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How Aterciopelados Keep Rewriting the Latin Alternative Playbook

[Rolling Stone]

The Grammy-nominated duo on their 2018 album, Claroscura and the evolution of Colombian music

By Isabela Raygoza

Before Shakira belly-danced her way from barefooted rockera to multi-lingual pop powerhouse, and Juanes rode his sneering alt-rock kiss-offs to global acclaim, Aterciopelados championed Colombian rock during the height of the rock en español explosion. For more than a quarter-century, the now-legendary pair — comprised of frontwoman/guitarist Andrea Echeverri and bassist/producer Hector Buitrago — have continued to push the limits of Latin alternative music. Nominated for a Grammy Award, their latest masterpiece, 2018’s Claroscura, is no exception.

Rolling Stone meets with the Colombian duo at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, just days before Claroscura wins them a third Latin Grammy — this time for for Best Latin Alternative Music Album. “We aren’t academically-trained musicians,” says Echeverri of their beginnings as a band. “I was an art student, and Hector had an emblematic hardcore band called La Pestilencia,” Brimming with her usual moxie, Echeverri rocks pink hair streaks and a black skull cardigan; Buitrago, on the other hand, sports a white jumpsuit and various articles of indigenous jewelry. “We met, fell in love, and started making music,” she adds.

In the early Nineties, the twosome opened up a bar in Bogotá and began performing as Aterciopelados. Their breakthrough came quick with their second LP, 1995’s El Dorado, a spunky rock release steeped in rebellion and bolero brilliance. With Buitrago’s irreverent punk appeal and Echeverri’s artsy, idiosyncratic charm, the pair set off to win over Latin America and beyond. “What happened in the Nineties was very impressive for us,” the singer muses. “Without expecting it, we were signed to a record label, and began playing with Caifanes, Café Tacvba, Los Fabulosos Cadillac, Soda Stereo, Héroes del Silencio … It was all very vertiginous.”

In 2000, Aterciopelados dropped the Latin Grammy-winning Gozo Poderoso, which peaked at Number 7 in Billboard’s Latin Pop Albums. After each pursuing short solo projects, they followed up with two of Latin Grammy-winning records, 2006’s Oye as well as 2008’s Río, which Rolling Stone named one of The 10 Greatest Latin Rock Albums of All Time in 2012. Now, after a decade-long hiatus, the beloved Colombian pair return with their eighth LP Claroscura: a playfully outspoken alt-rock opus, in which their commitment to defend women’s rights and the environment resonate through.

The album, which tinkers with candied reggaeton, blissful Andean folk, and polka-leaning banda, also serves as a kind of yin-yang of the band, a sort of poetic love letter that embraces their quirky union. “I believe that we have always maintained a rebellion,” says Echeverri with a wink.

Your song “Duo” is a beautiful ode to the band, which also reflects the contrast and dynamism between you two. The album does that as well.
Andrea Echeverri: In a way, I feel that Claroscura is a reflection of us as structured and mature artists — that goes without implicating that there isn’t any weirdness or contradictions in the album. What the album reflects, as much as the song, is that each of us has our own thing going on. We’ve had our own solo projects, and we’ve done each other’s role — [Buitrago] sang and I produced. What we have is two people who resemble each other in certain things, but the majority are opposites. The differences between us [are] very beautiful.

When people ask how long it took to complete Claroscura, I say 28 years. In the album, we offer messages of femininity, antiwar, ecology, and ancestry. These are all topics that Aterciopelados has previously worked on, including in our solo projects.

In the music video for “Dúo,” viewers see you two dressed as what might be a punk villain and angel. Can you explain?
Echeverri: It’s an image that has humor and exaggeration. He is light and I am darkness, but sometimes he is black and I am white. That’s where it begins; it’s a reality. There is no light without darkness, and there is no darkness without light.

There are some elegant Andean folk melodies in the record too, like in “Soñemos un Bosque,” or “Let’s Dream a Forest,” which evokes to me something of a spiritual journey. Was that the intention?
Hector Buitrago: I imagine that we all have our own spiritual or philosophical influences. I could say that all that I have known or read in some way has nourished and influenced me. That song does have a touch of Andean music. We have participated in indigenous ceremonies, and the experiences that we’ve had do surface when we compose. They also emerge from our DNA. This song has to do with our connection to the Earth, the mountains, the Andes. The idea is that it feels like a forest, that’s why it’s called “Soñemos un Bosque.”

Where do your other sources of inspiration come from when composing?
Echeverri: For me being a woman is the source of many reflections and experiences. I have a daughter of 16, she is growing up and goes to our concerts, and if there is one thing to share, let’s say it’s about her… When I work my songs at home and my kids arrive from school, they’ll pass by and I show them my material. I get their feedback, and those songs are “Cuerpo” and “Pierna.” They have to do with me and my daughter. She tells me, “Mom, we need those songs.” That’s why they are there. There is another cool song called “Vieja.” I have always composed about what is happening to me and what I feel. I try to be very honest. Although what a song might say could sound unpleasant, I think that’s all valid.

That boldness, humility, and candor is a reputation you uphold. What keeps you grounded, despite having a handful of accolades?
Echeverri: I believe that we have always maintained a rebellion. When everyone is about hard rock, I say, “Nah.” And when there’s a bestseller, I’m like, “Huh?” I don’t know if [I’m like that] because my parents scolded me a lot when I was little. But I think that attitude gives value to what you do, because you are being different, and you are finding things that do not resemble what predominates. We approach things with humor. Our songs have a sense of humor too and I think that’s the way to live, if not everything becomes drama.

Buitrago: It’s easy for it to get to your head when one rises with fame, accumulates awards, receives applauses, or has people kissing up to you. It’s always important to always to check in internally and realize that one has to be down to earth.

Looking back at the band’s career, Aterciopelados became an important band for the contribution of rock en español. What was it like to participate in that movement?
Echeverri: What happened in the Nineties was very impressive for us. We never expected it, because at that time the scene in Colombia did not exist. [Rock en español] had exploded and it lasted a long time. Now the scene is different, but we still find ourselves in concerts with all those cool people [from before]. We were recently at a Rock en tu Idioma Sinfónico show, and we hung out with La Cuca, Azul Violeta… with so many great bands from that era. It was very cool.

You helped globalize Colombian rock in the Nineties, paving way for artists like Shakira and Juanes. Then Colombian cumbia revived in the hands of Bomba Estéreo. Now reggaeton, originally from Puerto Rico, got popularly refashioned in your country. How have you experienced these shifts?

Buitrago: Music in Colombia has evolved a lot, and I think it’s one of the countries that is precisely driving that evolution. These are not groups copying genres, but artists who are creating their own genres. I think Bomba Estéreo within that fusion of genres [cumbia, punk, electronic] created something that’s very much their own, and they have a very cool authenticity. Many urban artists too are creating and advancing a new sound with some very interesting mixes and unique beats. That’s why it’s having so much impact worldwide. J Balvin is bringing together young talented producers from Medellin, and now all that Colombian talent is globally resonating.

What are some of the fondest memories you have from your near-three-decades-long career?
Echeverri: When we first started playing, we became the opening act for many large groups. With Soda Stereo, we did not just do that song. [By that she means Soda Stereo’s essential track, “En la Ciudad de la Furia,” on which Echeverri sang as a guest on an episode of MTV Unplugged.] We were their opening act in several tours. We also opened up for Los Héroes del Silencio and Caifanes, who we were very huge fans of. Those were very cool moments: to have your favorite artists for many hours nearby and seeing where they went shopping, watching them during sound check, and how they traveled. Those were revealing times.

Buitrago: A few months ago, we played with Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá in front of 80,000 people in one of the largest venues of the city, Festival de Verano, which is about 480 years old. Hearing them play their own versions of our music was very beautiful.

This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.