Señor Coconut and His
Re-mastered, re-designed plus exclusive bonus tracks
Essay Recordings AY CD 25 (EAN 881390202522)
Release: May, 2010
Señor Coconut's 10-Year Jubilee
Señor Coconut has every reason to celebrate:10 years ago, he presented his unique project at the (then still vibrant, Cologne-based) Popkomm. Since then, he has toured the world, releasing albums on every continent. His tracks are featured on hundreds of samplers, in advertising spots (recently: Heineken in the USA) and on film soundtracks. He has shared a stage with such legends are the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Musicians such as Joe Jackson and David Bowie are self-proclaimed fans. So it's time to take a look back and re-release some of his early work. Needless to say, it is all done in true Coco style – with loving care and attention to detail. In the USA, Nacional Records, the leading label for Latin Alternative Music, has been taking his work on board since last year. Señor Coconut will be celebrating this round anniversary by going on tour again with his fantastically talented line-up.
When Deep Purple met Michael Jackson in the Ballroom: Fiesta
With their Fiesta Songs album, Señor Coconut and his
Orchestra prove that South America is the cradle of popular music. Like
the beat of a heart that sustains the world's body of music, the band
pumps out a repertoire of megahits from an era when artist's weren't
just one-hit wonders. To pay Señor Coconut a compliment, he
might well be dubbed the Perez Prado of elektronica – and it
would be true in many ways. Both have created great work far from their
homeland, both have worked on a hybrid of contemporary pop music and
have created styles that would later come to be accepted as completely
logical and even almost tradition. And people who love to dance don't
even need to bother with the question "can I dance to that"? Of course
you can – and how!
After a successful tour on which the Kraftwerk tracks (from El Baile Alemán) were transposed from Schmidt‘s harddrive to a frenetic Big Band arrangement, Uwe Schmidt started work on the Fiesta Songs album, interpreting Nordic pop hits – such as Sade's Smooth Operator, and The Doors‘ Riders on the Storm – in his now familiar Electro-Latino style. The album is a veritable feast of Electrolatino cover version from the hand of the master himself, from Smoke On The Water – probably the most frequently quoted rock riff of all time – to Michael Jackson's Beat It.
Señor Coconut alias Atom™ transforms classic hits into a computer generated orchestra sound that combines mambo, cha cha cha and merengue and still manages to sound organically cohesive. At the same time, the illusion of authenticity created by vast quantities of audio-data is called into question, as is the compartmentalisation of music in terms of "authenticity" and "inauthenticity", "acoustic" or "electronic". He treats all data equally, whether live or recorded. That may come as something of a surprise, given the prevailing attitude that only live music is truly authentic, whereas recorded music is not. The fact that every reproduction is a deviation from the original foes without saying.
Atom™ says of his album: Fiesta Songs is a departure from the obvious references to my electronic origins and is about simulating an acoustic retro-Latin sound – it covers Anglo- American pop hits, whereby the simulation is decoded in places by digital artefacts. Here, too, I wanted to try taking my production process in a new direction: instead of a hundred per cent programming, I first of all made recording of musicians, of the material, and then blended it with original Latin samples to create something entirely new.
1. Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)
2. Negra mi Chachacha (Facundo Rivero)
3. Riders on the Storm (The Doors)
4. Smooth Operator (Sade)
5. El rey de las Galletas
6. Oxygene (Part II) (Jean Michel Jarre)
7. Blue Eyes (Elton John)
8. Las Maracas de Machin
9. Beat it (Michael Jackson)
11. Humo en el agua (Spanish version of Smoke on the Water)
12 Blue Eyes (Karaoke Version)
13. Smooth Operator (Version Suave)
ABOUT SR. COCONUT
Interview with Senor Coconut by Philip Sherburne www.philipsherburne.com
Santiago (Chile), April 1st 2006
1.) To start off, could you tell us a little about the new
album – the title of it, who you're going to be revisioning
this time, and how the concept came about?
The album will be called Yellow Fever, it will contain 10 cover versions of YMO songs plus 10 interludes and little intersections which will be my compositions and will contain the contributions of various guest musicians from all over the world, such as Akufen, Schneider tm, Nouvelle Vague… who else.
2.) Dandy Jack?
Dandy Jack, Mouse on Mars, Towa Tei. All the sounds, then – we managed to invite the original YMO members to play and sing on the songs, so there's huge list of guests and contributors. How the idea came about, well – with Señor Coconut, when I'm going on tour and giving interviews and meeting people, there are always a lot of suggestions made – people come up with their ideas, you know, who should be next, and even sometimes fans will pass me self-made fake Señor Coconut albums; there was this one guy who came up to me and said "You have to cover those songs," and he'd made a CD with a sleeve he'd photocopied and stuff. SO there's always people saying, you should do that, you should do this. And in fact Señor Coconut is a very inspiring project to many people in that sense, because of the cover versions and the whole exotica cover version genre allows you to do so many things. And there's a lot of possibilities, whom to cover. So when I was thinking about the next album, there were actually a lot of options, and there are still a lot of possible albums. It was just a matter of finding the right moment for the right project, talking to Argenis and to the management, it was just a question of feeling what could be the most interesting. To me, on a musical level it was all equally entertaining, it could have been anything, basically.
3.) You started Señor Coconut with the Kraftwerk
No, actually I started Señor Coconut with an album called El Gran Baile, which was a bit different, it was more like merging what I was doing back then – cut and paste electronica – with my interest for Latin music. So I started to cut up Latin loops…
4.) So the first one wasn't covers, just your compositions in
a cut-up Latin style.
Exactly, and more track-oriented, like cutting up Latin music in a track style.
5.) So then the Kraftwerk cover project was the one that
gained you the most notoriety, then Fiesta Songs had Sade, Michael
Jackson, "Smoke on the Water," etc.; this time out, were you
specifically interested in another project that would allow you to
cover the work of a single artist?
The thing was that after the Kraftwerk covers, I didn't want to do the same thing over again, make a Depeche Mode album or whatever. I saw the concept more loosely, and I just wanted to have an entertaining collection of music, mainly being inspired by a series of releases from the '60s and '70s from Latin artists, who did basically that, just threw together their favorite songs and covered them, mixed them with their own stuff. It was quite a relaxed concept. And I felt like after Fiesta Songs it could be more entertaining to go back to that one-artist concept, but since I don't really like to repeat myself, I wanted to expand it on a musical level too. I think Yellow Fever for that reason is like a blend of the last three albums; it has these cut-and-paste kind of track interludes between the songs, which are very abstract and programmed but played by guest musicians and then cut up. So production-wise it's like a blend of the last three albums, which was my way of making this album entertaining, of finding a new approach and going to the next level.
6.) Why YMO? Are you a longtime fan? Were they influential to
your own musical upbringing?
As compared to Kraftwerk, they were. I sort of missed Kraftwerk, I was too young when they were famous, and when I really got interested in music, it was the last album – so I missed them [in their prime] and got into them for different reasons. Which doesn't mean I wouldn't appreciate them, but they weren't really important for my musical socialization. On the other hand, when I was like 16 or 17 and I started to listen to non-commercial electronic music, I got really interested in industrial and noise and that kind of stuff, and then for a short period into Electronic Body Music, and then techno came up. And house and acid and all that. But all the music I listened to had a very similar attitude, a very similar feeling – like the European electronica was always a bit dense, and especially EBM was a bit dark and aggressive, and even I would say that commercial electronica like Depeche Mode and the new wave stuff had a depressive, melancholic feel to it. And then a friend of mine, around '85 or '86, gave me a mix tape of YMO and Sakamoto and Hosono and other Japanese artists of that time, which were released on Alpha records…. it was like this bubble around Yellow Magic Orchestra. It was after YMO's success, and it was more about their solo works. And what really struck me was that the attitude was totally different; it was a totally positive understanding of music—sometimes funny, and always very positive, in a futuristic sense, but without the futurist pathos. Not "we are the future," just a very modern Japanese attitude. The Japanese, I would say, are not very philosophical about progress, they just do it. While Europeans are always very reflective about it. The Japanese just do it; they always had the newest equipment, the newest sound, they recorded digitally in the '80s, and all that was a very positive feeling. And that was really a switch the first time I listened to Japanese electronic music, it was a really different horizon to me. I was like, wow, that's a different approach – and I think it triggered a lot about how I perceived my own work back then, the possibilities and especially a certain attitude towards making music.
7.) I think you can see a certain degree of a sense of humor
in YMO; or if not humor—although there was a record with
comedy sketches interspersed between the songs, and for instance on
"Pure Jam," the lyric "This must be the ugliest piece of bread I've
ever eaten," there's a sense of absurdity that seems very different
from the European sense of darkness you're describing.
Exactly, I think that was the point of it, and also something I realized just recently when investigating the histories of the memberes of Yellow Magic and their backgrounds, that for them exotica was a very big influence. And a totally different type of music than what I listened to or what I knew. They did rock and blues in the early days with Japanese traditional music, and finally when I started listening to Japanese music, I started listening to Martin Denny—it was a totally different thing to me, I never connected those. And then I realized that for YMO, Martin Denny also had been very important. They covered Martin Denny; also Hosono once showed me a picture of him and Martin Denny; he's such a big fan he once flew to Hawaii and visited him. And then I realized there was a certain synchronicity with the exotica approach, which they sort of merged with their Japanese background—the production, the melodies, it's all a very traditional perspective on music. So suddenly there were lots of pieces of the puzzle falling together, which I found quite impressive.
8.) How did the members of YMO respond when you approached
them with the project?
I made two albums with Hosono in the mid '90s, '95 and '97; the project was me and my friend Tetsu Inoue from New York, and Hosono, and it was called H.A.T. I knew Hosono from before and he was visiting me in Santiago when I had just moved here in '98; he came here and we recorded parts of the second album here, and I visited him in Japan, and every time I'm in Japan I try to see him. It's not a frequent contact we have, but it's still a contact. And also a couple of years ago Sakamoto was inviting me for one of his projects, and last year at Sonar Tokyo, because they played as Sketch Show, I met all of them, that whole YMO bubble, like their management, and a lot of people that were involved back then, had been A&R, studio, production, publishing… So I met all these people, and I'd say it was in the pre-stage of Yellow Fever, where I was just sorting out ideas for what would be possible. And when I started working on the record, it was a bit difficult to get in touch with them because of the management topic in Japan; you have to go through management and even though I was in personal touch with them, I could not approach them on a business level. So we had to go through labels and managers and A&Rs, and it was a very long process where nothing happened, actually. Until we just contacted Sakamoto directly, in parallel through his management, and everybody was really into it, and I sent them a couple of demo mixes and they said, Yeah, great! It's really entertaining, and if we can participate, if it's possible we will.
I think it's a bit in their line of musical history; it's kind of like twisting it again. They covered Martin Denny and all this background and transformed it into futuristic '80s pop, and now I'm transforming it back into the original thing. I think they find that entertaining too.
9.) How did you select the songs to include? Was there a
process of experimentation to determine which would be more adaptable
to the Coconut style?
This time it was a bit more difficult than the times before; for instance on the Kraftwerk covers, it was very much just a musical decision of trying to imagine the flow of the album, and saying ok, how many fast songs, how many slow songs, how many cha-cha-chas compared to the number of cumbias. That was more the perspective because there were so many songs that worked that in the end it was more like a stylistic process. The next album was a bit the same; I had a long list of songs and it was more about finding the right mix for the album. While on Yellow Fever, it was a bit more complex because not all the songs had been composed by all three of them together, but they were usually separate compositions—one song would be only by Sakamoto, one only by Hosono, one only by Takahashi—and there were very few mixed compositions where all of them are involved. So that was one concern, trying not to just pick Sakamoto songs or just Hosono songs; and at the same time it was important to get the songs I liked and had selected transposed into the Coconut style, which was not possible for all of them. And at the same time, I needed to get an interesting flow on the album, so they were three parameters that were really difficult to match up; it was quite a headache at times.
10.) And one more factor to think of, there were singles and hits in certain territories, so the record company wanted to include the singles and hits and the better known songs. So it was a very difficult selection to make, trying to have it be well done on a musical level but also to satisfy the needs of the original record companies and also trying not to offend the musicians because there weren't enough songs from each of them…. which in the end happened, because there are four Sakamoto songs, and then three and three Hosono or Takahashi songs. But they were the best I could do, bearing all these parameters in mind.
11.) Listening back to the originals after hearing your
versions, I was struck by how many Latin elements were already there,
implicit in their original rhythms. From your acquaintance with them,
do you think they were aware of it at the time? Was that an explicit
I think that they're very good musicians and very well-informed musicians with long histories of making and listening to music, and they have a huge knowledge of musical styles; I think all these bits of information you just have subconsciously available when you want to make a groove or something. It's not that you say, ok, is that syncopated or not, it's more like, does it move or not? Does it swing or not?
12.) How did you go about creating the versions this time?
What sort of studio technologies did you use?
Let me tell you a bit about the development of the last albums. The first one was basically sampling from CDs and programming; there were no songs involved so it was just cutting up tracks. Also very few vocals. On the second album it was about songs, but I didn't have musicians available, or didn't want to, except for the vocalist, so what I did was the same as the album before, I just cut up my record collection and recombined Kraftwerk songs out of the bits and pieces, so it was all programmed in the end. On Fiesta Songs, I didn't want to repeat that method; it wasn't really entertaining to simply do over again with Sade or Elton John. So I went to record musicians in Denmark, I just brought my laptop and a little audio interface and I went to a friend of mine in Denmark who wrote parts of the scores for some songs; mainly I called the musicians into the studio and we recorded slices. They never played together; and it was all very unorganized in the arrangement. And since there were no written scores, I mainly just sent them what I wanted to hear. It was like, here in the original we have that part, and I want the tenor sax to play that part. So they'd have to listen to it and play it. So afterwards, on my hard drive I had bits and pieces of what I wanted—a tenor here, a trumpet there—and when I got home I realized after recording, which was done really quickly, in about a week, that I had missed out on some parts; there was the tenor for the A and B but not for the C part, so I had to make solutions, basically invent the final arrangement, combining it with samples again from Latin records, which I usually use to create a certain texture or atmosphere, or for the groove for example I'll take a sample from Tito Puente and cut all the recorded material to the groove of Tito Puente, so while recording the percussionist doesn't really have to think about groove, he'll just play more or less to a certain swing, and then afterwards I would cut up the whole song towards a certain groove.
Having done that, which was a step forward in my opinion, I didn't want to repeat myself again on the new album. So this time I found someone in Germany, Norberg Kramer [???], who's also playing the vibraphone in the live band, and I asked him—he's a studied classical percussionist—I asked if he'd be interested in writing the scores for the songs. So he listened to the songs, and first transcribed them, because there were no MIDI files available, and based upon the transcription we talked about which style we would like to cover and which kind of arrangements we would like to do. So he did really complex horn arrangements, so the whole thing was much better thought out. Like, how many instruments do we have, which instrument is playing what, in which section… The voicing is quite real, I would say. Where on Fiesta Songs there was a very basic voicing. My knowledge of voicing, and especially horn voicing and arrangement is nonexistent, and it's a very complex thing to do.
So he did all that, so the whole arrangement foundation is much more advanced than on the last record. So it makes it much easier for me to think about different parts of the arrangement; it's all there, and now I can fuck it up again. That's where I'm going back to the first and second Coconut albums and saying, now we have a nice-sounding, well done horn arrangement so let's play around with it; I can focus now on totally different things. I don't have to make it sound good because it already sounds good; now I can get into the depth of the arrangement. Which also means I can rearrange what's there in the original recordings, but combine it much much more with sampling. That's what I didn't do too much on the last record, because of the amount of work I had to invest on the arrangement itself.
The idea is to achieve a certain complexity in the compositions, which again is a step forward compared to the last albums.
13.) Is part of this learning curve a result of having gone
through the live experience with Señor Coconut and the big
band, since you had to translate what you'd originally written by
sampling for a live band?
I would say it has to do with my personal interest in learning new things and making new sounds, making new music I haven't done before. I'm getting really bored if I have to repeat myself in a certain production method or musical approach, so it was basically, ok, if I make a new record, what's in it for me? It's not just about making music and selling a record, that's not the point; the point is to make it entertaining to me and to learn something from it. That's why we decided this time to produce it this way.
As for the recording method itself, I flew with my laptop and a little ProTools audio interface to a little studio in Cologne; it was basically a rehearsal space with a little recording cabin, basically you had a pair of speakers and the computer and a good pair of microphones, and then we had musicians coming in from Denmark and Germany and recorded first the rhythm section, then the bass, then the horn section, etc. etc.
14.) So your raw material—is it essentially a full,
Latinized version of each YMO song that you're now re-editing and
rearranging, or do you just have discrete pieces?
We listened to all the songs after the recording session, and they sound—some more, some less—the way I wanted them to sound. But there are some more unorganized songs on the record, where it's not clear where to go, and then there are some that are almost ready. With some of the songs, it wasn't clear while recording them what the groove would be, exactly, and I knew that I had to find a sample to accommodate the whole song. And every now and then I even have to change the entire bass, because the bass was in the wrong rhythm—so I'll use the notes of the bass, but adapt it to a Tito Puente, say. Which is a lot of work.
15.) You mentioned earlier the many collaborators on the new
record—what are they going to be doing exactly?
I had the selection of the songs, and before recording I had distributed them across the album, as in the album will start with song X and finish with song Y, trying to get a flow of the album so not all the cha-cha-chas hang together, for instance. And then my idea was to get little interludes, a bit inspired by that record of YMO where they had these funny little sequences and monologues in between; and my idea that the theme of the interludes would basically be, "What is Coconut?" It's all about Coconut. So I went with a microphone to interview people at parties, friends of mine, just "What is Coconut?" out of the blue. And they'd talk, and I used some of their conclusions, which was very much improvised speech, I'd say. I'm trying to get a sort of mysterious concept, I would say—the whole album is about something, which I don't know what it is, but it's more or less about defining Coconut, and that whole twist which is going on. So you have these Yellow Magic songs which are Latin Japanese hybrids, and in the middle you have these cut-and-paste interviews which are explaining, not in a logical sense, but giving hints as to what the whole Coconut concept is about.
As an example, we have a Sakamoto song, "Music Plans," which ends with the lines, "Making music, what a plan, breaking music." And then there's another song that comes after that, and I had to fill that gap. So I was inspired by the phrase "breaking music," and so I said to Burnt Friedman, The working title is "Breaking Music"; I'll give you a little rhythm, and you just break it, and this is the interlude.
All of those collaborators, they're not all equal, they don't have the same backgrounds, so I tried to find their place, what could they do, what would fit, in which interlude. Which was not clear from the beginning; it depended a bit on how the songs came together and which interlude fit for whom. For Akufen, for example, I had this little track which was called "Disco a Go-Go/Coco a Go-Go," which fit… well, you'll hear later on when it's finished; it has references to the song before, which is "Tong Poo," and perfectly leads into the song after it. So I just gave him a Latin disco beat which I chopped up in a very rough and quick way, and I said ok, your song goes in between this song and this song and it's called "Disco a Go-Go" so you can just go ahead and chop it up further… It was very much trying to see what he could do, what fits with his taste and his way of working.
Marina, for example, from Nouvelle Vague, is a vocalist, not a musician in the pure sense, so I invented a dialogue between a man and a woman, and I said, ok, your part will be the left channel, and on the right channel there will be Towa Tei—in fact, his voice computer—responding. So I invented a dialogue; it's a bit like, you know the song "Mucha Muchcacha" from Esquivel? It's a little conversation going on for like 30 seconds, and then the song continues. So I was very much inspired by that; I had a little song and basically they're talking about the song—"Mambo Numerique," a digital mambo, so basically they're saying "It's a digital mambo!" "Yeah! It's nice!" And she speaks French and he speaks Japanese; so I had this dialogue invented in English, and I said to Marina you translate it into French; the BPM is that, try to send different takes, one more sensual, one more serious, etc. And I said the same to Towa, who programmed his vocal program which speaks Japanese; I sent him the dialogue and some parts that Marina had done, and he finished it and I threw it together.
It's stuff like that; trying to find little spaces for all these people.