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To Hell and Back: Draco Rosa on Menudo, Beating Cancer and New Album, ‘Monte Sagrado’

The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter also talks 1996 LP ‘Vagabundo,’ debuts new song, “2 Nite 2 Nite”

Image courtesy of Sony Music Latin

“The more gratitude you have, the more powerful you will feel because you will eliminate fear,” muses Draco Rosa, born Robert Edward Rosa Suárez. Puerto Rican by way of New York, the 49-year-old musician has, in a way, has gone to hell and back, confessing to darker days in the past: times when he struggled with rejection, drug addiction; and when he battled and beat cancer, twice. Yet today, he’s currently enjoying the blessing of a second chance.

Rosa got his first taste of stardom during the Eighties, as a member of Puerto Rican boy band Menudo — which co-starred Ricky Martin. In just one year, he and the band crossed over with 1985’s wholesome pop hit “Hold Me,” which peaked at Number 62 on the Hot 100. Yet after his departure from Menudo, and a short solo stint as Robby, Rosa traded his ingénue trademark for a more mature act: He joined soul-funk rockers Maggie’s Dream and toured alongside California alt-metal groups Faith No More and Fishbone. Four years later, the former child star morphed into the madcap visionary we now know as Draco Cornelius Rosa Suárez, with his 1996 LP, Vagabundo, or Vagabond.

Released at the tail end of the rock en español explosion, and produced by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, Vagabundo is one of the genre’s most enigmatic albums. Moody, snarling and wildly experimental, Rosa’s highly ambitious fourth solo album was his creative breakthrough, but made little impression on the Latin music industry. “No one understood [Vagabundo], and I was broken hearted,” recalls Rosa, who at the time felt that his career entered a trench of uncertainty. Then, on the verge of a new millennium, he bounced back after reuniting with former bandmate Ricky Martin to co-write and co-produce the Grammy-nominated mega-hit, “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”

Rosa, however, would be vindicated nearly 20 years later, after Billboard named Vagabundo one of its “50 Greatest Latin Albums in the Last 50 Years.” “[Vagabundo] is one of those magical stories in music [that] turned out to be a cult classic,” says Rosa. “I realized that a lot of people love this album, so we followed up with [a new album,] Monte Sagrado.” A companion record to Vagabundo, Rosa’s Monte Sagrado, or Sacred Mountain, is due for release October 26th.

“They both have the spirit of rock & roll, experimental, and psychedelia — a sort of freedom,” Rosa continues. “But Monte Sagrado has that spirit of [Puerto Rico].” Rolling Stone sat down with the legendary rocker to discuss how Monte Sagrado symbolized his rebirth, and premieres its lead single, “2nite 2nite.”

Monte Sagrado is your first album of all new songs since 2009’s Amor Vincit Omnia. But in a way, it’s a sibling to 1996’s Vagabundo. Can you explain the connection?
I think the story of Vagabundo is a beautiful story. It was rejected by some folks in the industry, to my surprise. No one understood it, and I was brokenhearted. But in one of those magical stories in music, it turned out to be a cult classic. According to some magazines, it’s an album worth listening to. Billboard Magazine named it one of the 50 most essential Latin albums, and that’s amazing. We recently celebrated the 22nd anniversary of the album, and we finally got it on vinyl. We did a couple of great concerts commemorating that, and that was very exciting. I realized that a lot of people love this album, so we followed up with Monte Sagrado. They both have the spirit of rock & roll, and experimental, and psychedelia, a little bit of that sort of freedom. I had a certain extensive vitality that became part of my life within the last year and a half. With the diminishing of medication, I started feeling a lot healthier and vibrant internally. Monte Sagrado is a bit of that product.

The new album sounds raw and invigorating with theatrical and dramatic effects, but it’s also dark and vampiric.
In some of my talks, people ask me about the theme [of some of my music] being dark, or melancholic and sullen. That’s something that had the best of me in the past, which is another thing I’ve learned to manage. I always wonder whether these things destroy you. In that vein there is suicide, or the beauty of seeing beyond. Melancholy is just a thing in your soul that you need to learn to manage. If not, it will destroy you. When you’re young, these things can be very detrimental if you don’t have a level head. Unfortunately I had to be smacked down twice to get a glimpse of what that is. I am so overwhelmingly happy and appreciative that somehow in this universe I forgave myself.

I’ve been given the opportunity to still stay within my comfort zone of textures, atmospherics, and colors, whether it’s through lighter or darker music. It’s a lifestyle, it’s who I am. It’s something that I want to be consumed by. That energy becomes your mentor, your guide, your bible. Sometimes that’s very dangerous, with certain literature you’re consuming. It’s nice to know that you get that sensation from listening to the music and hear that truth, that taste, that aroma, that atmosphere that bleeds from the album. You said exactly what it is, and that’s beautiful.

You’ve dabbled in many musical styles throughout your career — first as a member of Menudo, then with your darkwave electronica project Mr. Blake, and now as moody rocker Draco Rosa. 
I try to defend the idea that music is meant to be felt and not understood. There are no limits, except the limits of my own knowledge and capabilities. I wish I could play jazz. I love jazz, but I don’t have the chops to get there — I’m not that sort of musician. I’m not necessarily here with a flag that says, “I am a defender of this genre!” It’s about being open and continuing to have freedom and experimenting, collaborating with other folks that have nothing to do with what I do. I look forward to those opportunities, to be able to continue to stay on the journey and adventure of discovering music, whether it’d be from Spain, Brazil, Colombia, anywhere around the world. Every once in a while I’ll stumble upon something fantastic, because the universe places it in front of me.

The album title is inspired by Puerto Rico. How did you first conceive of the album?
Monte Sagrado is wherever you’re walking, wherever I’m at. I love traveling and have been doing it since I was twelve. I finished putting the album together after Hurricane Maria. I started in April, put it aside and focused on the foundation [Vox Forte Alliance, an NGO that donates bone marrow transplants for cancer patients]. It has that spirit of the island, and I do live in a sacred mountain. There’s a ceremonial park in Utuado, Puerto Rico that’s about a hundred acres. In those lands, the land of the Taínos, there’s a river that runs through it, which is called Tanamá, meaning the butterfly river. All those lands are sacred. Monte Sagrado is Puerto Rico. It’s a metaphor for something beyond Puerto Rico as well.

Several years ago, you battled with cancer. Did that difficult journey shift your creativity?
Absolutely. Eight years of being in and out of hospitals was tough, but we are at a great place today. I’m feeling very positive and grateful of all things. When you are grateful, fear takes a backseat. You have to pay attention to eating healthier, being more at peace with everything, and avoiding the stresses that life throws at you. Five years is a huge milestone of being clean, so I’m very happy about it. It doesn’t take away that I still have to manage the hauntings of cancer and the realities of taking medication to maintain the body at a balance. I’m happy to see my kids grow up, to speak around the world, and to share a little bit of what has happened and what is going on.

What can audiences expect during your upcoming U.S. tour?
There’s a show called Sagrado (Sacred) and a show called Maldito (Damned). Maldito is an excuse to play Monte Sagrado and Vagabundo, and Sagrado is an excuse to play different records that are lighter in spirit — more spiritual and more traditional Puerto Rican styles. I started noticing people getting a bit upset at a concert when I would play a “Madre Tierra” and then “Esto es Vida,” which are [stylistically] two polar opposites. I had people say to me, “Draco, play ‘Esto es Vida'” — a guy who wanted to propose to his girlfriend who was in tears — and I was doing this full on rock set. So I wanted to distinguish the two vibes. [My] catalog is so large that it’s hard to play all the music.

As a seasoned rockero, what would you advise the newcomers who are pursuing stardom?
It’s about the risks and contributions. What are you going to contribute to music? Most of us like to fit in tribes and be a part of something. With art and music, that’s an opportunity to collaborate with people who are like-minded. But do they want to destroy traditional paths of schooling? Everyone can imitate something. I think it’s important for musicians to commit to their passion 100 percent. The more gratitude you have, the more powerful you will feel because you will eliminate fear. Fear is such an anchor in life. Life is short — life is a lottery. I sit here and I dealt with this cancer, I’m here after two bone marrow transplants. We both know people who are in their 80s or 90s and still lived a full life smoking cigarettes, drinking booze, and being wild. The difference is that they are very happy. They are positive, had a sense of gratitude, and that is a great combination of living a long life. Wisdom comes over time. If you’re starting music, be yourself, be one of a kind, be passionate and follow that crazy dream. At the end of the day, it will be your best travel companion.

A big thing with people coming into the music scene is arrogance, which is a thing when you’re brilliant. But something that people need to remember is that arrogance corrupts the spirit to a terrible degree. It promotes a negative influence in the mind which seeps into a moment where you can’t really reel it back in. So watch out for that! These are things that I’ve dealt with in my own life, and I didn’t come to realize it until later. You can be great and be masterful. but it’s about having that humility. The world is very complex, there are so many of us wanting to feel fine, but when we run into individuals like that, it only makes life tougher.

Looking back at your performances throughout your career, what has been one that stood out the most?
When I first started out with Menudo [in 1984], in the span of one year we headlined 20 nights at Radio City Music Hall. You have to see it this way. Before I got there, I was at a basketball court with my buddies in Puerto Rico and had gotten the news that I was going into Menudo. All my buddies there were against it [laughs]. They were like, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” One week later, I was headlining with Menudo [in New York], and I’m just showing up to the party after that basketball game.

Twenty-something years later [in 1998], we had a great time in Bogotá. 120,000 people [seeing my band] at Rock al Parque was a huge milestone on a personal level, because we were touring Vagabundo, and those 120,000 people were singing the songs. The best moments have always been on stage playing live.

Draco Rosa’s Monte Sagrado Tour Dates

November 17 — Miami, FL @ MANA Wynwood RC Cola Plant
November 28 — Philadelphia, PA @ The Foundry at The Fillmore
November 29 — New York, NY @ The Highline Ballroom
December 1 — Washington, DC @ The Howard Theatre
December 2 — Boston, MA @ Royale
December 4 — Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
December 12 — Los Angeles @ The Regent
January 4-5 — Orlando, FL @ House of Blues

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