Web Exclusive: Manu Chao

Web Exclusive: Manu Chao

by Ryan S. Henriquez, Photos By Maiquel Torcatt | 07.12.2007

It couldn’t have been scripted better. The second of back-to-back concerts that Manu Chao performed as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival took place on a typically muggy New York night in Prospect Park. A thunderstorm erupted just as Chao and Radio Bemba Sound System were beginning their encore-lightning crackled around the bandshell as Chao, like some kind of natural mystic, made music that was as elemental a force as the cleansing summer rain itself.

This summer, Chao is giving North American audiences the rare chance to see him and his band in his most extensive « western world » tour to date. Performances at Coachella, Sasquatch, and Bonnaroo have afforded many concertgoers their first taste of Chao’s music-an expertly stirred bouillabaisse of punk rock, reggae, indigenous found sounds, and political conscience. The shows themselves are raucous jump-up celebrations, complete with audience participation.

Filter caught up with Chao on his 46th birthday, a few days before the Brooklyn concerts.

I’d like to talk to you about your new album La Radiolina which is being released on September 4. After you released Proxima Estacion: Esperanza in 2001, you were quoted as saying you might never record another studio album. What inspired you to start recording again?

Always the same process, really… Every time I travel and do things, I always record. One thing is recording, and another thing is putting out a record into the market. These two things are really very different. So as I traveled, I recorded, recorded, recorded, recorded; and then I got tons of songs in my « hard drive » and I needed some space. So I have to empty it out a little bit! [Laughter]

Did you work with Renaud Létang [producer of Chao's prior albums and also Feist's producer] again on this record?

Not this time. I worked a lot in a home studio, and the mix was done with a good friend now called Mario Caldato, who used to mix and work with the Beastie Boys. I met him in Rio, because the guy is Brazilian. We became friends, and decided to do the mix together.

[First single] « Rainin’ In Paradize » seems to contain a punk edge that we haven’t seen in your records in a while – almost reminiscent of Mano Negra [the seminal French punk band Chao founded in the late 1980s with his brother and cousin]. Would you say the entire album follows suit?

Maybe not entire, but part of the album is like that… The guitar player of Radio Bemba, Madjid, and the drummer, David [Bourguignon, who] plays very good guitar too, they came around home and recorded some guitar, and for sure it changed the sound of the CD. In that, it is quite different from the CDs of before. My older studio albums were quite different, because I used to do all my guitars alone-in sort of a rustic style, I should say. [Laughter] And now Madjid came, and David, and gave some color to maybe seven, eight, nine songs.

Some have said that if there is any worthy successor to the legacy of Bob Marley, it is you. How do you feel about people comparing you to Bob Marley?

Too much for me… Too much pressure, and I don’t like the comparison, because it’s too much. Bob Marley is Bob Marley. I never will sing like Bob Marley.

What was it about Bob’s music that resonated with people so deeply?

Well, it’s hard to say. First of all, the songs were good, and the guy was an incredible singer. He just had an incredible feeling. You cannot explain that. One in thousands, you know? Destiny… Maybe Bob Marley is the only real world music artist. He’s listened to everywhere on the planet. Of course I’m a big, big, big fan. He was really my professor of simplicity. Because all Bob’s songs are unique, but at the same time, if you listen to them as a musician, they are really simple and are not complicated. That’s what is totally great, and that is what I want to learn from him. He is my professor for sure.

One of the reasons people compare you to Bob – I can tell you, I speak only English, and when I listen to your music, and you sing in all different languages, your music still resonates in me on a very deep level, and it’s as if I understand without understanding. That’s one characteristic you do share with Bob, because when Bob played in Africa in the late 1970s, he was playing to hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t speak a word of English, and they understood without understanding.

Yeah, for sure. In that I’m really surprised, but it’s true that our music, the music we’re doing — in all the parts of the word, people can feel it. I don’t know why. But it goes like that. I cannot analyze that. But it’s true. Everywhere we go around the world, even if people don’t understand the lyrics, the feeling is there. And we thank life for that… Now we’re touring the U.S. and Canada, and of course lots of the crowd that comes are Latino, but also a lot of Americans and English-speaking [people] are coming, and they really like it. It’s good!

You and Rage [Against the Machine, whom you opened for at Coachella] have a lot of political messages in your music. Do you ever feel that the political nature of your music makes you a target?

It happens sometimes, of course. [There are] some countries where I know personally that the governments say that I’m not welcome. It happened a lot, for example, in Italy-when Berlusconi was Prime Minister, we had a lot of problems in Italy. In Spain, too-when the right was in power, there was quite a lot of tension. But, you know, that’s life! We have to say what we have to say, and not really think too much about it.

In recent years, countries like Canada and France have elected heads of state that seem to be very similar to George W. Bush. Do you sometimes feel that maybe the world is moving in the wrong direction?

That the world is not learning from its mistakes, I’m quite sure. It’s thousands and thousands and thousands of years of repeating the same mistakes and same mistakes and same mistakes. The problem now is that the stakes are higher. Two thousand years ago it was with a knife, and now it’s with atomic bombs. That’s a big problem, and now with France, I’m quite anxious with what is going to happen now. I’m not sure it’s going to be the right way, for sure. I’m not very happy with the new president, that’s for sure.

Do you still consider yourself a pacifist?

Of course. Yes. I really don’t believe that violence can be a solution for nothing. But that’s my philosophy, no? I don’t know if I’m right or I’m wrong, but that’s my philosophy, and I truly believe in it.

When you played Prospect Park last year, during one of your encores, some fans rushed onto the stage, and I thought your reaction was quite remarkable. Instead of running away from them or asking security to remove them, you embraced them.

Yes, it happens quite often in the tour now, actually. [Laughter] We really know our crowd, and the people that come to our shows are really cool people. There is a good, strong friendship between us and the crowd. And people are welcome onstage. Just one thing we ask the [security] guys is to take care of the instruments. The only border is there! We haven’t had a lot of problems-only one that I can remember. A guy went so crazy that he jumped on top of all the amplifiers of Madjid and stopped the guitar. But it wasn’t like he had bad intentions. He was just excited.

You are coming back to New York City next week. How do you feel about that?

I’ve always loved the City. [In] the United States, it has always been the city where I feel most at home. It’s a fresh and exciting city – just an inspiration for everything. You go out on the street and it’s a kind of a permanent movie, you know? And I LOVE that.

Is there ever a chance that after this tour you might switch directions away from these large venues, and perhaps play an acoustic tour, or just hit the road with Madjid and see where it takes you?

In fact, that’s what we’re doing always! Any time we have days off, or when we’re in Barcelona hanging around, we are always happy to play in bars, and in fact, we do it very often!