Café Tacvba

December 12, 2013
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Meme Del Rial Díaz on the Tech Behind the Latin Rock Phenomenon
 
 

Since their debut in the early ‘90s, Mexico’s Café Tacvba has transformed what might be oversimplified as “Latin music” into something more weird and wonderful than any of their fans or peers could have imagined, opening the doors for an alternative Latin scene that has grown exponentially in the decades since. They’ve not only broken new ground but also created it, as you can hear on the synth-fueled El objeto antes llamado disco—the band’s first new studio album in five years. Though the band is often tagged “Latin alternative rock,” the record is a far more complex melange of modern pop, punk, electronica, and ambient mixed with a variety of Latin influences.

Since their founding, the bands core lineup has included keyboardist, guitarist, and songwriter Emmanuel “Meme” del Real Díaz, who moonlights as a producer and DJ. In fact, he recently co-produced the upcoming Juanes record with acclaimed producer Steve Lillywhite. Meme grew up in Mexico City with a father who played trumpet in an orchestra and kept the house buzzing with music as well. As a boy, Meme took piano lessons at a Yamaha kids’ school in Mexico City, moving on to a piano academy where he studied classical music. His joining Café Tacvba happened as mundanely as it does with many bands taking shape. “They knew I played piano and asked me to join,” he says. 

From their first gigs at parties and clubs in 1989 they began gigging a few times a week and started touring outside Mexico City. “We were just having fun and trying to create something we hadn’t heard before,” says Meme. A producer with a friend at Warner Brothers connected them with the label and they started recording their debut album a few months later. They had underground success but the mainstream proved more elusive due to their unique sound. “When the first album came out, we did promotion and TV shows,” states Meme. “We thought that our music was for everybody but some people didn’t like it because it was different. It happens.”

Their career got a boost with the 1996 release of their third album Avalancha de Éxitos, a collection of re-imagined cover songs that did well on the Billboard Latin charts and has since become one of their most enduring albums. Since then, the band has continued to defy expectations musically while racking up so many Grammy Awards that in 2008, they broke the record for the most Latin Grammys won in one night. Café Tacvba is living proof that creating original, genre-defying art can be a recipe for huge success. Of course, keyboards play a big role in shaping the band’s eclectic style.

 
Meme in the studio with, clockwise from left: Analogue Systems modular synth, vintage ARP Quartet above Nord Stage 2, and Minimoog Voyager above vintage Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. (Click image to enlarge.)
Meme’s gear evolution as a keyboard player has evolved with the band’s diverse sound, though like most keyboardists, he started small. “My first keyboard was a Yamaha PF10,” he says. “One of my father’s keyboard players gave it to me. They were going to put it in the trash. I played with my brother and it was what I had when the band started. That’s the keyboard we used on the first album. Then I got the Roland D-70, which was like going from the Earth to the Moon. I got into programming it and the second album Re was pretty much about that keyboard, plus a real piano, Rhodes, and Wurlitzer. We recorded in L.A. and in the studio we had tons of things to play with. But the synth sounds and programming were all the D-70.”

He continues: “For Avalancha, we jumped to the Akai samplers and at the very beginning, we had drum machines: the Yamaha RX17, then the Roland R-8. Then we got the Akai S1000, then the 2000. On both I made my own samples and used found samples. From the R-8 I sampled each of the sounds into the Akai. I have family now but then I had time to get deep into it. I used the D-70 for a long time together with samplers live. Some of stuff we did on this record are acoustic instruments we don’t normally bring on tour. I used samplers until computers made it easier to carry, travel, and sync and forget about all the MIDI connections. Every time we used to jump onstage to play, I always expected something bad to happen. Now everything is more controlled and safe. Back then, if the samplers went down, the band would be ready to play an acoustic song while I restarted and reloaded everything.

“Now I’m using the Nord Stage 2. Before that I used the Roland VR-700. But once I listened to the Stage 2, that was it. When I bought it two years ago, it was like switching to a Ferrari—amazing! For what I’m using, I don’t need more than the basic sounds. In the show, I use the Rhodes, Wurly, pianos, some synths and pads, Clavinet, and harpsichord. I like the action on the Nord better than most of the keyboards out there.”

For the most recent album, the band recorded in a live situation for the first time, tracking in four different cities and opening the doors for people to watch. They did one or two passes of each song over eight sessions and comped together the final takes for the album. And at their current stature, Meme could afford to re-imagine his rig once again. “On this album I used more synths than I’ve been carrying,” he says. “A Prophet-5, Minimoog Voyager, and an ARP Quartet, plus an Analogue Systems modular.” He hopes to bring out some or all of those keyboards on the road, but that’s not the biggest challenge of touring. “It’s hard to make a set list when you have a new album,” he says. “Most of the people want to listen to the familiar songs every time. However, we enjoy it because when you play, the energy of the people comes back at you.”

An Unexpected Influence
 
“Something that really marked me in the way that I understand keyboards was the Switched-On Bach album by Wendy Carlos. I heard it as a kid. When I eventually listened to the original classical versions, they sounded weird. I didn’t understand that this music wasn’t all synthesizers at first!” 
 

Meme on Latin Artists You Should Know

“In Mexico there’s an instrumental band called Austin TV. They’re amazing and they’ve always played in costume—you never see their faces. The keyboard player plays very simply but she’s great. There is a young Chilean band called Dënver that I like as well. From Chile there’s this guy called Gepe; his last album had incredible songs. He has brilliant ideas and he uses lots of keyboards and sequencers.”
 
 

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