Interview by Antony Langdon
Images & Video by Sophie Caby
“I feel very lucky and rich.
I still can't believe I make a living out of solving aesthetic problems.
The only way you learn is if you have passion or extreme
—Rodrigo Amarantenecessity of learning, and I feel like I have both.” — Rodrigo Amarante
Born in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, Rodrigo Amarante is a songwriter, musician and former member of the bands Los Hermanos, Orquestra Imperial and Little Joy. His career began in 1999 when he formed Brazilian band Los Hermanos, who went on hiatus in 2007 after four albums. During this hiatus, he formed Orquestra Imperial, then relocated to California, forming Little Joy with Fabrizio Moretti and Binki Shapiro. His first solo record, Cavalo, was released in May 2014 to critical acclaim.
Born in Yorkshire, England, Antony Langdon is a musician and actor based in Los Angeles. He was known in the 90s as the singer and guitarist for Spacehog and now in the same capacity for LA band Victoria. As an actor, he appeared in I’m Still Here with Joaquin Phoenix, Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes and the upcoming Armenia Commedia by Anna Condo.
Born in Venezuela, Devendra Banhart is a Los Angeles-based musician and visual artist known for his solo recordings and 2008 album with the band Little Joy. His art is exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels.
An artist with work spanning from traditional forms to music, makeup, design and clothing, Will Lemon is California-born and based in Los Angeles.
An LA-based band formed by Rodrigo Amarante of Los Hermanos, Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes, and Binki Shapiro and named after a local bar. Their 2008 eponymous album was recorded with producer Noah Georgeson and released to acclaim.
Last year’s Cavalo marked the first solo release of Brazilian musician Rodrigo Amarante, whose music has moved lithely between continents – from Brazil to America – and bands – from Los Hermanos to Orquestra Imperial to Little Joy. His musical chronology begins in 1999 in his hometown Rio de Janiero and takes a few unexpected turns to land in Los Angeles in 2007, when he played on Devendra Banhardt’s album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. Amarante conceived his next project, Little Joy, with Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes and Binki Shapiro at (and named for) their hangout – a neighborhood Los Angeles dive – and the group put out one eponymous album in 2008. Coming from a past rich in collaboration, Cavalo features Banhardt, Moretti and many others, but also takes the time to strip down to just Amarante – his guitar, his voice, all himself.
Musician, actor and friend Antony Langdon talks to Amarante about his new film projects surrounding Cavalo, moving to Los Angeles, and the very real importance of place.
Antony Langdon: You were telling me the story about your friend Will.
Rodrigo Amarante: For a while, I lived at Devendra’s house and so did Will Lemon. We shared a room for a short period of time where we would each have an alternate day of the week to have the bed.
AT: Were you romantically involved?
RA: Not with Will, no. That was my lost weekend after a long relationship. I was single for the first time in almost ten years. I lived in NYC with Fab [Moretti] doing Little Joy.
AT: Then you moved to Los Angeles?
RA: Yeah. Devendra was the one who said, “Why don’t you come to California?” Cause I was not doing very well – buying the large size Jack Daniel bottles and… I mean it was fun, don’t get me wrong. I was having great time, but I was not very productive.
AT: Tell me about the video you’re making.
RA: Before I tried to be a musician, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I applied to film school, but I started making money playing music when I was twenty and dropped out of school. Now that it’s just me and I don’t have to report to anyone, I figured it’s time.
I directed all the videos for my record so far. I’m lucky to have my sister – she edited them – and friends who helped me. Fredrik Jacobi with “Hourglass.” My friend from Portugal, Andre Tentugal, shot and co-directed “Tardei.” But I conceived and directed all of them. The days where the labels have money are gone, so I produced them by myself or with Fredrik or Andre or whoever was willing to participate.
Annual Brazilian festival held before the beginning of Lent, adapted from the pagan festival Saturnalia to Catholicism as a farewell of bad things before a season of repentance. Celebrated in all cities of Brazil, the six-day party features parades of samba dancers and local crowds.
One is Super 8 stock footage from my family during Carnival. The second one is 16mm black and white. The third one is shot on a RED Camera. I’m gonna make an animation. Of course I’ve never done that before and I don’t know how, but I tried anyway. I made a bunch of collages and it turned out to be a lot more work than I had planned. I realized that the process is kind of inverted. I learnt a lot from this video, but it’s not done yet.
“We shared a room for a short period
of time where we would each have an alternate
day of the week to have the bed.”
— Rodrigo Amarante
AT: Are there similarities between the processes of making film and music?
RA: The fundamentals are the same. When I write a song, I am thinking more of storytelling. I’m thinking of cinema rather than referencing other songwriters. It’s an interesting exercise.
My mom is a painting teacher, so I also wanted to be a painter. I remember learning about negative space, empty space, the division of the frame, and how Gauguin and Van Gogh learned from the Japanese. So I try to leave space, try not qualify and just show until there is space for the person to complete, or for the judgement to arise or whatever. It’s all a challenge I take on. I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s fun to try to solve these problems.
Problems in film are similar to those in music. Less is more. You have to never underestimate your audience. Write for the masters. Try to dialogue with the masters – let them be dead or alive or not yet born. You’re trying to do something that’s gonna touch someone in an unpredictable way. So I try to do it… I try to play saxophone too!
AT: Are you any good?
RA: I’m very bad at it.
AT: Let me ask you a little bit about place – where you’re from and how place plays into your story.
RA: I’m a Carioca, which means I’m from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. I moved to the States slowly and unannounced seven years ago. I was invited by Devendra to come and record on a record called Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon and we became good friends – me, him and Noah [Georgeson], who was the producer at the time and later the producer of Little Joy and my own record too. That’s how it started. And because I had two different bands back in Brazil – very different from each other, both doing great – I had quite a successful career.
AT: What were the names of those bands?
RA: One is called Los Hermanos and the other one Orquestra Imperial.
AT: So why did you move to NYC?
RA: I got this invitation from Fabrizio Moretti from the Strokes, who I started writing music with before. Then we started Little Joy and made that record. I saw an opportunity to throw away all the security I had – all the sense of comfort that I had gathered and created. I thought that going to a different place, speaking a different language and putting it all to the test would be the best thing for me as a writer – to see if my music would translate to people in a different place.
AT: Did you travel much growing up in Brazil?
RA: As a kid, every three years my parents would move from town to town because of my dad’s job. He would take job opportunities that other people thought were not great because you had to move to another town. Everybody from Rio thinks they are in the best place in the world. But I grew up listening to my dad saying, “How do you know that this is great if you don’t know what’s outside? And even if the place you go is not as great as this one, you will learn how to deal with different problems and know eventually (worst case scenario) why your city is so great.” So I grew up with that in mind, and it became easy for me to accept these suggestions of chance. That’s why I’m here now.
AT: My impression is that your vision is clear. On one hand, there’s a chance component in terms of how you create. But there’s another piece that seems quite rooted. Was there an event or a period that set that balance in place?
RA: I feel very lucky and rich because I still can’t believe that I make a living out of solving aesthetic problems. I feel like it’s a big privilege to be able to dedicate my time to these things. It’s my passion. The only way you learn something is if you have a passion for it or if you have extreme necessity of learning, and in my case I feel like I have both. For one, I love art. As unfashionable as it is to say so, I do! All I want is to serve. I want to be useful.
If I want to make a video or something like that, I sit down and ask, “What do I want to convey? What is there in between the song and something else? What kind of space am I gonna create? Why am I doing this? Is this supposed to be a promotional piece or could it be an art piece? Who am I making this for?” I try to make something worth people’s time. I feel like I am constantly trying to justify my existence!
When I come to someone for help with something, I’m very dedicated and excited. And I know what I want, but that doesn’t mean I always know what I want. I sit down and work hard, but I’m not the fastest songwriter. I don’t just smoke a joint and write a song… Sometimes that happens, but most of the time not. I have to ask myself a bunch of hard questions and eventually find something.
“I used to only work after midnight.
I felt the air was clean.
No one was thinking at that time.
The city was asleep.”
— Rodrigo Amarante
AT: You keep speaking about space…
RA: Some people ask me how the place you’re from influences your music. At first, I wanted to say it doesn’t, but that’s not true.
This voluntary exile has made me realize the importance of space. I used to only work after midnight. I felt the air was clean. No one was thinking at that time. The city was asleep. I was looking for that space, even if it might be in my mind. Coming to a place where, at the beginning, no one knew me is in a way looking for that place. So everything makes sense. It goes around like that. This record [Cavalo] is about that – about distance, about space. Incompleteness is perfection in a way. Art shouldn’t be an enigma. It shouldn’t have one answer to what is presented. It should reflect the listener somehow.
I know this is an old idea, but in our day, I feel like we are more and more filled with pollution – sound pollution, visual pollution. On an airplane, you go take a leak and there’s an ad in front of your penis. It’s everywhere. There’s no space. We are led to believe that if you’re not sponsored, you won’t survive – that everything is advertisement. Everyone is getting louder… literally, if you talk about music.
AT: Your music draws influence from the past, from Brazil, but it still seems of the time.
RA: Absolutely. That’s how art has always been. When you fantasize about being genius – Mozart, Dylan and so on – you imagine that they have created something from nothing. Yes they have been revolutionaries, but all art is a rearrangement of something that has existed. It’s like writing. Are you gonna invent words to write something? No! It’s the arrangement that is new – mixing points of view, referencing the past and, in this way, predicting the future. I don’t have to pretend to make something new because I don’t fantasize about that. I know I’m just rearranging things from the past, but it feels new because I’m not calculating that arrangement. I’m letting whatever touches me arise. Everything I love is my influence. A good friend is as much of a master as a great master, in literal terms. I’m not part of the trend.
AT: How do you link emotion with a more critical eye?
RA: What I try to do is to exercise. A billboard, for example – you look at it for half a second and you know that’s an advertisement for a film, so you read it with those eyes. If you read it with fresh eyes, as if you just landed on earth, and you see the words “Jack the Ripper” above “If he’s coming after you, you deserve it,” what is that telling you? What kind of bigger message? Even if you know it’s a film, even if you are removed enough to not agree with it, that message is still getting to you. It’s still saying that there is something above morals. There is something more powerful than you, and there’s nothing you can do about it – be frightened because you’re not in control.
AT: Kind of oppressive?
RA: It is indeed oppressive, and there are all kinds of examples. With art it’s the same thing. It’s interesting to just remove yourself from what you know because perspective is everything, right? It’s not what you look at, but how you see it. I feel like art’s role is to give a different perspective on something and to exercise your point of view. Trying to shift perspective is maybe the most important thing. All problems would be solved if there was enough perspective. There wouldn’t be hunger or wars or anything if we had a perspective – “Oh wait a minute, why is it that we have all of this richness, but we still believe in things like individual freedom.”
“I’ve been accused of being a romantic –
a very fair accusation.”
— Rodrigo Amarante
AT: So we trade our human freedoms – our birth rights – for a construction, a simulacra
called individualism, which is a representation of the real thing?
RA: It’s capitalism. It starts with Adam Smith and goes on to a bunch of men like Milton Friedman. We’re constantly being told that civilization, humans and cities are a jungle, and in order to survive we should allow the weak to perish and the strong to prosper, so that we as a whole can evolve, and that’s bullshit. In America, you can’t say freedom without saying choice. In the same way, you can’t say conspiracy without saying theory. You assume that freedom has to do with being able to do whatever you want as an individual. That creates a big problem. I feel the opposite. I feel like freedom has to do with responsibility with a sense of sacrifice. Sacrifice being a privilege, there is no such thing as individual freedom. You can only be free if everybody is free. How can you be free when no one else is free? Then you’re not free because they are threatening you with their lack of freedom
AT: How do you remain free as a man and artist within these conditions?
RA: I watched an interview with a Brazilian rock star in the 80s – he was in a very good band called Legiao Urbana. I was a teenager at the time, but something he said remained with me. There’s two ways of making art. One is making it to take, to get money or success or a particular status or whatever. The other one is making it to give, with the frame of mind that what you’re doing might be useful or ultimately graceful for someone because you created something that you think is worth sharing. I’ve been accused of being a romantic – a very fair accusation.