A loving tribute to the cultural ties between Africa and South America, Tall Juan’s second album sees him shed others’ expectations and embrace a joyous new sound.
Fans of Juan Zaballa, aka Tall Juan, who were confused by his sudden pivot to the sounds of his youth in Argentina on his EP Tall Juan Plays Cumbia won’t find a return to punk rock form on his second album Atlantico. Instead of indulging in the Ramones pastiche that the Rockaway-based artist became known for with his debut Olden Goldies, Atlantico—premiering below—sees Zaballa piece together musical traditions from across South America and Africa into a vibrant and joyous collage.
Tall Juan has broadened his horizons on Atlantico, and if the classical hints on instrumental tracks “White Castle” and “Rocio Piano” are any indication, there’s no telling where Zaballa will set sail for next. The closest Zaballa gets to garage rock on Atlantico is “Don’t Come”—a cover of Argentinian band Sumo’s “No Acabes”—and even that illustrates how Zaballa has shifted the center of his sonic universe from New York to closer to the equator.
While the tropicalismo on the Caetano Veloso cover “Irene” and the strutting reggae of “El Mar” may seem worlds apart, Atlantico attempts to illustrate not only the commonalities between different musical traditions, but also the African influences that permeate most of South American music. In the process of making the connections between these two continents more pronounced, Zaballa manages to develop a fuller sound thanks to the addition of twelve different instrumentalists playing everything from djembes and shakers. Atlantico sees Zaballa become as fluid as the album’s titular ocean, letting go of other’s preconceived notions about the kind of music he should be making and enjoying.
“When I was planning on doing this I thought it was more punk than releasing another rock album because it’s pretty much like saying ‘Fuck You’ to everybody,” Zaballa told AdHoc. “Why not? Life is so short to be conditioned by one style of music.”
More than a departure in genre, Atlantico is also a change of pace for Zaballa. Gone are the angry barks, replaced by smoother, loving vocals like on the album’s beachside serenade “Atlantico.” Atlantico never sounds far from the ocean, with many of the songs written by the water and the album’s title track opening to the sound of waves crashing on the shore. Nowhere is this more evident as on “Rocio,” where Zaballa recounts a carefree day with his friends by the ocean—a moment so perfect he remarks “Que bueno seria ser cancion / How good it would be to be a song.” Atlantico manages to capture this explosive joy in song, so well that it might have you wondering what it might be like to be a song too.
AdHoc caught up with Tall Juan to talk about why he chose to release his album early, how Atlantico comes from a place of love, and how he’s grown to appreciate the traditional music he scorned in his youth.
Tall Juan’s self-released album Atlantico is out May 11.
AdHoc: You decided to push your album release sooner because of the pandemic. What made you make that decision?
Juan Zaballa: I had the album ready and I was planning on doing it by the end of this year, then this all happened. I felt like this [pandemic] gave me a new perspective of how things don’t have to be as planned as you think because it can all change from one day to the other. I was like, “What’s the point of planning so much? I have this ready, and I’m dying to share it with everybody.” I feel like by sharing it, I can move forward and start working on new stuff. Maybe it makes the quarantine, or this moment, a little happier.
I noticed that there was a conversation on “El Mar” where someone seems to be asking you what the song means, and you say “just let the notes speak for themselves.” Is that the approach you want people to take to your own music?
If you listen to something and you feel it and you like it, then there’s not much to think about. I feel like I am a very judgemental person. Back in the day, for example, when the cumbia movement was going on when I was a kid, it wasn’t that I didn’t like it. It’s because I was ashamed of saying that I liked it. I was thinking about it too much and now I want to try to just feel a little more. I’m trying to work on [caring] a little less about what people will say, because I’ve always been very worried about what people had to say about myself.
I feel like because I’m older, I care a little less. I showed a lot of people the songs when I first recorded them two years ago. Some people were like, “Just be careful. Maybe some people might be confused or think you’re all over the place or that you’re trying too many things just to see if you can make it with one of them.” Sometimes I don’t really agree with all of that. If I feel like doing this, why should I make a version in a punk rock sound in order to please people who have listened to my music in the past? It’s fear right? I’m fearing that I’m going to get rejected so sometimes I don’t do things that I like, but now with this album I feel pretty honest. It comes from a place of love.
Were you caring too much about what people thought of you on the first album? Is Olden Goldies as honest to you as Atlantico?
It is honest, but I tried to channel something different, which was something I was feeling at that time. I feel like I’m always trying to connect with myself when I was younger. [On Olden Goldies] I was trying to connect with that angry side of me. For that album I connected with rock music because it made it easier to express anger. I feel like it’s catharsis. After putting that album out I was able to let a lot of things go. Now it’s this album’s turn.
How many songs on Atlantico were written by the ocean?
Three songs were written by the ocean. One in Chile by the Pacific Ocean, and two by the Atlantic. And then another was written in my house, a couple blocks from the ocean. The song “Atlantico” I wrote on the beach. I was with my wife and then I started strumming the guitar and it just came out like that. I didn’t even choose the style of music. When you are feeling love, things sound a little less angry and less fast.
That’s the reason why I wanted to release the album because if I had to write an album right now it wouldn’t be like this at all. I was in a way more loving place at that time, but right now I’m a little more angry and more has happened that makes me feel like I want to write something different. I want to get a little more political now and express my uncomfort.
The two covers on Atlantico, “Irene” and “Don’t Come,” a Sumo cover. Both of those were written under military dictatorships, so while they may not be explicitly political, there is still that air of politics. Does politics inform your work as well?
I’ve always been very into politics and I have my own ideals. In the past, I never wanted to mix music and politics, but now I’m getting more tired of so much bullshit and I feel like I want to start expressing that in my songs. “Irene,” Caetano wrote it while he was in exile in London and I sing that song with a different feeling because I haven’t been through that. I just interpret the song in my own way, and I sang that song many times thinking about myself not feeling like I’m from anywhere.
There’s a line on “Don’t Come,” where you switch the lyrics to “Living in Far Rockaway is so difficult.” The last time we spoke you had only nice things to say about the Rockaways. Could you tell me more about why you feel this alienation?
My whole life I feel like I never felt like I could fit anywhere or with any group of people. I felt like I wasn’t from Argentina when I was in Argentina, I feel like I’m not from here when I’m here. That feeling makes me feel like I want to keep moving. I found that I liked the Rockaways the most of what I like about New York, but I still feel at some point I might have to leave New York. That’s why I had this thing with Africa, I wish I could go visit and travel around there and see where it all comes from and see if I feel like home, finally.
It all started when I realized that Tango music was created by Africans. Nobody really talks about that because they took them out of the history books in South America, and even here too. I feel really connected to music from Soweto, South Africa. I think my introduction to African music was through this singer Lizzy Mercier Descloux, she has that album called Zulu Rock. She was in South Africa during [the Apartheid] and fighting for black people’s rights down there. She was coming to Far Rockaway in the 70’s to help people too, so I felt very connected to this artist. Around that time I was looking for new music and reconnecting with music from South America, and everything started connecting.
Do you think being away from Argentina made you appreciate Latin American music more?
Coming to New York was the best thing that happened to me ever because it really opened my eyes. When I was in Argentina, I was listening to a lot of music from England and the US—Anglo-music. In Argentina, cumbia music is usually for lower-class people and that’s seen as something bad for some reason. If you play rock music, you’re like a real musician. Cumbia players or tropical music players, I don’t think get much credit as musicians. So when I was down there I was trying to be cool and just play rock music–coming to New York I learned that there was so much more and looking at Argentina from here it was easier to see all the things I was missing while I was there.
Was “Rocio” the song you wrote in Chile?
Yeah, it talks about this friend of mine Rocio. It doesn’t really make much sense, the lyrics. I think, for me, it’s more of a poem. I needed to write those things based on conversations and things I know about her and that moment that we spent together with friends on that beach in Chile. Sometimes poems are hard for someone to read and understand it because there is so much that I only know. The song says, “How good it would be to a song,” which is something very abstract.
That’s a phrase that came to me once when I was doing ayahuasca. Instead of being something material, like a body, how cool it would be to be music. The main thing that gives me satisfaction is to be able to put this out and let it live by itself. How cool for it to be free and be in people. When people sing the song, that’s when people live, you know? You live in the air, in the waves.
There are two instrumental tracks on the album, “White Castle” and “Rocio Piano.” Is there a reason why you decided to include instrumentals?
You know when you have a guitar and just freestyle? “White Castle” was something that I always kept playing. If I worked it I could turn it into a song maybe, but it sounds very classical to me. I think it’s like a little passage, like the sound of the waves [on “Atlantico”]. The “Rocio Piano” one, I really liked when we were recording and the piano player was practicing a song. I was in the control room and I told the engineer, “Yo, record this!” I thought it was very soap-opera sounding. It was at some point at the very end of “Rocio,” but then I decided to put it at the end of the album to start and end with the song.
I don’t like labels like punk rock or garage. So I feel like this is a good way to say “Look, we can do whatever we want, we can play some sort of classical sound.” When I was planning on doing this I thought it was more punk than releasing another rock album because it’s pretty much like saying ‘Fuck You’ to everybody. I know this guy who always annoys me, he likes garage music only and whenever I play a show he’ll tell me “I don’t know, you talk too much and that new song, I don’t know.” Maybe he annoys me because it reminds me of myself when I was younger in that I was very judgemental and like, “if it’s not rock or garage it’s not cool.”
David Bowie, for example, has always been kind of rock, but he always changed and I love that. When I’m old and looking back, I don’t want to be like I devoted my whole life to playing only this style of music. I don’t want to make music like the Beatles but I want to do the things they did, like reinvent themselves and do new things. Why not? Life is so short to be conditioned by one style of music.
Is there a reason why you called “White Castle” that?
At the time I was pretty into White Castle, and I went to White Castle for Valentine’s Day and I loved it. I don’t know if you know but they take reservations, they put tablecloths and curtains and they go to the table and you have a waitress. It’s pretty crazy, I love it. It’s also like it’s fast food, but if you think of White Castle besides the food chain it sounds to me very Spanish and the song is very classical sounding.
Which song is your favorite to play?
“Atlantico,” I think is the one, because that’s when I get vulnerable the most. After that, I feel way better because through vulnerability I feel like I show myself how I am. For some reason playing that song makes me feel very good after I play it, and I’m able to play the next song more freely.