Interview: Beto Cuevas
The frontman of La Ley, and successful solo artist, discusses his career in music and writing songs in his car
eto Cuevas, the charismatic lead singer of La Ley, is one of Latin America’s biggest rock stars. Although he wasn’t the group’s original frontman, it was his arrival in 1988 which helped shape their distinctive sound, spurred them on to sell millions of records worldwide and pick up Latin Grammy Awards for the albums Uno and Libertad. In 2005 La Ley decided to take a break and Beto embarked upon a near decade-long solo career, during which time he recorded the albums Miedo Escenico and the poppier Transformación (another Grammy winner).
The band finally reformed last year and Beto, along with Mauricio Claveria and Pedro Frugone, are currently working on their much anticipated comeback album. We interrupted the recording process to chat with him about his songwriting career and how he is finding life now that he is back with his old bandmates…
What is your earliest memory of music?
“Since I was a kid I have been drawn in by music. My father was a fanatic and he had a lot of records. He had a special room only for music and he would invite me there and we would listen to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and I used to love that. I didn’t listen to the music the kids were listening to back in the day. I was listening to the music my father liked except he didn’t like The Beatles but I discovered them, The Rolling Stones and the whole British invasion later on and I loved that too and it is an important part of who I am as a musician and a songwriter today.”
Would that have been in Canada before you moved back to Chile?
“Yes, when I was in Canada I just loved music and the 80s, because I was a teenager back then. I went through the whole hair fever years and I started listening to new music and started doing a lot of singing in the shower. It was a really good school, to help me realise that I could have quality in my voice. I had a very personal and secret fantasy to be on stage because I used to do a little theatre at school and for me being on stage was like a dream, but I was too shy to admit that I wanted to do something like that. So I pursued my development as an artist, since I was really young I loved to draw and paint and back in the day I thought that was my future, I never thought it would be music.”
[cc_blockquote_right] WE WERE A BIG SUCCESS WITH WOMEN…
THEY WOULD JUMP ONSTAGE AND TRY TO KISS US [/cc_blockquote_right] When did you start taking music more seriously?
“In 1988 I took a sabbatical to go back to Chile. I grew up away from the country with the political image in my head, which was the Pinochet dictatorship and I just wanted to connect with my roots. As well as Canada I lived in Venezuela for seven years when I was really young. I needed to feel the experience of being in the country I was born. Within months I met the right people and eventually got the chance to audition for this project called La Ley – you can call that destiny. They didn’t have a singer and somebody recommended me to them. They thought I had a good image and a different way of singing, because I did not grow up in Chile where all the influences came from Argentina.
“The reason why Argentina grew up so much in music, in rock particularly is because of the Falklands conflict. All the radio stations in Argentina were prohibited from playing English music so that gave the Spanish music a lot of space on radio stations. That’s how a lot of great bands from Argentina came about. That influenced all Chilean music, but as I did not grow up in Latin America I only sang in English or French. Those were my influences and when I started singing in Spanish for the first time I did not sound like anybody else and I guess that was the beginning of something good.”
Did people find it harder to accept you because of your background?
“Well in the beginning I was very different and also I wasn’t perfect so people did not really understand what I wanted to say. I had pronunciation problems, but it’s something you acquire with experience and eventually I became better and things took off from that point.”Were you writing songs when you joined La Ley?
“When I first joined La Ley they already had demos that were written by another singer, but the founder and leader of the band, Andrés Bobe, said ‘you can sing these songs but if you want to change anything it’s open for changes’. I respected a lot of the songs but there were some things that I didn’t think sounded like me so I changed a few lyrics. Then one day he asked if I ever wrote songs and I told him yes, but it was a lie! I just didn’t want anybody to be writing for me because I wanted to create whatever I was going to sing. I started writing songs just because the circumstances called for it. Andrés and I became a kind of Lennon/McCartney duo and we started writing together. The songs we wrote were very popular and we did very well before he died in1994 in a motorcycle accident.
“That’s part of our story and it was very sad and unexpected. He was my best partner and I learnt a lot from him. After he died I decided to start learning how to play the guitar because I wanted to be independent and I didn’t want to depend on somebody to come up with the music for me to sing.”
How do you feel about the band’s success now?
“When we began as a group I had a very strong feeling that we were going to do really well. I really had an impression that we were going to be an international success. Some of my bandmates said ‘okay but we got to go slow, we got to be realistic, these things don’t happen from one day to another’ and I told them ‘no this is going to happen and it will be very good for everybody’ they liked what I said but thought I was a little naïve, I wasn’t. So I worked for it with conviction and determination and that’s what happened.
“We worked for about a year and a half playing on the Chilean underground scene and we were a big success with women. They would jump onstage and try to kiss us. The word of mouth was really important back in the day. We’re talking about 1989-1990 and that’s what caught the attention of Polygram. We released our first album with a major record label back in 1991 called Doble Opuesto and it was an overnight success, I remember within weeks we’d sold over 100,000 albums. It was impossible to even think of, that was too many albums for a band that was barely known.
“We became very famous for a cover that we did of The Rolling Stones’ Angie. We got invited to a TV show where local artists would interpret songs and we chose The Rolling Stones because we were doing a lot of songs in English. A programmer got the demo and started putting it on the radio. People started responding and they never thought it was a Chilean band. It became the first single and we became successful. That’s how we started growing as a band and also playing outside of our country.”
Was it a conscientious decision to write songs in both English and Spanish?
“Because I could write in English it was something really appealing for us as Latin band. Everybody wants to have a career and be successful, not only in your country, and we could do that writing in English, but we realised eventually that Spanish was our main language we decided to concentrate on that.”
Are there different challenges for you if you’re trying to write a lyric in English versus a song in Spanish?
“It’s different, I would say that the English language sounds better for our kind of music. It’s really easy to write something that sounds a little cheesy in Spanish. The language itself has different endings and to use a lot of those words means you start sounding like a balladeer, but we were a rock band. We liked The Smiths, we liked Morrissey’s lyrics and Johnny Marr’s guitar licks. We did not want to become a popular artist doing songs that sounded good for a soap opera.
“So I developed a very personal technique. The answer was to create a different sound that was almost English. Every time I start to write I don’t really sing words but sounds. Then when I have the whole scheme of how the melody’s going to work I start finding Spanish words that fit with those sounds. It’s like an archaeological search for the song. Sometimes I’m writing and I don’t really know what I’m writing about but at the end it just makes sense. That’s the way I began creating songs that didn’t sound Latino and people started responding to it.”
Do you always start with the melody first?
“I start with the music and then I start singing and I say words that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the other words I say before or after. When I’m sure that the melody works I then start to do the lyric writing and sometimes it can be as fast as an hour or maybe two weeks, it all depends. You have to be very tough with yourself if you want to have a certain level of quality with your songs.”
Do you keep a notepad on you?
“Oh yes, all the time but with technology today you write many things with your phone. I actually write a lot when I’m driving – obviously I don’t write but I record my voice and any ideas for lyrics. When you’re driving part of your rational brain is busy and occupied. But when that part is busy the creative part of the brain is much more open to whatever ideas may come to you. I wrote my last solo album driving. Sometimes I would just go to take rides to write and get ideas. It was really funny and it worked.”
When you interviewed Morrissey a few years ago did you talk about songwriting?
“I have a friend that owns a Latino channel and Morrissey has got a very big Latino following in Los Angeles. At that time he did not want to give an interview with Rolling Stone magazine or Spin because he didn’t want to talk about the typical topics; why The Smiths split, Johnny Marr or his sexuality. So my friend asked if he wanted to be interviewed by another musician and he accepted. We talked about politics and why it is important to be a vegetarian, he’s a very smart guy. We did not talk about songwriting but it was really interesting. I remember when The Smiths split I thought it was going to be the end for Morrissey, but I was wrong. I think he always comes up with really interesting music.”
Is there a parallel with what happened when you left La Ley and went solo?
“Not really, as we had so many changes. When Andrés died in 1994 the press assumed that we were going to end because he was the founder and the driving force behind the music, but we reinvented ourselves. We decided not to give interviews but to say that we were still here through our music and we wrote one of our most famous albums, Invisible and proved all the journalists wrong.
“Then a couple of important members decided to quit because they had some personal problems and again people thought ‘okay two of the founder members are leaving, this band is going to dismember’ but we reinvented ourselves and that’s when we started getting recognition from the American industry. We got out first American Grammy for the album Uno, for Best Latin Alternative Rock Album and after that we did MTV Unplugged and we did other albums that also got a lot of recognition.”
Did you approach the songwriting differently when writing your solo albums?
“Actually I did more collaborating, particularly for the second solo album. The first one, Miedo Escenico, was very personal, I was going through a cloudy time. I was getting separated and it was very sad for me and so I secluded myself in my studio and decided to do this on my own. On Transformación I decided to play with dance beats a little bit and I think it’s brighter and has a real pop sensibility. But I love rock, I love guitars and like my songs to have balls.
“I got a Latin Grammy for my second solo album so that was the perfect thing before coming back to La Ley. It was a little justification and meant I could tell my band members ‘hey I haven’t wasted my time. I got this recognition and now we’re back together let’s do some more magic’.”
Are La Ley working on new material?
“Yes, we recently finished 24 songs that we started writing last year. We’re going to choose about 10 songs for the album and some bonus material. We’re going to record them this coming month and will probably have a first single on the radio in September and the album is going to come out by the end of the year.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I BELIEVE YOU CAN STILL DO MAGIC IN THIS WORLD THROUGH MUSIC [/cc_blockquote_right] Have the three of you been writing together?
“Yes we did a lot in Los Angeles, just playing and writing together, but we’ve also done some individual work that we share. If I come up with a song on my guitar I send that to my bandmates, because we live in different countries. That way they can record their parts and also be part of it. It is definitely an album that we are doing together. It really makes a big difference being in a band as opposed to being a solo artist because there’s something magical with the sound, when you hear a band there’s something thicker. I don’t know how to explain it because you could in theory have a thick sound as a solo artist also but there’s something else that happens when you have a band that makes it sound different. I like that very much and have to admit that I missed it in my ten years as a solo artist.”
You mentioned doing MTV Unplugged in 2001, was it interesting stripping back your songs?
“It was interesting because for that album we rehearsed like we’d never rehearsed before. So it was really good to perform. It was the first album that we recorded live and yes we had to reinvent the sound of the songs and the arrangements because it was mainly acoustic. It was so good to be there because there was a vibration on stage that made us do something special. Sometimes I felt like I was out of this body and I was watching myself.
“I finished writing Mentira the same day I recorded it; when you see the Unplugged I was still reading the lyrics – I even made a mistake but we left it in! It has become our most popular song. The producer, Charlie Singer, came to me two weeks before the actual recording and said ‘okay we have a lot of songs but I want you to write what’s going to be the first single’ like it’s easy! Like you go and ask and you get it. But I react really well when I work with producers and they ask for things like that, it’s a great motivation.
“The song meant a lot to me. I was having a lot of feelings of guiltiness in my personal life because of so many tours and some experiences I had with other women, I was cheating. It was terrible to feel that way so I wrote it in first person and then I said ‘no I cannot write this song in first person because it’s like giving myself away’. So I went to second person but it didn’t sound as good and then I went to third person and said ‘no I cannot be so chicken shit, I’m going to write it in the first person’ and I think that was the key. Everyone reflects on it because at some point of their lives everybody lies or keeps a little secret.”
Is that the song you’re proudest of?
“I’m very proud of that song but I also like moving on. I feel very proud to have written Mentira but I don’t sit down in my throne for having written it. I still feel deep down inside that I haven’t written the best song of my life so I’m still searching and trying to write that magical song. I believe you can still do magic in this world through music and that’s the path I decided to take in my life, creation. If I thought I’d already done my best work it would be downhill from here on and I would be very sad.”
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