Los Amigos Invisibles: A 'Commercial' Breakthrough The Venezuelan band has found huge success in its native country. But the group has also built a following in the U.S. with its unique blend of disco, jazz, funk and Latin rhythms. Here, host Michel Martin talks with the Latin Grammy-winning band, which recently stopped by NPR for a performance and conversation.
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Los Amigos Invisibles: A 'Commercial' Breakthrough

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Los Amigos Invisibles: A 'Commercial' Breakthrough

Los Amigos Invisibles: A 'Commercial' Breakthrough

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

When the Venezuelan band Los Amigos Invisibles began playing music in the early '90s, they were literally invisible to most people out there. Their first gigs were in underground dance parties throughout Caracas. But after a move to Brooklyn in 1997, they emerged into the spotlight when they caught the ear of David Byrne, the legendary former front man for the group Talking Heads. Since then, the group has created five studio albums, all featuring a funky mix of house, acid jazz and Latin disco.

They're on tour now supporting their fifth album title "Commercial," which won them a Latin Grammy for best alternative album. And they're with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios to perform songs from the album and tell us a little bit about themselves. Armando Figueredo, the keyboardist, is going to introduce everybody. Welcome everybody.

Mr. ARMANDO FIGUEREDO (Keyboardist, Los Amigos Invisibles): Hello. Thanks for having us here, Michel.

Mr. JULIO BRICENO (Vocalist, Los Amigos Invisibles): Hello.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Mr. FIGUEREDO: I'm keyboard player Armando, to my right is Cheo, guitar player, Julio on the vocals, Catire on bass, Mamel on drums and then Mauricio on bongos.

MARTIN: All right, welcome everybody. Thank you for joining us, thank you.

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Thank you for having us here.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming. So, how did you come up with your name?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Actually, a friend of ours came up with the name, but it comes from a TV show that we used to watch as kids. It was a history show. And basically the announcer would introduce a program addressing the invisible people that were watching him. So, he would say, good night, my invisible friends...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIGUEREDO: ...and continue on with the show. So...

MARTIN: There was a recent interview in Miami New Times. They called you Venezuelan anti-heroes. And it says that you're not producing the traditional rock and salsa that many people associate with the Latin sound. So I wanted to ask, how do you describe your sound?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: We're a party band, first and foremost. Some people have called us, like, Latin funk or dance funk or whatever. We began with the acid jazz movement in the U.K. We were inspired by bands like Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, et cetera, et cetera. And that - what meant dance music with a jazz twist, with electric guitar, keyboards and so on and so forth. But eventually, we actually got back into our roots and we do incorporate some salsa over here and there and merengue and, you know, bossa nova, all of that.

MARTIN: But when you started out, were you starting out wanting to...

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Yeah, it was pretty much...

MARTIN: ...make a break from what people think Latin music is? Or was it just that's what you like?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Well, back in our country, there were two kinds of bands playing around. It was either like rock bands on a more either goth or, you know, heavy metal kind of spectrum or there were salsa and merengue kind of bands. And we were in between.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask Cheo a question. One song that has been winning over fans has been "Mentiras," which means live...

Mr. JOSE LUIS PARDO (Guitarist, Los Amigos Invisibles): It became like a thing to party and then to be tagged on the social networks like Facebook or Hi5. So, you know, something happened at a party in Republica Dominicana, where we're like - we had these pictures with these ladies, nothing bad happening, nothing to regret or anything. But, you know, we were, like, approached by our girlfriends saying, you know, like, you were partying until late in this place and whatever. And we were like, no, that's a lie. That wasn't me. It looks like me, but it's not me.

MARTIN: It wasn't really me.

Mr. PARDO: No, not at all.

MARTIN: ...really, really?

Mr. PARDO: I'm tagged, but it's...

MARTIN: Can we second source that?

Mr. PARDO: I mean, I have the same t-shirt and I have the same, like, afro and stuff, but it's not me.

MARTIN: Everybody is telling the same story here. Okay, okay, I'm just making sure.

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Yeah, we were working late.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. But that's where the song came from?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: I wasn't even there.

MARTIN: Wasn't even there, but it was a number one hit, right, in Venezuela?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Yeah, it is.

MARTIN: Okay, all right.


MARTIN: So, can we hear it?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Yeah, sure.

MARTIN: All right, do it. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Mentiras")

LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES (Band): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: That was it. Thank you, thank you for that. Thank you, and congratulations while I'm at it on the first Latin Grammy.

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Yeah, thank you so much.

MARTIN: Yeah, congratulations, which you won for this album, back in November. You know, Armando, you've been nominated, what, four times?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Four. Yeah.

MARTIN: Previously?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: This was the third on the Latin Grammies, and then two on the MARTIN: Two (unintelligible) and the first win. Now I know a lot of artists have ambivalent feelings about prizes and things like that, but I do wonder, what do you think the difference is that took you over the top for this one?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: It is nice to be recognized, even more fabulous to win and obviously something to put on your resume. I mean, you can see this beginning of the year for us has been a lot more hectic than it should be, but, of course, we don't produce music or compose music thinking that you're going to get a Grammy. You just compose it because it's what you do and what you like doing.

MARTIN: Cheo, what do you think?

Mr. PARDO: Oh, I was just going to add to that the most beautiful thing about the Grammys was what it meant for Venezuela, our hometown, like people got really excited about it. And even though like we have like mixed opinions about awards and prizes and everything, like the fact that Venezuela was so happy for us and that we became like such a great news for our country, it was like actually really beautiful, and it made the Grammy like have like a different meaning for us now.

MARTIN: Why do you think you won this time, any idea?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Well, longevity is one of the things I think made the difference. We've been out there and doing (unintelligible) for a long time, and then I guess actually this record, pun intended, "Commercial" or "Commercial" is actually the most commercial record we've done so far in our career.

MARTIN: And you're okay with that?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Yeah, we are all okay. We thought about it. We are like, yeah, let's do it. This is how it sounds. Let's just accept what it is and put it out this commercial.

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm visiting with Los Amigos Invisibles. They are on tour supporting their album "Commercial." It's a Latin Grammy award-winning album, and they were kind enough to stop by our Washington D.C. studios while they are on tour. So, what else can you play for us?

Mr. PARDO: "Vivire Para Ti." This is a song called "Vivire Para Ti". In the record, we collaborated with a very famous Mexican artist, Natalia Lafourcade.

MARTIN: Okay, let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Vivire Para Ti")

LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Very nice, thank you.

Mr. PARDO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Very nice, very nice. Do you miss home?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: We go there a lot...


Mr. FIGUEREDO: ... but we do miss certain things.

MARTIN: Yeah. The politics are a little intense right now. Internal politics in Venezuela, between the U.S. and Venezuela, and I just wonder does that make its way into the music?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Our band has - I mean, each individual has their own view, but actually we pretty much have one view, but our music is not about politics. Our music is about letting go and having people actually take their minds as faraway from politics and everyday life as possible. So no, that hasn't yet gotten into the music, but that's another thing.

MARTIN: Yeah. No, I'm just asking because a lot of times artists find themselves at the apex. People sometimes look to artists to express their feelings when they can't through other means. So sometimes you get drafted even if you don't volunteer...

Mr. BRICENO: And you know what, Michel? Since we started...

MARTIN: So - yeah. That's Julio.

Mr. BRICENO: ...that question has always been asked to the band like, okay, come on how you guys don't talk about politics. And I think right now the tension is pretty bad, but by the beginning it was also kind of the same publicity for politicians, and we were like really exhausted and really tired about, man, it's 24 hours talking about politics. So, we're going to talk about I mean something else: sex, love, cheating.

MARTIN: Because that's never discussed. You're right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIGUEREDO: No, but actually the greater majority of the bands in Venezuela that were, like, you know, like, you know, I mean, of course, oppose to salsa and meringue, but any rock band or any ska band, or punk band, or whatever, that was around would talk about politics. And political situation in Venezuela has always been bad, now it's actually worse to the point that you have to choose sides, which I don't agree with at all. And I don't think you should choose sides you should try to work together, but, I mean, in Venezuela we're considered opposition.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FIGUEREDO: And it has actually lead us to certain issues with - we've lost shows, whatever (unintelligible), you know, but we still choose that it's I mean - what we try to do in that sense is bring people away from that and make people feel better and suppose of just reminding them what they're going through everyday.

MARTIN: How do you think being in New York has influenced the music being...

Mr. FIGUEREDO: You want to...


Mr. FIGUEREDO: I mean, Cheo wants the mic.

Mr. PARDO: No, I think we all agree that, you know, it brings like a lot of influences. It's like a place where a lot of people goes through and a lot of great music, lot of great scenes and being outside of your country makes you like conscious of all what you have there in front of your nose. So it's a win-win situation in both ways. I love New York.

MARTIN: All right, well, speaking...

Mr. PARDO: Brooklyn.

MARTIN: Brooklyn in the house right here. So, to that end, I understand that the song we were to go out on speaks to that, being in New York and thinking about, you know, what you left behind. Do I have that right? You and I...

Mr. PARDO: It was. Yeah. It was written over in New York: "Playa Azul."

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Blue beach.

MARTIN: "Playa Azul," which literally means blue beach and so when we listen to this, should we think of ourselves sort of sipping something cool on the beach or what?

Mr. FIGUEREDO: Well, it was written because we were in a snowstorm in New York missing Venezuela. That's pretty much the reason why, so it's imagining yourself on a blue beach with your loved one.

Mr. PARDO: With a pina colada.

MARTIN: Okay, that sounds good, that sounds good.

Mr. PARDO: I love pina colada.

MARTIN: Well, we've been listening to, we've been visiting with Los Amigos Invisibles. They're currently on tour supporting their Latin Grammy-winning album "Commercial." To learn more about the band and to see a video from their performance, please check out our Web site at npr.org. And now we're going to hear "Playa Azul." Thank you all so much for visiting us.

(Soundbite of song, "Playa Azul")

LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES (Band): (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: 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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