One Man’s Musical Piñata of Mexican Folk and Spicy Global Sounds



MEXICO CITY — A lot of Camilo Lara’s friends still find it strange to have to regard him as a budding pop star. They are more accustomed to thinking of him as an obsessive record collector or as the chairman of the EMI Music record label here, not as an artist who will play to thousands of people this weekend at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.

But as the founder of the band the Mexican Institute of Sound, Mr. Lara has carved out a comfortable and expanding niche for himself on the international music scene over the last four years. His quirky but infectious blend of traditional Mexican folk styles with electronica, hip-hop and even Bollywood sounds is increasingly surfacing not just on dance floors, but also on television and film soundtracks (“Ugly Betty,” “Pride & Glory”) and in commercials and video games.

“Camilo is a real connoisseur of music who knows about all kinds of weird stuff,” said Mike D of the Beastie Boys, whose first contact with Mr. Lara came in his capacity as a record executive. “Like a lot of people of our generation, he believes that anything is fair game, that anything and everything is of interest and can be made to fit together.”

Not bad for a one-man project that started almost as a private joke. Mr. Lara, 33, a former D.J. and radio host, used to amuse himself and his friends by making sound collages as a Christmas gift each year. But it was only after a record label in Spain heard of his compilations and contacted him that he realized he could make the jump from record company executive to musician.

“It was like turning theory into practice,” Mr. Lara, who remains the chairman of EMI Mexico, said last week in an interview at his home studio here. “I had always wanted to make music that included everything I liked and had influenced me because I thought that when you confront the music of Latin America with pop — cumbia with “Star Wars” or the Gladiators with Pérez Prado — the result of that mixture could only be something interesting.”

At Coachella, the Mexican Institute of Sound will be one of 130 or so acts on the three-day program. Another first-timer there will be none other than Paul McCartney, who has never played an American festival as a solo act. He’s the headliner on Friday, the first day, preceded by Franz Ferdinand, Morrissey, Leonard Cohen, Conor Oberst and the Black Keys.

Now in its 10th year, Coachella is one of America’s premier music events, drawing around 150,000 people each year to the scorching desert two hours east of Los Angeles. Along with Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., it has helped reinvent the idea of the rock festival, packing its lineups with a few historic reunions and dozens of buzzy bands like Mr. Lara’s.

“Because of Camilo’s day job, he already has an ear for expanding music to a wider audience,” said Ariana Morgenstern, producer of “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., one of the first American radio stations to play Mr. Lara’s music. “He is able to flesh out a lot of traditional Mexican sounds with snippets and samples and beats that make his music appealing for a wider Anglo audience.”

Though initially conceived strictly as a solo studio undertaking, the Mexican Institute of Sound has gradually evolved into a live band, consisting at the moment of two D.J.’s, a drummer, a bass player and Mr. Lara on keyboards. That is the ensemble he will take to Coachella, where he is to perform Sunday on a bill whose headliners are the Cure, My Bloody Valentine and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

“Camilo’s transformation from D.J. and executive to musician and composer has really surprised me,” said Enrique Rangel, a member of the Mexican rock group Café Tacuba and a long-time friend of Mr. Lara’s. “He always had a great ability to discover interesting sounds and rhythmic phrases, but to see him onstage now, microphone in hand and interacting with the crowd, tells me that he has become more secure and sophisticated in the project he is doing.”

Mr. Lara’s growth has been aided by an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a record collection that is legendary here: some 45,000 vinyl albums, about 30,000 CDs and plenty of rare eight-tracks. Rock dominates his holdings, reflecting the tastes of his teenage years, when he was a fan of bands like XTC, the Smiths and Bauhaus. But he said he had listened to everything at least once, and he seems to have almost instant recall.

“Camilo has a brain like an elephant for tracks that he has already heard,” said Holger Beier, a German producer and songwriter who works with Mr. Lara. “He searches really deep and has tastes that are really wide, from hip-hop to Hindi music. It may seem chaotic in the studio, but he knows what he wants. He listens and then throws everything into this big Mexican pot.”

For all his love of rock and pop, though, Mr. Lara has chosen a more varied path for himself as a performer. On “Alocatel,” the first single from his group’s new album, “Soy Sauce” (Nacional Records), he suggests, singing in Spanish: “Let’s form a band that doesn’t sound like Pink Floyd … Let’s form a band that doesn’t sound like the Strokes.”

Mr. Lara said that one of the first records he remembers buying was the soundtrack to a Mexican children’s television show written by the Mexican composer and arranger Juan García Esquivel, famous for his use of exotic instruments, manipulation of stereo effects and lush orchestrations. That led Mr. Lara to a fascination with pioneers of electronic music, like Perrey-Kingsley, Bruce Haack and Pierre Henry, and orchestrators of exotica like Les Baxter and Raymond Scott.

Another huge influence on Mr. Lara’s anything-goes approach is cumbia, “good and greasy, smelling like a taco stand,” he said. Elites in Latin American tend to look down on that genre as tacky. But Mr. Lara opens both the new CD and his previous one, “Piñata,” from 2007, with cumbias, partly “to make a statement because I tend to be a revisionist and love things that history seems to have crushed or which seem without relevance or were never on anybody’s radar screen.”

Mr. Lara also acknowledged a literary influence on his new CD. He had been rereading Julio Cortázar, the Argentine author whose short stories inspired the films “Blow Up” and “Weekend,” and he was particularly taken by “Hopscotch,” a novel whose chapters are meant to be read in whatever order the reader prefers.

“I decided I wanted to make a record that had a bit of that same spirit, where you go from Page 1 to Page 80 and then back to Page 39,” Mr. Lara said. “I wanted to make a record that was very eclectic, in which there are very few connections between each song, and what connections that do exist are very subtle. It’s cerebral, but it’s also fun, and that’s what I like to do.”

Ben Sisario contributed reporting from New York.

(Interview via The New York Times)