Degenerate Songs

By: José Manuel Simián

In the world of bicultural, bilingual musicians Kevin Johansen is one exemplary citizen. Born in Alaska to an Argentine mother and an American father, he spent his teenage years and early 20s in Buenos Aires, moved to New York in the ’90s, and kicked off a successful solo career upon returning to the Argentine capital in 2000. Along the road, he formed a successful but relatively unknown band during the heyday of ’80s rock en español (Instrucción Cívica), played in the house band at legendary punk club CBGB, and released five albums of genre-bending, usually hilarious, and sometimes bilingual songs.

His latest output, Bi (2012), is an ambitious double album, formed by a record of “subtropicalia” songs that nods to the folk music of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and a second one with a “pop” heart that includes a tango cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and a countrified version of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

A few days before taking a plane to play in New York and Miami, Johansen talked to Manero from his home in Buenos Aires.

Many Latin American artists don’t get the recognition they deserve in the US because of the language barrier. But you are perhaps the most chameleonic of them all, because you can naturally compose and sing in both languages. Does it concern you that the multicultural, genre-bending nature of your music may actually make it harder for you to find a market in the US?

Well, Spanish and English are one and the same language for me because of my gringo childhood and my (as I like to say) “Argenteenager” years in Argentina until I was 25 and I moved to New York. Because of all of that, I believe in what Youssou N’Dour said: that music is your first language. In my case there’s always a potential crossover, and the potential for an album in English that I plan to make at some point, talking about my time at CBGB in the ’90s. But things normally roll at their own pace...

How did the concept of Bi come about?

After my last studio album [Logo, 2007] and the live album and DVD I made [in 2010], I started working around the idea of recording an album with a more folkloric spirit, making a nod from Argentine folk to that of Uruguay and Brazil—our neighbors in the southern Atlantic and whose music we listen to the most. That process took me two or three years. And while I was doing that, I ran into Tweety González in Mexico City, famous producer of bands such as Soda Stereo, and he said we should make an album together—one with more rock, pop and perhaps even pachanga. And that’s how it ended being a double album. And because I like to play with titles, I called it Bi. In a way, the first album has to do with my mother, my Latino side, and the second one has to do with my father, my Anglo side.

You just made a double album (a rare thing these days), with songs that cover a wide range of genres and sometimes jump between two or three languages. One could argue that for Kevin Johansen, the basic tenet is the more, the better when it comes to a means of expression. Would you agree with this?

I’m not sure. Quantity doesn’t equal quality. But I do lean towards being generous, both when playing a show and when making a record. I always say, regarding musical genres, that I’m a “degenerate” because I like so many musical genres. And in order to cover them all, I sometimes need to compose and record 15 songs per album. But to me it’s all about the joy of it. I enjoy all musical genres, and that may make it harder for me to summarize things.

Your bilingual songs fall into a different context when played in the US. There’s an ongoing debate about how Spanish blends with English, giving birth to different forms of Spanglish, and perhaps losing the “purity” it may have had in the different Ibero-American countries. Do you care about these things?

The mixture of things is not only our common past, but our future. The idea of a pure race was promoted by a certain Austrian-German man, and it didn’t precisely work out well, right? There’s cultural wealth in that variety [of mixtures]. Paraphrasing that famous song of my friend [Uruguayan singer] Jorge Drexler, I say “Nothing goes to waste / It all just gets deformed” (instead of things being transformed). From a different perspective, I don’t think cultures lose their shape so easily. The roots and identity of a culture don’t disappear when they get mixed with another culture; they grow richer and stronger.

Kevin Johansen + The Nada in concert: New York, March 26, 7 pm, (Le) Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St (at Thompson), 212-505-3474; Miami, March 29, 8pm, New World Center, 500 17th St, Miami Beach, 305-673-3331

José Manuel Simián is the Executive Editor of Manero. He used to be a lawyer and is probably listening to Bob Dylan as you read this.