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Gustavo Santaolalla's music travels from TV to film to the concert stage

Gustavo Santaolalla at his Echo Park studio.
Gustavo Santaolalla at his Echo Park studio.
Betto Arcos

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If you listen to Mexico’s most famous rock band, Café Tacuba, you likely recognize Gustavo Santaolalla’s name as the group’s producer.

That’s just one of the dozens of Latin American bands he’s worked with. And if you saw the films “Babel” or “Brokeback Mountain,” you’ve heard the Oscar-winning soundtracks he composed. But you may not know his history as a musician and performer. He’s currently re-visiting that part of his career.

Santaolalla’s recording studio is in the hills of Echo Park. From the street, it looks like a normal 1950s ranch-style house. But just inside the entrance, there’s a wall with more than 50 covers of the albums he’s produced over the last few decades.

A collection of covers from albums produced by Gustavo Santaolalla.
A collection of covers from albums produced by Gustavo Santaolalla.
Betto Arcos

He walks in, singing a melody, and starts talking about the new album from his group, Bajofondo. The band plays contemporary music, re-inventing tango and other styles from Argentina, a region called Rio de la Plata. At first, he hesitates to tell me the name, but then…

“I’m going to say it. The album is called 'Aura.' Aura, for us, means the same thing [as] here ... the energy field that surrounds living things. But also in Argentinian, aura it’s like slang to say ahora — now.”

Santaolalla’s studio is called La Casa — The Home. This is where he’s recorded the bulk of his work as producer, composer, bandleader and solo artist. 

“It’s impossible to count the amount of amazing music that has come out of this place and that has been created here," he says. "All major alternative Latin acts have done something here. All the music of the movies, at a certain point, most of it gets done here. So it’s very charged, the place.”

Before he came to Los Angeles, in the late 1970s, Santaolalla was in a couple of successful bands in Argentina. In the late '70s, when the military dictatorship ruled with an iron fist and things turned ugly, he moved here and formed a band called Wet Picnic.

Eventually, Santaolalla felt a different calling:

“I wanted to put my talent at the service of other people, instead of being so obsessed just with my project.”

Gustavo Santaolalla composed the music for his two Academy Award-winning films,
Gustavo Santaolalla composed the music for his two Academy Award-winning films, "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel," at his Echo Park studio.
Betto Arcos

Next, he went to Mexico City and saw the emergence of a rock scene that recalled what he lived in Argentina, in the late '60s and early '70s.

“It reminded me of that vibe, of that energy, that quality, that freshness, that innocence, that danger.”

Santaolalla recalls the first time he saw Café Tacuba. It was 1989, before he had his own record label.

“They were playing with cheap instruments, the sound was terrible, but they had something unbelievable. I thought, These guys are so unique! At the time I didn’t have [my own label], so when I saw a band that I liked I had, to go and convince a record label to sign them so I could produce the record. In this case, it took me almost two years to get Tacuba signed. [The labels]didn’t want to sign them.”

In the late '90s, Santaolalla was approached to work on the soundtrack of the first feature-length film by a Mexican director. Santaolalla was so busy producing bands he told his assistant to decline on his behalf. He had not read the script or seen any of the film. Then, something happened.

“That night, I woke up in the middle of the night and I started thinking, What if? What if he’s a genius?

Santaolalla gave his assistant an urgent task.

Call and tell them that if they come to Los Angeles and they show me the film, I will consider it. Sure enough, they came. We saw the first five minutes [and] I was like, I’m in, I'm doing this. Yes, it was amazing.”.

And that was how Santaolalla came to work on “Amores Perros” by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Santaolalla followed that with the music for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Then, “Brokeback Mountain,” which garnered his first Academy Award for original score. Then came a reunion with Iñárritu for  “Babel,” and a second Oscar, followed by more than a dozen film and TV projects — and, of course, producing albums by many Latin alternative bands and his own, Bajofondo.

More recently, he’s been collaborating with songwriter Paul Williams on a musical version of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And if that’s not enough, Santaolalla has also jumped into the world of video games, composing the music for the wildly popular “The Last of Us.” But one thing he’s been wanting to do for a while is to play his solo albums live.

“At this point in my life — I’m now 66 years old — I felt the need to look back at my life through my songs and through my music. This is basically a look at my songwriting since I was 15 to now.”

Before I leave Santaolalla’s studio I ask him to tell me about his work in the forthcoming season of the Netflix series, “Narcos.” Once again, he hesitates …

“…which is very exciting because …. ahhhh. I don’t think I can tell…”

But this much we know: the next season of “Narcos” is set in Mexico in the 1980s. Santaolalla says he can relate to the period. It’s the same time when he was in Mexico looking for the next rock band to produce.

Gustavo Santaolalla and Bajofondo perform on April 28 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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