Cafe Tacvba Talk 27 Years of Rock Experimentation

Members of the groundbreaking Mexican group look back to the early days of rock en español, and discuss their current status as musical ambassadors

Café Tacvba recall the "beautiful" early days of the rock en español movement and discuss how they've managed to keep evolving for more than 25 years.

Just as the U.S. has the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the U.K. has Radiohead, Mexico has Café Tacvba, a band that boldly reinvents itself with every album. For more than a quarter-century, the mercurial quartet – composed of Rubén Albarrán, Joselo Rangel, Quique Rangel and Emmanuel del Real – has continually defined the cutting edge of Latin alternative music.

The band formed in the suburbs of Mexico City in the late Eighties during the height of the rock en español explosion, a Latin American movement that found musicians interweaving rock with regional folkloric fusions. "It was a very beautiful era of Mexican music," recalls frontman Albarrán. "All [the bands of the scene] had the same intention: to seek elements from within for creation. We were all very different and each group had their unique way of expressing themselves." 

The band's landmark second LP, 1994's Re, marked rock en español's final chapter and ushered in a new kind of Latin alternative. The eclectic opus found the band's four prolific composers frolicking through tender pop baladas, frothing up son jarocho rhythms, rumbling via boisterous corridos and tearing into punk with exhilarating urgency. Disparate releases followed – a covers album, a tribute release, a two-disc instrumental/pop LP, a proggy experimental outing – all cornerstones for south-of-the-border rock. 

On Café Tacvba's eighth studio album, Jei Beibi, out Friday – just a few months shy of the 25th anniversary of their self-titled debut – the ever-morphing group continues to evolve, touching on everything from reggae and rock balladry to dubstep and Beach Boys–style harmonies. On Saturday, the band kicks off a lengthy North American tour in support of the LP. Rolling Stone caught up with Albarrán and Joselo Rangel in New York, days before a sold-out Terminal 5 gig, to discuss how Café Tacvba have continuously rewritten the Latin rock playbook. (This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.)

The title of the new album, Jei Beibi, pronounced "Hey Baby," is a sort of Spanglish pun. What inspired that bit of wordplay?
Rubén Albarrán: We took the title from one of our songs' lyrics ["1-2-3"] from the new album. We wanted to give it our accent and amplify the language. But precisely, we wanted to break the rules that we self-impose and show that we can renovate. That gives us energy, it nourishes us. If we continue doing the same thing, then we'll get bored and wear out. The title was Joselo's idea and we thought it was attractive. For me personally, I feel like it's a wake-up call, as if to get closer to someone and wanting to say something. It's a good way to start a conversation.

On the music video for "Futuro," there's a lot of extreme characters featured, like Trump wearing a mini skirt, a priest, a Santa Muerte, a Native American, among others. What unites these figures together?
Albarrán: Oftentimes, our videos are collective ideas from the group, but others, they're personal ideas. I wanted to represent this video as humanity in its current state, with some characters who, unfortunately, make decisions for the rest of us. The [flying] bus on which they're traveling represents life, or the historic moment that we are going through. That's what I wanted to convey.

That same song has a message that roughly says "destiny is written for all of us." Is there a certain spirituality or philosophy that influences your creativity?
Joselo Rangel: That song "Futuro" was written by Quique [Rangel], the bassist. I wouldn't know how to explain the song, but each would have to give their own interpretation. If the lyrics generate that message for you, then that's good. I suppose Quique could be talking about different things, and many readings are possible. Each one of us is a composer and we come to the group with songs written out, musically and lyrically. Occasionally, there's a collaboration between us. But each song is almost always written by one of us, and then we all figure out the arrangements. Up until now there hasn't been a moment where the composer explains the song and says, "I want to say this or that." It's always open for interpretation. Personally, the songs that I've written, when they arrive to the group, they become something more. Some begin to take spiritual aspects, political aspects, aspects that I had not initially put into the song. I think that's something magical that happens in our creations.

Rubén, previous albums have seen you introducing alter egos like Cosme, Élfego Buendía, Pinche Juan, among many others. Who will we meet on Jei Beibi?
Albarrán: Well, on this occasion, I have not created any characters nor have I changed my name. The last time I did, the band turned 20, and I said, "I'm going to stop changing my names. I'll present myself as Rubén Albarrán." During that time, I was visiting certain communities and one of them baptized me with my [birth] name. So I said, "OK, I've received it, now I will use it," and I have. If another one comes, then it will come, but it hasn't arrived yet and I'm fine for now.

Joselo, the new album features many new sounds, like Sixties and Seventies classic rock, that the band hasn't explored previously. As the main guitarist, what were you inspired by this time around?
Rangel: We try different things every time there's an arrangement opportunity with a new song. But I'm not the only one who plays guitar. Actually, it's the instrument we all play. Ruben will occasionally play it, and Quique played many guitars this time. As Rubén was saying, exploring distinct paths is a way for us to feel alive, or feel like we're doing something different. "Que No," our latest single, has Sixties characteristics which we haven't done before, and "Matando" also has certain elements we hadn't come across. For me, it's difficult to say "it's this influence" or "it comes from there." Maybe it's easy for one to listen externally and identify influences. 

But yes, I like listening to classic rock. I know that all band members have different influences and sometimes they show and other times they don't. Right now, I feel very close to the album, which we recently completed. So with time, I'll take some distance and see what happens.

Looking back to when Café Tacvba was emerging in the late Eighties during the rock en español wave, what was that experience like, and how did you see yourselves within the movement?
Albarrán: It was something very beautiful because we all had that interest. We were very close to all of the different groups of the time – the ones that we began to play with in the same venues [e.g. Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, Botellita de Jerez]. Suddenly, each started to have their own tours and we stopped seeing each other. But we all had the same intention: to seek elements from within for our creation. However, we were all very different, and each group had their unique way of expressing themselves; their own original voice. It was a very beautiful era of Mexican music, and the truth is that we are very fortunate to have been part of it.

At the time, there was a collective notion from bands to return to their roots, sonically. Hearing Latin alternative music today, how have you seen the scene evolve as insiders?
Albarrán: I think it fluctuates. ... I feel like there are moments where musicians may be more interested – or culture in general – to show roots and where one comes from. And later there comes a time where that has lesser importance for artists, and instead they become more interested in affiliating themselves with global or international trends. Fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time, and that allowed us to experiment, play and enjoy.

"Fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time, and that allowed us to experiment, play and enjoy." –Rubén Albarrán

Rangel: Perhaps the bands emerging nowadays don't have the right context around them to help them grow. We were born at the right moment where everything was happening. There was a great interest for rock en español and it was everywhere. The audience, labels and the media were all interested; everything was there. We wanted to present music that was very personal to us, and it continues being that way. We make the music that naturally comes out of us. Since the beginning we've done what we wanted and people were interested. The public liked it and we were able to grow without any issues from the industry – well, when that record industry existed. I don't know how it went for other bands [of the time], but we had that liberty. In that respect, we were able to experiment in many ways, since our first [self-titled] album, and later with Re, our second album of 20 songs. It was followed by an album of pure covers [Avalancha de Éxitos] and an instrumental release that was complemented with a songs release [Revés/Yo Soy]. Without realizing it, we continued with our career, and suddenly 27 years had gone by. The entire panorama changed.

"Ingrata" has been one of the band's biggest hits, but you recently decided to stop playing it in concerts. Why?
Albarrán: There are two reasons for that. There are songs that we've been playing our whole career and eventually we have to let them rest. But there came a situation in Argentina during an interview when the femicides were happening, and the interviewer questioned us on that song. [Note: The lyrics follow a heartbroken man who considers firing at his "ungrateful" lover.] I personally responded that maybe it was time to ask ourselves whether we should even be playing it, because on social media, some people also questioned it. I thought it was a great idea to let the song rest because it gives room for conversation, and that's the most important thing. 

At the end of the day, these are issues that need to be discussed: femicides, among other things – immigrant rights, women's' rights, indigenous people's rights, animal rights, Mother Earth's rights. If we don't talk about these topics, then we have no place in democracy. It won't exist. Democracy isn't just voting; it's relegating your rights.

We made this [1994] song in a playful way, and we take elements from culture when creating music. But it so happens that certain songs becomes part of culture, and culture is a form of preserving patterns. Yes, we're Mexican, and we're proud to be, but we're also human. But like all cultures, there are retrograde elements and evolutionary elements. I think we'll chose to head towards the evolutionary ones and leave the [others] behind.

For many Mexicans who attend your shows in the U.S., there seems to be a tremendous nostalgia for Mexico. How would you compare the experience of playing in the U.S. to performing in your home country?
Albarrán: There's definitely a melancholic ingredient in our concerts in the United States versus in other places. Not only with Mexicans, but Ecuadorians, Salvadorans, Colombians, etc. Many times they feel far away from their place of origin, from their traditions, from their people. And in a way, Café Tacvba's music brings them memories. It seems to connect them with all that they miss, because the concerts are very emotive and have lots of energy. We're very fortunate to have our music connect in that way.

How does it feel to be considered representatives of Mexican music?
Rangel: We don't think of ourselves as representatives. When we go and make new material, we feel that our creations are more authentic if we think of ourselves. It's beyond representing, but more like thinking, "What moment are we living? Where am I when making this video? What do I want to demonstrate? What do I want to say lyrically?" Sure, in any given moment that can convert itself into some form of representation, because there are other people living the exact experiences as we are. It's not something we assume when creating. We don't say, "Let's be the representatives and show the moment that our society is in." But when it comes to performing and we visit other countries, like New York, many people approach us, people who are outside of their own country, and we become a referent, as Ruben was saying. Our shows become this sort of ritual, and our performances become that moment of identity. 

Now I'm not sure how each one of us sees ourselves [in the band], but we're being part of this ritual of identity where people see Café Tacvba as something Mexican, as a representation of the Mexican. The songs, the music, the energy given in a concert. Sometimes I question that there's not much decision from our part, like there's something that leads us to this. Something beyond.