, we also use the MPC, which is a sampler, and for example during the show we use various drum sounds that we create, record and modify live, so we don’t use a normal acoustic drum kit. Bruno has a “mesa de som” that has a digital theremin, MPC, a pedal with various effects. It’s as if it were a table full of machine connections, and he plays the machines. So we mix playing acoustic instruments with playing electronic machines. And we swap roles. Sometimes I’m on bass and Caetano is on guitar, there are other tunes that me and Caetano are on guitar and Bruno on bass and MPC, other tunes that I am on cavaquinho and Caetano on bass. We are always swapping instruments during the show, so that is really interesting… And we are only 3 people, so as my albums are always very different from each other, we needed to use the machines to be able to use the samples – there are CDs that have symphonic orchestra, other albums will have trumpet, trombones, brass. So there are so many different sonorities in my album that we needed to use samplers and electronics to try to recreate the sound of all the albums. One thing that is important to mention is that we don’t work on top of the PA, playing on top of our track: everything in our show is live. Everything that makes a sound we play in real time. So if I press the wrong button it will come out wrong! Even using machines, we are working towards an organic, warm sound.

Your albums have changed much over the years. Could you tell me a little about this evolution?

To tell you the truth, this started when I started to listen to music. When I was 12 years old my mum used to buy me many vinyl records. She bought me all types of vinyl, for example Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Kind of Blue from Miles Davis, Thriller by Michael Jackson. So all these CDs were such different styles. And it was through listening to all these discs that I was sure that I wanted to be a musician, so I started to study music and so on. It was at that age that I realised that there were relations between all different types of music. All types of music are made from the same pillars, the same fundamental elements – melody, rhythm, harmony – all the different types of music in the world are made out of this. So I started to realise that a descending bass line from a Beethoven symphony was exactly the same bass line used in the Michael Jackson track, the same idea but only with a different instrumentation and different intention. So I came to the conclusion that all styles could be interrelated in this way. So the music I make is my attempt to bring together all these different musical universes. For example, on “Músico”, which is a track from my last album O Deus Que Devasta Mas Também Cura, there is a sample using the strings from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony but also at the same time there is an afrobeat rhythm and a bass from European electronic music, because everything is done out of the same pillars. So this is why the sound of my music is in constant flux, because I like to experiment with different musical universes in each album but at the same time make them relate to one another, converse with one another, so that they are together.

And out of all of these types of music that you listened to, which do you think influenced you?

All of them. Just like people: each person has their unique characteristics, their way of smiling, talking, laughing, manner; each person is special when you get to know them. Music is the same, each has its individual characteristics… So I like them all.

Could you tell me a little bit about your relationship with the tropicalismo movement?

My music is related to tropicalismo just as almost all music that has been produced in Brazil after the movement has been influenced by it. But it is now far from tropicalismo, for example it deals with many musical matters that aren’t in tropicalismo. To tell you the truth what tropicalismo did was to put the spotlight on something that was long part of Brazilian culture since the 1920s with Luiz Gonzaga, Pixinguinha, etc., this amalgamation between various cultures, European and African, and with tropicalismo it earned a more pop side, but this mix always existed in Brazilian culture and it will continue, we are what sociologists call a melting pot. For us in Brazil it is very easy and natural to mix lots of cultures since it is the formation of our people. Tropicalismo makes this more pop, and everything that comes after that is influenced by it.

What tropicalismo managed to do was to really search abroad for influences, and you were continuing it the same vein…

Yes, for this reason I say it has a legacy from this but there are also new things. There is a big difference between my generation and that of tropicalismo. The tropicalists work with a strong notion of the song, whereas for the new generation we think more about ‘sonoridade’ [the production of overall sound of the record]. We are bringing this again to Brazilian music. For example, in England, everyone will know who produced the Beatles, everyone knows what a sound engineer or producer is, there are books written about it. In Brazil nobody is interested in the sound, no-one knows who produced the discs of tropicália. My generation is bringing this. For me, to play a chord on the guitar isn’t enough, it is the sound and timbre that are just as important as the sound itself. So both the song and the sound are as important as each other, and before us, it was only the song that was important. So, in this way I am different.

Could you tell me a little bit about your upbringing and what influences your parents had?

My father worked in the industry for a major record label and he always supported me when I decided from a young age that I wanted to be a musician. My mother was a dancer, and not only did she buy me loads of records but she also took me to see concerts – orchestra shows, popular music… My parents really supported my musical education. I used to go to summer schools, and youth orchestras. I used to spend my holidays there.

I understand that when you were younger growing up in Bahia you played with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Could you speak a little bit about how they influenced you?

I played with Caetano and I also played a lot with Gilberto Gil. I played flute in his band for three years. It was a brilliant experience. I got to know the whole world and to know other cultures is a very important thing in the education of people – it opens your mind – and I got much experience ‘on the road’, playing with entirely different set ups and sound systems in different countries, sometimes arriving with five minutes or one hour to do a sound check. For example, arriving in Italy and there is no sound desk, so having to improvise. So many situations arise that you have to deal with. So when I came to do my own work I already had much experience of this through many years. And they are great poets and incredible musicians, so I also learned a lot musically from working with them – it was very educational!

Your music is very influenced by European electronic music, and has many external influences. But do you also look inside Brazil for influences, for example from the political situation with Brazil currently?

Yes, in some tracks I do speak of politics. However, for me talking about politics doesn’t necessarily mean talking about politicians or laws. For example in “Funk dos Bromanticos” I am speaking about the sexual generation, about people who get with people from either the opposite or same sex. And this is a way of being political. I am talking about this new generation who don’t fit to either ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’, they don’t believe in these classifications. So I think that this is a political issue. For example my track “Human Time” talks a lot about the age old question of “Man and Machine”, our relationship with computers and phones. Through technology we are losing human time. If you sit on the tube or are waiting in the airport and look around you, everyone is buried in their screens rather than just sitting and absorbing the people around them, feeling their breathing… Everyone has to respond quickly – if you don’t respond to my message within a day I’ll think that something’s up – so we are living in ‘machine time’ rather than the natural ‘human time’. This is an extremely political question, and affects such things as relationships too. These days relationships start and finish so quickly as if they are working on machine time: on and off- binary function, working and broken. But humans need more time, we are made of other materials.

Does your inspiration arrive in terms of lyrics or sound?

Both. Sometimes a sentence will come to my head and I will start to work on it… But for me through composing I lose all sense of time. Many times I start to play a song on the violin and I don’t realise the time passing and before I know it I have finished the music, and I have no idea how much time I have spent doing it. I don’t think about it too much.

What plans are on the horizon for you?

I’d like to release a new album next year. I have a few loose ideas… But since the latest album is so new (Sobre Noites e Dias) I am still thinking about it loads!

How do you feel about coming to England?

The last show we did in London in 2013 was incredible. It was after our gig at Village Underground that we all went backstage and we were certain that it was THAT sound that we wanted to take forward and turn into an album. It was a great show, sold out. All the ideas that we had about our show – being electronic yet having an element of organic sound. So I am really excited about coming back to London, one of the cradles of music in the world. In fact my first album, which was never released in Europe, just Brazil, I mixed it in Peter Gabriel’s studio in a farmhouse in Box – a small village close to Bath. I was there for a month and I loved it!

Lucas Santtana will be performing at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room on Tuesday May 5th. More details of the show are available at southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/lucas-santtana-87071

“Diary Of A Bike”, featuring French rapper Féfé, is the latest single to be released from Sobre Noites E Dias. Here is the video:


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