Oscar-Winning Musician Gustavo Santaolalla Talks Artistry Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla is the Academy Award-winning composer of the score for the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. Santaolalla, an eclectic musician, produces everything from techno tango to albums for the Kronos Quartet. Santaolalla stopped in the studio to talk to Michel Martin about his career and his latest project, Bajofondo Mar Dulce.
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Oscar-Winning Musician Gustavo Santaolalla Talks Artistry

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Oscar-Winning Musician Gustavo Santaolalla Talks Artistry

Oscar-Winning Musician Gustavo Santaolalla Talks Artistry

Oscar-Winning Musician Gustavo Santaolalla Talks Artistry

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Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla is the Academy Award-winning composer of the score for the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain. Santaolalla, an eclectic musician, produces everything from techno tango to albums for the Kronos Quartet. Santaolalla stopped in the studio to talk to Michel Martin about his career and his latest project, Bajofondo Mar Dulce.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Eerie, heartbreaking, rebellious, danceable. Those are just some of the adjectives used to describe the compositions of Argentina's Gustavo Santaolalla.

If you've not heard his name, you have probably heard his music, somewhere, probably at the movies, and among his many accomplishments, he is the composer and producer of the award-winning soundtrack for the film "Brokeback Mountain."

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: When he's not doing soundtracks, Mr. Santaolalla might be found producing albums for Latin-rock powerhouses like the Argentine band La Bersuit Vergarabat.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And most recently with the group Bajofondo.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Santaolalla has created a mix of tango, techno and maybe even some rap, and he's with us now. He's currently touring, and he took time off from his schedule to visit with us, and we appreciate that, and he's with us now from New York. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA (Musician): Hey, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So can we back up just a bit? You're from Argentina. What did you want to be when you grew up? In this country, a baseball player, of course, but…

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: In my country, I wanted to be a musician and a priest, those two. So I dropped one of those and I just became a musician.

MARTIN: Is your family musical?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: My parents were very musical in the sense that they were, you know, music lovers and avid buyers of records, but none of them actually play an instrument.

I think my mom always wanted to play the guitar, and somehow she projected that to me, so I started learning to play guitar when I was five years old, but actually I'd never managed to get the academic side of it. So even up to today, I don't know how to read or write music, but I did start, you know, putting my fingers on the guitar when I was five.

MARTIN: Wait, how is this possible? Your music is so textured, so layered, and you do all that without being able to read or write music?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes. I mean, I - in the scores, you know, films like "Babel," "Brokeback Mountain," "21 Grams," "Motorcycle Diaries," "Amores Perros," I play almost all the instruments in those scores, and when I use strings, I do some of my idea of the strings, and then I get somebody to write them down and, you know, help me with that, but that's the way I work.

You know, I don't see myself as a film composer or as any, just a part of what I do, or as a producer or as musician. I see myself more as an artist that use, you know, different forums to express whatever I want to say.

MARTIN: So the guitar was your first instrument.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes.

MARTIN: What else do you play?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Well, you know, I play a whole bunch of things, including instruments that I don't know how to play, which actually is something that I'm really excited about. For example, in "Babel" I always wanted to play the oud. I mean, I always wanted to have an oud. The oud is an Arabic instrument, is the ancestor of the lute, therefore the ancestor of the guitar, and "Babel" gave me the great excuse to get an oud, and I wrote most of the music of that film with that instrument, and I never, you know, learned how to play the instrument, and I played for the movie, and I never played it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: It's quite a bit of a challenge to play that instrument because it's a fretless instrument with a very short neck. So you're always on the verge of disaster, you know? But you know, now I'm playing, I'm doing - I'm working on a new movie, and I'm using an esrach(ph), which is a kind of an Hindu-Pakistani violin, and I love it. I mean, it's - you know, it's really, really something that surprises me all the time.

I grew up listening to everything. You know, from Argentinean folk music, tango, jazz, rock, just everything.

MARTIN: Hmm. Speaking of growing up in Argentina, as I understand it, you started playing and putting bands together when you were a teenager. And if I have my history correct, that you actually were jailed at one point for subversive behavior and...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Mm-hmm. Well, I don't know if it's subversive - interpretation of the authorities of subversive behavior.

MARTIN: Well, surely.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: If you call long hair and playing with an electric guitar subversive behavior - yes.

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify for people who are not aware that this was the era of the military dictatorship and so...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Absolutely. And we were in yeah, we spent, you know, years of some of the darkest years in our history, you know? You know, but I was pretty popular in Argentina. So by the time you know, they were taking me for this, just to make my life miserable I guess, they knew who I was so somehow I had a certain level of protection.

MARTIN: Sure, but before we leave that period, I do want to just play a little bit of music, if I may, from one of your first groups in Argentina, if we -just so that, you know, maybe, I don't know. Maybe it'll be nice for you, you know...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Fantastic. That's good.

MARTIN: ...to hear from. I think this is "Hera" and I think this is from Arco Iris?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: All right. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Hera")

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

MARTIN: Before we leave the whole subject of your time in Argentina...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...I just wondered if that time of kind of being under threat, if you have a sense of how that affected you as an artist?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: I think it affected me profoundly, even to this day, you know? I think one of the difference is sometimes that I have experience in the society's especially, you know, in Latin America and in the United States is the fact that you know, in Latin America, in third world countries you tend to become politicized, or at least affected by politics since a very early age. And I still fight to a certain extent to have a better world, you know? I still have a strong belief that comes from my experiences through that period in my life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla and he's talking about his musical roots and hopefully what he's working on now.

Can we talk about the movie work - if we can?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes. Absolutely.

MARTIN: I mentioned that, you know, I mentioned that many people will know your work from "Brokeback" but, of course, you have second Academy Award for "Babel." And I wanted to ask, when you're composing for film, how does that work; and is that different from when you're composing for...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: For using records or?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yeah. It's absolutely different in a way and yet, you know, it's always, it comes from the same well, let's say. You know what I mean? It's connecting with that thing that is very hard to describe in words. But the disciplines are very different you know, in format. In the film work, I love to work mainly from the script and from talking to the directors, so a lot of the music, big portions of the scores that I've made have been composed before the movies were even shot.

I mean the biggest example of that is "Brokeback." I mean the whole score of "Brokeback Mountain" I did before the movie, before they even shot one frame.

MARTIN: So you had nothing to look at?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: No.

MARTIN: It was all based on...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: So it's more based on my relationship to the story and the characters and one conversation with Ang Lee. And it really - I mean if you are connected to the story and to the director, it makes a lot of sense because somehow you know, the music then becomes a part of the fabric of that film from the very beginning. Like, you know, some you know, we - like Alejandro González Iñárritu or even Ang will play this music to the actors and they will live with music during the shooting. So it becomes an intrinsic part of the process of creating this picture you know?

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit from "Babel."

(Soundbite of music from movie, "Babel")

MARTIN: Before we talked, I listened to two of your CD's. I listened to two of your soundtracks and I listened to just a bunch of other tracks just from various projects. And one of the things that struck me was the range, you know, the range of emotional experiences that evoke…

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean it was almost - how can I - I mean it's hard to describe. It was like vivid. Like I could feel like pictures coming up in my head. And I wondered, do you think you have a distinctive sound or is there like a feeling that you think is your thing?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Well, you know, I think I mean and I have produced, now, more than a hundred albums you know, with different artists. I mean, one of the things that I've always tried to do is associate myself with artists that have a strong vision - you know, that have something to bring to the table that is unique and that has identity; that represent, you know, who they are, where do they come from. And these are very opinionated people, you know? So you have to really win. And it's very diverse. I produced artists like from Café Tacuba, or Molotov, or Juanes - to the Kronos Quartet.

I always try to find the sound for the artist. There's some other producers, you know, that impose kind of their sound to everything that they do and some of them I love. I hope what I do, you know, it's is there is a common thread. I hope it's you know, the quality of the artistry level that is there and… But if I analyze, then, what I do in my film work - which I can, more than the other stuff that is so vast and so diverse. In the film work, I think, one of the few things that you can articulate is that I don't use huge instrumentations. I try to be minimalistic in my use of instruments and I use a lot of silence. I have something that you can see in all the scores that have to do with ambience, with texture and with silence.

MARTIN: I have to ask, is there any musical genre that you can't stand?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Absolutely not. I think music is divided in two categories: good music and bad music. So there's good alternative music and there's bad alternative music. There's good polka and bad polka.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Have you ever written a polka?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yeah well, similar. You know, kind of ska meets polka. Yes.

MARTIN: Ska meets polka. Okay.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes. Umpa music. Yes. Umpa, umpa, umpa. Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay. All right, another question, do you have to like the artist that you're working with?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Of course. Do I have to like them as people?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Or do I have to like them as artists?

MARTIN: As people?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes. I mean I have to have a connection. I mean I have to say...

MARTIN: Would you work with somebody you didn't like?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Well, I have to say that in general I like people. You know, I find people fascinating. I think even people that might be very different, I mean I think that's sometimes even more exciting, you know? One of the things that I enjoy about working with other artists is the fact that they think and they do things in a different way than I will do them, and so there's always a space for me to learn, and that's very important. I like to work, for example, with a lot of - a lot with young people because I do believe in the fruits of experience, and because of my age, I have some already. But I do believe in the fruits of inexperience. I think inexperience let you take routes that usually experience will allow you to do.

MARTIN: Can I ask you something?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes.

MARTIN: When do you sleep?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Well, that's a good...

MARTIN: I mean I'm looking at the thing. You've got seven films, you've got, like I can't - I don't have time to count all these, the many albums that you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes. I mean we don't have time to tell you all the projects that I'm working on.

MARTIN: I don't have time to count all the albums that you've worked on already and all the people that you've worked with, and you have a family.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: I do. Yeah.

MARTIN: And you tour and you're with a band and you're touring now.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes.

MARTIN: So, when does that thing happen?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: It's amazing what, you know, what we can do. We don't know the many things we can do. I didn't know, but now I know. I think, I don't know. You know, it's kind of a chaos but an organized chaos, so I don't sleep that much. But things, you know, get done. I think it's important in order to surround yourself with good people that can help you achieve what you want to do.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of what you want to do, I want to hear a little bit, can we play something from your latest project "Bajofondo Mar Dulce?"

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I want to play some because well, we just like it, so we're going to play a little bit. Here it is.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Please.

(Soundbite of song, "Pa' Bailar") (Spanish spoken)

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: That's "Pa' Bailar" with my dear friend Julieta Venegas.

MARTIN: Mm. So how would you describe the project? How would you describe the...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: "Bajofondo?"

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: "Bajofondo," you know, is something that I started with my friend Juan Campodónico. He's from Uruguay; I'm from Argentina, and we wanted to make this group - I mean this music because it really started as a lab project really, just the two of us. And I've always been obsessed with the concept of identity. I think I mentioned it before. You know, just trying to reflect in the music who you are and where do you come from. And tango and milonga, candom - all these things, you know, were always around me since I was a kid - all of us and I always mix more, you know, the rock language or the jazz language, all that with more folk music - more rural music from Latin America, this is really urban music. And I had tremendous respect for tango.

So I knew at a certain point in my life I was going to embark in something related to that. So, like I will say seven years ago I started really getting more into it and we got together with Juan and we said, you know, we're going to do something that probably we're going to get burned...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: ...by doing, because you know, you're like walking in sacred ground there. You know, it's such an institution - tango, you know? So we started mixing stuff we'd gone in the studio, we started, you know, sampling and bringing friends and playing and, you know? when I talk to the audience I said, you know, we've been doing this brand of music that we still haven't figured out exactly what it is and we are in no hurry to find out. We hopefully think that represents us, you know?

MARTIN: Well, you've been very generous with your time. We're going to let you go because well, apparently you don't sleep, so...

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...I'm sure you have like three albums to work on before you perform today.

But what is next for you? I mean what are you going to suit up with NASA - try to go to the next moon mission or something? What are you going to do next for an encore?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Well, I'm really because you just hit the spot. I'm really interested in this intergalactic flights, I want to do one of those. But I just finished working on the last Alejandro González Iñárritu movie. It's called "Beautiful." So I just finished my - the film is not finished, but be released next year. Hopefully we'll go to...

MARTIN: Another Academy Award. Where do you keep your Oscars, by the way?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: I have them in a bag inside of my closet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Don't let the Academy know this.

MARTIN: Why do you have them in your closet? What's up?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: No. No. No. You know, they're so powerful that you pull one out and it just takes the whole room you know? So I have them, you know, kind of in a safe place where every now and then I can go and look at them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I'll keep one for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, if, you know this?

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Okay.

MARTIN: Yeah. Academy Award-winning musician, producer, composer: Gustavo Santaolalla. He is currently on tour with his group Bajofondo and promoting his latest album, "Mar Dulce" and he was kind enough to stop for a few minutes in the New York bureau to visit with us.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Hey Michel, thank you so much. I hope I get to see you sometime...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: ...in person.

(Soundbite of music of Gustavo Santaolalla)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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