Step Right Up: Juan Wauters
Interview with Juan Wauters.
“I feel that the first feeling is the most real one. If something is over done, it becomes sterile. I like to feel the human quality in things and by doing them in a casual way they come out feeling more realistic.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
This week marks the eagerly awaited arrival of the Uruguayan-born and New York-based singer songwriter, Juan Wauters, and his debut solo album, entitled ‘North American Poetry’, released on the ever dependable Brooklyn-based independent label, Captured Tracks. Better known as the frontman with The Beets — whose idiosyncratic rock ‘n’ roll gems have captivated the hearts of their native Queens neighborhood and beyond — Wauters delivers a pristine collection of endearing indie pop masterpieces. ‘North American Poetry’ is a mood altering experience that infiltrates the human space, long after the vinyl needle has dropped.
Clocking in at just under thirty minutes, ‘North American Poetry’ is a tour de force of lo-fi indie-pop gems and songwriting masterclass. Across the twelve gleaming cuts, Wauters conjures up the sound of label-mate Mac DeMarco (a lovely parallel exists between both artist’s respective debut full-length releases), Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, The Beatles and Wauters’ rich heritage of latin music upbringing. What is most striking about ‘North American Poetry’ is just how wonderfully diverse Wauters’ singular sonic creations are — a haven for the discerning music lover. A soft strum of spanish guitar is played beneath Wauters’ heartfelt vocals as he sings “Let me hip you to something” on the chorus refrain of the album opener. ‘North American Poetry’ is Wauters’ finest hour that crosses seamless borders of rock ‘n’ roll, folk and lo-fi indie-pop.
In 2000, Alberto Wauters left his homeland of Uruguay to live in Queens. Two years later he called his son, Juan, to join him. Making ends meet, the father and son pooled their money — earned from working at a nearby factory — to bring their family to the land of opportunity. Taking inspiration from the bustling world that surrounded him, neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights and a new-found love of music-making, Wauters would immerse himself in music and soon, indie darlings The Beets would be formed (originating from the meeting of Wauters and Jose Garcia in art class). Over the following years, a string of compelling garage infused lo-fi pop creations (scintillating albums such as 2011’s ‘Stay Home’, ‘Let The Poison Out’ and ‘Spit In The Face Of People Who Don’t’) formed the soundtrack to the New York underground and beyond.
A previously published description of The Beets resonates powerfully for the masterful debut album unleashed by Wauters: “It’s all about the songs, the way they are played, and the way in which the message is carried.” And what a collection of songs are captured on ‘North American Poetry’. ‘Sanity Or Not’ is a glistening 60’s pop gem laden with irresistible guitar hooks, bright sunshine harmonies and an everlasting feel-good beat. The tempo gradually slows on ‘Lost In Soup’ that evokes the timeless spirit of ‘Sticky Fingers’ era Rolling Stones (particularly on the closing section of backing harmonies). On the chorus Wauters asks “Do you know that the world is lost in soup?” beneath layers of percussion and scintillating guitar tones. Wonderful lyrics are dotted across ‘Lost In soup’ that forms a narrative concerning the human condition and the struggles with the modern age: “The world is rolling, rolling / pushing you.” My favourite must be “Don’t waste time / I only rest”.
A heavenly sound of Tropicalia is etched across the sprawling canvas of ‘Escucho Mucho’. The sonic backdrop of spanish guitar rhythms, electric guitar and drums conjures up the sound of Os Mutantes and Gilberto Gil. In the space of two minutes, the listener is lovingly immersed in a whirlwind of utterly transcendent latin-tinged, psych pop worlds of sound. In a word, timeless. ‘Woke Up Feeling Like Sleeping’ is another gleaming jewel of ‘North American Poetry’ with its hazy psych pop feel. I’m transported to ‘Revolver’ era Beatles and the songbook of Devendra Banhart as this polished pop gem casts a spell upon you. The minor chord progression and laid back summer-time groove is reminiscent of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’. As the harmonies fade out, it feels as if the last rays of summer sun has slowly faded into yesteryear.
Some wonderful and deeply affecting moments of intimacy permeates the album’s touching narrative. ‘Water’ — the album’s centerpiece — introduces an introspective mood to ‘North American Poetry’s sonic tapestry. Wauters sings “Do I belong / Who is it that I am” beneath a gorgeous spanish guitar line. A breathtakingly beautiful lament is born here that epitomises the artistry and songcraft of the gifted New York-based troubadour. A similarly touching lyric arrives a couple of bars later, as the heartfelt voice asks “Who is that in my skin / Has he done much for me?” Added instrumentation of flute brings new colours and textures on ‘Goo’. Enjoyable and wistful. “I am playing the guitar / Just because I’m good at it” is a lyric that could easily fit on Mac DeMarco’s ‘2’ record, sharing the bright talents of his Captured Tracks comrade.
‘Continue To Be You’ is a sparse ballad that contains majestic harmonies and guitar passages. The closing songs of ‘North American Poetry’ reveals the masterful songcraft of Wauters and the mood altering experience that is effortlessly formed. ‘Breathing’ features Carmelle Safdie (Israel) on vocals. The tempo shifts and interchange of vocals between Safdie and Wauters works wonderfully that could be as much vintage Moldy Peaches as Burt Bacharach and Dusty Springfield. The album’s penultimate track, ‘How Do They All Do?’ is one of the record’s defining moments. Again, a very real and touching feel permeates throughout as themes such as loneliness, isolation and the sense of belonging to someplace and someone come to the fore. The guest vocalist, Carmelle Safdie, is also present here. On the opening verse, Safdie asks “Do you hear me calling, miles away?” The vocal delivery is immaculate as a special spark of spontaneity is captured on the first take. The directness, immediacy and simplicity of ‘How Do They All Do?’ — and perhaps this is the hallmark of Wauters’ greatness — hits you deep and hard with its enlightening message. ‘North American Poetry’ hips you to something freshly compelling and deeply rewarding.
‘N.A.P. North American Poetry’ is available now on Captured Tracks.
Interview with Juan Wauters.
Congratulations, Juan, on the wonderful debut solo album, ‘N.A.P. North American Poetry’. What I love about the album is how there are touches of The Beets dotted throughout but more than anything, it’s a great song-writing record. Can you please discuss the aims from the outset you had for this solo record and how different the approach is from making a Beets album?
JW: Hi, thanks so much for the warm compliments on the record. I am glad it carries on all the way to Ireland. I have always recorded the songs I wrote on my own separately from what I was doing with the band. This is an exercise that has helped me develop my personality as a songwriter over time. So, there were always versions I recorded on my own of the songs that ended on Beets albums. There would also be a big chunk of songs that would not be recorded by the band because they did not fit the style of the band. All these recording would be done at home and some of them were published in cassette format by Captured Tracks around 2009/2010. This time around, when making ‘N.A.P.’, was a little different since I decided to record at a professional studio and this gave me the opportunity to hear myself better and therefore be able to arrange. What ‘N.A.P.’ has that the Beets records might have lacked is a broader spectrum of sounds and styles. As the sound took some freedoms, the songwriting is a continuation of what I had been doing before.
A wonderful cast of musicians create the ideal sonic backdrop to your beautifully written tales encompassing the worlds of Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Os Mutantes, Gilberto Gil and timeless 60’s pop. I would love to gain an insight into the recording of these songs? Were the songs written and completed prior to the sessions themselves? Who are the musicians you have on board for ‘N.A.P.’? There is a wonderful aesthetic to the album that make the songs sound so fresh and utterly engaging.
JW: The record was mostly recorded by myself besides the participation of Carmelle Safdie, who sings on ‘Breathing’ and ‘How Do They All Do’, and Amanda Rodi, who played the flute on ‘Lost In Soup’. The way these songs were recorded was pretty casual. I would show up to the studio with an idea for the song and then there was a little toying around to find the right instrumentation. I am a person that loves to finish things. So, the recording sessions would go quite fast. I don’t like to sit around for a long time, hitting my head on the wall trying to find a specific sound that I don’t know. If a song was creating some stop, all we did was jump to the next one and nail it. Perhaps, the day after we would revisit the previous song. There was a lot of other stuff recorded during those sessions that did not make the record. The songs on ‘N.A.P.’ are the ones I thought fit best together as a group.
Originally from Uruguay, you moved to New York at a young age. I feel the world of New York and Queens becomes a central character to your songs. I was interested to read that your new neighborhood of Jackson Heights greatly inspired the new album. Can you discuss what life is like living in New York and how the place filters into your music?
JW: Jackson Heights is a neighborhood of immigrants from all different parts of the world. This is the neighborhood that I came to when we arrived to New York with my family. In such place people are trying to reinvent themselves by creating a new life and this creates an energy that keeps the neighborhood very active and vibrant. Jackson Heights is where I learned to play music and where I developed a sense of myself as a person in the world. Therefore, I see this place as the catalyst that help me shape myself be what I am today.
Your South American roots forms a beautiful foundation to your songs, in many ways. The sense of melody, instrumentation and songs such as ‘Escucho Mucho’ beautifully conjures up the timeless Latin sound. What particular records and artists have had a hold on you growing up, Juan?
JW: Growing up, I would listen to the music that my father would listen to and it was mostly Tango. He would listen to classic and contemporary Tango musicians. What stuck to me the most from this time is the music of Astor Piazzolla. His very unique and particular sound and approach to music have been determinant factor in the creation of my music. Though not as radical as Piazzolla, I try to create a sound that differentiates itself from all others and defines me as a musician.
Besides that early contact with music, the Latin-American musician that has influenced me the most is Eduardo Mateo. Mateo has a very particular way of singing and playing guitar. His poetry, which can be minimal, is very communicative. I enjoy his music very much and one of the reasons why I am so interested in it is because of what it makes me feel when I hear it. It evokes new emotions in me. This to me is something that transcends the artist or the art itself.
The album artwork is stunning, done by your friend and long-time collaborator Mathew Volz. I would love for you to talk about this collaboration and indeed when you first met and how it led to a fruitful collaboration? In a way, the artwork completes the music.
JW: Matt and I met through neighborhood friends and we instantly started working on projects together. The first thing that we did together was participate in an art show that his sister’s boyfriend was organizing at an abandoned and soon-to-be-demolished parking garage in Queens. I showed some paintings I had been making and Matt showed two banners, set up a shelf with artifacts from his room, and also a flat x-ray lamp showing somebody’s broken leg. After that we started making videos for Matt’s Public Access TV show. When The Beets started playing more often, Matt really wanted to be involved in the group. He would film the shows at first. Then he wanted more so he made our first banner to be hung behind us while we played that read “We are The Beets and we are from Jackson Heights”, and also made the cover art for our first record “The Beets Spit on the Face of People Who Don’t Want to be Cool”. By then he was undoubtedly an official member of the group. He continued to expand his input in the project by setting up lights on stage. This developed into a full light show that Matt manually controlled while the group performed. This contribution keeps developing as we keep working together.
Our collaboration is something very important to what I do. I wonder if I would have gone this long if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a partner who I could bounce my ideas off of constantly and also be so influenced by. I try very hard to get the best out of our relationship and I hope it will be a constant in my life as long as we find it to be an enriching relationship.
‘Woke Up Feeling Like Sleeping’ has a gorgeous Beatles-esque feel reminiscent of George Harrison. Songs such as ‘Lost In Soup’ and ‘Sanity Or Not’ have an immaculate sound of a bygone era – which feels utterly timeless. Reference points could be ‘Sticky Fingers’ by the Stones and The Beatles ‘Revolver’. Was it a challenge to get the right take for these recordings? The many intricate layers of instrumentation and gleaming production feel as if it must have taken time to effectively capture the right moment?
JW: As I mentioned before, I like to be quick and efficient when it comes to recording. This is not always the case but this is how I like it to work. I am a strong believer that the first take is the best one. If I run through the song and I don’t make any major technical mistakes (lyrics, chords, etc.), that is the take I will use. I feel that the first feeling is the most real one. If something is over done, it becomes sterile. I like to feel the human quality in things and by doing them in a casual way they come out feeling more realistic.
My current favourite is the introspective moment of ‘Water’ that forms the album’s centerpiece. It’s an achingly beautiful lament with touching lyrics. Can you please recount for me writing this particular song?
JW: I was on my bicycle on my way to work one day, I used to work at Central Park at the time, and the melody and lyrics for the “Woke up early, felt that itch” part of the song came to my head. I didn’t have a pen, so I started looking at the floor trying to find one. A couple of blocks down, right before the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge, I found one and wrote it down. When I got home that day, I found the chords that went with it best and played it over and over as a loop. When it came to record this song at the studio, I just went for it and when I was getting to the end of the second time singing this part, I thought: “Well, maybe I should add this other piece of song I have right here”. I added the part that goes: “When I learn not to think of thinking…” and I thought it sounded great. I am glad that I followed my instinct. During this transition, you can hear me hesitating for a second and trying to figure out how to come in with the last part but luckily I nailed it. I am really happy with the way this song came out.
What’s next for you, Juan? Is there a European tour planned for ‘N.A.P. North American Poetry’? Congratulations once again on the incredible album and best wishes for 2014. Warmest greetings from Ireland.
JW: Well, right now I am recording a new record that I hope to have finished by the time ‘N.A.P.’ hits the stores, or the internet. As far as touring goes, we have a tour lined up for March but it will be here, thought The United States and Canada. I am sure we will end up going to Europe sometime this year. We have never performed there and we always really wanted to go. This time around should be the one.
Again, I am very glad you enjoyed the record and I hope that other people in Ireland like it too, that way we can go there and perform for you. As a New Yorker, I have a lot of friends whose families have come here from Ireland and I have always felt a strong connection with people from that end of the world. So I am very much looking forward to go there and see what’s there. Also, Matt Volz is part Irish and I am sure he would have a thrill going out there too.
‘N.A.P. North American Poetry’ is available now on Captured Tracks.