Photo by Ben Katzman
Queens’ (and Uruguay’s) own JUAN WAUTERS is winding down a busy year. Having just come back from Europe touring behind his first solo LP, North American Poetry, Juan sat down with the Hassle’s Andrew Baldizon before his set at Great Scott in Allston last Tuesday to discuss, among other things: tango, his first love, going solo and, of course, Johnny Ramone.
BOSTON HASSLE: Jackson Heights and Queens itself always seem to be spotlighted in interviews with you, for good reason. It seems that New York plays a big part in your music; but I want to hear more about Uruguay. How old were you when you left?
JUAN WATERS: I left when I had just turned 18; I’m 30 now. It was a long process because by the time I was, 15, the family decided that we were gonna go. By the time I was 16, my father left, then I left two years after. So all these years, I was living in Uruguay but already knowing I was gonna leave. It was kind of a weird time in my life, you know? I was already waiting to see what’s up.
JW: Yeah, kind of afraid of this transition and the unknown. Especially as a young person, to change your environment drastically like that is something a little bit scary. You have your friends you grew up with, family environment, all that stuff.
BH: What’s something you remember vividly about living there? Maybe a particular place, your neighborhood, can you talk about that a little bit?
JW: I grew up in Montevideo, the city. I grew up in this neighborhood called Popocitos, it means “little holes.” That was my first neighborhood; I lived there until I was 11. My parents always had people over at the house. Our house was always kind of like the clubhouse of the neighborhood, all the kids would chill there from the block. My parents would make food for everyone; we would play on the street.
Then when we moved to the other neighborhood, it was called Parque Rodo, the same thing happened. It was a complex with four buildings, very nice apartments, across the street from the water. There, kind of the same thing happened; my parents started having all their friends over. We’re very social people, we like to relate and be part of a group, you know, getting involved. There, I remember, it was great because I moved to this neighborhood and these guys were into doing this “bad stuff…”
We would throw things at cars on the highway; we would pick up garbage around the neighborhood and set it on fire; we would go to the avenue, pull over taxi cabs, open all the doors and run away. Little things like that; break into construction sites. Over there I lived the street a little bit, over there I had my first girlfriend kind of thing…
BH: Can you tell me more about her?
JW: She came through, her name was Vicky, Victoria. She was a friend of a friend from the neighborhood; she wasn’t from the neighborhood, but she would hang out because she went to school with another girl there.
I was about 16. This was, like, my first person that I fell in love with – we kissed intensely and had sex, you know. It was my first official girlfriend. We used to hitchhike in the summer, go to different beach towns. Camp, we’d do a lot of crazy stuff. Go to shows, bike around the city, walk around, get a little tipsy together. We’re still really good friends.
Last November I went to Uruguay with my good friend Matthew Volz; we filmed a video over there for the song “Water” on the last record, North American Poetry, and we stayed with Vicky. We’re still really close; when she comes to New York, she stays with me, ‘cause our relationship…we were boyfriend and girlfriend, we were in love, first love, and we didn’t end like that. We didn’t “break up.” We kind of broke up, because I was here and she was there…
BH: It’s always circumstance.
JW: Yeah. But it wasn’t like we had a dirty break up, so we continued as friends after that. We never got involved in any physical thing after that, but we have a bond, it’s like a brotherhood, cousin, even like a really good, dear friend.
Also, in that neighborhood, I got in touch with music. I had a friend, Zalo, Gonzalo, his mom had a guitar and she taught us our first chords on the guitar; we would play music with him.
BH: Do you remember the first songs you learned?
JW: We would just learn chords…I don’t know, I forgot. Songs by this South American artist, this Argentinian musician, Charly Garcia, that was the first thing I learned with. Also, that Metallica song, how does it go? Doon, deen, deen, dreen deen? “Nothing Else Matters,” you know that introduction? Deen, dreen, dreen, dreen, deen, dreen, “Nothing…” Little things like that.
Over there, people play the acoustic guitar, like the kind of guitar I play now. With THE BEETS, the band I had before, I played with metal strings, steel strings, but now I do nylon; nylon is what people play in Uruguay on the street, you see people walking around with a guitar. I kind of cherish that. I have a nostalgic feeling about Uruguayan culture because I came as a kid and it was kind of taken away from me, in a way. So I have an ideal of what it is, it’s different versus what I would see it as if I had stayed there.
BH: So when you got here, it’s 2002, you’re 18 years old, you straight up joined your father and were working together in a factory, right?
JW: (laughs) It’s kind of crazy, yeah.
BH: What kind of factory was it, and how did that period influence you – emotionally, artistically, whatever?
JW: It’s weird; of course, with every period of my life, I’m proud that it happened, but it kind of comes off sometimes that I might be…you know how people sometimes take pride in being poor and stuff like that? Sometimes I get a little weird about it, but hey, it’s reality.
I came to a factory, we used to make picture frames there; I used to sand – you know gesso, that white ceramic kind of thing? I used to spray gesso onto wooden frames, then I used to sand it and paint it with clay paint, then another person after…it was kind of like a chain of production, the next person put a gold leaf in it, it was very fine. It was a boutique picture frame factory, like a sweatshop sort of thing. There were maybe 40 people working there, all South American people. It was comforting to me that I came to a place in which people spoke Spanish; I was 18, and there were a lot of older people that had been working at the factory for, let’s say, 10 years. I’ve actually been back there recently and a lot of those people are still working there.
During that time it was kind of hard for me. I was missing a lot; I wanted to go back ‘cause I had a girlfriend, I had my friends. I didn’t want to be in the States. But at the same time, I was very excited to be in New York. I was emotional at that time; also, I was very upset that I had to work, you know, a 50 hours a week kind of thing.
BH: You had to come here and straight up hustle.
JW: I arrived here April 29, 2002 and May 1st, like two days after, I started working — like that. Getting paid $6 an hour, it was pretty crazy (laughs). We had to hustle hard. It was good, because I think this time in my life put me in a place in which I could think about my feelings and really analyze them. I started writing music about the way I felt at that time, and this is something that I’ve been working on for a while since then. Maybe if I had a different background and maybe if I didn’t have this eight hours a day working at a factory, I wouldn’t have been able to have so much time to…because it was very intensive manual work, so your head is going the whole time, you know?
I used to write music at the factory, I used to listen to music there; I used to have my headphones.
BH: So, in a way, the factory’s still with you.
JW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, it also gave me a really good work ethic, I understood what it is to earn money — I had never done that before. It brought me to a place…I grew up in a nice neighborhood in Uruguay, it wasn’t rich, but it was middle class. All my friends, nobody had really crazy economic problems. So my change was kind of crazy, we came and were like bottom of the line (laughs). I worked with these people and it really opened up my understanding of what it is to be among different people than you; I was exposed to people from different cultures, people from other countries, different ages.
BH: What have you been reading lately?
JW: Right now, I’m reading a lot of biographies. I’m reading a Charles Manson biography, before that I read an LL Cool J biography, before that I read the Johnny Ramone biography, Commando.
BH: He’s an intense guy.
JW: Yeah, look (flashes Johnny Ramone button). I love him. It used to be that my favorite Ramone was Dee Dee, but after I read the biography he became my favorite Ramone.
BH: I mean, it feels like Johnny’s the general of that band, you know?
JW: Yeah, he made it happen. He’s the guy that made it happen.
BH: I’ve read that your Dad used to make mixtapes recorded off the radio in Uruguay. What kind of stuff was on those, do you remember?
JW: Mostly tango music, yeah. I thank my father for that–he exposed me to really good music. This Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzolla, he exposed me to that; he exposed me to a lot of tango. I still have those tapes. I put them on often, really good stuff.
Tango music is good because I think a lot of it has been very influential to me, the themes that people sing about. You know, Uruguay and Argentina, where tango comes from, are countries, especially Montevideo and Buenos Aires, the capitals, where European immigrants…immigrants from actually all over the world, from the Western World, from the Eastern World I guess, Europe, the Middle East, Turkey, stuff like that…have that nostalgic feeling like I felt when I left my country.
New people coming to a place, as an immigrant, feeling like you’ve lost where you’re from—back then, sometimes you wouldn’t see your mother ever again nor your father ever again, so you have that wonder of where’s my family, what’s going on? So tango, they talk a lot about that nostalgic feeling. One of the big themes in tango is encounter and dis-encounter, leaving and getting together; also, women and a lot of gambling involved in tango; horse racing. Talking about how I lost money on the horses today, you know, being sad over that (laughs). The music is beautiful; it’s very special to me because I’m from that part of the world.
BH: Is there a different type of fulfillment for you that comes from working on your own stuff rather than under the Beets banner? Do you even think of it that way?
JW: You know, as you grow as a person, you become more of an individual, sadly, in the world. Of course, my parents always encouraged me to get involved, make friends, work with people. I always work with a lot of people at the same time. As we [the Beets] grew as people, I found that we were maybe going to different places…I felt like I was having to have people do what I wanted and I don’t like that. I don’t like to tell people what to do, I like to work with people who know what they’re doing; it makes it easier on me and they enjoy it better. When I perform with musicians, of course they play my songs and of course there are parts we should follow, but I really want their personality to come through, to me that’s more special, it makes the show better.
With the Beets it was the same, but towards the end it felt like I had to have this group of people work for me. It didn’t make much sense, and at the same time, we weren’t really getting along so well as people. I started to experiment, working on my own, and of course playing on my own on stage is…as I’ve been telling you, I’ve been studying the idea of freedom through music, and it’s been very liberating. Especially when I play “alone” alone, just me and the guitar. I don’t have to worry about people following me.
Photo by Andrew Baldizon
To me, it’s very important to not sound like anybody else that ever existed in the world before. Of course, I like music from the 60s, I like music from the 90s, I like music from the 80s; but I don’t want to sound 60s, I don’t want to sound 70s, I don’t want to sound 90s, I want to sound contemporary and I want to sound classic. Like, if I came out in 1952, it would be as relevant. Johnny talked about this a lot, Johnny Ramone. To him, it was important that the music was good in a way that if the Ramones, if they came out today, they would be as revolutionary.
BH: I think they succeeded so well at that, because if you listen to them, it sounds like bubblegum pop but it also sounds heavy as hell. It’s all over the map.
JW: They did their thing. I mean, this is not, I’m not doing something revolutionary like the Ramones, the world’s a different place right now. This is more like my own study, and it’s not going to ever explode, I think. It’s more like a slow evolution, a personal trip.
BH: How did you link up with CAPTURED TRACKS?
JW: I met a friend in the neighborhood, we started playing, similar background – he was born in the States but had an immigrant family. We started doing music together, then we put a group together; we started playing here and there but never really saw ourselves as musicians. Even, to me, it just came a couple of years ago; I still really don’t see myself as a musician but now I’m trying to make a living as a musician (laughs).
Back then we used to chill in Manhattan, Manhattan was the place to be, not Brooklyn like it is now. We would do records for fun, among us and our friends; we wouldn’t go to shows, we didn’t know about a music scene or anything like that, ‘cause Queens is a bit farther away and kind of isolated. We had our friends in the neighborhood, but we were never part of a music scene or anything like that.
All of a sudden, people in Brooklyn are interested in having us play shows here and there. Then, Mike Sniper, the guy who owns Captured Tracks–at the time he hadn’t started the label yet, he used to be the manager at a record store—one guy that worked at the record store with him found a video that Matt and I had made and put it on YouTube, it’s called “ On Your Toes.” Someone found that video back then, I think it was 2008 or 2009, six years ago, which is kind of crazy, and they invited us to play at a venue, Silent Barn in New York.
We go, and there’s a whole scene over there and we’re like, “oh shit! There’s people here that come to shows? What the fuck? All right…” That night we played with Crystal Stilts, these were bands that were popping back then, Crystal Stilts, Vivian Girls, Woods. They’re still doing it, but back then is when they came out and had the hype. All of a sudden, we get gigs every weekend, two shows every week – and for us, that was our hang out. We were never interested in making money playing music; that was our fun and I had a job. We started getting wasted, meeting girls, stuff like that.
BH: Rock and roll.
JW: Yeah, but rock and roll straight up. It was nothing but fun. Nobody ever told us, “you gotta do this, you gotta do that,” no. We did shit the way we wanted, and we didn’t want to get involved in anything. We were very stubborn at the time, especially me. The other guys would sometimes get upset at me; but at the same time, we were having so much fun that they were riding the train.
A couple of months after, Sniper called me up and said “yo, do you want to put out a single?” He had just started a label; I said no, I have an LP, let’s put out the LP. He said let’s do it and that was the first Beets record and the first Captured Tracks LP, the Beets’ Spit in the Face of People Who Don’t Want to Be Cool.
We were getting mad respect from big bands; we played with Pavement in Central Park, but never really thought about it in a way in which we could make money and make a living. Now that I’m thinking about that, there’s a lot of other things to think about that I never paid attention to. You know, take a fucking press picture, never took a picture; never did an interview—not because we didn’t want to, but because someone would email us and we’d just be like “ehh…”
I’m having fun right now because I understand something else; it’s been fun to understand how an interview works.
BH: I still don’t know how they work.
JW: Like this (laughs).
BH: I’ve been curious about this. What’d you think of [Uruguayan soccer player] Luis Suarez biting that Italian player during the World Cup?
JW: Bueno, primero de todo, te vas a sorprender. Luis Suarez esta casado con una prima mia.
JW: Si (laughs). Yo a Luis Suarez no le conoci personalmente, porque cuando Luis Suarez empezo a salir con mi prima, yo ya estaba aca, en los Estados Unidos. Antes que Luis Suarez era “Luis Suarez” era Luis Suarez, el novio de mi prima. Despues se casaron y todo. Y, bueno, ahora cuando fuimos a tocar en Europa le conoci, nos saludamos, hablamos y todo…es un maestro.
En el ultimo Mundial, no se si te acordas, cuando jugamos contra Ghana, hiba entrando la pelota y la saco con la mano. Despues, Uruguay fue a penales y gano y paso a la semifinal, pero gracias a Suarez porque Suarez la saco con la mano. Ahora, en este Mundial mordio a uno. Es una locura, pero eso es bastante de la gente de Uruguay. Tambien tiene que ver con el tango y todo eso, son gente muy pasional, con mucha pasion. Y la pasion, les gusta ganar. No quieren ganar por ganar, pero si estan jugando, y si van a jugar, quieren ganar.
Me gusta, al pesar que el morder no es algo que esta bien (laughs), no esta bien morder, ni tampoco sacar la pelota con la mano, yo valoro que Suarez es un jugador de futbol que muestre su pasion a este nivel. Que no le importa nada, y que pueda mostrar que su pasion y su sentimientos son mas grandes que lo que es el dinero que el cobra, y la prensa, y todo. El quiere ganar.