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Guitarist Ariel Sanzo sounds like a typical modern rock musician when he talks about his inspirations. Like any American kid who came of age in the late '70s and early '80s, Sanzo, who grew up in Buenos Aires and plays in both a three-piece punk group named Pez and the renowned ensemble Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, cites KISS and Queen as early influences. He also recalls going through a phase of discovering punk-rock bands like Black Flag and "freaks" like Frank Zappa, and admits he didn't like any of the jazz and classical music his parents listened to -- ironically, just the stuff Los Fabulosos Cadillacs has embraced (to a degree) on their latest album, La Marcha del Golazo Solitario (The March of the Solitary Goal).
"I didn't like tango," he says via phone from his home in Buenos Aires. "Now, I'm 29, and a few years ago I began to discover the complexity and richness of tango composition as well as the lyrics, too, which have a lot of nostalgia. I think in our city, there's a lot of nostalgia, so the tango is a major influence, even if we don't like it. It's in the air.
"The folk music of our country is another kind of music that has influenced us," he continues. "It's played with Spanish guitar, and I think that all that influences the band. A lot of the guys in the band listen to a lot of Caribbean music. Because our grandfathers are from Italy or Spain, there's a lot of European influence in our music, too."
When he joined Los Fabulosos Cadillacs four years ago, Sanzo was playing with Pez, a band he describes as "progressive punk." "Black Flag [also] played progressive punk," he explains. "Greg Ginn, the guitar player for Black Flag, has more to do with Robert Fripp than Joey Ramone." While Sanzo still hopes to find an American distributor for the three Pez albums that he has self-released in Buenos Aires (he's thinking of pitching Pez's latest album to Man's Ruin Records when he's in the States this fall), it's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs who will likely leave behind the musical legacy. Over the course of 16 years, the band has released 12 albums and, not counting the defunct Soda Stereo or the volatile and unpredictable Todos Tus Muertos, is possibly the most influential and important band to come out of Argentina.
After years of touring the States, they're not doing badly here, either. According to Sanzo, their last two albums have sold just as well in the U.S. as in Argentina, and the band was even rumored to play some dates with Aerosmith last year, but couldn't rearrange its schedule.
If you believe Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and other mainstream media that have latched onto the Latin invasion as rock's next big thing, you would say Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have ridden the coattails of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. But Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, who prefer to sing in their native Spanish and seldom write any lyrics in English, have come by success through hard work rather than their good looks -- not that Sanzo is going to disrespect Ricky Martin.
"I don't think anyone expected Ricky Martin to amount to anything a year ago," says Sanzo. "Sure, he was on General Hospital and all of that, but he wasn't a huge star. It's a tricky thing, because we love Ricky Martin, but we play a different kind of music. We don't sell a pretty face, and we don't have marketing strategies. It's not a pose or a product."
Initially, the Cadillacs sported zoot suits before the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies turned the retro fashion into current-day kitsch. The group's albums from the late '80s and early '90s suggest that it didn't just jump on the ska bandwagon -- it played a role in getting the thing rolling and was well-versed in swing and ska well before they became fads.
"It's funny for us," Sanzo says. "The band began as a ska band, and there were three or four albums like that. But last year, when we were touring, we saw the ska explosion happening, and we had already tried to go to another place. We showed the Cherry Poppin' Daddies early pictures of the band, and we were wearing zoot suits, too. Now, we just play in shorts and underwear."
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have wisely moved past ska and swing, but the changes have taken place gradually. Their biggest hit, after all, was "El Matador," an anthemic, horn-driven track that was voted MTV Latin's Video of the Year in 1994. By the time of 1995's Rey Azucar, the group had already begun to forge a connection with English-speaking rock acts. The album, which was produced by the Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, features guest appearances by Blondie's Debbie Harry (who sings a version of "Strawberry Fields Forever") and the Clash's Mick Jones.
But then came Fabulosos Calavera.
Easily the band's most experimental record (it's something like a Latin answer to Mr. Bungle's Disco Volante), it was much more disjunctive than its previous efforts. While Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have always mixed musical genres, breaking into salsa or funk on a whim (the group's 1994 greatest-hits package, Vasos Vacios, is proof that the band can blend two-tone ska with Latin rhythms without forcing a square peg into a round hole), on Calavera the Cadillacs' mix-and-match style of playing often sounds schizophrenic, confused and just as menacing as the spooky Day of the Dead iconography featured in the liner notes and on the album cover. On Calavera's first single, "El Muerto," the band shifted back and forth into sloppy hard-core and indulged in a by-the-numbers-metal-guitar solo before ending it all in a thunderstorm. Calavera wasn't completely useless -- the collaboration with salsa star Ruben Blades is solid, and "Lento" is an elegant ballad.