Interview with Gerardo Núñez, new release Travesía
It’s called “Travesía”. And he admits he made the recording because he had no choice. He could keep on playing free-lance, just doing live performances, or heed the advice of trusted friends and colleagues, put on some headphones and get into the studio. Even though it’s something he hates.
Gerardo Núñez speaks out at length, after many years of silence. And he has plenty to say, not only about flamenco or guitar-playing. He also makes fast work of the music industry in Spain, the Society of Authors (SGAE), record companies and his own hand, the one that’s caused such a stir lately due to an injury.
Actually, we haven’t heard much from you lately.
Well, I’ve continued giving concerts, you know… And what we had planned for this summer, as far as touring, was already in the bag, with or without a recording. In actual fact, this hasn’t been a consideration at all, we’re still in circulation.
Everything has its explanation. Ever since I began to make records…I can’t even remember when that was…I was very young and was with Paco Cepero and his group. I think my recording debut was when I accompanied a so-called “Paquiro”. I went on to live with Cepero in Madrid, tour with him, record with Turronero, Pansequito…I was very young. And in Madrid, well, I was deeply involved in the world of music, not just flameco. Also in Cádiz, I was very outgoing and ambitious. I would organize a group and go the regional government to see if they would let me tour the small towns of the province…I never rested.
About that same time I was starting to acquire knowledge of music, not standard sheet music, but American-style tablature. I liked listening to jazz, people like Chick Corea, and little by little I worked my way into that world.
Around the same time, I went one night to the Café Central and met José Antonio Galicia’s group who signed me up. So it was somewhat thanks to them I got into this world of American tablature, chords, etc… Why am I telling you this? Because as I became familiarized with the chords and with sight-reading, I was able to record without having to spend a lot of time studying, and no one had to pay foreigners to do the job. At the same time they wanted you to be able to move freely within that language.
So of course I did tons of work with the Chichos, Serrat, Fary, Rafaella Carrá, Julio Iglesias, Rocío Jurado, Isabel Pantoja…hundreds. In ten minutes the song would be recorded with all its details, and I became a regular at the recording studios. And I made a lot of money. But it’s also nerve-racking, because I made up to twenty long-play records in one month. In the morning, the Marismeños, in the afternoon the Romeros de la Puebla. Twenty years it went on like that, all day long with the headphones…I got to be obsessed about it. I honestly hated the studios, that’s the honest-to-god truth. So if I took a long time to record, it’s because of that phobia. I never wear headphones big or small. To get into a recording booth with headphones on makes me physically ill, it affects me psychologically. I try to avoid it. So what do I do? I call Cepillo to come over to my house and stay for a few days, and that gets me in the mood to do some work, he encourages me and we get down to recording. But like I say, I have a phobia about the studios.
“I got to be obsessed about it. I honestly hated the studios”
But you made your own record at home!
Yeah, but it was sort of an obligation. I was perfectly happy with my Protools and nothing else. That was the best of the best, who needed anything else? So we made a kind of studio in the garage. Cepillo and Pablo Martín were egging me on…”hey listen, we have to do this better, in the garden there’s room…”…so since Pablo Martín’s father is an architect, we got to work with on the studio, with the latest noise insulation technology, recording, handmade compressors…like the best of the best. But that was because of them, not me.
I’m surprised you recorded with a German record company, having your own and all…
Well, I had one…it’s pretty much dead now. Just like the record industry in Spain, if it’s not dead, it’s definitely in the intensive care unit. The Spanish society of authors (SGAE) stopped distribution of small-scale artists. Using the pretext that they’re not a charitable society, they washed their hands. The Factoria Autor played dumb, and all my recordings, those ones I was talking about, are either lost or in my garage. They left them in a box in my house. The crisis in the recording industry, which has nothing to do with the economy, is brutal.
So I sent a couple of things to the Germans, and right away they offered to make the record, it’s being well-distributed. The thing is, in Germany, in Central Europe, they value things differently, they have respect for musicians. They go to concerts, buy their tickets, if there’s something they like they buy it to have it, they don’t download.
In the future only the record companies that go for quality, like this one, will remain.
“Sometimes I think Spanish laws are made in Bavaria, the richest province of Germany, really…they think we’re swimming in money here”
In Germany, a musician is as valued as an engineer….not like here.
There’s one thing I’d like you to point out. We creative people are being subjected to a terrible campaign to discredit us. Music, art in general, is not valued. There is a constitutional right that’s even stipulated in European legislation which is the right to authorship. If tomorrow I want to mount an opera and use Gerardo Núñez’ music, no problem, every man for himself. No! And that’s how it is. We’re trying to fight that. It’s normal in other fields, such as the patents and royalties on other things, but what’s going on? Why is music different? This has to be taken care of, it’s about rights, not something we invented.
The money collected for authors’ rights is considerable, paid mostly by the communications media, especially television. And they want to avoid paying that at any cost, the TV channels are the first ones to discredit us. And the SGAE has to change that perspective, because they don’t respect us, they don’t value what we do and we have the right to demand retribution. The general surcharge (“canon”) has been eliminated. That compensation for each privately made copy no longer exists. And it wasn’t a tax, because the name itself makes it sound like a tax. More like a fee, but listen, that’s our right, it’s no laughing matter. It had been decided to apply the surcharge on all information technology formats.
It’s been a fight to the death, there’s a black hand involved. And it’s clear the SGAE did a lot of things wrong, and they made off with money. But look, let’s get things straight, because it’s hurting the rest of us. Right now the money of the surcharge has been included in the general budget, meaning all citizens are going to pay it, whether or not they listen to music, while producers have maintained the prices. And why am I telling you all this? Because in this country individual initiative isn’t valued.
I’ve got a project called “Tabanco del Arte”, a place for flamenco gatherings. In the middle of an empty industrial park with no one living there. The law obliges me to install elaborate sound installation with a minimum cost of twelve thousand euros…without anyone living there.
For my concerts in Trebujena we wanted to put cement terracing for people to sit and keep the mountain intact in the winter. They want me to build a road of 700 meters in order to do this…almost a kilometer of asphalt…so it’s really hard to promote cultural activities and make them worthwhile.
Sometimes I think Spanish laws are made in Bavaria, the richest province of Germany, really…they think we’re swimming in money here.
It’s incredible, at sixteen you had more freedom than now…we’ve gone from bad to worse…
It’s what we’re up against. Every municipal government has a cultural commission, with its civil servants. Councilmen come and go, but these people are always there. They just want to do their eight hours, imagine letting your life slip by like that…and they want to run everything. So if someone comes along with cultural proposals that are different from the norm, they get nervous and think of all kinds of reasons why it can’t be done. It’s like you’re invading their territory, they even look sideways at you, there’s no respect for what we do.
Next chapter: your hand, and the supposed focal distonia. Is there any truth to that?
It’s not true. The doctors can’t figure out exactly what it is, each one tells me something different and they’ve tried everything one me. So as far as I’m concerned, case closed. It’s not something I like to talk about, because I keep playing, which is the most important thing. I’ve been professional since the age of fourteen, and now I’m fifty-one. I could almost retire now with all the years I’ve had my nose to the grindstone.
And naturally, some parts of my body are completely worn out…some of the machinery of my right hand has suffered, but just a little.
In any case, I’ve got four fingers, and listen, that’s all I need. Anyhow, since you have to play from the heart, what I tell everyone is I’m not going to quit, that’s for sure.
They say that distonia is like “the record is scratched”.
Well, in my case it’s not that it’s scratched. It’s just that the record has been played two million times and some parts can no longer be heard.
Well, you’ll have to tell me what, because I hear everything just as good as ever.
It’s the index finger that’s giving problems, but I’ve readapted the rest of my hand. I’ve just had to find another way of expressing and playing. It’s not worth mentioning. Listen, if there isn’t a spectacular tremolo like on the other recordings, there are other things. The question is to say something, to be able to communicate and express oneself. When you’re faced with changing or giving up, the choice is clear, so you just keep on playing from the heart.
“Listen, if there isn’t a spectacular tremolo like on the other recordings, there are other things”
And you’ve often been criticized for overly technical execution.
People are very envious, and it drove them crazy that someone 25 could cut it. I could play picado, harmonize, do that tremolo… I was poison for a lot of people, even some of the big ones. That thing of “yes…but he’s so into technique..”. I didn’t pay any attention and look, now a lot of guitarists, like Caño Roto for example, tell me the record “Flamencos en Nueva York” changed their way of playing. But that’s what they say now, when I’m old [laughter]. I remember when I was starting out, at Candela, many Fridays Paco de Lucía would even come to see us.
Getting down to the record, you mention about Khaleb and Ahmed…were they part of the motivation behind it?
I allude to them, but this recording wasn’t made thinking of anything in particular. I made it, period. A complete improvisation. I mean like I couldn’t even reproduce it. If I had to play it, I’d need to study and rehearse it.
All that about analyzing, the study in F sharp and such…there was none of that. Cepillo laid out a framework, I put on the headphones, do this, that and the other thing and that’s it.
The earlier recordings weren’t like that…I suppose. Or at least it didn’t seem like that.
No, it was a different philosophy. I liked it like that, in fact we’re already preparing new things for next time. And I try to make my recital like that, improvised, so no one knows what’s going to happen. The thing of interpreting in an absolutely faithful way, I don’t do that any more, nor will I.
You can tell each piece is a separate world, for example in length, without delving too deeply.
Yes, and what’s more, none of the pieces give more than what there is…even if it’s just one minute.
You start out with Ítaca.
Yes, and we’ve all read or heard about Homer. And it’s based on that, Kavafis wrote his own version, which I love. Because of the philosophy which teaches that the important thing is the journey, the longer the better. Much better than the end of the voyage. And the trip of Khaleb and Ahmed took them to Africa and Caños de Meca, and from there to Lavapiés. Now they’re in Sanlúcar selling kleenex at the traffic light. I’ll see them now when I get back home to my town.
“No Ha Podido Ser”, ‘it wasn’t meant to be’…what does that title mean?
I chose that title because it’s a phrase I love, very typical of down south. It’s something that expresses that we didn’t reach our goal, but you take it easy thinking about destiny. But it also implies you tried. That phrase holds a lot of philosophy. It’s an evasive pass of the cape.
“Compás Interior” is hard to pigeon-hole as a form.
Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter, lots of pieces don’t need to be a specific flamenco style or form. It’s a kind of nana-soleá. That’s also the name of a book of life experiences I’m writing.
“Unlike my predecessors, I don’t consider playing guitar a punishment. For me it’s entertaining, a wonderful way of passing the time. So when I play, I try to give an upbeat spin”
Yes, they’re little stories, each one. One’s about the poor man’s piano which is the guitar. Stories about all kinds of people in flamenco, like the one about Miguel de los Ríos, a guitarist from California who went from being a marine to playing flamenco.
You’ve dedicated some things to Perico Sambeat with whom you’ve worked. And there’s a piece “Tío Pepe”, and I don’t know if that’s a reference to the wine or what…
That’s for Pepe Habichuela, I’m inspired by his things, in particular one of his falsetas. He’s one of the greats. But really, I also evoke things of Paco de Lucía, or of Manolo Sanlúcar’s Tauromagia.
You do a version of John Scofield’s “Chicken Dog”, but really, there’s more life here.
It's a more light-hearted version, and let me tell you why. Because unlike my predecessors, I don't consider music-making a chore. For me it's entertainment, something wonderful and good to pass the time. So when I play, I try to give a happy perspective.
"A Rumbo" seems as if...
It's three quarter time and that's that. I don't understand it myself, don't worry about it.
You end with the piece "Travesía", ten minutes long.
Yes, we stuck in some reciting. And I realize the stories I tell about all those characters who appear on the record and in my life, are also reflections of my own story. Leaving Jerez, looking for things I like, meeting as many people as possible...
Because you're from Jerez, but people don't think of you so much as being from there, the fiestas, the bulerías, the gypsy ambience...what we were talking about before.
There are a lot of things people don't know about me. Look, right now I'm working on the board of directors of the AIE, and I rub shoulders with musicians of all genres, lots of classical interpreters, and they don't know I hold the Rubinstein medal of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. And I don't know music. Or that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has played my compositions. And they can't believe it.
Here in Spain people don't know me, or they know little about my career. But fortunately, I'm well-known in other parts of the world. Mostly because of my dedication, I never took things easy, always plugging away.