EMI México’s Artistic Director and front man for the internationally acclaimed Instituto Mexicano del Sonido, Camilo Lara opens up with Gozamos about his passion for music, his perspectives on the unfortunate situation in Arizona today, his critique of fervent nationalism, and the very personal nature of his work. Throughout our conversation I was struck by Lara’s class consciousness and candid approach to music and art. His observations on social inequities take firm root in his contrast of “Third World/Developing” México and the imperial powers of the U.S. Lara’s lineage is definitely a vibrant and long history of revolutionary artists and social/political agents in México’s past and present. True to Lara’s musical project name, el Instituto Mexicano del Sonido (IMS) resounds as a trumpet call for a musical and social revolution, where the visages of the past are honored and amply understood, built upon, and promoted towards a prosperous and polyphonic future. ISM stands as a transnational institution rationing out free-love, dance and delightful music to the masses.
Lara’s calm and familiar voice creeks with a slight crackle of el DF’s (Mexico City’s) rough and winding streets. His Spanish reminds me of an ex-lover from el DF and distant relatives in el Estado de México (the surrounding state). Our conversation spans art, politics and the role of the artist in society. With vulnerability and humility, Lara shared about his processes of self-discovery and self-expression and his absolute love and obsession with music. It’s rare to find someone you can connect to through a phone interview in such a way as I felt I connected with Lara.
Camilo Lara opened up about his humble beginnings, his deep connection to Mexican culture and society, his rooted identity as a middle class worker (despite his illustrious and merited career climb to the top of EMI México, where he had worked since he was 18 years old, and his subsequent catapult into musical stardom). Lara’s story is a universal story of ‘the artist’ and his deep seeded desire to express something of himself with the world. The role of the artist, Lara shares, is to give a fraction of his perspective and share something of where he comes from, his beloved México and to share who he is, as a person, with other people. Lara longs to connect with people and the world. His honorable commitment to art as a tool for social engagement, a simple and subtle apparatus in affecting positive change, is greatly appreciated in these hard times. Lara’s identity as a Latin American artist propels his vision and ambition farther than the strict binaries and divisions of class and nation-states that divide and debilitate society. I commend Lara for his vision of a world where nation states will not restrict and chastise their civilians.
As a queer Latino in the United States, I discovered Lara’s liberating music in México, while studying abroad for college. IMS (or MIS in English) rings as a voice not of heaven, but of los muertos. IMS reflects the wealth of Latin American musical history and adds a contemporary twist, a bit of urban edge and queer aesthetic to keep things current and captivating. Upon my return to the States, I blasted Lara’s tracks for friends and parties at every chance I could. That was several years ago, when Lara had just exploded onto the music scene with his first tribute album, “Méjico Máxico” (2006). His seamless homage to the elegant and sultry sounds of Latin America’s rich musical history, and his mix-master prowess and production skills were just as astounding then as they are now. Here’s an artist that knows his history, knows who he is, where he comes from, and has a clear vision of where he’s going. It was a pleasure and an absolute honor to talk to a musical hero and icon such as Camilo Lara. We look forward to his anticipated DJ set for Lollapolooza this Sunday.
Primer que nada, ¿te consideras Chilango? (First of all, do you consider yourself a Mexico-City-ite?)
Si. Chilango. Mero mero. (Yeah. Chilango. Absolutely)
What role does el DF play in your artistic and professional career?
The truth is all the music that I grew up listening to is from el DF. So for me the music that I make is like a sort of son of el DF. And more than the city, my neighborhood, the person I am. I like the idea that when you make music, the music reflects where you’re from.
Talk to me a little about your process? What’s a normal day for Camilo Lara?
A normal day? I don’t know. I listen to a lot of music. If I’m not spinning somewhere as a DJ in some place, I’m making music in my studio. I spend a lot of hours in my studio with the mixers making music.
Talk to me a little bit about your impressively large record collection. You’re rumored to have some 40,000 records.
I’m not a commercialist. I don’t just want to own a lot of records for the sake of just owning them. They’re references, I have them there. I don’t like having a lot of music or material objects. I’m very obsessive. I listen to a lot of music: electro, rock, pop, whatever it is.
Why do you do music?
I like it. It’s a very personal project. To express and show something that you’re making for yourself. To be able to pull it from within. A couple years back I had decided to not share any of my music with anyone. To just make music for the sheer pleasure of it for myself only. And that’s where the first album came from. Initially, I try to make music for the sheer pleasure of making music. Trying to make something that’s all my own. When I make music I don’t really pay that much attention to what’s in style or what’s happening around me. I just start to mix and see what comes out of me.
What do you think you’re expressing about contemporary México?
I don’t know if it greatly reflects something. It reflects my daily life. Close to where I live. A personal point of view, more than talking about the dead, or the massacres happening all over the country, or the violence. It’s more about the daily grind of life. That’s what I get stuck with in the end of the day. My perspective. Things are calmer in the capital. Much much calmer than the rest of the country. I live like any middle class person in México. I talk about the bars that I go to. The quotidian. The sounds I hear. And what’s out there. Not just cumbias, but stuff from Asia and all over.
What do you think your songs say?
Well what they say in the lyrics is very clear. They talk about things that exist. Friends that I’ve had. Boyfriends I’ve had. The places that I go to. It’s very concrete. I don’t like to talk about abstracts or to use a lot of metaphors. I like to talk about things the way they are. I always have my feet in two places at the same time. My music reflects the Mexican music that I like, but I’m not only listening to cumbias, mambo, son, cha cha cha, and rancheros all day. I try to listen to music from all over the world, different sounds that excite me.
And what excites you?
A lot of new music. I really like Silverio and Norteque. I keep forming myself as a I make more albums. But, the music, music still excites me.
What do you identify as?
The truth is I’m a pinche Chilango de nacimiento, but I just finished reading an article about Roberto Bolaño, who was Chilean, raised in México, and later moved to Europe. When they asked him what he was, he’d identify himself as Latin American. Maybe saying you’re Latin American in the U.S. is too generic, however I do feel like a person who lives in México and loves it, but who doesn’t plan on staying here. I still live here because it still gives me a lot of good things but in the end I feel like I’d like to be in whatever place without feeling ruled over. I’m not a believer in nationalities, or taking up flags because in the end there’s other, more profound virtues to uphold.
I didn’t want to steer the question towards a discourse on nationalism. I agree with you 100%. I just meant how do you identify yourself? As a human being? An artists? Who are you?
Soy un obrero de la musica. (Literally: I’m a worker of the music.)
You mentioned your identity as Latin American, talk more about that idea, it fascinates me.
I feel that the music I like isn’t necessarily Mexican. The music that I say is Mexican, isn’t really Mexican. Cumbia isn’t Mexican. Cumbia is Colombian, Mexican, Argentinean. It’s from Latin America. I have more in common with people who don’t live in el DF, people who live in Monterrey, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires and Bogota. That’s why, I feel more of a connection with people who perhaps see the world the same way I do.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself recording albums, making music. I’m writing these days, so I’d like to publish a novella. I’d like to keep living over here in México, and to visit a lot more countries. Every year we’ve been growing and I hope we can keep visiting more and more countries.
Is it true you work for EMI México?
Yes. Yes. I started working there when I was really young, since I was about 18 years old. You know now how it is in México, you have to have a job to survive. And mine was there since I was really young. So I’ve conserved it [with an ironic chuckle]. I like it a lot.
What do you do there?
I’m the Artistic Director. Which is basically working on the albums with each artist.
Who are some of the people you’ve worked with?
Well…Zoe, Titan, Jaguares, a bunch of artists.
You mentioned the middle class. Talk a little more about that.
What can I say, I’m middle class like a lot of people from el DF. That’s part of what I do. Living in the city has shown me that there’s a lot divisions and contrasts. You learn to live with that. Living in the city, life is marked by separations, social and economic and that leaves an imprint on you.
Can you make a statement about the situation in Arizona?
I think it’s sad that you can have such an intransient governor, and it’s tragic that the society and civilians have to pay for it.
Do you think that art can really change things? Help in some way?
Art can help. Art’s important in nourishing the spirit, in helping change society a little. All the arts can help make things better.
Do you think your art is helping make things better?
In a small way, yes, I think my art is helping make things better.