Colombian singer-songwriter Juan Galeano is the magnetic new voice of rock en Español. His power trio, Diamante Eléctrico, is riding high in the wake of a surprise Best Rock Album win at the 16th Annual Latin GRAMMYS for their sophomore album, B, beating out veteran rockers Cuca, La Gusana Ciega, No Te Va Gustar (NTVG) and Charliepapa. B’s first single, “Todo Va a Arder,” even snagged the nomination for Best Rock Song – a huge testament to Galeano’s songwriting. These “new kids on the block,” are putting Bogotá on the Latin rock map with their gritty, bluesy sound.
But this mainstream recognition didn’t just happen overnight. Galeano had long been driven to write, play and record music, but something was missing. He traveled abroad to the Netherlands to pursue a Masters degree at the Rotterdam Conservatory, but it wasn’t until a chance hearing, in 2002, of “So Real” from Jeff Buckley’s 1994 classic album, Grace, that he found the missing piece of the puzzle. Buckley’s lyricism made an electric impression on Galeano, inspiring him to delve into his own songwriting, and to take up the upright bass.
During his years as a music student, Galeano landed a coveted opening slot on the European leg of Juanes’ Mi Sangre tour. Watching that celebrated pop/rock star play every night further inspired the young songwriter, hinting at the broader possibilities for a Colombian musician.
After graduating, Galeano returned to Bogotá. In 2009, EMI Music Colombia signed him as a solo act, and released his debut album, Peregrino (Spanish for pilgrim). Everything seemed to be falling into place. But despite being produced by the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones, Charly García Fleetwood Mac), featuring former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr as producer on two tracks and boasting a contribution from maverick guitarist (and Jeff Buckley collaborator) Gary Lucas on the debut single, the folk-rock-pop formula on Peregrino felt inorganic. Disillusioned but determined, he strove to reinvent himself. In 2010, he called his best friend and guitarist Daniel Álvarez to start a new rock band. Recruiting drummer Andee Zeta in the wake of a single killer jam session, Diamante Eléctrico was born, and a successful new chapter for Galeano began.
BMI caught up with the Latin GRAMMY winner on the origins of his band, what it was like recording an album in one night, and the importance of authenticity.
Congratulations on your Latin GRAMMY win! Has it fully sunk in yet that you won for Best Rock Album? And what does this award mean to you personally?
It’s been really amazing, because we’ve been working really hard as independent artists. We started the band less than four years ago and it’s worked out pretty well. Winning the Latin GRAMMY for Best Rock album is very important to me and the band. For me, it’s a big win for all independent bands here in Colombia.
I mean – we were nominated with bands that have been around 20 to 25 years! We’re the new kids on the block and we won. We’re very happy to have that award in our hands. And to represent independent music from Colombia – that’s really the main goal for us.
In your acceptance speech you said, “First and foremost, we want to thank our country for the absolutely incredible music it exports.” Tell us why you said that and why you think 2015 has been a strong year for Colombian artists?
I’m not so sure, actually, because Mexico and Argentina have always been the epicenter for music and entertainment, especially rock ‘n’ roll. Colombia hasn’t really been known for [it], with the exception of Carlos Vives, Shakira and Juanes. With our country being in war for 15 years, people are just focused on surviving, and I actually find it amazing that we can still find it in us to create art and music. Colombia is a metropolis for reggaeton, champeta, and rock ‘n’ roll music.
Right now, huge concerts are happening, like when we opened up for the Foo Fighters. That would’ve never happened 20 years ago. But, like I said, people were just thinking about surviving. Things are more peaceful and things have changed. There’s more of a creative space now. And because, geographically, we’re located at the top of South America and close to the States and Mexico, we have the influences of both. But, Juanes definitely opened a space for all us Colombians.
What is the “Latin rock” sound? Do you feel your sound is fully there now versus where you were in 2012?
It’s actually crazy. When you define rock in Latin America, not just in Colombia, but in general, a lot of fusion happens. If you listen to Caifanes or Café Tacvba – it’s very Mexican. If you hit more south, you’ll hear all roots — it’s not pure rock ‘n’ roll. It’s obvious we have Latino roots. We’re influenced by bolero, salsa, but we don’t put it specifically in our music. And Carlos Vives – he, in my opinion, is the pioneer of Latino rock, Colombian rock. He’s the Godfather of it all. Growing up in Colombia in the ’90s, I listened to Nirvana, Carlos Vives, Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Fania All-Stars, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters. It’s crazy, but black music has been a big influence for us – really, really big – Caribbean, soul, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, bebop. But, the blues especially – it’s the root of the band. It’s so pure in style. Diamante Eléctrico is the blues.
How did Diamante Eléctrico start and was it always implied with your two bandmates that you’d be sort of the musical director of the band’s sound?
When I was signed to EMI, we made a record that was supposed to sound like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan. My solo debut was going to be a record that would make history, break ground, and all that good stuff. I don’t know if it was me, or if it was the songs, or the label. I don’t know happened, but I felt a lot of pressure. We started this band because we were pissed off. We were not satisfied with what was happening in the industry.
With Diamante Eléctrico, I have a chance to do whatever I want. It was kind of implied that I was the boss, but, of course, that’s changing [laughs] because I’m learning to let go. The guys definitely pull their weight, too. They’re down. It’s the three of us. Before, when we started, it was more my thing and now it’s our thing.
You’ve been in other bands. What is the most important rule/idea/philosophy in Diamante Eléctrico that helps make it all run smoothly?
When people get together, you never know how things will go. I will say writing songs has been really powerful for us. The main thing is for us to really connect with the songs. Also, having a work routine, like going on the road and playing a lot matters.
We have, like, 12 music videos and we only have two records out, so we’ve been working our asses off. We don’t push things off. And we’re always on top of our work and doing things our way. It’s been paying off, but we have a lot of work to do still. I don’t know exactly what it is about us. I guess it’s our synergy. There’s something about the three of us that really works. When we played the melody to our first song – I knew it. It was so cool.
Describe how hands-on you were with the making of your latest album, B, and why call it simply B? And were there tough lessons along the way of making the album?
We’ve evolved, and we’re really happy with the journey of our album. We’ve grown as a band. We have a raw sound. We have the blues. We have the buzz, the reverb, and we added a couple of sounds since the last record. In the first record, we were more pissed off against the whole thing – the whole music industry thing happening here. It was telling us what to do all the time: You have to be on the radio. You have to do this. You have to be signed to a label. We were like, ‘F*** that.’ All we wanted to do was play rock ‘n’ roll. And we want to play without compromise, so that’s what we did.
I’ve learned through my experiences that you have to be real so you can grow and accomplish things as a musician. Yeah, you can be fake for a while, but, eventually, the facade is going to come down and you’re going to hate yourself.
I love that you play the upright bass; I haven’t seen a rocker play that since the Stray Cats! It’s a tough instrument to travel/gig with. What inspired you to use that classical instrument with the Diamante Eléctrico sound?
So, actually, I am a professional upright bass player. I studied jazz abroad for six years. When I was learning the singer-songwriter thing – I would write to guitar and piano, but I loved playing the bass. One day, my mom goes, ‘You play the bass. Why don’t you go out and play the upright?’ I said, ‘No, mom, that’s not going to work.’ And when we started Diamante, I tried it out with the upright bass. I had to tell my mom, ‘You were right. I have to write songs with the upright bass.’
What is your songwriting process?
Songwriting is really important to me. I’ll call up the band and say, ‘Hey, I have this song.’ I’ve always been the main songwriter of the band, but when we write songs we don’t think, let’s do that style, or let’s write a ballad. It just comes out naturally. We’ve put in effort to producing great songs. And, for me, as a songwriter, I’ve evolved into rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve written so many songs, so many different styles, but when I write rock ‘n’ roll songs? It works really well.
I also keep busy doing other things, like writing scores for movies, including Detective Marañón, and the Nickelodeon teen musical series called Yo Soy Franky.
Is it true B was recorded in one night?
The album was actually going to be an EP of five songs. We were going to put it out real quick and release it online for free [laughs]. We were going to call it B because the songs were down-tempo rock ballads. They felt like B-sides. But our B-sides turned out to be A-sides, so it’s pretty cool how it all turned out.
All of B was recorded in one night. The third track, “Duele Como Yo,” started out kind of as a jam, and then things started happening real naturally. Then came another song, “Dejavudú.” We did the core recordings in one night. And after a couple of sessions, we laid down more of the vocals. But most of the album was done in one night.
What is your relationship like with BMI and how important is the organization to your career?
BMI is very important. I’ve been with BMI since 2007, and they’ve been very helpful. Here in Colombia, we don’t have something like that. BMI has always been transparent with the things they do in regards to intellectual property. They’re like a family, and I’m really happy to be with BMI. I always tell songwriters they have to be a part of BMI. People don’t know about their music rights, so I tell people you have to be in tune with your rights as a musician in order to make a living.
Bonus Question! I hear you’re an accomplished teacher and leader in the independent music community. It’s inspiring to hear that you care about music education. Tell us more.
People work hard here in Colombia, and they have lots of dreams. It’s kind of tricky. I’m really trying to make a whole thing happen here in Bogotá . I’ve had students ranging in age from 15 to 35, more or less, in private classes and at Javeriana University. I tell my students that you have to be dedicated to music and you have to be a good person. If you’re doing it for the money and the fame, then I don’t want you to be in my class. But, if you’re in it for the art and the music, then you’re my guy. I also try to learn from their difficult experiences so that I can help them.
Now that things are working for us, I want to make Colombia’s music scene grow from the bottom up. The music industry here is small, and certain things are corrupt – I want to change that.