How Diamante Eléctrico Are Taking Rock en Español to New Frontiers

How Diamante Eléctrico Are Taking Rock en Español to New Frontiers

This story was originally published September 15th in Rolling Stone Colombia.

It is a typically balmy Sunday in Cartagena, the historic resort city on Colombia’s Caribbean shore, and two members of Diamante Eléctrico, one of the country’s most successful rock bands, are performing a few songs for a handful of friends — on the 35th floor of an apartment building with a postcard-perfect vista of dramatically changing light. Bottles of beer and cans of Red Bull fill the living-room table as Juan Galeano and Daniel Álvarez sit across from each other, almost knee to knee, with acoustic guitars. Behind them, the late-afternoon sunlight filling the balcony window — across Cartagena’s harbor and, to the far left, the colonial-Spanish skyline of the Old City — turns to purple dusk, then night.

Galeano, 38, Diamante’s founding singer-bassist, and Álvarez, the group’s 34-year-old guitarist, are in Cartagena, staying at the home of local acquaintances, to begin an extended series of interviews about the band’s new album, Buitres (Vultures), and the long road to its release. Drummer Andee Zeta, the trio’s youngest member at 28, is in Miami; he will join the conversations in a few days in Bogotá. But tonight, his bandmates are taking a break from talking about Diamante’s music — a tight, tense rock with vocal hooks and grooves forged in British blues and American soul — to play some of it, completely unplugged.

There are stripped-back versions of songs from Diamante’s two Latin Grammy winners for Best Rock Album, 2015’s B and 2016’s La Gran Oscilación (The Great Oscillation). Galeano and Álvarez also rev up the greasy ride of “Días Raros” (“Strange Days”), a 2017 hit single which featured the Texas sizzle of Z.Z. Top guitarist and Diamante fan Billy Gibbons. Another tune, “Delatar” [“Betray”], sounds much as Diamante Eléctrico recorded it during a 2015 U.S. tour, crammed around the 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records store in Nashville.

Galeano and Álvarez perform a new song too. “Rotos (“Broken”) has a rocky start as the two try to remember how it goes. Once they agree on the beat and riff, it is easy to hear how Diamante Eléctrico have evolved in tone, attack and welcome on Buitres, their fourth album in six years. With a pop-smart chorus and firm hip-hop stride, “Rotos crackles with the breakthrough electricity of the Black Keys finding Top 40 daylight.

“Rhythm — that’s the name we put on this album before we started,” Galeano says earlier that day over drinks and lunch in the Old City. “It had to be about black music from the Seventies, that funk and soul, with the spark that makes people dance and sing.”

“A song that goes the distance — that’s what needs to happen next,” Álvarez contends. “We’re at a point in Colombia, in what we’ve achieved, where no phone call is going to make a difference. It’s about the song. That’s what all of the great bands have been about.”

“And we have everything set and ready,” he insists, “for a good song to make a difference.”

Three days after that acoustic session in Cartagena, Galeano and Álvarez are at Nebula, Diamante Eléctrico’s recording and rehearsal space in Bogotá, listening to rough mixes of the nine songs on Buitres. Their studio is in a bunker over a bank in the eastern end of the city, accessible by elevator to the roof, then an outdoor flight of metal stairs. Inside, everything — lights, decor, furniture — is in black and red, like a South American spin on a White Stripes album cover.

Before Galeano hits “play” on the console, he explains why “Días Raros” is not included on Buitres. Diamante wanted that single to introduce a new emphasis on beats and songcraft without compromising the grit and grind on earlier albums. The new music confirms that drive. “Hacia La Noche” (“Into the Night”), Buitres‘ opening track, has a thumping rhythm with clouds of electric piano and flashes of dirty guitar around Galeano’s singing. The electric Rotos” is even harder and darker with a surprising chorus — background harmonies surround Galeano’s vocal like a Tennessee-church choir — and a bass lick that evokes Eighties New York hip-hop, especially the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

Nefertiti rolls like mid-Seventies Parliament-Funkadelic with complex spikes of guitar while “El Naufragio (Salvavidas)” (“The Wreck [Lifesaver]”), a song about shipwreck and rescue, is “more like what people expect from us,” Galeano admits, running a hand through his Fifties-Elvis crown of silver-gray hair, “the straight rock & roll.” He plays the album’s closer, “No Me Lo Pidas” (“Don’t Ask Me”), but warns that is not yet finished. The rough mix has been sent to Mariachi Flor de Toloache — the acclaimed all-woman band in New York that has worked with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach — to overdub “all of their flavors,” as Galeano puts it, on the track.

Formed in Bogotá in 2012, Diamante Eléctrico are notorious for working hard and fast. They have played more than 350 shows in Colombia and abroad and recorded their first three albums to analog tape at high speed. The 2013 debut Diamante Eléctrico took two weeks; most of B was cut in one night. On La Gran Oscilación — done in three weeks with a visiting American, Joshua V. Smith, a staff engineer at Third Man — Álvarez played the same guitar on every song. And, he notes, “I didn’t change a single string.”

Buitres, in comparison, has been an eternity in coming. Galeano started making demos with Zeta and Álvarez in the spring of 2017. Recording began last September and ran into January as the songs changed in arrangement and momentum. For the first time, Diamante Eléctrico used samples from engineer Mauricio García’s library of Seventies funk and R&B LPs as well as his collection of original beats as a foundation for songwriting, replacing those parts with new hooks and rhythms as the tracks took shape.

“I was excited by the new way we were taking,” Zeta says right away when we finally meet, “because that’s the way I’ve always played, closer to hip-hop and funk.” On stage, Zeta powers Diamante with a controlled mayhem closer to the Who’s Keith Moon and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters. “I’ve always said we had great pop songs. But we dressed them in dirt and grit. I’m the guy that’s saying, ‘We should have more fun.’”

Diamante Electrico have made their records “a very particular way for a long time, and they wanted to change that,” says Brandon Bost, the young American engineer who does the final mixes for Buitres at Electric Lady, the legendary New York studio founded by Jimi Hendrix. In an interview after the job is done, Bost — whose mixing credits include records by Adele, Lady Gaga, U2 and the Puerto Rican rapper Residente — says he “beefed up the drum elements, to make it feel more hip-hop” and noticed that Diamante “were into guitar effects, cool things like tape delay. I pushed that even more, to make them big moments.”

The sum of those moments is Diamante Eléctrico’s graduation day, their best record  and a certain fixture of future lists of the greatest rock en español albums. Like B and La Gran Oscilación, Buitres is aggressively purist in its power-trio force, as basic in its charge (despite the samples and studio enhancement) as Cream’s debut LP, 1966’s Fresh Cream, or the Black Keys’ gnarly 2004 album, Rubber Factory. But the determined reach and assured execution of the changes on Buitres echo other precedents: the Rolling Stones’ decisive integration of blues roots and contemporary rebellion on 1968’s Beggars Banquet; Soundgarden’s giant step up from the grunge underground with the progressive hard-rock drive of 1991’s Badmotorfinger; Jack White’s nuclear fusion of antique blues ideals and mass-appeal savvy on the White Stripes’ 2003 smash, Elephant.

“We are at a songwriting point,” Álvarez says, “where we feel so close to people that it’s almost mainstream.” Last November, Diamante Eléctrico played their biggest headlining concert in Colombia, producing a fifth-anniversary party for themselves at Bogotá’s Teatro Mayor; 1500 fans turned up, selling out the hall two hours before showtime.

“Around the Bend” on 2016’s Quiero Creedence, a rock en español tribute to Creedence Clearwater Revival, impressed Z.Z. Top’s Gibbons who was also on that album, leading to his guest shot on “Días Raros.” Buitres goes even further, proving that Galeano, Álvarez and Zeta are a world-class band in any language.

But something is missing, Galeano says, as he and Álvarez stand on the sidewalk below Nebula, waiting for a taxi: “Women make a great rock & roll show. It would be nice if this record could bring in more women. They love to dance. And we’d love it if they could come to our shows and bring their boyfriends, instead of the guys dragging them along.

“Or,” he adds, grinning, “coming without them.”

I don’t recognize the riff, but the guitar tone is weirdly familiar — a hard, metallic treble in snake-like curls over a Latin-blues shuffle, suggesting a mid-Sixties garage-rock demo by a teenage Carlos Santana. Álvarez and Galeano are puzzled and curious too; they have never heard the record before. Álavarez holds his cellphone in the air, hoping the Shazam app will identify the artist and title.

It turns out the DJ at this rooftop bar, in a funky-nightlife section of Cartagena’s Old City, is playing vintage chicha, psychedelic cumbia from Peru — “Boogaloo del Perro” (loosely in English, “The Dog’s Boogie”) from a 1971 album by Los Destellos. The three of us rave about that guitar sound for awhile. But we have already been at it for hours, talking about music, since our first drinks at sunset on the fortress wall overlooking the ocean. Great bands, favorite albums and unforgettable gigs; songs that changed us and new records that keep us excited: The stories and passions come thick and fast — over a tapas dinner; on that rooftop; at a club with a hot band specializing in champete, this region’s exuberant Afro-Colombian music — before we close the night in small, hip tango bar.

Galeano reveals that he is such a fan of Black Sabbath that, for a time, he had the image of the witchy woman on the cover of 1970’s Black Sabbath tattooed on his right shoulder. Álvarez is specific about his love of Iron Maiden; he prefers the late-Seventies era with singer Paul D’Anno. And we all bond over AC/DC and the Rolling Stones, which leads to stories about Diamante Eléctrico’s prestigious slot opening for the Stones’ first-ever Colombian concert in March, 2016 at Bogotá’s Estadio El Campín.

“We’re not used to people doing good in Colombia. In the States, how are you going to get pissed at a big band? In Colombia, you’re singled out. Playing with the Stones and Foo Fighters got us enough notoriety for some people to hate us.”

Torrential rain that day almost forced the Stones to cancel the show; Diamante found out they were still going on only 20 minutes before they plugged in. Later, Colombian superstar Juanes joined the Stones on stage, singing “Beast of Burden” — a déjà vu of sorts for Galeano. In 2005, as a budding solo artist, Galeano passed a demo of five songs to a friend who played bass in Juanes’ band. A few months later, Juanes asked Galeano to open shows for him in Europe, playing to as many as 10,000 people a night.

This is the first night of my first trip to Colombia — and the first time I have met Galeano and Álvarez. But they are both fluent in English, fortunately for me. As a teenager, Galeano — who talks at a machine-gun clip — attended a boarding school in the U.S., in a small town in Indiana; Álvarez spent a year in New York studying audio engineering, receiving a degree in 2007. They are soon firing questions at me about my experiences with rock en español: my recent writing about Juanes and Carlos Vives for the Colombian edition of Rolling Stone; revelatory shows I saw in New York, in the late Nineties, by Aterciopelados and Mexico’s Café Tacvba; my subsequent digging into the rich histories of psychedelic and progressive rock in Mexico (Kaleidoscope, Los Dug Dug’s), Argentina (Arco Iris, Almendra) and Chile (Los Jaivas, Congreso).

Galeano is quick to distinguish Diamante Eléctrico from what he says is generally considered rock in Colombia. “Aterciopelados are the biggest rock band in Colombia, and it’s not even rock,” he claims. Arguably, in his defense, that band is closer to a futurist Beatles — vibrant, experimental art-pop. Diamante, in turn, “come from Led Zeppelin, the Doors and the Rolling Stones.” In fact, Diamante are part of a long line of bands — Los Yetis, the Sixties-beat nihilists from Medellín; La Banda Nueva on their 1973 prog-rock pinnacle, La Gran Feria; Juanes’ teenage speed-metal unit Ekhymosis — that transformed British and American inspirations into something uniquely Colombian. (Later, Galeano and Álvarez are impressed to hear that I found a copy of Los Speakers’ 1965 album, La Casa Del Sol Naciente, with the original gatefold sleeve at a record stall in Bogotá.)

Yet looking back at Diamante’s turning points in and beyond Colombia — opening for Foo Fighters at El Campín in January, 2015, then the Stones; the Latin Grammys and that single with Billy Gibbons — can feel “so weird, so lonely,” Álvarez confesses. “We’re not used to people doing good in Colombia. In the States, how are you going to get pissed at a big band? In Colombia, you’re singled out. Playing with the Stones and Foo Fighters got us enough notoriety for some people to hate us.”

The guitarist compares that envy — often the result of outside approval in a small, intensely competitive scene — with this reaction during a soundcheck at a Nashville bar in 2015: “Four guys who looked like they came from Duck Dynasty are cleaning the bar. And we turned their heads. Because we were doing it — and singing in Spanish.”

“When we played the Viper Room in Los Angeles,” Galeano says, “this big bouncer told me, ‘You guys are the best.’ And this was someone who sees five bands a night. I’m like, ‘Alright, that’s something.’”

“What they do feels authentic,” says Joshua V. Smith, who was turned on to Diamante by a friend, then came to Bogotá to engineer La Gran Oscilación. “And they are very good at crafting a song. It’s one of those magical things where you have two people” — Galeano and Álvarez — “who harmonize really well together. And Andee is a phenomenal drummer who knows how to play tastefully.

“It makes you wonder what could happen for them,” Smith goes on, “if more languages — and music — were embraced on the radio in America. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, if there’s a great groove and a great melody, that’s universal. People can say, ‘This sounds cool.’”

“Everybody asks, ‘When are you going to sing in English?’” Álvarez says. “And it’s funny because singing in Spanish — that’s part of the brand.”

In fact for Galeano, the main lyricist, writing in English would be easier. “You can say a lot of things in a few words,” he explains. “When you say, ‘Hey, baby, I love you,’ it’s six syllables in English. It’s double the syllables in Spanish, a lot of words.”

“But we can sing in Spanish and make it in the States,” Galeano argues, “if someone would look a little above that, to see who we can reach.” He mentions two favorite examples: the Icelandic modern-rock band Sigur Rós with their cryptic blend of native tongue and wordless falsetto; and the German industrial-metal group Rammstein. “Of course, they have labels behind them.”

“That’s one thing — we look self-sufficient,” Álvarez admits. “Even fans think we’re so good at times that they don’t come to the shows. They think we’re indestructible. ‘No, we do you need you to come, man.’”

Galeano points out that “Días Raros” is “very autobiographical — not about a person but his band. We’re going through weird days, so we made a song about it. Every day, you die a little bit. But at the same time, you’re living.”

“And I know this,” he adds. “I’ve had 15 pretty rough years as a musician. But the last three or four years, with this band, have been really nice.”

The son of a civil engineer, Galeano is the only member of Diamante Eléctrico who was born in the band’s hometown. But he did a lot of growing up away from Bogotá: at that boarding school in Paoli, Indiana, between the ages of 14 and 16; then, in his early twenties, in the Netherlands when he won a music scholarship to study at conservatories in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. He stayed in Europe after graduating with a master’s degree in upright bass, leading his own band and writing songs. Galeano played original material with some early punk bands but started taking songwriting seriously out of homesickness, singing and playing guitar on recordings he sent to girls he knew in Colombia.

Galeano started Diamante Eléctrico out of a more profound frustration when his solo career in Colombia crashed after one album: 2010’s Peregrino [“Pilgrim”], produced by Bogotá’s most famous rock & roll emigré, the Rolling Stones’ mid-Sixties producer-manager Andrew Loog Oldham. “I was trying to please other people,” Galeano says of that debut now, although it is much better than that, reflecting his growing interest and facility in American roots music ­and Oldham’s challenging guidance. “Andrew has so much music in his head,” Galeano says, still awed by his time with the British Invasion icon. “He brings all of these references that you have to check out.”

But a breach with Oldham due to miscommunication and the collapse of a sponsorship deal for an ambitious second LP — on the eve of sessions to be held in New York, Nashville and London with a new producer, Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs — left Galeano stranded and angry. He faced $100,000 in debts for money already spent and lost an important mentor: Oldham did not speak to Galeano for six years. (They recently started talking again.)

“I didn’t go out for three months,” Galeano says in an unusually cold, somber voice, stung by the memory of that mess. “I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to explain it to anybody. Everybody knew I was going to do this huge record, and it was off.”

But disaster gave Galeano an edge — “the catalyst,” he says, “to start a band.” He called Zeta, who played drums on Peregrino, telling him bluntly, “Welcome to your new band.” It was “like Andee didn’t have an option,” says Álvarez, who got a similar call soon after. “What happened with Diamante is the only thing that can happen in Colombia for you to commit — that is, the band drafts you.”

Álvarez was born in Medellín but soon moved to Bogotá with his family. He got a degree in business before going to New York for the second one in studio engineering, explaining that “in 2006, you could die in Bogotá before anything happened for you in music. It was dry. It was awful. And everybody was trying to make it.”

When Álvarez returned in 2007, he played with a modern-rock group, Madame Complot, that was “freaking awesome,” the guitarist says proudly, but left him “heartbroken. We tried to do the ‘hit single’ thing, and it didn’t work.” Álvarez had just been fired from a straight job as a business consultant when Galeano asked him to join his new venture. Madame Complot “was one of my favorite bands,” the bassist says. “That’s why Daniel is playing in Diamante.” The first song the new trio played in rehearsal was “Telescopio,” which became the opening track on Diamante Eléctrico. A few months later, the band played in Bogotá for the first time — for 600 people.

Zeta is from Manizales, the coffee-producing capital of central Colombia. “That was a time for the drummers,” he says brightly of his adolescent fervor for punk and rap-metal bands such as Korn and Blink-182. Zeta moved to Bogotá when he was 16 to study jazz percussion, but dropped out “because I was learning more by playing with a lot of bands.”

At one point, Zeta was surely the hardest working drummer in Bogotá, working with eight bands — rock, punk, tropical, R&B — at the same time. He lived in New York for two years where he did a stint with a version of the black American funk band Slave. “I didn’t know who they were,” Zeta confesses. They found him through his web page.

Yet after playing on Peregrino, “I always wanted to have a band with this man,” Zeta says brightly, reaching out with vividly tattooed arms as if to hug Galeano across our table in a Bogotá restaurant. “From the beginning, we don’t think — we just play. We don’t talk. We improvise; we jam. After being in those other bands with all the fights — ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that’ — I get to play what I feel.”

Sometimes, on Buitres, it’s the bare minimum. His drum tracks on “Rotos” and “Hacia La Noche” are, Galeano says, “chopped-up beats of Andee from other takes.” Zeta didn’t mind. “His thing was, ‘Use whatever you want to make people dance.’”

Fiscally cautious and fiercely protective of their independence, Diamante Eléctrico have two mottos, according to Galeano: “One is never stop. The other is never put economic pressure on the band.” He, Zeta and Álvarez all hold down outside jobs. Galeano produces bands and creates music for Nickelodeon, the children’s-television channel; the drummer is a DJ and works with public-relations firms producing media events. Álvarez applies his business skills to managing other Colombian artists such as the tropical-pop star Fonseca and, until recently, Dominican singer-songwriter Vicente García.

Diamante Eléctrico have “never missed a gig because of that work,” Galeano insists. “But the little things you can cut corners on, that interview, this meeting — no problem. I’ll go. Or Daniel can do that. And we’ll be alright.”

“We’ve come far, and we’re proud of it,” he continues. “It came with a price. But never in my wildest dreams would I thought I would be working with Andrew Oldham or winning a Grammy.”

Or, as Álvarez adds, riding down New York’s Fifth Avenue on a Gibson Guitars float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Diamante have a long relationship with Gibson; they co-sponsored Galeano’s Peregrino album. But there was a Macy’s connection as well; the daughter of the store’s music coordinator is half-Colombian and a Diamante fan. “So there we are,” marvels Galeano, “hanging out with De La Soul and Tony Bennett” — also featured stars in the parade.

And Diamante had a nice chat with singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, who was on a candy-company float and complained that while they rode with real instruments, she was stuck with “this fake-ass cardboard piano,” as Galeano puts it, laughing. “She was like, ‘You guys — you’ve got it all.’”

“American and English culture have permeated the whole world through music… People in Morocco, Turkey and Japan go crazy for the music. We can do that to people who don’t speak Spanish. That’s our goal.”

“Just as you called, I’m looking at three different fuzz pedals,” Billy Gibbons says over the phone in late March from his home in Houston. There is a pause on the line, then one of the Z.Z. Top guitarist’s low, drawling chuckles. “I’ll take all three.”

While he talks, Gibbons is packing a suitcase for his first trip to Colombia — to play with Diamante Eléctrico on the final day of the 2018 Festival Estéreo Picnic. So far, his relationship with the band has been the exchange of tapes and mutual admiration that produced the collaboration on “Días Raros.” The first time they meet in person is when Diamante Eléctrico pick up Gibbons at the Bogotá airport in Zeta’s snazzy 1978 Mercedes sedan.

“You could say our association was a testament to long-distance love affairs,” Gibbons growls cheerfully. He says that when Diamante sent him that song, “My engineer and I looked at each other and said, ‘Gosh, this is a catchy melody.’ And their singing is not to be overlooked — the harmony, the way it weaves in and out. All I had to do was add that crunchy, greasy flavor.”

He brought plenty of it to Bogotá, joining Diamante on March 25th at the end of their rain-soaked set for “Días Raros” and the Z.Z. Top hits “La Grange” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” The cellphone clips on YouTube are a riot of cool and joy — Gibbons calmly firing his Texas blues at a rolling sea of blue ponchos. There was no time for a soundcheck that day, and only enough to rehearse each song twice the day before. And everyone was a little stiff at first, in Zeta’s car during the ride from the airport, until Gibbons passed around a few of his business cards, which identify him not as a member of Z.Z. Top, but as “Friend of Eric Clapton.”

“We were laughing our asses off for twenty minutes,” Galeano recalls a few weeks later. “We hit it off after that. Everything went so smoothly.” When Diamante and Gibbons met for lunch the day after the show, “he told me, ‘I’m going to call you about something in the future.’”

“That’s something I treasure in my heart,” Galeano goes on. “It’s cool to say I’ve worked with Andrew Oldham and that I know Billy Gibbons. But it’s cool, because it’s real. We accomplished this through music.”

Galeano is doing the last interview for this story in New York, in late May amid the shelves and piles of LPs and CDs in my Manhattan apartment. He is in the city for meetings at the offices of Spotify and Sirius XM, the satellite-radio company, to coordinate promotion for Buitres, which finally comes out in September. In two days, Galeano will be back in Bogotá for the launch of the first single, “Hacia La Noche” — a surprise rooftop show like the one in the Beatles’ 1970 movie, Let It Be.

There have been changes to the album since I heard it at Nebula. The band planned to overdub a bombardino, the traditional Colombian horn, on “Nefertiti,” Galeano said at the time: “so people know we are not leaving Colombia behind.” But the part didn’t work; they used a Juno synthesizer instead. And the mariachi arrangement that Flor de Toloache added to “No Me Lo Pidas” was so good that Galeano and Álvarez re-cut their bass and guitar parts to measure up.

“If you do things right, right things will happen,” Galeano says, cracking open a beer. “The thing I really like about Diamante is we trust each other. Music decisions, business decisions — we know it’s the right thing to do. And when you step on stage, you trust everybody that’s with you.”

There will be touring for Buitres — “full on,” Galeano says, into 2020. “People say rock & roll is dying. We don’t believe that. At the same time, we’re more than a rock & roll band. I wear my leather jacket every day. I live the life. I also love hip-hop and soul music.”

“It’s different in the States,” he continues, “because rock & roll comes from a big tradition of black music. In Colombia, it’s stigmatized” — associated, he agrees, with old British white guys. “We want to be a broader band, to reach a bigger audience without changing who we are. To me, that’s success — reaching more people without ripping yourself off.”

What would happen, I ask, if Buitres falls short of his expectations?

“We talked about it actually,” Galeano says quietly. “There are two ways this can go. We keep going.” He stops. “No, there’s only one way. We keep going. There’s no other way. The good and bad thing about a personality like mine — if things go sour, I have a couple of fucked-up days. Then I pick it up again. I don’t stay there.”

“American and English culture have permeated the whole world through music,” he goes on. “People in Morocco, Turkey and Japan go crazy for the music. We can do that to people who don’t speak Spanish. That’s our goal.”

“It’s a high road,” Galeano concedes with a smile. “But we’re taking it.”

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Published at Wed, 26 Sep 2018 19:48:38 +0000