Gustavo Santaolalla Discusses Work With Netflix And 'The Last Of Us' : Alt.Latino Gustavo Santaolalla — musician, producer, film and video game composer — embodies Duke Ellington's highest praise: "beyond category."

Gustavo Santaolalla: A True Master Of All Trades

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. This week, we're going to feature a conversation with Gustavo Santaolalla. And honestly, we could do one show a day for a whole week and still not cover the immensity of his creative output, going back to his first days as a musician in 1970s Argentina. He's a prolific producer of other musicians whose work can be considered stylistically groundbreaking. He's collected a number of Grammys and Latin Grammys over the years. He also has two Academy Awards on his mantle, along with a slew of international music and film awards. His latest venture is scoring video games, which is a whole new frontier of musical creativity.

In the course of the interview this week, he explains that he stays creatively active and curious by never looking back, always looking forward to the next project that may catch his attention. And to start off the interview, I asked him about his latest project as a producer of the six-part Netflix series called "Rompan Todo" or "Break Everything," a look at the history of what we now call Latin alternative but what was once called rock en español or rock en nuestra idioma. And to start things off, I asked him about how he got involved with "Rompan Todo."

GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA: The main producer is a guy named Nico Entel. We both had this dream about making a documentary. I mean, my dream was sort of manifested already in my work because part of my agenda was - for, you know, more than almost 20 years was to actually, you know, build a map of this alternative music that was going on in Latin America. I come from Argentina, but I was totally aware of the music that was taking place in other countries. And that's why it was so important for us also to tell the story in juxtaposition with the sociopolitical and the geopolitical realities, you know? It was fundamental. So Nico and I had the same idea. And actually, you know, he called me with this idea, and I said, man, I wanted to make this documentary for years, you know?

And we had a common friend who was Picky Talarico, which is the director of the film. He had directed in numerous videos for me for groups that I produced, you know, with my label Surco. So we created a really good team, and I think Netflix really was very, very receptive to the idea. I think - I mean, the fact that also that it was not just a documentary about, you know, music history, but it was something that connected with - you know, with a deeper reality. And it was a tremendous success. I mean, the response that we have gotten - and not only in Latin America, which, you know, the show was, you know, Top 10 for a long time and 1 and 2 in Mexico and Argentina and Chile and some other territories. But also it got to No. 15 in the world chart of Netflix, you know? So it's a big, big accomplishment.

I mean, the documentary came - the series came out in 190 territories. It's been subtitled in 32 languages. It wasn't ever - I mean, I say it took us three years, you know, to put it together. But it was really 50 years in the making because it was, you know, 50 years of really - of a movement that you really have to connect with that reality because it's so different of, you know, what was - what happened in the music here in the United States. And I always like to point out that when I came here in 1978, I was very - I don't know - turned down by the music scene because I was coming from a country in which I was put in jail just for having long hair and playing an electric guitar.

And suddenly I came to a place where all those values that rock had embraced in the '60s, you know, that music that became sort of the folk music of the young people of the world to express their concerns, their insatisfaction (ph) with - you know, with the system and everything had been totally turned into a corporate business. And the bands were, you know, Journey, Kansas, Boston - I mean, music that, you know, I mean, can be good music, but it didn't represent anything to me. But at the time, also, there was this these reformulation of rock with the punk movement and the new wave movement, and it was amazing. So I embraced that. I became a new waver and a punk myself. And - but that movement was actually sort of eaten up by MTV. In 10 years, it was gone.

But after that - you know, after punk, I think the last thing in rock here was a little bit, you know, the grunge movement - you know, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and that's it. And then it was again sort of swallowed by the system. I like to compare the situation of rock now in the world, you know, to the quarantine. I feel that rock is in quarantine now, and the vaccine is coming from Latin America, I think, you know? And it has a perfume of women, too, because I feel there's all this new wave of women that are embracing electric guitars. And so it's a very exciting moment. I think the documentary also came at a moment in which, you know, that rock in general is in this sort of point of inflection, you know, of what's going to go. And you have acts even like, you know, Bad Bunny that, you know, can be at the top of the charts. And then when he's asked about, you know, what are his influences, he put at the top of the line, rock - he put as one of his main influences, you know?

So it was - it's been a combination of several things. But I'm very proud of the documentary. Is it perfect? No, it's not. I mean, could it satisfy everyone? No, of course not. I mean, it's very ambitious, really, to try to - you know, to tell that story. There's so many bands and artists, you know, that are fantastic and relevant - but at least has started the conversation. And hopefully, there'll be more documentaries, you know, about it.

CONTRERAS: I think that what people don't understand here in the United States is, for example, when you talk about when you got jailed in - for just having long hair and playing guitar, you know, in the documentary, there's references to other musicians disappeared by the government, by the dictatorships. You know, so it was - it's a life-and-death thing that just isn't - doesn't have the same resonance here in the United States or in other parts of the world. That's one of the strengths of the documentary that puts it into a very real context.

SANTAOLALLA: Absolutely. And it's so, so important because it definitely shapes the music, you know? It doesn't matter if you're singing a song. It doesn't - the songs do not necessarily have to be, you know, about, you know, protest songs, you know? I mean, it could be a song about anything. It's just, you know, the media is the message. What we were doing - you know what I mean? - just being in that movement represented a threat to this totalitarian government, you know? And therefore, we were, you know, somehow, you know, considered enemies of the state.

CONTRERAS: I'm talking to Gustavo Santaolalla. He's in Los Angeles. He has a very nice hat on right now. And we're going - during the course of this interview, we're going to have you put on a couple different hats 'cause we talked about your role as a producer and an interview in "Rompan Todo," the Netflix documentary. Now let's put your hat on as a band member in the band Bajofondo. You're nominated for a Grammy for best Latin rock or alternative album for "Aura." Talk a little bit about that band.

SANTAOLALLA: Tango orchestras are usually called orquesta típica. We say that ours is an orquesta atípica because it's very, you know, unusual. We come from two different countries. You know, we come from Argentina and Uruguay. We have this river, el Río de la Plata, the River Plate, that actually some people think divide us and we think unite us, you know? We're very similar. We are really like brothers, you know? We have very typical characteristics on each side of that river. But at the same time, there is this culture from el Río de la Plata that we are all part. So we share, you know, the culture of tango, milonga, candombe, murga - all this, you know, rhythms and musical timbres that come from there. And we - I always been, you know, tremendously interested in things that have, you know, identity. It's been a constant in my career since I started, you know, with my first album in 1969.

But tango was something that I was very respectful. I always dealt more. I did a few hints here and there with tango, but more with folkloric fusion with rock, you know? But tango was something that was waiting for me, you know? And I think age had to do with, too, you know? I felt that I had to live more to really tap into it. It's a music that is very popular and, at the same time, very sophisticated, you know? So when we started the project with Juan Campodónico, which is my partner in the creation of this project - he's from Uruguay. I am from Argentina. He's a producer who has produced Jorge Drexler and Cuarteto de Nos, you know? And also, he has his own - had his own group, Peyote Asesino. When we started, it was more like a recording project. It was a producer's project. We started in the studio, inviting some musicians and sort of creating it in there.

There was a moment that tango electrónico came into the scene, you know, with groups like Gotan Project and things like that, you know? We were actually both - Gotan was doing this in Europe, and we were doing this in between Los Angeles, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and none of us knew about the other one. You know, this - one of these things that happen through history, you know, when there's an art movement and people sort of have the same radar and capturing things - funny, but it happens. And this was one of those cases. But the record had immediately a great reception by the audience, and that result in us playing live. So when that happened, you know, and we finally played live, we started first calling some musicians, some of them which played in the album. But we knew that we had to put together a group.

And in that period - I will say, in three months, we put together the band that is the band that we have until today, you know? And it's a mixture of Argentinians and Uruguayans. And we have developed through these years and through four albums - we started in 2005. So we've been quite a bit - you know, for quite a bit of time now. We develop a language, a bajo fondo language, that allowed us in this last album, in "Aura," to actually go to the studio and build this record out of improvisations. I mean, we had some ideas to start with. But this time, instead of, like, with previous albums, every brought the ideas, and then Juan and myself will work in the studio, create something, then brought it back to the band and then develop it there, this time, the ideas were brought in and immediately went into an improvisation situation. And that's why there are songs that are, like, six, seven, eight minute long.

And it resulted in this album that is so personal and that sort of ratified this language, this - este lenguaje bajofondero - you know, this language that we can just start playing and improvising, and it will go into this style of Bajofondo - that has produced incredible connection with the audience. We've been, you know, around the world. We have played - I don't know - you know, two, three times in China, four times in Korea, just to say - all over Europe. We have gold records in Greece, you know, the Nordic countries, all Latin America, the United States, Canada, Africa. There's only, I mean, India and Russia that we haven't played. But these records especially have produced tremendous connection with people.

We won, you know, the Gardel, which is our humble Argentinian Grammy, the Graffiti, which is the same but in Uruguay. We were nominated for best recording of the Latin Grammys, you know, alongside some of the biggest sellers in the industry, you know? And now this, which is really - just to be nominated in the Grammys - in the Anglo Grammys, should I say, you know, in the best Latin rock or alternative category, is an award in itself.

You can find it in Bajofondo soul, electronic, rock, classical music, jazz, all those influences. You know, we like to say that it's - you know, we're influenced by the music that we grew up listening to, the music that our parents used to listen to. I mean, all that - and now the music that the kids. We're actually now doing a collaboration with a trap artist - you know, with a big trap artist in Argentina called Ysy A. So we are open to all of this, you know? That's what Bajofondo gives you - the opportunity to collaborate. We have collaborated with Elvis Costello, with Gustavo Cerati or La Mala Rodríguez. I mean, it's a very wide range of artists that have been - come close to Bajofondo.


CONTRERAS: I want to dig in a little bit deeper on that just for a second because, with all of your accolades and titles and successes as a producer, as a composer, etc., what this band in particular gets to is that you're a musician at heart. That's your bottom line, right? I mean, going back to that - your great record "Ronroco" that just completely changed things, for me, at least, personally, that spirit, that energy seems to drive just about everything you touch.

SANTAOLALLA: Yes. And Bajofondo gave me the opportunity to go back to the stage, you know, which now I have embraced as a solo artist again. You know, that was like the big next step, which happened, like, four years ago. You know, when I passed my 60 birthday, a lot of things happened in my life. I mean, also, you know, I mean, the possibility and now the reality of becoming a grandfather, you know. I have now two granddaughters. Things that were very personal that happened in my life that drove me to do something that I've never done before, which was to press the pause button. You know, I never used to look back to what I've done because there's a lot of stuff, you know? So I was always looking the front, taking risk, trying not to start in my comfort zone, but always present myself with new challenges. But there was a point that I needed to, like, look back and see, how did I get here, you know?

So I started reviewing my life through my songs, through my compositions. And that's how Desandando el Camino came to life, which is this tour that I've done, you know, all through Latin America. And I was about to bring it here to the states. I was scheduled to play UCLA Royce Hall, and then all this happened. But I started that tour in the Colon Theatre in Argentina, which is this beautiful 100-year-old opera theater, and that connected me with my compositions since I was - I played stuff that I wrote when I was 17, 16 years old to Bajofondo stuff, you know. I go through even the movies, the video game, you know, "The Last Of Us," and I play a lot of that stuff. And - but Bajofondo was really the first thing that brought me back to the stage. Now it's different, you know. Now I have Bajofondo, and I have also my solo stuff that it's even more personal, you know?

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO and a conversation with music producer Gustavo Santaolalla.

You touched on just a little bit, and I want to move to that, put on another hat, your status as a composer and an Academy Award-winning film composer. How did you get started in that? 'Cause you've won Academy Awards in 2006 for "Brokeback Mountain," in 2007 for "Babel." How did you get into composing for film?

SANTAOLALLA: I always was very attracted to films. As a matter of fact, one of the first paid jobs that I had when I was 15 years old was actually doing a score for a short film that a parent, a father of one of my friends at school, did. So that was my initiation in the movie there. But I wanted to study, actually, filmmaking. I signed my first recording deal in which I started my career as an artist and as a producer, because I produced those recordings, when I was 16 years old. So I was going to high school, and I was already - I had already records on the radio, you know? So I thought, well, I have my band now. Now I finished high school. I'm going to study cinema, moviemaking. Now I can add that to the - you know, to the band and stuff. And unfortunately, the military rulers at the time in Argentina closed down the Institute of Cinematography. And so there was no more film classes.

But always, I got this comment about my music and my productions. People, you know, used to say, you know, your music is so visual. You know, your production - I mean, everything is so visual. And it's true. I think music in very visual terms, you know? But the story really starts with "Amores Perros." That was really something that could have not happened. I never read the script. I never saw a rough cut. And I remember I was so busy at the time. I think I was working on Julieta's album and doing some other stuff as usual, you know, very - doing multiple projects - that I went to Lucia, you know, my assistant, you know, even still today, and said, Lucia, you know, tomorrow, call Mexico and say that I'm not going to be able to do this film, you know, because, I mean, I'm so busy. I've never seen anything of Alejandro. I don't know how he's - it's his first film.

CONTRERAS: You're talking about Alejandro Iñárritu, a Mexican filmmaker who is now a five-time Academy Award winner.

SANTAOLALLA: It was going to be his first film. I'd never seen anything of him before. I'd never seen a rough cut or read the script or anything. So I said, you know, I'm so busy. I was so crazy busy. I said I'm not going to be able to do this, you know. I can't commit myself. So I said to Lucia, please call tomorrow and say, we're not. And in the middle of the night - this is absolutely a true story - I woke up, and I started thinking, what if this guy is a genius? What if the movie is amazing, and you just say no to something that you haven't even, you know, checked it out, you know?

So I called early. Lucia - I said, Lucia, stop the call. Just say, you know, that if they come to Los Angeles and they show me the movie, I will definitely consider it. And sure enough, Alejandro came over, you know, with a film. At the time, he was a chain smoker. You know, I remember he put the VHS because it was, like, a VHS at the time. We put the VHS on. I was with Aníbal Kerpel, you know, my creative partner and hermano de la vida. We put, you know, the film. He went out to smoke. And probably, whoever I saw the film will remember those first 10 minutes of that car chase with a dog bleeding in the back, I mean, which was amazing. And I remember we looked at each other with Aníbal, and we said, we're doing this film. I don't know if I have to cancel other stuff, but we are involved.

And so that's how we did that film. And then in the middle of doing the film, Alejandro said, you know, I have this friend, Walter Salles. And I go, oh, yes, "Central Station." I love Walter Salles, you know? He's doing this movie about Guevara, you know, before he was el Che antaf (ph) And you are from Argentina. You should meet. So I met with Walter, and I end up doing "The Motorcycle Diaries." And that was the first film that actually got me recognition. I got a BAFTA, you know, which is the equivalent of the Oscar but in Great Britain, you know, in England. And sure enough, you know, it won. It won best foreign film, and I won for the music. That was my first, like, sort of big award.

And then when we were presenting "Motorcycle Diaries" at Sundance, there was a - you know, a dinner. So we went to the dinner and stuff. And then, you know, Kathy Nelson, a friend, you know, started saying, you know, Gustavo should meet Ang Lee.

CONTRERAS: That's Ang Lee, the director of the 2005 groundbreaking film "Brokeback Mountain."

SANTAOLALLA: So it wasn't, you know, like, a strategy planned, you know, or there was no Hollywood agents involved or nothing like that. It was really just a connection that had to do with the music and something more artistic that actually something more business or marketing is strategic.


CONTRERAS: And finally, Gustavo Santaolalla talks about his participation in the soundtrack for the video game "The Last Of Us Part II."

SANTAOLALLA: I wasn't a gamer. My son - I had a son, you know - at the time, he was 15 when I did my first "The Last Of Us" and that he was a gamer. And I always thought, you know, if somebody really makes an emotional connection with the players in an emotional - you know, in an emotional level, this could be - no pun intended, but a game changer, you know? And so I was approached by a couple of big companies prior, but it didn't reverberate with me, you know? I didn't find this that I was looking for. And when I met Neil - Neil Druckmann, the director and writer of "The Last Of Us," told me the story. And, you know, people cry playing this game. You know, people have moments in which they actually cry playing the game. And it's, you know, some particular moments that happens to everybody, you know, in those moments.

And that was, again, something that wasn't no - there was no strategy. It was really a connection because of the music. And it has allowed me to now reach a totally different audience, which is, you know, 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids around the world because it's fascinating what video games can do. The music, we have to say, plays a very important role in the game, in "The Last Of Us." It's almost like another character in the game. And that led me to, you know, this "Last Of Us II" in which I actually - I'm in the game. I have a little part in the game. You know, you start the game. And suddenly, there's a guy in a corner in the town playing the banjo, you know, in a corner, and it's me, you know?

So it's amazing, now, this wide audience that I have reached that, in some cases, you know, don't know about each other. Like, you know, like, there's some audience that are connected with me through "The Last Of Us" that don't have the slightest idea that I play in Bajofondo, you know what I mean? Or people that follow Bajofondo that - they don't know anything about "The Last Of Us." And, you know, you can do this combination many times. It is - I mean, as time goes by, it's more - it's harder because people are starting to connect the dots, you know, and say, oh, is this the same guy that, you know, this, this, this, this? But it's been a tremendous ride in my life. I feel very lucky, very blessed and very grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I love to do and to connect with so many people, you know? It's a blessing, you know? I'm very, very grateful for this.


CONTRERAS: One of the things that stands out, especially when you did the soundtrack for "Brokeback Mountain" and then you're doing the gaming - it's one of the things that we touched on on a recent show here on ALT.LATINO about the idea of defying expectations. People would consider you a guitarist from Argentina. They may have certain preconceived notions about what your...


CONTRERAS: ...Sound is and what - you know, where - who you are. But your entire body of work - you couldn't call it Latin music. You couldn't call it Argentine music. It's Gustavo music, right? We get invested in musicians who have a distinct sound of their own, and it just becomes their music. And labels are almost useless.

SANTAOLALLA: Correct. And I think it's a great point, you know, to be explored because you can say exactly the same thing about Iñárritu's films. It's not a Latin film. It's a film made by a Latino director. It's not Latin music. It's music made by a Latino musician. I mean, therefore, if they are really true to their nature, somehow, in one way or another, that heritage is going to show up. Like I say, for example, in "Brokeback Mountain," I know that in that guitar, there is Atahualpa Yupanqui.

CONTRERAS: Oh, that's Atahualpa Yupanqui, an Argentine folk singer from the 1960s and '70s.

SANTAOLALLA: I know it. You know what I mean? People might not even know who Atahualpa Yupanqui is. You know what I mean? But in those silences, in the tempo, there's things - there's definitely that influence that makes me who I am and, you know, and, you know, and that it connects with my Latino heritage. And it is there in my music, but it doesn't necessary - we have to say it's Latin music. It is Latin music because it's made by a Latino. But it is music. It's universal music that is created by somebody that is a Latino.

CONTRERAS: OK. What's next for Gustavo Santaolalla? Have you taken your finger off your personal pause button?

SANTAOLALLA: I'm doing something where I'm doing, you know - keep on exploring in genres and things that I already working on or that I will continue to work on. And that's, you know, producing other artists or, you know, all that stuff. But, you know, with Bajofondo, we're doing a couple of projects, one with an actress and singer but mainly actress - very big in Argentina - con Natalia Oreiro, which is huge in Russia, too. And so we're doing something with her. We're doing this thing with Ysy A with Bajofondo, too, which is this trap artist.

I'm doing a couple of projects - of animation projects for Netflix, one with my dear friend Jorge Gutiérrez, with whom I did "The Book Of Life," you know, that animated - beautiful animated movie. So we're doing a series called "Maya And The Three" with Jorge Gutiérrez for Netflix. But I'm also doing a series - and this is something new for me - that is animation, but it's stop-motion animation. And that's this different technique which result in a very different mood. It is animation, but I will, you know - I just - I don't think you can compare it to, you know, to a digital animation or a traditional animation. It's really different - the stop-motion animation. So it's something again for Netflix. It's called "The House," and it's through a production company from England called Nexus.

I also done this - wrote the score and a song for a documentary that is today - these days in Amazon called "Freak Power: The Ballot Or The Bomb." And it's a documentary about Hunter Thompson, you know, the radical writer of the '60s. And we wrote a song for the titles with Paul Williams - my friend Paul Williams, which I worked with in "Book Of Life" - the great Paul Williams doing the lyrics and with Gary Clark Jr., which I met at Crossroads. You know, I was - I had this incredible honor to be called by Eric Clapton to do the music for his documentary. And then he invited me to play at Crossroads, this festival with all guitar players. And that's how I met Gary Clark Jr. And with him, we wrote this song, "Valley Of Last Resort," which, actually, we are sending to see if it eventually could get an Academy nomination for best song. You know, the documentary is really, really, really good, too. And it shows, you know, those turbulent times of the '60s. And when you see some of those images of police brutality against African Americans and stuff and then you cut and you see (laughter) today, some images that we can see, you know, in Portland or in some other place. And you go, boy. I mean, it's amazing, you know, that it seems that we haven't advanced that much, you know, in some of these issues. That's on Amazon Prime, "Freak Power."

And I also did music for "El Cid," which is the series based in the life of this iconic and historical Spanish figure, you know, El Cid Campeador. So we did already one season, and the other season is coming out now. I'm also working in "Narcos: Mexico" doing, you know, the next season for that. And I'm working, you know, in some collaborations - some songs that I'm collaborating for albums of different artists with León Gieco, Julieta Venegas, which - I'm going to do a new album. So, you know, these are a few of the things that just kind of keep on going (laughter). But these are some of the main stuff that I'm involved now.

CONTRERAS: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today, man. I really appreciate it.

SANTAOLALLA: You're welcome.

CONTRERAS: You're very, very busy, very prolific. And, again, it's quite an honor to have you on the show. It's - for all the obvious reasons but also because - it defies category is what Duke Ellington used to say. You know, some musicians defy category, and you're one of those. So thank you so much...

SANTAOLALLA: Oh, thank you.

CONTRERAS: ...For joining us.

SANTAOLALLA: Thank you for those kind words. And thank you for letting me get in touch with your followers, you know? It means a lot. Thank you so much.

CONTRERAS: My thanks again to Gustavo Santaolalla and everyone in his office who made this interview possible. You heard excerpts of his music this week, and you can hear more on our website at You have been listening to ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras. As always, thank you for listening. Please be careful, man. Please be careful.

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