With the understandable focus on Brazilian and Cuban rhythms among drummers, we tend not to spend as much time deep-diving into the music of other Latin American locales. But countries like Argentina—the eighth largest in the world, and one of the most diverse ecologically and culturally—offer a goldmine of ideas to explore. The innovations of famed Argentinian musical figures like tango star Astor Piazzolla, soundtrack master Lalo Schifrin, and jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri have inspired international music makers for generations, while modern artists like the experimental electronic pop singer Juana Molina boldly push folkloric concepts in new directions.
Take, for instance, the track “Eras,” from Molina’s 2013 album, Wed 21. Though the song is in 7/8, Diego Arcaute’s bass drum keeps a steady 4/4 beat. “Eras” is the most streamed Molina track on Spotify—encouraging news for adventurous rhythm sections. “It is true that it’s not usual to hear those odd time signatures in this kind of music,” says Arcaute, whose credits include the contemporary Argentinian multi-instrumentalists Axel Krygier and Lucas Martí, as well as folkloric ensembles and improv groups. “Juana is a very intuitive musician, and she makes it sound natural in her compositions. I used to play with artists and bands where there is a lot of emphasis on odd times, so I feel very comfortable playing these type of rhythms.”
In addition to the idiosyncratic approach to rhythm, Molina’s records feature a deft and seamless combination of electronic and acoustic sounds. “The real challenge with Juana’s music,” Arcaute says, “is synthesizing on stage the thousands of elements that sound simultaneously on the records. Ninety-five percent of the sounds that I have in my Roland SPD-SX are samples of Juana’s albums—guitars, keyboards, and percussion sounds. For this tour I developed a freaky system that only I can understand. [laughs]”
Molina’s current live band is a three-piece, which Arcaute admits can test his skills. “The main aspect is that we have to attach as much as we can to the recordings,” he explains. “So we have to do many things at a time. It took a lot of time to think about, assemble, and rehearse the show. I really enjoy this kind of situation, because I have to play in a different way from what a classic-rock drummer should.”
And those ways keep changing, as Molina adjusts her own approach. “Juana has been changing her directions about [stage] volume and sounds since we met each other,” Arcaute says. “The first time I played with her, in 2010, she didn’t want in any way a hi-hat sounding in her music. At that time she was more excited about [the traditional Argentine drum] bombo legüero, gongs, and brushes.
“As time went by,” Arcaute continues, “everything has changed. Nowadays there are moments of the show when I can play drums really loud. Having said that, we always laugh because every time we do soundcheck she gets into shock and curses my name when I hit the floor tom for the first time. On the other hand, now I know what things she likes and doesn’t like. An example of that: If you want to upset her, you should play a reggae rhythm. [laughs]”
While American concertgoers who’ve been lucky enough to witness Molina’s show in cities like Chicago and Savannah, Georgia, can vouch for her and Arcaute’s distinctive rhythmic strategy, the rest of us can enjoy live performances online, such as last September’s KEXP studio set or an earlier NPR Tiny Desk Concert.
MD: Can you please describe the differences between your live setup with Juana and what you might use in recording situations?
Diego: In the live set with Juana I often play with 22″ bass drum, a 16″ floor tom, and a 6.5×14 snare drum. My cymbals are 15″ Istanbul Mehmet Nostalgia hi-hat, a 20″ Istanbul Mehmet Nostalgia crash, and a 20″ Istanbul Mehmet Emirhan crash. We share a China cymbal in a couple of songs with Juana too. The electronic element on stage is a Roland SPD-SX.
In the studio, my setup changes according to the type of project. For the Halo recording we went to [Sonic Ranch Studio] in Texas with the drum parts undefined. In each song we tried different instruments, sizes, and sounds. There were songs where we just recorded a bass drum, snare drum, and hi-hat. In others, [we’d use] different combinations, such as bass drum and floor tom, or just cymbals.
MD: How long have you worked with this type of setup, and is there anything different about your approach with Juana as compared to previous electronic/acoustic setups that you’ve used?
Diego: According to the projects and musical situations over time, I played with different setups. In rock bands, I choose kits with the biggest possible sizes. For Argentinian folkloric or acoustic situations, I play with smaller sizes and percussion instruments like cajón peruano or bombo legüero. With Lucas Martí I played his ’80s Simmons drumkit for a long time. In my own band, sometimes I play just my Roland SPD-SX. I also played in improv bands with stranger and experimental sets where I used to hit any type of thing, like pots, iron sheets, and bottles.
So for me, the challenge with Juana’s music is not the mix of acoustic and electronic. The real difficult part is to synthesize on stage the thousands of elements that sounds simultaneously on the records.
MD: What are you hearing in your headphones on stage—a click track, a full mix of everyone?
Diego: I usually use a four-channel mixer. In channel 1, I have the Roland SPD-SX. In channel 2, I have Juana and [guitarist] Odín Schwartz’s voices and instruments. In channel 3, I have a sub out of Juana’s Boss RC-300 Loop Station. And finally, in channel 4, a sub out of the SPD-SX. So I can handle the volumes according to what I need to hear the most. And we never a use click, but in many songs I must follow what Juana is looping.
MD: I was going to ask you if you thought you could play Juana’s music without electronics, but then I saw a video where you were playing with her just with brushes or your hands on a flight case, and I had my answer. That just proves how strong the rhythmic element to your music with her is. So, when you are recording with Juana, do the rhythms come first, or do the sounds come first? How does she present her music to you?
Diego: I can’t say what comes first. In my opinion, both sounds and rhythm are vital in Juana’s compositions. Although I believe that most of the new songs that she made us listen to are rhythmically raised from the guitar.
MD: Can you tell me about your work with multi-instrumentalist Axel Krygier? How does it differ from your playing with Juana Molina?
Diego: Axel Krygier is a very creative guy. In his project I have a more formal, more traditional role as a drummer and I can focus more on the instrument and its possibilities. I like both roles very much.
MD: How about your work with singer-songwriter Lucas Marti? Online I read that you are listed as playing drums and bass and producing his album Tu Entregador. Are you as adept on other instruments as you are on drums?
Diego: I barely play the guitar—though I use it to compose my own music and to have fun with my friends and family. About Tu Entregador, I didn’t play the bass in the album. It was really fun to make that record, though. We were pretty young, and I think it sounds very fresh and spontaneous. We were together in the studio. Lucas would show us the song, and we’d quickly make the arrangement and record it right away without knowing much what we had to do. It was very frenetic! I love that album. Lucas is awesome. He is one of the artists that I admire the most. We played several years together.
MD: What other musical situations are you currently involved in?
Diego: Because of the dynamics of the tours with Juana, I don’t have much time for other projects. If I have time, though, I usually make recordings as session player with different bands. And recently I had the pleasure to do a Latin American tour with [popular Uruguayan musicians] Jorge Drexler and Luciano Supervielle.
But there’s something very important for me, and it’s my own band, MOT ROS, where I sing and play drums. It’s a duet. My partner is Sebastián Crusvar, a database developer and musician. He plays keyboards and is a very talented composer with a special personality. A genius. We are very excited about our new music and we cannot wait to play it live.
MD: Please talk about where you grew up, and what your earliest musical experiences were like.
Diego: I grew up playing fútbol—soccer—with my friends on the streets of Nuñez and Saavedra, two barrios of Buenos Aires. I did that until the age of thirteen, when I started to play drums. Because of that I’m a worse fútbol player that I would like to be! [laughs]
My first experience as a drummer was with my friends “Riquelme” Jusid and Adrián Ruggiero, who are members of [the modern Argentine tango band] Violentango. Adrián is the son of the legendary tango bandoneonist Osvaldo Ruggiero. The first time I played on stage was at the age of sixteen at a festival in the south of Argentina in front of five thousand people. I was very lucky that my parents supported me since the beginning.
MD: Did you ever take drum lessons or have any other kind of formal musical training?
Diego: I started to take lessons when I was thirteen. I have had four teachers, and I am very grateful for all of them. The last one was my friend Sergio Verdinelli, whom I deeply admire. He is an incredible artist and drummer! Now I’m still studying on my own.
MD: Who were your biggest musical inspirations when you were young, and who do you look up to today?
Diego: There are so many artists that have inspired me since I was a kid and still do today—the Beatles, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Stevie Wonder, Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown, the Police, Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Los Van Van, Carlos Gardel, Osvaldo Pugliese, Mercedes Sosa, Björk, Sade….
Also, there are drummers that I love—Ringo Starr, Stewart Copeland, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Carlton Barrett, and many others. Lately I am fascinated with Questlove, Mark Guiliana, Sergio Verdinelli, Samuel Formell, Chris Dave, Keith Carlock, Aaron Spears….
MD: How did you come to play with Juana, and what are your future plans with her?
Diego: I met Juana through my friends Mariano Domínguez and Martín Ibarburu. They were her band at that time. Martín, the drummer, couldn’t keep playing with her, so they called me. That was in 2010, and I did a few shows in Buenos Aires with her. Then I came back into Juana’s band in 2013 for the Wed 21 tour. We are together since then.
About the future…who knows. I hope more good things continue to happen.
MD: Would you list five “desert island discs,” in other words, records that, if you were only able to bring a small number with you on a long trip, you would have to have?
Diego: Man, I couldn’t survive with five. I need to tell you at least ten: The Beatles [The White Album], Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder, Standards, Vol. 2 by Keith Jarrett, El Jardín de los Presentes by Invisible, Voodoo by D’Angelo, Fresh by Sly and the Family Stone, Chapeando by Los Van Van, T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. by George Clinton, Sportin’ Life by Weather Report, and Under Construction by Missy Elliott.
MD: Finally, when you travel, are there any items that you have to have with you—books, CDs, favorite T-shirt, incense…?
Diego: When I’m touring I take with me books of history and politics. The T-shirt I love to wear on stage is the Argentinian nationaI fútbol team, from the World Cup México ’86. I also have a lot of music in my cellphone. The other thing I love about the travels is to meet amazing people. And, of course, going to concerts. Recently I went to a Paul McCartney’s show at the Madison Square Garden, the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet in Paris, and four concerts of the genius Green Gartside with Scritti Politti in Tokyo. That was mind-blowing!
Arcaute plays Istanbul Mehmet cymbals and Roland electronics.
Also on the Road
Frank Zummo with Sum 41 /// Stephen Gere with Built to Spill /// Patrick Keeler with the Afghan Whigs /// Bill Stevenson with Descendents /// Jean-Paul Gaster with Clutch /// John Sherman with Red Fang /// Tim Alexander with Primus /// Brann Dailor with Mastodon /// Dan Pugach with the Dan Pugach Nonet