The Thoughts Of An Honest Rebel: An Afternoon With Alex Anwandter

By 06 October, 2012

On an extremely sunny Sunday afternoon Alex Anwandter – fresh from his performance at one of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s alternative concert venues – sat down with Sounds and Colours in a quaint café in Santurce. As with any artist, one would expect to see a clear difference between Anwandter on stage and Anwandter in person. On the contrary, this particular afternoon the musician portrays the same confidence, humbleness and honesty you see in his live performance. Coincidentally, these are the same things you hear on his latest record Rebeldes. In his calm, soft spoken tone, Anwandter sat down for a few hours to share his thoughts about everything from the current Chilean pop explosion, the catch-all term “indie” and his opinions concerning the human rights situation in his country.

Anwandter is one of the poster boys of the independent music scene in Chile, once being part of one of the most beloved bands in the scene, Teleradio Donoso. Oddly enough, Anwandter explained that he didn’t always feel part of the scene in his country. “[…] Once I started going out to other countries to play, I realised that we have a lot of things in common [between him and other artists in the scene]. Not only are we all pretty much friends for several years, but we kind of share the same approach in making music and it sets us apart from other musicians in other countries.”

In the last few years, the Chilean scene’s approach to music-making has spearheaded the pop comeback. Armed with incredibly good beats and great musicianship, artists like Gepe, Javiera Mena, Pedro Piedra, Adrianigual and Anwandter himself have put pop music back on the map. And not just any pop music; in fact, most of them have repurposed styles that some cool kids would consider to belong in the “almost kitsch” category: Chicago house, 1990s techno, disco, electro pop. Anwandter’s theory about the rescue of these genres takes into account two factors: the Internet and his generation’s lack of awareness about “bad taste”.

“It’s funny. If you look at the Chilean pop artists that are current nowadays […] we’re all like 27, 28, 29 years old. I think we are the first generation in Chile that started listening to music, getting into new things, and started making music along with the Internet. I was like 12 or 13 [years old] during that whole Napster, Soulseek, Audiogalaxy explosion and that was a huge influence in my life.” He explained that before the mp3 revolution, his main method of listening to music was through his dad’s vinyl and cassette collections. But, as with many others, the availability of a whole new world of sound was very influential in his way of thinking about and listening to music.

“The other thing is that my generation grew up listening to all sorts of music and we didn’t have that prejudice that perhaps older generations might’ve had regarding poor taste, bad taste or whatever you want to call it. We just grew up listening to all sorts of music; especially pop, which is what you hear most on Chilean radio. At the time when we started making music, we just didn’t care if something was good or bad, we just took from wherever, you know?”

According to Anwandter, taking from wherever meant not caring about mixing Chilean folk, Ace of Base and classical music. But the singer has noticed that younger generations are not following the same path tread by the pioneers. On the contrary, he acknowledged that he’s witnessed the return of the idea of “cool” into the Chilean music scene. “I kind of see younger kids getting into the whole, I have to say with very ironic quote-unquote, indie thing, which is very limiting, I think. It defines music with criteria such as “cool” and “un-cool”. I think it’s un-cool to think about it that way.”

“First of all it limits your possibilities of style and exploration in music, which locates you within a very specific time frame. You’re going to be out of fashion in two or three years, or maybe faster,” he continued.

This no holds barred approach to mixing influences is what brought us Rebeldes, an unapologetic pop record that mixes everything from 80s synth pop to rhythm and blues. For the making of the album, Anwandter recounted how he and his engineer abstained from the consuming task of wanting to replicate sounds to create fresh material.

“I wasn’t thinking about any specific sound. I was actually very adamant with that as well, about not using any sound references. I was very specific to the engineer with whom I worked, about not listening to some specific snare drum sound from whatever record we liked and trying to replicate that. I forced him not to listen to other things; just to make whatever we wanted, whatever we thought was good enough for us. And I guess it shows. The first song [“¿Cómo Puedes Vivir Contigo Mismo?”] is a very Chicago house inspired track, and the last one is some sort of Juan Gabriel meets Nirvana thing. I can’t explain it nor do I want to. It’s just what I do and what I like.”

When Anwandter speaks like this is when you can really tell how much of himself he puts into his craft; making sure that every sound and every word remains true to his experience. Needless to say, honesty was one of the artist’s goals for Rebeldes, if not the raison d’être of the record. As part of the songwriting process, Anwandter explained that he cut himself off from the Internet and from the world, and retired to a friend’s beach house near Santiago. His main inspiration, he maintained, were experiences lived.

“I think I was very adamant in making an honest record because of my previous experiences in writing some extremely honest songs. Or what I thought were honest songs, and the effect they had on people; how they reacted. It was such a different thing. When I pursued that goal [honesty], everything was different. […] I thought a lot about what I really thought about myself, what I really thought about my life and relationships; what was hard for me and what I really thought about the society and the place I live in.”

Nonetheless, he maintained that he didn’t want to make the record only to tell stories about himself; he set out to write about the basic human experience with the intent of making it available to everyone who wanted to listen. This meant avoiding cryptic lyrics and sticking to simple songwriting without sacrificing substance. “A song like “Tatuaje”, for instance, is not about me breaking up with someone. It’s about loss, and everyone’s been through that if you’re of a certain age already. It’s hard, it’s a very intense experience,” Anwandter said.

As the conversation drew to an end, I asked Anwandter about the human rights situation in Chile and his role as an activist; a word Anwandter doesn’t like to use when referring to his advocacy for the rights of the LGBTT community in Chile. He’s constantly asked about Daniel Zamudio, a victim of a homophobic attack by a four people with ties to a neonazi group, who was a fan of his music. About the subject, he explained that he feels bad talking so much about Zamudio because he despises “the idea of trying to promote [himself] through the death of someone.” Nonetheless, he still considers himself a political person and, as such, he says he will use any channel available to express about those issues close to him.

The Zamudio case caused a public outrage against homophobic violence in Chile and prompted the parliament to pass a long overdue, and widely controversial, anti-discrimination law. But has that changed the human rights situation in Chile, when it comes to sexual and other minorities? It was a broad question, and as Anwandter said, he had no simple answer. About the subject, here is Anwandter in his own words:

“Last week [September 15, 2012] a transsexual person from the south of Chile got beat up extremely bad and ended up in the hospital with her face deformed. Things have happened and it’s very widespread, the homophobia. But at the same time, it’s a very hard thing to talk about. I feel a change like that is something that takes twenty or thirty years. It’s not about passing laws; it’s about people changing the way they think, the jokes they find funny, the words they use to call people, the words they use to insult people. Friends, when they want to be funny and say someone is being a wimp, they use the word maricón. It’s not just any word. It’s a word used to describe gay people.”

“That’s how deeply rooted in culture it is. It’s very deeply rooted in South America and I think it has a lot to do with South America being very Catholic and conservative. […] I think cultural change takes a lot of time, and thankfully we now have people advocating it very loudly, and that’s a new thing. I myself am trying to do that type of thing as well. I guess that’s new. But, of course, when someone dies, it’s evidently not enough.”

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