Perhaps you’re one of the millions of fans from all over the world who can appreciate the swelling nuances of Saúl Hernández‘ voice, his masterful guitar work over the decades and his tireless humanitarianism. But, even if you’re not a huge 80’s and 90’s alt rock fan, and aren’t too into Spanish-rock, chances are you’ve had an ex put a Caifanes track on a mix for you when you were all young and desperately hopeful about love. Or perhaps at a family function a cousin switched stations and you heard a Jaguares number in passing and everyone burst out into song. Maybe while in Mexico visiting family you started to form a unique bond with a middle-aged, long-haired hippy uncle, sharing your common interest in 80’s bands, Depeche Mode, and of course New Order standing above them all. You ooze a faux-nostalgia for an era of music history where you long for things to be purer, the industry less clichéd, the songs less trite, and the music more passionate, fresher, somehow more alive.
Whether you’re a recent fan or a die hard roadie who grew up on the post-punk rock ‘n roll ballads of Caifanes, or maybe even had the chance to rock out for real to one of Hernández’ earlier career performances with his first group Deimos or his second band, Las Insólitas Imágenes de Aurora, the fact of the matter is that Hernández is an absolute legend. Perhaps not as pop-tastic as their counterparts Maná, and notably darker, more original and arguably better looking, Caifanes’ and Jaguares’ originality withstood the test of time, controversially, due to Hernández’ vision.
The only real comparison for Hernández’ work might be Billy Corgan, who also started out in the avant spectrum with a gothic rock band and similarly catapulted to notoriety in the early 90’s only to destroy our souls with an abrupt and heart shattering disbanding of The Smashing Pumpkins in 2000. It may seem odd to the ear, since the two groups sound so dissimilar, but career-wise Corgan and Hernández literally kicked off their major success within a year of each other. Is it too wildly Chicago-centric of me to say that Caifanes could be the Smashing Pumpkins of Latin America? Apparently the Goo Goo Dolls got started up around the same time as Hernández and Corgan were kicking off their mainstream acts but that’s neither here nor there.
As I came to this piece, I spent days trying to imagine how to start the article. What words could do justice to a man who people have watched span a life of music, public turmoil, activism and endless productions. Hernández’ music is quite possibly the voice of an entire generation or three, and having been only barely conceived when his vocal chords began to echo across the world, makes for an interesting, if not erroneous perspective. As a young artist, a writer and a free thinker, I’m most intrigued by Hernández early career. I wonder what he must have been like in his youth, the stories he can tell about growing up in a volatile and hostile Mexico in the 70’s. I wonder what brooding Bauhaus tapes sit in his private collection and what bands he was mix-taping up for his exes?
Haven’t you ever wondered, where the poetry comes from? What was Hernández reading, or watching or thinking about when he started to pen those infamous lines of La célula que explota?
Well Hernández confides, “I can’t compose a song without my guitar in hand. I can’t write song lyrics without the guitar. When I have the letter it always comes with the melody. When I have the melody it always comes with the words.”
As we talked via telephone, Hernández noted the deeply personal nature of this solo effort. He shared his challenge with coming at this, though stripped down, no less complicated project: a solo album. “When you make music with other people you have a trajectory to follow, you have a path to stay on. But when you work alone on something, you are the first and the only step. There’s no course. You’re standing alone in a desert, an ocean and you have to find your way to the path.”
Over the phone, I noticed a sincere, quiet and very calm man. I heard the voice of a collected and contemplative person, as he shared, almost sentimentally, his political proclivities. Known for his staunch Amnesty International work, vocal objurgation of the current state of immigrant affairs in the U.S., and his great concern for the horrendous crimes surrounding the Juarez mass murders, Hernández emotes and empathizes. “It hurts. You hear about these things or you see them, you live them, and it hurts you as a human being, at your core.”
I asked Hernández, who stands as an icon and idol of a very vibrant, rebellious youth culture in Mexico, what his thoughts might be about the current conditions for youth in Mexico. His view on the matter: “The politicians give their reports and public addresses on finances and all the improvements they’ve supposedly made in the country, but they never speak about the youth […] Can you imagine, these kids are going to college and know they won’t find jobs when they finish. The government needs to do something, [they] need to acknowledge the youth.”
Speaking about his inspirations, ranging from John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Octavio Paz’s seminal text, El laberinto de soledad, and how his approach to music has changed over the years, he specified the importance of living, and surrounding yourself with family and people you love. “You can’t write about what you don’t know,” Hernández posits. But, ironically the question goes both ways. Asking Hernández how he feels he has changed over the years as a person, his response, as clear as his lyrics, “The music changed me into a better person.”