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Amor y Cuco: How a Band Geek Became a Chicano Heartthrob

The SoCal singer-songwriter Cuco says new album is ready, will drop in 2019

“I’m sentimental as fuck, bro!” says 20-year-old Omar Banos, who performs under the moniker Cuco. Best known for his psychedelia-soaked love ballads, the singer-songwriter met with Rolling Stone earlier this summer to talk about his burgeoning career as a Mexican-American heartthrob — and to have his Tarot cards read for the very first time.

“That’s scary, bro!” Cuco remarks upon seeing the first card — which is none other than The Devil. Yet by the end of Cuco’s reading, the results are, unsurprisingly, satisfactory. After all, the Hawthorne, California native has enjoyed a steady ascent into the indie-pop stratosphere since 2016, when he tweeted a video of himself in his bedroom, playing Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” using the classic slide guitar technique. Upon the release of his 2016 mixtape, Wannabewithu, he promptly amassed a cult following online, mostly comprised of young Latinx people drawn to his stoner romanticism, his throwbacks to Chicano lowrider swag and the way he warbles sweet nothings in both English and Spanish. In a music industry that’s been cashing in on more urban genres like reggaeton and Latin trap, acts like Cuco represent an alternative dimension of Latin pop that’s picking up steam in United States.

“I was actually kind of a bum,” says Cuco of his early days. “I was hanging out every day at my parents’ house, looking for something to do.” When he wasn’t home recording and producing his own songs, he spent most of his teens at house parties, dropping acid with friends from the high school marching band; and when he enrolled in Santa Monica College in 2016, he may as well have majored in partying. It was after reaching considerable success with his 2017 self-released single, “Lo Que Siento (What I Feel),” — nearly 21 million Spotify streams worth to date — Cuco left college that fall to pursue music full-time. He would spend the next year producing a stream of singles and EPs, releasing Chiquito in Spring 2018. 

Although various suitors have been vying to be Cuco’s official label of choice, he is a dogged proponent of producing and releasing his own music. (He distributes digitally through U.K.-based company AWAL, or, Artists Without a Label.) “I’m only interested in a label if they come through with whatever terms I send them,” he explains, raising an eyebrow. Meanwhile he’s spent the past few months dominating the festival circuit, from Coachella to Lollapalooza; he’s even taken his live act as far as Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand (where he spent much of September). In December, he looks forward to playing at the Festival Catrina in Cholula, Mexico, alongside Latin music icons like Maná, Café Tacvba, Residente and J Balvin. “I still haven’t played a show in Mexico City,” he admits. “I’m sure it would be really crazy — that’s where my biggest streaming numbers come from.”

Mexico is familiar territory for Cuco: his father is from Mexico City; his mother from the neighboring city of Puebla. The only child of immigrant parents, Cuco continues to live with his family in Hawthorne, where instead of buying his own place, he’s decided to help remodel the house he grew up in. “My parents deserve a lot,” he says. “I help them out a little with my money from streaming and touring — so my mom’s getting the kitchen she wants, the living room she wants. We’re adding a patio, too.”

Besides home improvement projects, Cuco has somehow made time to polish up a highly-anticipated project of his own — his first full-length album. Early on the morning of September 18th, Cuco teased two minutes of clips from unreleased songs on Twitter, all of which he recorded and produced in his garage. “Hopefully my album’s done this summer,” he tells Rolling Stone. According to his manager, Doris Muñoz, the record is slated for release in 2019. In the meantime, Muñoz promises “a few more standalone singles will come out this year.”

Though he may identify as a slacker, his current industriousness is a far cry from the lazy daze of his summertime anthems. And Cuco shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He’ll continue touring through the fall, with pit stops at Austin City Limits and some dates on Kali Uchis’ upcoming In Your Dreams tour. For his very last Tarot card, he pulls “The World” — perhaps the luckiest card in the deck, since it’s a harbinger of success and self-realization.

“I’ve been busy as fuck,” he says. “But if I wasn’t doing music? I’d be so, so hopeless.”

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