The best punchlines are the ones that you don't see coming.
In 2009, New York-based Venezuelan funk/dance outfit Los Amigos Invisibles thought they were being pretty slick when they decided to try and shed their underground Alternative Latin act image, putting out a record chock-full of uplifting pop rhythms. But it turns out the joke was on them all along.
The idea was to reach out to a wider audience, by making the most commercial album the six-piece band could possibly muster. But somewhere between, "In Luv With U" and "Merengue Killa" the plan backfired. Instead of winning the Latin Grammy for best pop record, they took home the award for best Latin Alternative album.
The 20-year veterans found out they still had a thing to learn about themselves and the gozadera funk fusion project they started so many years ago in their hometown of Caracas. We caught up with Los Amigos guitarist and mastermind Jose Luis Pardo, A.K.A. DJ Afro, on the evolution of the band, and the making of a great alternative Latin album.
Up on the Sun: How has 2012 treated you so far?
Jose Luis Pardo: It's been good. 2011 was our 20th anniversary as a band so it was a pretty busy year. We did a lot of shows celebrating the anniversary, so this year we've been running around with Commercial and Not So Commercial, while working on our new album. So its been a busy and creative year as well.
Yeah, you guys have been doing this for a while now. How have Los Amigos Invisibles evolved since that first album in 1995?
We've always been a self-supported band. So luckily for us, we've always been able to make the music that we like. When we started we were a very underground band in Venezuela, and then we got discovered by David Byrne and got signed to Luaka Bop. So I think that was like a before and after for the band.
Because we came from playing underground clubs in Venezuela to opening for bands in the States and traveling from coast to coast. So that was a big change for us. After we agreed to end our deal with Luaka Bop, we were independent for a while and now we're licensing with Nacional Records which has been amazing. But pretty much, the band has been managing all of the music. We record ourselves, we make our own albums and then we license it to different labels. So we've managed to make the music that we like, and we have evolved in that way. We try to keep in mind that whatever we do music wise is going to be music that we're going to be playing on tour, so we better like it because we're going to play it a lot.
What did moving to New York do for you guys creatively? How did it affect your music?
We came to New York in 1995 when we released our first album; just to play. It was like an adventure for us just to come here. As I said, we used to be a very underground band in Caracas, so we wanted to try something else, like going to play where all of our heroes are. It was either London or New York, and it turned out to be cheaper for us to fly to New York. And we fell in love with it. After 1997 we started contemplating leaving Venezuela for better touring opportunities. In 2000 we decided to make the move to New York, and by 2001 we were here.
For seven years we all lived in New York, but now we're all over. Some of the guys live in Miami and Venezuela, and I'm still in New York.
Living here has been an eye-opener. You get influences from all over the world. You have every kind of music, every type of musician around the city. It's very rich creatively. You get to see a lot of shows and share influences with different types of people than you would in Venezuela. Musicians from Turkey or India; that stuff you never get to see back in our hometown.
And on the other hand, leaving Venezuela made us realize what we were missing. Obvious things like salsa, and merengue were always there, and not seeing it every day made us realize who we were; realize our identity. So that was very empowering for us. When you leave your country, your circle, you realize what you are; what you grew up with.
Very cool. In 2009 you guys released Commercial -- a kind of blatant attempt to reach a wider audience. What was going on with the band at that time? Why was that important for you guys to do at that point?
As the name says, we got to a point where we had been around for a long time, playing and touring, and we started seeing a lot of other musicians of our generation doing really well and buying houses and we kind of hit a midlife crisis as a band. Everyone was like, "OK, maybe we should do more pop songs and see what happens." We actually made it, not as a joke, but as a conscious attempt to try to make the most pop album that we could make. And then the album became like a joke itself. Because even when we tried to make like a Shakira-type album, in our vision it was still very alternative. It was ironic to us that, the most commercial album we tried to make, got the Grammy for an alternative album. So it became a joke on us. Even though we were thinking we were doing a very commercial album, it wasn't that commercial.
As a band every time we make an album it's always like a sale. Sometimes it's like, "you don't have a track in English or you don't have a dance track." So with Commercial we tried to make a bulletproof album.
What was unique about recording this last album?
It was interesting because we did all of these tracks in one session. And everything that was more pop went into Commercial and then we were left with all these other tracks locked in a hard drive. Then we were like, we should put them out. It's interesting because we felt that Commercial did really well in Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries. But not so well in the U.S. and in Europe. The opposite was true for Not So Commercial. So with that we learned that we shouldn't under-appreciate any of our tracks.
I was also curious to know, as a Latino band do you guys have any opinion on the charged immigration climate in Arizona?
We don't really like to make opinions on that because we don't really live there so we don't know the realities of it. But there's something that you can't avoid and that is that the demography has changed in America. There are a lot of Latino people in the U.S. right now and in my perspective it is very enriching for this country. All of the people looking for opportunity, looking for a better life, is very enriching for the country. When you go to places like Australia or Europe, they embrace immigration because they add to the culture. In my perspective, America has a richer culture because of the immigrants that are coming here.
And what's up next for Los Amigos?
We have a documentary of the 20th anniversary coming out. We're finishing production on that and finishing our new album. So we're working hard; touring a lot. But right now our brains are concentrated on finishing the album before the end of the year, so we can have it ready by the first part of 2013.
As long as the world doesn't end right?
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Los Amigos Invisibles is schedule to perform Thursday, September 13, at Crescent Ballroom.