Literature and rock is a pairing that goes far beyond a simple analysis of mere beats and metrics. It is a very deep-rooted and powerful sociocultural phenomenon in modern societies thanks to the rockers who immersed in literature to nurture their work.
Robert Zimmerman paid tribute to his favorite poet Dylan Thomas by using Bob Dylan as his stage name. Jim Morrison suggested the name for his band after reading Aldous Huxley. Joy Division took its name as a reference to the work of Ka-Tzetnik. In Led Zeppelin there are dozens of quotes to the magical characters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tom Waits referred to Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, J.D. Salinger and Tennessee Williams for his black and white songs about the loneliness of the American working class. There are plenty of examples.
Vetusta Morla, the Spaniard band, is one of the new flagships of that rock with literary ascendant. Name is destiny: Vetusta Morla is an ancient turtle created by the German author Michael Ende in his book The Endless Story (1983). Forewarned is forearmed.
The five albums of the Spaniard sextet exude metaphorical poetry, allegories, free verses, rhymes with analogies and symbolisms. We are not going to explain them here. It is better for Juan Manuel Latorre (guitar and keyboards) to reveal, in a telephone talk from Madrid, the literary keys of a group that was formed in a middle school from Tres Cantos, a small municipality north of Madrid, with the best genesis that a rock band can have: Teenagers pissed off at the world and willing to bother everybody with their electric guitars. People like that are trustworthy.
“For us is highly important in our music the presence of poetry in particular, and literature in general… to such an extent that it is an idiosyncratic element. It is our hallmark and we have adopted it as our identity. In the time we left Spain there were few groups that sang in our language. At that time, to sing in English was for many the most practical way to have international projection. This was 20 years ago… we realized that English was too short for us to express some depth and certain background that we wanted to communicate. As the pervasive readers that we are and being poetry lovers as well, we decided to add that to our music”, Latorre explains with a soft and leisurely voice.
The literary background in all members of Vetusta Morla launched them against the tide of fashions and trends.
Along with Latorre the group is formed by Juan Pedro Martí (voice), David García (drums), Álvaro B. Baglietto (bass), Jorge González (percussion and programming) and Guillermo Galván (guitar and keyboards), the latter author of the poetry book Retrovisores (Rearviewers) from Editorial Bandaaparte, 2015.
Latorre says that in his perspective “rock and poetry are art forms that are very close. For us the power of metaphor in the word is very close to the power of conceptual abstraction in music. Rock is an art that is not concrete, that is abstract; so when we find a melody that unveils and helps us discover something that allows us to glimpse a feeling, a memory, which is almost always produced in a non-rational way … almost as a finding a little mystical; for us has a lot to do with the same thing that happens when we find a metaphor, a poem, a poetic side that has its own rhythm, its own melody. For us that relationship between both arts is barely exploited in Spanish rock”, he says.
For those who want to get started in the fine art of rock metaphors of Vetusta Morla, explore their splendid albums Un día en el mundo (One day in the world, 2008), Mapas (Maps, 2011), Los ríos de Alicia (Alice’s rivers, 2013), Drift (2014) and Mismo sitio, distinto lugar (Same site, different place, 2014).
Albums marked with a lyric that transits between defeated existentialism and hope with chords of sound experimentation almost like a surrealist soundtrack on the keyboards while the riffs distill melancholic rage.
The rock of Vetusta Morla resembles closely only the rock of Vetusta Morla. There is no other drawer in which they can be accommodated. Although it is true that several relevant influences are noticed.
Latorre does not want to explain the lyrics of the songs.
“That is the listener’s responsibility” he says laughing, then points “the context of everyone who receives a song is totally different, the interpretation is the responsibility of the one who listnes the song. The one who is listening to a song does not have the text in front to read it. The way to assimilate the text of a song is very different from that of a poem … we found out that the lyrics need not be understood in their entirety. We are interested in its capability of provoking emotions and activate emotional springs in the listener. It is not necessary for everyone to understand what we want to tell … the only important thing is that along with the music it does not leave anyone indifferent. The greatness of a song resides in that the lyrics are linked to the music, to the melody, in the fact that you cannot separate them. The fine concepts of analysis of our songs is a plus that we greatly appreciate to whoever does it, but it is no longer necessary”.
Vetusta Morla covers all her songs with a patina of melancholy. His themes convey that feeling, perhaps because of Martí’s interpretation, or maybe because his work leitmotiv underlies as the fact that everybody reaches a point of no return in life, or maybe because in our day by day we are going through a dead-end road.
“It is true, the quotes we have given out of a melancholic halo are few, although sometimes we try to do it” acknowledges Latorre about the climate that runs the work of the group and details that “sometimes we dare with songs, such as El discurso del Rey (The King’s speech) or Palmeras (Palms) in the spot, who instead of going to the melancholic try to play the ironic or even the satirical costumeries. But in general that melancholic coating is something that permeates all of our songs. I guess that is relatively convenient for us to tell. For some reason, if we go into psychoanalysis, we feel comfortable placing our stories and characters in melancholic landscapes”, he says in a thoughtful tone and pauses between his sentences like meditating while chatting.
Another relevant element in Vetusta Morla is the permanence of the band’s original members after two decades of constant music.
An exercise in style and loyalty that is not common in the world of rock where exacerbated egos play almost as another member after fame is achieved.
Latorre does not fully explain what allows them to remain united after so many years of artistic creation. He explains that collective creation is also an exercise in style that demands will and commitment.
“The truth is that I don’t know how we’ve been together for so many years!” Latorre admits and throws “I think it was because we dared to preserve the things we have in common. Maintaining any type of relationship for more than 20 years is already an achievement. When we began to play in school, our day-to-day lives, our tastes, interests and concerns were very similar for all. As we have grown older those co-incidences have been separating … so you have to do a constant exercise to remember what unites us, what we like to do together, what we like about each other even if there are other thousand things that we hate, for example our last album is a very premeditated exercise and aware of grasping the things that we have in common and that define us as a band ”details the musician.
Precisely, his last album Mismo sitio, distinto lugar came out two years ago, is his shortest work. It’s only 38 minutes in 10 songs. An album that, according to Latorre, is the result of its maturity and the search for a capacity of synthesis where they state that, as in a haiku, brevity is the basis of depth.
“We had 19 songs well finished from top to bottom… but it was decided by common agreement to choose these 10. Discarding some of the songs was very painful. What we wanted to do was an exercise of maturity and an important synthesis for us. It is important for an artist to know when to put the last period in a work. But it is difficult” explains Latorre again in that reflexive tone that he acquires when he talks about the important things.
The sound frame on which Vetusta Morla presents its melancholic lyrics is a polychrome that goes from the most basic rock and goes towards punk, funk and passes through electronic music with the experimental manipulation of sounds with the help of loops that are overlapped on each other in different textures.
If we pay attention to their music, we notice the intertwined influences of bands and artists as significant as The Beatles, Radiohead, The Kooks, Muse, Leonard Cohen, Jamiroquai, Franz Ferdinand, Wilco and Jeff Buckley.
“We have found it very useful to incorporate synthesizers, samplers and drum machines using all the manipulation palette that electronic music gives you… we have maintained the spirit of rock in our songs but with that super extended palette. Thanks to that, our music has many more colors” reveals Latorre, who explains that the composition of all the themes in Vetusta Morla works as a collective creation workshop where the ideas of each of the members are welcome and put into debate.
Like few rock artists in Spain, perhaps only compared to singer-songwriter Enrique Bunbury, Vetusta Morla has achieved something really amazing: Creating a base of loyal fans in the United States. Especially considering that they are a band emerged from the underground and without the support of any large record company.
It all started for them on March 17, 2012 when they performed at the Beale Street Tavern in Austin, Texas, in the framework of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival to just over twenty people and with only 4 songs as a business card.
Now they tour the United States and sell out theater locations for several thousand. Their concerts attract a diverse audience of Latin American immigrants and even Anglo-American. These shows have become musical celebrations of the growing force that Spanish language has got in the great American empire. A whole growing social phenomenon.
“There is a commitment of ourselves with the viewer … It comes from an issue in which we think that music is not a quantitative issue and that any audience, however small, deserves to give the best you have. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 or 20 thousand. Every person who has the kindness to come to see us, to get excited when we tell him a story, deserves that we give the best of ourselves. That is the way we understand it. We cannot go on a stage just to take a walk“, says of the long and sustained effort to gradually make it in a country that, at first impression, seems to have little to do with them beyond the cradle of the blues, then jazz and rhythm and blues that came together to give birth to rock and roll; the same rock that was thrown around the world to become nourished and fed by the water of many rivers.
It is rock with literary influence that Latorre respects and to whom he dedicates some of his most thoughtful phrases.
The musician sees it as something that goes beyond the topic that it is only music from youth to the youth. In his perspective, it is really a kind of artistic inconformity that goes beyond generations and other socio-cultural boundaries.
“Rock has already been established as a way of looking at reality. As a way at best, very critical to look. Although it is true that rock has also entered more domesticated phases. What rock has is its capacity for flexibility to be contaminated by different tools and genres to remain a hipster beyond the topic of youth … that is, to be intrinsic nonconformists and not necessarily linked to a generational conflict. I have an extraordinary faith in the ability of rock to establish a look on reality. I think that that is why it continues to survive so strongly… because of its critical, rebellious and rebellious essence”, concludes Latorre.
With his art of melancholy poetry with guitars explosions, Vetusta Morla bursts in like a rock band in which the lyrics do matter, as well as the music, to maintain a critical and rebellious look from the trench of art. Far beyond mere beats and metrics.
David Dorantes (Guadalajara, Mexico) journalist and writer. He has been a sports, culture, crime and special investigative reporter for the Siglo 21, Público-Milenio and Houston Chronicle newspapers, as well as a music columnist for the Primera Plana y Cambio weekly. He took the Journalism Chronicle workshop with Gabriel García Márquez invited by the Foundation for a New Ibero-American Journalism 2000 and won the Emissary Journalism Prize of the University of Guadalajara 2000. One of his stories appeared in the anthology Tell me if you have not wanted. Anthology of exiled tales (2018), the first of Latin American authors in Houston. He is currently a freelance journalist for several publications in the United States, Mexico and Spain. His Twitter is @HDaviddorantes