Q&A with Saúl Hernández of Jaguares
Jaguares are among the most popular bands in Mexico, as well as the standard-bearer in this country of the rock en español movement. But the band's frontman, singer-songwriter Saúl Hernández, would prefer to be seen as one of the people rather than their leader -- something he emphasizes in an October 30 Westword profile and the following Q&A.
Hernández's English is more than serviceable, although he occasionally pauses while speaking to say a Spanish word that's occurred to him and then try out various translation options; I've omitted such moments so as not to interrupt the flow of the conversation. The chat begins with some background about his hometown, Mexico City, and his eclectic early influences. He then talks about his introduction to drummer Alfonso André, who's been by his side during his stint with Caifanes, his first major band, as well as in Jaguares; his sense that the group's latest disc, , may be its most musically straightforward to date; his resistence to singing in English, even though doing so might make commercial sense in the States; the socially conscious lyrics of a couple new tunes; his dissatisfaction with the political status quo in Mexico; and Jaguares' participation in a small-places tour for Amnesty International, during which he says the band has brought in more new Amnesty members than U2.
Watch out, Bono.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
Saúl Hernández: Mexico City.
WW: What was the first music you heard growing up that really connected with you?
SH: It was in my family. I grew up with a lot of influence from different kinds of music. My father loves jazz music and classical music, and my mother loves Cuban music and Colombian music – Latin music. And my older sister loved that period of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She was a big fan of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. So she introduced me to rock and roll. But I appreciate all the music that was in the house. In one hour, I could hear Stravinsky and Eydie Gorme and Trio Los Panchos and José José and Jimi Hendrix. It was so eclectic.
WW: Did you differentiate between styles of music? Or did you gravitate toward things that you liked no matter what description it fit?
SH: Yeah. I heard one interview with Miles Davis that was amazing. He said, “There’s just two kinds of music – the good one and the bad one.” And I agree with that. I agree that it doesn’t matter where it came from. The important thing is that it’s honest, and that’s it.
WW: How unusual was it growing up where you did to be able to hear such a wide variety of music? And were rock fans like you rare? Or were there a lot of them among your friends?
SH: I think the influences are really open in Mexico. We have a lot of culture and music. When I was a younger, it was maybe more difficult. Even people with money might not listen to different types of music. They thought some of it was not good music – it wasn’t cool, you know? But now everybody hears any type of music, and I like that. The social divisions are not there any more for the music like they used to be.
When I was young, it was more drastic. I grew up in a neighborhood like the Bronx in New York a long time ago – a hard neighborhood. Not a good economy. Really working class people… And in a neighborhood like that, you create your way to discover. In that period, it was harder to find different kinds of communication in everything: books, music, art, whatever. And the only connection you have is the movies, the cinema. But you start to search for what you want, and I think all of us learned that in the way that we now search ourselves in the music. I think it’s the instinct of surviving.
WW: Even though some American listeners are just discovering your music, your roots stretch all the way back to the mid-‘80s…
SH: Yeah, this is correct. I grew up with the music of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus and the Cure, of course. I really enjoyed all this dramatic music, maybe because we Latins are also dramatic, and we find some identity in that period of music.
WW: When did you and Alfonso [André] first start playing together?
SH: It was ’84. And we still play together.
WW: Did you know each other beforehand? Or did you meet through the musical scene there?
SH: Through friends. Somebody wanted a live band for a party at his house and that’s the way we met each other. It was kind of coincidence or whatever. We just started to make a band to play in a party house. That’s the genesis.
WW: How would you describe the music you made early on, and how it’s evolved since then – particularly up until the mid-‘90s, when Jaguares formed?
SH: Jaguares started with an idea of making it not like a regular band. I was kind of tired of all the situations from Caifanes. Everybody had their own territory, and it was a little suffocating. Jaguares, I tried to make more freedom, more participation. And the records show that eclectic music, I think, because all of us grew up with a lot of music. Most of the records by Caifanes and Jaguares are kind of eclectic. They have different kinds of songs, different kinds of fusions. They’re not records that go along one line and you work that line with different songs. We work one song and we don’t know where the line is. But with 45, it’s the first time we started to walk in one line. I proposed that idea to the band, and everybody was like, “I don’t know. We’ve never walked on that side of the street.” And I said, “That’s the reason we have to do it.” We started to analyze the other records and we decided not to do anything that would compare to the other records. We tried to be like a new band. A new band making its first record. And I think it works. We were making this experiment, and I discovered it is not bad to work in one line. You just have to let your fantasy flow. Your creativity can be more free if you’re working in a single concept.
WW: So you discovered that it’s possible to retain that musical freedom even when you’re working on songs that aren’t as eclectic as usual?
SH: I think so. I think 45 has that intention. But the songs are still very different. “Entre tus jardines” is a very strong song, very quick. It is the single in Mexico and is in the top 10, and when we put the song on the website of Jaguares, in three days, four million people had listened to the song. So I like to propose different constructions in the songs – to say to everybody, “Let’s also try to do something different.” Like, “Viajando en el tiempo” is a completely different song. But all the record has the same intentions, which I think is the most important part. Attitude.
WW: In this country, you’re often described as the leader of the rock en español movement. Are you comfortable with that label? Or do you think people just use that as a shorthand way to identify you, but it’s not really all that accurate?
SH: I think the second one. I’m not really the leader. I think there are a lot of musicians and a lot of bands, and the movement that exists is huge. I don’t believe in calling someone “the best band” or the best of something. I think all of us collaborate to build things. I feel much better being a collaborator. Being part of something than being seen as the person who makes his way in the jungle. I don’t know which is the way. There are too many ways to go!
WW: Have people over the years suggested that you might have more success in the United States if you performed more songs in English? And if so, does that idea have any appeal to you? Or does it fly in the face of your approach to music from the beginning?
SH: Sometimes – and maybe they’re right. But my honest answer is, I can’t write in English because I don’t know the language deeply enough so that I can sit and write in an honest way. I have to learn English, I have to study English, and I have to be honest. I can do some things in English, but you’re going to laugh! And I don’t want that. You’re going to say, “This guy smoked joints. What happened? It’s not logical.” And that’s my idea. If I sing in English, it will be because I know the language and I can sing it, at least in some situation where I can think about something and write about it. It’s a statement about honesty, and not against the language. And also, my thoughts are in Spanish, and all my metaphors and all my images are part of my language. And I enjoy it a lot. I really enjoy my language.
WW: Your lyrics would lose too much in translation…
SH: Maybe. Some lyrics are kind of difficult to translate. If I knew the language well enough, I might be able to do something very nice, and as deep as I could in my language.
WW: When I saw the title of your new album, I thought it might be a reference to vinyl singles – but I understand it’s really about the fact that there are 45 million people living in poverty in Mexico…
SH: That’s correct. I saw the news and it was shocking. Sometimes you feel so impotent that you can’t do a lot of things. But I go back to the basics of rock and roll, where you use the music and use the concerts and use the media to scream and shout, “We are fucked. This is not working well. We are not a democratic country. And that’s the truth.” The first way to change is accepting the truth of our reality, and the 45 million people show us that something is really bad.
WW: Is the current government in Mexico not doing nearly enough to address this problem?
SH: You know what? Maybe they are working on a lot of things. But there is a lot of corruption in our society, and that’s going to be a big problem. I think that also, the system, the political system, is not working anymore. It’s just the big shots, the big families and the power of the few. That’s the reason I don’t believe here in Mexico in democracy. And the other thing that I think is very important is education.
WW: What role does the United States play in making this widespread povery either better or worse?
SH: There’s a lot of relationships between Mexico and the United States that protect the huge companies, the big names. There needs to be a program in Mexico with the United States where they could say, “We can do business, big business, but the other side has to feed the people.” The United States and Canada and China and all the world have come here. But if we are not strong, if we are not clear about what we want, it’s our problem. We have to accept that the problem with immigrants begins here in Mexico. Because if Mexico has equality in its infrastructure, in its economy, people wouldn’t have to leave Mexico and go to the States to work. The second biggest income in Mexico after oil comes from the immigrants. That’s a lot of money, and I think it’s not fair. It’s like, “Go away. Cross the borders and send your money back.” I think it’s not the way to create a country and the way to help your people. I think if Mexico had better conditions for workers, they’d stay here and we could work together to make a better country.
WW: Are there songs on the new album that specifically deal with these kinds of issues?
SH: “Un mal sueño.” It has acoustic guitar with strings, and we talk about the corruption in the system, and how everything is really bad. At the end, I say, “This is a nightmare. Tell me that it’s a nightmare. That it’s not true.” And another one is “Si fuera necesario.” I have these images of poverty that I try to put in the lyrics, and this character, this guy, says, “If I could change a lot of things, I would do it. If I could be reborn and grow up in peace, I’d do it.” It’s not about complaining. It’s just about change.
WW: Tell me about your participation in Amnesty International’s Small Places tour.
SH: Jaguares, along with a lot of other bands, is participating in this celebration of human rights. And I like the idea that this Small Places tour begins with a concept that you can start in your home, in your neighborhood, in your community. I think that’s the way it’s working. Jaguares, in all of our concerts from the tenth of September to the tenth of December, we’re talking about this with the people. Talking about what’s going on and why we are doing this. We talk about Darfur in Africa, the murder of women in Juarez, we talk about torture, we talk about political prisoners in jail. And at the end, I say, “That’s just one piece of reality” – because if we walk out into the street right now, we could be in that circumstance. Nobody’s free from that situation. And I say we need to collaborate in a culture of conscience. Because I’m nobody. I’m just like you. We live and we’re going to die and that’s it.
But I believe more in the people. I don’t believe anymore in the parties, political parties. The movements of people, they really know what they want, and with information, they’re going to be stronger than any party in the world.
WW: It sounds as if you prefer to connect with people more on a one-to-one basis as opposed to having some huge event that might get a lot of attention for a day, but then it’ll be over…
SH: You’re close. Maybe the attention is more direct. But even when we are in big, big concerts, I feel the same energy – that the people are listening. People are really smart, really strong. They’re giants. When we were working the last record, we decided to let the people know who Amnesty is, because many of them were like, “I don’t know anything about that.” We did two years of touring, and at every concert, we talked about Amnesty. And at the end, statistics show us that Jaguares helped sign up more members than U2, for example. That’s why I believe in the people. We’re just the pretext. When you talk to the people, you say, “Guys, this is happening” – and there’s a connection. They want to be part of something. And that news was shocking to us. But it’s important. It’s power to the people.