Austin Chronicle

September 24, 2008

Rainin in Paradize 2

Rain’d in paradize last night. Finally. Rained fire in the Austin City Limits studios for the 90 minutes that Manu Chao and his six-man soccer stadium squad did the thrash, pogo, and reggae as if they’d invented all three. Climax came in the second encore as Chao introduced Spanish standard « Volver, » the bang your cabeza version. « We will always come back to Austin, » yelled the Parisian Barcelonan. « Thank you! »

The one drop of « Bobby Marley, » anthemic folk/punk triptych « Bienvenida a Tijuana, violent « El Viento, » and rallying « Clandestino, » topped by « Rumba de Barcelona »: Hurricane Chao touched down in Our Town with the force of an international incident. On Thursday, a sold-out date at Stubb’s, and Friday one for the masses at ACL in Zilker Park complete the holy trinity. Fire retardant umbrellas for sale in the lobby.

My grandmother spoke Mayan fluently. My father knows a few spells. My entire life a small clay pixie in a Bolero has stood on the shelves in our house. « Don’t touch the alux [ah-louche], » always met any outstretched finger, concerned parental warning. At night, the alux came alive in the Mayan cornfields to guard against whatever spirits lurked. Audience with Manu Chao backstage at Stubb’s last year before his sold-out reign of fire felt like finally coming face to face with an honest to goodness real-life alux.

Austin Chronicle: The title of your new single, « Rainin in Paradize, » speaks to the current state of the planet. What’s to be done?

Manu Chao: The CD [La Radiolina] starts on that question: « Now what? What are we going to do? » Where do we put our energies so that they’re the most effective to change the state of things, which are critical. It’s the first question.

AC: Is the whole album that question?

MC: The last phrase of the disc says it always pays off to arrive. But today we’re in a historical era of the world. Things are deteriorating quickly. We’ve seen the collapse of communism and I don’t know if now we’re seeing the collapse of capitalism. Hard to say, but that we’re in a crisis, that much is clear. They talk about democracy, but what we’re living is a dictatorship, a dictatorship of money disguised as democracy. We’re in that situation and what are we going to do?

AC: Can that situation be changed?

MC: Honestly I don’t know. At a certain point I think we’ve arrived at an irreversible spot. Which means that for things to change things we’d have to go through a period of violent crisis. Violent, not as in literal violence, but as in a strong change. The system now is biting its tail. We arrived at something unsustainable. There are now so many underprivileged in the world, that [in English] tension is very strong.

La tension es muy, muy fuerte [strong].

And well, all the more reason to be optimistic. In a situation like this, the first thing I do personally is to negate whatever pessimism, whatever cynicism. Those are easy stances to take. You have to have hope, have faith in changing things. [In English] It’s time for action.

We have to do things. Obviously, we can do things. There’s always solutions. Neither you, nor I, nor anybody here are going to be able to change the world. That has to be done together. The problem is the money. It’s always a matter of economy. It’s supercomplicated.

AC: The price of gas!

MC: Economy. [In English] All is business.

But the world can change. The whole world can change its internal dynamic. The whole world can change its neighborhood. We can all take action and in that we can affect change. Change the world: hard. By ourselves: impossible. Change the neighborhood: that’s possible. That is. To be effective you have to feel like your actions make a difference. You have to start there. I really believe that – local action, where you see the result of you acts, good or bad. Whether what you did had a beneficial effect or a detrimental one. Then you can think about it and consider what to do next.

What puts me on the right course and gives me passion are when those actions are done on a neighborhood level, whether it’s my neighborhood or someone else’s. Me, I have several neighborhoods, so my actions reverberate a bit more. But to change neighborhoods – that can be done. Those worlds can change. That’s a very important word for me:neighborhood. In my neighborhood I have my neighbors.

AC: Is this Barcelona?

MC: Actually, yes. But I have my neighborhood in Barcelona, I have my neighborhood in Rio, and in that, there’s my community. Not all your community thinks like you. And that’s good. Every neighborhood I come across ends up being a microcosm of the world. And it’s there that change can be affected, looking at relationships, looking to understand. These small victories stack upon one another, one after the other after the other. Change comes from the people. Our leaders? [In English] Forget it. They’re tied to money.

For a long time I’ve haven’t been convinced that democracy has translated to these times. The politicians who are on the right or on the left, they no longer have the power of their beliefs. Impressions are more powerful than politics. We’re voting for people who don’t have much power to change things.

AC: You have children.

MC: I have one, eight years old.

AC: Now that you have children, you have to have faith, right?

MC: Obviously, but that’s the big problem today for so many people. To have children today is to immediately say, « What will become of him in 15 years? What will the world be like in 15 years? » It’s impossible to know. This is a new problem for those of us in the First World. For people in the Third World? Ooof! [In English] It’s nothing new.

Because in the Third World it’s worse. You have a child and you ask yourself, « What will become of him tomorrow. » Our preoccupation of the First World: « What will become of them in 10 years? » In the Third World, it’s a more radical question: « What will become of my child tomorrow? Will I have enough to feed my child tomorrow? »

AC: Is it hard for you personally to exist in the First World?

MC: I was born in the First World. I was born in France, which is very different from here, but at the same time, it’s very well kept. Many of us have been born on the right side of the border for many things, in the sense that we’ve automatically gotten a passport to travel for starters. A passport is indispensable. So to start, we have passports. We have the right to travel. Others are born into circumstances where travel is prohibited.

AC: But now that you’ve traveled the world for 20 years playing, is it hard to visit the U.S. where there’s so much waste in comparison to the Third World where people have so little?

MC: For starters, there’s a lot of the world I don’t know. It’s no different for me to be in Austin today than it is to be in Paris or Madrid. It’s details, you know. Three days ago, they invited us to eat before a show. [In English] Good food, very good.

And we ate well, but there was so much food. So much. And there was a lot leftover. When we finished, we could see that they were going to throw away that food. [He shakes his head sadly.]

AC: Take it out to the street, right?

MC: Yeah, and if you don’t want to take it out to the street, put it on our bus and we’ll hand it out. How are you going to throw out two kilos of meat?

AC: That’s the U.S. in one supersized meal!

MC: We were full, but don’t throw that away. « You might throw it away, but we’re not going to. » I don’t know. [In English] « We’re full. We’re okay. But this food is not going to the trash heap. »

AC: Now this isn’t your first trip to Austin, right? You came with Mano Negra.

MC: Right, we came about 15 years ago, South by Southwest [1989].

AC: What do you remember of that show?

MC: Good memories. It was a good show.

AC: [Holding up Mano Negra's major label U.S. debut, 1989's Puta's Fever, which the group was supporting when they played SXSW] Who was the Manu Chao that made this album?

MC: Honestly, I don’t remember. [In English] I don’t remember.

AC: Are you different?

MC: Si. Si… Si. For sure, I’m more comfortable with myself. [In English] It’s hard for me to remember who was Manu Chao at that time.

At that time, I didn’t know who I was. I was looking, perhaps not very well. Today, I keep searching, but now I don’t have many illusions. I am who I am, and I accept that. I’m comfortable with myself. I feel much better today than 20 years ago with all that, « Who am I? Who do I want to be? » Now I know who I am and I’m not going to change. I’m used to who I am.

AC: Until recently, with someone like Gogol Bordello, there wasn’t anything quite like Mano Negra – anywhere. It’s so different.

MC: I don’t know. I don’t know how to analyze my music, but apparently it’s unique. I remember back then, coming to the United States, how the market was supercompartmentalized. For the music business here in the United States [pointing to the CD], this was very hard for people to understand. They didn’t know where to put it [in English] in the shop. Here? Here? Here? The CD didn’t have its ghetto. That was funny.

AC: You toured the United States last year without new product, why?

MC: In my musical career, which is to say 1,000 years [chuckles] – it just seems like 1,000 years – I’ve never associated studio work and touring.

AC: There’s a perception that you don’t like the United States.

MC: I’ve never said that. Why wouldn’t I like it? It’s that it’s a big world and there are other parts that have captured my heart. With Mano Negra I got the opportunity to travel, to leave France. Thanks to Mano Negra and the music I got to know the United States and Latin America, and Japan, and lots of places. When Mano Negra ended, I found myself at home in South America and that’s where I went to live. I expect that at some point in my life I could spend six months or a year in New York.

AC: Really?

MC: Yeah, I love that city too. It’s one of those place [in English] where I feel home. New York is a place in the world where I really feel home. Like Rio, Tijuana, or Bamako [Mali].

[In English] I get to New York, I feel home. I could stay in New York. I love the city. But life is life and I’ve been living in other countries.

But it’s not that I don’t like the United States. It’s that Latin America has impassioned me, and to get to know Latin America would take 20 lifetimes. There’s so many places for me yet to know in Latin America, and there I’ve found 1,000 cultures. So it’s not that I don’t like the United States. I also don’t know Asia. There’s roads everywhere.

What I didn’t like when I first came with Mano Negra was the music business in America. [In English] For sure we didn’t like it.

Other things were fine, but the music [business], no way. Because when we came, they wanted to teach us how to work the music. They were like [in English], « Guys, the job is likethis. That’s the way you do the job. If you don’t do the job like this, you’re not a professional. » And we were professionals, and we didn’t work like them at all.

And if we didn’t do things their way, there was always war. Problems, tensions with the stage managers and technicians. Since we didn’t work with them, they said, « No. » And us, with the way they work here, we said, « No! » Everything was very anarchistic.

We saw the way things work here, the hierarchy: musicians, tour manager, singer, manager. [In English] Like society. And no, we don’t want to learn that way, thank you. Thank you. If you do rock and roll, it’s not to act like everybody in society.

AC: Could you ever see a Mano Negra reunion happening?

MC: You can never say no, and there are people that ask, but I’m not the sort to look back. It’s not that I wouldn’t like it. I would. But I have so many projects that I don’t have time for that if the future is a Mano Negra reunion, fine, but it seems like that would be going back wards a bit. I have a band now that I’m superhappy with. They’re really a band that I feel at home in. My music career continues to stimulate me greatly. There’s so much. For me to have less on my plate would be good, because there’s so much I want to accomplish. There’s trips I want to take, lots of production of bands. There’s so many projects that drive me and that even if I had all the time in the world I still wouldn’t have time but for 10 percent of those projects. A Mano Negra reunion? Okay. If it happens one day, great. [In English] So much things to do.

AC: At this point in your life do you think, « I’ve only got so many years to accomplish what I need to? »

MC: No, I don’t worry about that, because you’d drive yourself crazy. I know I want to do a lot of things in my life, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t do them all. My way of fighting against that is to be at peace with it. I do what comes naturally. I have lots of projects, but my professional and personal schedule, right now, ends July 9. [In English] After July 9, I know nothing in my schedule. Absolutely nothing.

AC: Does that make you happy?

MC: [In English] Yes. It’s a freedom.

That means that July 9, I can decide from 1,000 things what I want to do in that moment. [In English] After July 9, nothing more in my schedule. Nothing. We have to prepare. I talked with the guys and we decide all together than in August, September, and October we want to tour in Europe. We’re organizing now. Here in the next week, 10 days, we’ll decide what happens for the next three months, which will probably be to tour, [in English] because we are happy together. In December – pfft [time off]!

[In English] Afterwards, where the river flows I will go.

AC: It’s hard to live in the moment.

MC: I’m totally conscious that it’s a reward I can permit myself. So yes, I’ve decided that’s the way my life will be. It’s hard and it’s not so hard. It’s hard in that people treat you like you’re crazy, irresponsible. People hallucinate when I tell them I don’t have my schedule filled until 2010. [In English] I could fill shows until… [snorts].

Right now we’re scheduling European shows for July and August, but [all in English] normally in the business you have to organize that last December. The contracts should be signed already. So now everybody in Europe’s going crazy, because we’ve said, « Okay, we’re going to tour. » « Why didn’t you say that before? » « Because we are like that. » « No, now it’s a mess. It’s too late, it’s too late. » « So it’s too late, no problem. If you say it’s too late, we don’t tour, no problem. » We do something else. We got lots of things to do. If it’s not too late, great. If it’s too late, it’s too late. No problem. Don’t force me to know in my mind where, in which town, I will be in July in two years.

I don’t want to know where I’ll be in two years.

AC: How many years was it between albums?

MC: The last studio disc, six years. Why? Because I had lots of things to do. Because time passes quickly.

AC: Is writing songs hard for you?

MC: No. You have to differentiate what it is to write a song every day and what it is to release an album commercially. In six years, I wrote thousands of songs. On the album they’ll be between 19 and 22 songs. [In English] My hard drives are full of songs.

I have a record in Portuguese that’s almost finished. I’ve done the production for an album by Amadou and Mariam. Now I’m producing the album by the son of Amadou and Mariam – Sam, who has a hip-hop group in Bamako. They’re called SMOD.

I’m producing an album by a radio [station] in Buenos Aires. It’s called Radio La Colifata that transmits from a psychiatric hospital and we’re working with the patients of the hospital – marvelous. I’ve put out albums that were never out on the market, with the Colifata [in English], totally underground. They are in the streets but they’re not in the stores. You know?

Actiones de Neighborhood: we have CDs of mine and other people together, but I don’t talk to the press about it because it’s totally pirated. [In English] A parallel economy.

The money’s not for me. We do CDs for street musicians in Barcelona. They sell the CDs in the street when they’re busking. Now there’s actually a lot of repression [by] police of street musicians, so we do CDs for the guys so they can sell the CDs and take the money and it’s easier for them. It works very good. Things like that.

This new CD coming out now, first one in six years.