Versus vs. Versus | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today’s story begins in March 1996.
Andrés Azpiri, our very dear sound director and composer, was 10 years old and had a hyperactive mind that went from one obsession to another: gemstones, snakes—cobras, specifically—, and of course, the stars and planets. His interest lasted a couple of months, then it was over, and he was on to something new. Nothing out of the ordinary for a child, really.
[Daniel]: One thing that did not obsess Andrés—and this may seem strange—was music. Even though his father was a fan of The Beatles and always played them in the background. Music just bored him. He took piano lessons, but it was mostly the routine, extracurricular activity of a middle-class kid.
At that time Fey, Shakira, Coolio and Celine Dion dominated the charts in Mexico. And Wonderwall by Oasis had already become a cultural milestone that would mark thousands of teens around the world.
But Andrés was not interested in any of that.
Until a certain song came along.
(SOUNDBYTE LEMON TREE)
[Fools Garden]: I’m sitting here in the boring room, it’s just another rainy Sunday afternoon.
[Andrés Azpiri]: The song is “Lemon Tree,” by Fools Garden.
[Daniel]: Andrés doesn’t remember the specific day, but he does have a clear image in his memory of the first time he heard it. He was sitting in the back of his parents’ gray truck, probably coming back from soccer practice, and the radio was on.
[Andrés]: I can’t explain how; it was like a… like my brain was black and white. And suddenly everything turned into color, that is, like a hot water bath. In other words, a feeling of being complete, right?
(SOUNDBYTE LEMON TREE)
[Fools Garden]: I wonder how, I wonder why, yesterday you told me about the blue blue sky, and all that I can see is just a yellow Lemon Tree…
[Andrés]: Like I had never felt before… The obsessions and passions I’d had up to that moment don’t compare to the excitement, right?
And I think what struck me the most is that it starts with this somewhat intriguing intro of the verse, right? It’s very simple: Tun tun tun tun tun tun tun tun and it’s like a very, very catchy melody, but the emotional release of the contrast between that verse, which is a little tense, and the chorus, which is very sweet and very like 50s or like tun tun tun tun tun tun. I mean, it’s like an almost perfect formula for a child.
[Daniel]: Many have surely heard this song. But maybe you don’t remember the name of the band. It was a very popular song. In English it would be called a “one-hit wonder,” one of those fleeting and unique hits by forgotten artists.
[Daniel]: And if you think about it, it’s very strange that Fools Garden would have a song on the charts in the 90s in Latin America. They’re a German pop rock group that sings in English, created in the city of Pforzheim, in the Black Forest. I mean, it’s not a band that was on the English or American scene in the nineties where it could feed on all the cultural and commercial movement that was going on at that time.
The truth is that ever since March 1996, Andrés had a new obsession that left the others behind: Lemon Tree and this unknown band from Germany. And of course, here we must specify a detail of the time, for our younger listeners.
In those years, if you liked a band, you couldn’t just look them up on Spotify and get it. No. You were condemned to listening to hours and hours of radio songs that didn’t interest you, and be ready to press REC, to record, on a cassette, the one you were looking for.
That’s all. End of history lesson on the last century.
So young Andrés started listening to the radio and also watched channels such as MTV, to find the music video. He couldn’t stop talking about the song…
[Andrés]: So, at some point, my dad took me to Galerías Coapa, the closest mall to our house, to Mixup, which is where they sell CDs and stuff even today. And, “Well, my son wants to… he really likes the song Lemon Tree. What record do you have it on?” And the salesman said, “I have it in two.”
[Daniel]: They offered him, on the one hand, the band’s album: Dish of the Day… But there was another that had several hits from different bands. That record bore the implausible and at the same time completely logical name of “Hits of the Summer Now… Three.”
[Andrés]: Well, “Now Three” sounds more interesting because it’s more varied, there are more bands, and so they bought me that record and after a few weeks I caught myself not listening to the rest of the twenty hits it had, but only that song over and over again. Again, again and again, again and again.
[Daniel]: A year later, when the Lemon Tree fever had passed, when the song was heard less on the radio and more in basic level 1 English classes, Andrés was in a plaza with little stands where they sold music, and he discovered, almost by accident, that Fools Garden had another album. He asked his parents for money to buy it.
That other album, Go and Ask Peggy for the Principal Thing, was overall very different from the Lemon Tree song.
[Andrés]: A drier thing, closer to rock, and a much more Beatlesque feeling but also with Oasis-like influences.
[Daniel]: He was very attracted to that heavier sound. During soccer practices, he would fantasize about getting home and finally listening to that album. But not only that. He would sit for long periods of time and carefully observe everything on the CD.
[Andrés]: And I would look at the photos of the band on the album booklet, and at them, with a guitar and sort of walking there. I think they recorded that session in Ireland and, from then on, at age 12, I started dreaming of having a band.
[Daniel]: This is strange, because if you look at Fools Garden, they’re nothing like the stereotypical rock stars. The photos from that time are of men in their thirties, a bit disheveled, like a nineties version of the Beatles but more modest.
Let’s remember that Andrés did not have much access to music, because information didn’t circulate the way it does now. There was MTV and Oasis and Blur, but for Andrés the model to follow was this German band from the Black Forest.
And our dear musician would follow them—to almost pathological levels.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back. By the year 2000, when Fools Garden released their new album, Andrés was 14 years old and already a first-class fan.
Then he began to learn to play an old acoustic guitar—really old, that is, from when his father was a child. Piano lessons had been forgotten. He didn’t remember anything about music theory. But his father taught him the circle of C.
[Andrés]: In other words, the chord of C, G, D minor, A minor, F. And for me that was enough. I mean, I started from there, by ear, to learn the songs from that, from Fools Garden.
[Daniel]: He also began to compose very simple songs on the guitar and with a keyboard that he was given as a gift. He realized that it was easy for him, and this encouraged him. But his musical trajectory is indistinguishable from his commitment to the band. At the age of 15, he decided to learn German.
[Andrés]: I wanted to understand their interviews and read the diaries of their tours, but I didn’t understand a single word other than “tour, guitar,” and I had a great desire to understand them, to be able to communicate with them in their language.
[Daniel]: He dreamed of meeting his idols, and soon an opportunity opened up. His parents had sent Andrés’s older siblings on exchange programs to other countries—they wanted their children to learn and live different experiences. In 2002, when he was 16 years old, it was his turn. And obviously he didn’t think of any country other than Germany.
Through a distance education agency, Andrés’s mother was able to get him accepted at a school in Mannheim, in the southwest of that country. He would be welcomed by a large family of 11 children. Andrés was excited, of course; it was a new experience. But the truth is that his German was not the best, and he was aware of that.
It was his first solo trip. He was met by Sofía, a 20-year-old girl, one of the oldest in the family. As they were saying their hellos, he realized that the slow German that he had learned from his Mexican teachers was not going to work for him there. He communicated in English as well as he could, and after an hour by car, they arrived at the house.
[Andrés]: A very bizarre family, very very strange and… but hey, very nice to me and everything.
[Daniel]: But Andrés, the youngest of 3 siblings from a traditional Mexican family, found them a bit cold. And the fact is, the change was abrupt.
[Andrés]: I left after finishing basic level five, and that was going from “Hello, my name is Andrés” to sitting in a physics class in Germany the next day, right? And I was like, “No way, even in Spanish I wouldn’t understand this.”
[Daniel]: It was a school with a lot of children of migrants, and although this made Andrés feel less out of place, the fact is that he was the one lagging behind.
[Andrés]: So I didn’t do anything; I just read or whatever. It’s like, the teachers were pretty nice, but it helped me to listen to the language all the time.
[Daniel]: Some time before going to Germany, Andrés had come into contact with the Fools Garden fan club, run by a girl named Heidi. He wrote to ask for information on how to get hold of the band’s newest album, which didn’t make it to Mexico because sales were declining. Andrés wrote to her often, and Heidi forwarded the mails he wrote to the band, who were fascinated to have a Mexican fan. Andrés had obviously told them that he was going to Germany.
Heidi invited him to a fan meeting in a nearby town. It was to be held on the second floor of a bowling alley. But the best news was that not only the fans would be there, but also the band.
When Andrés arrived, he saw about 70 people. As you can imagine, almost all of them German, except for one French girl and some Italians. But no Latin Americans. Only Andrés.
But far from feeling like the weirdo, Andrés was almost a celebrity for being the most exotic fan. When Fools Garden arrived, they were happy to finally meet him.
[Andrés]: Anyway, when they arrived it was like, “Oh, yes, Akpiri, Akpiri, yes, Andrés, Andrés, yes of course, from Mexico, wow how cool.”
[Daniel]: As for Andrés, needless to say. He was very excited.
[Andrés]: From the time of me dreaming of having a band and being holed up in my room, to one year later being with them at the fan club party. It was like too much for me, right?
[Daniel]: By then, Andrés knew that he wanted to be a musician. The emotion of meeting Fools Garden, of seeing them in the flesh, normal people, only ratified that decision. This may sound a bit contradictory, but the apparent normality of these guys, people without a lot of pretensions, people who greeted their teenage fan from Mexico with a smile—all that made him feel that being a musician wasn’t so far-fetched.
Anyway, during that school year that Andrés spent in Germany, he was able to attend four Fools Garden concerts.
[Andrés]: I used to go to concerts in small towns, where they played at multicultural events, where there were several stages. So they generally closed those events, and I would get there early while there was no one in the little downtown, and they are at the sound check. So… “Oh, Andrés, what’s up?”
[Daniel]: The events were free, and he took sandwiches to eat… All the money from the allowance that his parents sent him was spent on train tickets. They were places pretty far from where he lived, a few hours away.
During those concerts, he would take pictures of the guitarist with a film camera, to see what chords he was playing so he could decipher the songs. But wait, I want you to get this straight. He would take a picture of the guitarist’s left hand and later have the film developed so he could study the chords that he had not been able to pick out by ear. That level of nerdiness.
In the spring, Andrés attended a festival that was not very crowded, and afterwards, he accompanied the band to a bar. They had seen each other several times during his stay, and Andrés’s German, after months in public school, was more than passable. For the band, all this was almost as surreal as it was for Andrés. If Andrés had never imagined himself sitting in a bar with his idols, telling them about his family and his life in Mexico, for Fools Garden, having a 16-year-old Mexican fan so dedicated that he would follow them from town to town, and who suddenly spoke German—that was just as bizarre.
And at the end of the school year, Andrés returned to Mexico.
[Andrés]: And well, for me everything was incredible, right? To have fulfilled this dream. And my parents were also very proud because I got to meet my idols, right?
And once in this new phase, I was much more convinced that I wanted to play music…
[Daniel]: It was 2003, and Andrés’s brother, Juan, who is a year older, had made friends with a classmate, Max. Max was a fan of Coldplay, Juan was a fan of Oasis, and Andrés of Fools Garden. Bands with similar roots. They also had The Strokes and a little bit of Radiohead in common.
The problem was that Max had no instrument. But Andrés and Juan’s parents saw the enthusiasm their sons had for forming a band, and they bought Max a very simple bass for about 90 dollars. Max soon learned the basics. With Juan on drums and Andrés on the guitar, they began to rehearse.
Soon after, they heard another schoolmate at an event.
[Andrés]: He sang the one from Fake Plastic Trees and with a super-angelic voice and it sounded very similar.
[Daniel]: Very similar to the original Radiohead version. His name was Alfredo Segura. They knew him, but they were not exactly friends. They told him they were thinking of preparing a concert at Andrés’s parents’ house, and asked him whether he wanted to be the singer. He said yes without giving it much thought.
The rehearsals were in the garage of Andrés and Juan’s house. It was the typical scene of teenagers playing the songs they loved.
[Andrés]: So we played Scientist, Yellow, Bitter Sweet Symphony, and all those cool Brit waves, super, super Brit, nothing original there.
[Daniel]: Brit, that is, British. The concert was held on January 9, 2004, in the yard of Andrés and Juan’s house. There were about 60 people there, including family and friends from school. It rained, so they had to move everything from the yard to the garage. They played soaked through and the sound was bad. But it was a feeling that Andrés would never forget.
[Andrés]: It was very welcoming. A very warm feeling, with people all tight, wet, but happy. And that’s when you realize how exciting it is to feel a connection with your friends when you’re playing the songs, like a telepathic connection, right? Each one on his instrument, after so much rehearsing.
[Daniel]: So was born the band Versus.
The second concert was not as successful, but the band continued. They finished school and started college. All followed different majors… And the bond between the members of the band became very tight.
[Andrés]: Well, we were best friends, that is, we played Mario Kart, FIFA and, well, we rehearsed. Those were our social activities.
[Daniel]: And thanks to winning a college band contest, they were able to record a demo.
[Andrés]: They recorded three songs for us, and that’s when we started to take ourselves seriously. I mean, the recording wasn’t perfect or anything, but the emotion we wanted to convey was there.
[Daniel]: And in 2005, they managed to record their first single in a studio for Mexican norteño music. They titled the album The Wonderful Loneliness. And like Andres’s idols, Fools Garden, they sang all their songs in a foreign language: English.
After that, Andrés decided to write to Fools Garden guitarist Volker Hinkel. He had his email thanks to the fan club, and they had written to each other before. He told him he had some material that he wanted to send him. He sent him that first single by airmail. He didn’t expect an answer, of course. But surprisingly, Volker wrote back.
[Andrés]: And he said, “Nice, I like it.” And of course, I was extremely excited and took it as an incentive, you know?
[Daniel]: Andrés began to send him the other demos they were recording. And Volker always answered him, kindly, that he liked it, that he should keep on writing music.
After playing in bars in Mexico for a while, and with some recorded songs under their belt, they decided it was time to take the next step. They were between 21 and 22 years old, and they wanted to become more professional. They sang music heavily influenced by British bands.
Their dream was to succeed in England. And a first step toward that dream could be Germany. Maybe with some help from Fools Garden. Their goal was, shall we say… something between ambitious and vague: have the German band help them produce some songs in order to get an album deal.
[Andrés]: Although senseless and all, that plan was more sensible than knocking on the door of Max and Juan’s idols, who were Coldplay and Oasis. There was no way, right? And I already knew Germany. In other words, all things considered, it was like a comfort zone.
[Daniel]: Still, it was very risky. Only Andrés spoke German, and that was the least of it. It meant that everyone had to spend the savings they had earned working here and there, little by little. It was also a huge economic investment for the parents of all the members, because the money they had was not enough. And it also meant leaving college behind, and a future that many consider stable…
Of course, not everyone was thrilled by the sense within that senselessness.
Especially not the parents of Alfredo, the singer.
[Andrés]: They had made a lot sacrifices to enroll Alfredo in a private university. And for them it was very important that he finish college. So they didn’t think it was right for their son to go off and sing indie music in Germany.
[Daniel]: And they were so worried that one day, with no prior warning, Alfredo’s parents showed up at Andrés’ house. They wanted to talk to his parents, who were actually helping their children plan the trip, genuinely excited about the band reaching its goals. But they were not at home that day. Andrés was. At the time, he was studying History in college. And like any young man who has read a couple of books on revolutionary politics, he was sure he could convince them.
[Andrés]: Well, in the midst of this euphoria, and with a Marxist background in History, reading essays every day, imagine my smooth talk, right? my eagerness to… of me thinking that… that it was important for someone to believe in him, to give him that chance, and that there was much dignity in pursuing your dream and seeking a career in music. No, no, it didn’t have to be associated with drugs and alcohol and debauchery. We were very calm, that is, it was pure passion…
[Daniel]: And well… the speech didn’t help much. They were opposed, especially Alfredo’s mother, who left upset but resigned. Anyway, her son was an adult, he was working, and he had money to buy his own ticket.
So in September 2007, after months of planning, the five members who made up Versus took a flight to Frankfurt, with their guitars and some clothes, hoping to become rock stars.
Of course, they came to a life very different from the one they imagined. Their budget was quite limited. Their savings did not last beyond a couple of months, and their families supported them with some money, which was enough to pay the rent and not starve.
[Andrés]: €5 per person per week for food. We put that together and bought everything. What we ate was the most basic menu.
[Daniel]: Also, they couldn’t rehearse because they didn’t have all their equipment. Basically, their routine was summed up as waiting for the Fools Garden guitarist, Volker, to reply to their messages where they asked him to let them record in his studio. But nothing happened: Volker never specified a date.
[Andrés]: It was starting to get frustrating, because we were running out of money, time… and we weren’t going anywhere.
[Daniel]: Now Andrés believes that Volker probably felt a lot of responsibility and did not want to create more expectations for some Mexican boys in a foreign country. Still, Peter, the lead singer of Fools Garden, got them opportunities to play with other young German bands. This allowed them to share instruments. It was very good news. One of the concerts was in downtown Stuttgart. The entrance was 3 euros, and four rock bands were scheduled to play.
[Andrés]: We thought it was going to be a success, but there was nobody there, I mean nobody.
[Daniel]: Well, not that there wasn’t anyone, but almost no one. At the end of the concert, Alfredo, the Versus singer, came running up to Andrés. And he said, very excitedly:
[Andrés]: “Where is a demo? Where is a demo?” and I was, “Uhhhh,” because I didn’t like that demo so much, I mean, I did like it, but I was tired by then. I said, “What do you want it for? Who do you want to give it to?”
[Daniel]: He replied that a producer wanted a demo. After such a terrible concert, Andrés had little hope. But it worked out. He saw a man in a green coat. A normal guy. He introduced himself as Ralf Mayer, a name that did not ring a bell to anyone at Versus.
[Andrés]: And so the guy was writing, “Find my studio, Tucan Studio. I liked your music, I liked your voice. Write to me, give me your demo.” Cool, right?
[Daniel]: They started to talk. And one of the first questions that came up was what the heck were five Mexicans doing in Germany. Andrés told him that he knew Fools Garden and briefly recounted the story of his being a fan since he was a child. And he told them that yes, he knew them too. That he had Volker’s phone number and was going to write to him.
[Andrés]: And at the end of the evening, the members of the band that had invited him came up to us like this, downcast, to congratulate us because Ralf came to us and not to them. That’s when I understood that what was happening was sort of important.
[Daniel]: The next morning, they did some more research on Ralf Mayer at the internet cafe and found out that he was a prominent figure in the German music industry. They felt euphoric. It was the opportunity they were looking for.
Ralf said he was going to get them some recording equipment and lend them his studio. He just asked them to rent a van and promised they wouldn’t have to pay anything else. The plan was to select their best songs and produce them, with the idea of presenting them to a record label.
The next day, Volker, the guitarist from Fools Garden, wrote to them and said that working with Ralf was a great opportunity for Versus. He also gave them some news: Ralf had invited him to co-produce the material, and he would gladly do so. They would record the guitars in his studio.
[Andrés]: So, there we were, on the typical idyllic German road through Stuttgart’s Black Forest to Volker’s studio. There to collaborate. We were getting there with Ralf Mayer. AndVolker welcoming us, and Volker’s studio, which I’ve always seen in photos and where he’s always recorded the Fools Garden’s things, so for me that was pretty awesome.
[Daniel]: It was a dream come true, but Andrés didn’t see it as such at the time. He was concentrating on playing the best he could. But he wasn’t nervous. In fact, he had not felt so calm during the entire trip to Germany. What mattered was the music, and nothing else. And there was something that surprised him:
[Andrés]: Because imagine that if I was recording the guitar with Ralf and did like a bend and a finger moved and made some kind of noise, like, no, I was going to do it again; it’s not perfect. And Ralf was like, “No, no, no, no, I love those errors,” and for me it was like wow! In other words, you begin to appreciate that the music you listen to contains many errors and that they are part of its essence.
[Daniel]: And of course, for Andrés the best part of the experience was recording with Volker.
[Andrés]: In other words, I was with my childhood idol, who pretty much motivated me to play the guitar, me playing a song written by me, and that song has a part like a bridge, and the guy says, “That part—brilliant.” “Let’s call it the U2 part”, he said, “Instead of doing this figure up to … na na na na na na na na, repeat that note. That’s the U2 note, it’s the U2 part and from there we go to the last chorus.” Like, I mean, the feeling was nice, but, well, it was something you sort of can’t believe.
[Daniel]: They recorded five songs. They did several sessions.
Their hope was to present the demos to someone with the money to finance the professional recordings, which would have more production, mixing and mastering. Those were tough weeks, actually, despite the fact they were fulfilling a dream. It was winter. Their tourist visa had expired. They were running out of money and their parents couldn’t give them much more. One day in January, one of the five announced that he couldn’t take it anymore: he was going back to Mexico.
But the other four stayed on, stubborn, committed, more united than ever. They played other concerts, but the economic situation was becoming unmanageable. Almost a year after arriving in Germany, in 2008, everyone decided that it was best to return to Mexico with the promise of continuing to send demos to Volker and Ralf.
One Sunday, Max and Alfredo came to the house for the routine rehearsal.
They had been back in Mexico for a few months, rehearsing religiously, composing new songs, and recording some demos with what little equipment they had. It was a bit discouraging not to be in Germany, recording in a studio, but things were going well.
Or at least, that’s what Andrés believed.
But that Sunday, everything fell apart.
Max and Alfredo walked in and, out of nowhere, announced that the band was dissolving.
Just like that. Andrés and Juan demanded explanations that were not given. Instead, their bandmates, their best friends, packed up their gear almost without saying a word.
And in the middle of it all…
[Andrés]: And my mom leaned out the window… What’s happening? And there they were getting into the car. “Well, mom, they’re leaving us.”
[Daniel]: In other words, “It’s over, mom.”
[Andrés]: And she said: “How…? No, Max. wait. Hey, no, hang in there… what do you mean, doing that?” And I couldn’t even look at her in the eyes. And yes, it was painful for her too. Very, very, very painful. Well, imagine betting that it is this or nothing.
[Daniel]: The car took off, with half the band.
[Andrés]: And it did affect us, dude, my brother and me, and I think it was hard for both of us.
[Daniel]: The breakup had caught them completely by surprise.
And, well, that sudden breakup isolated Andrés.
[Andrés]: I withdrew so as not to bother anyone anymore. I’d stay holed up here.
[Daniel]: He locked himself in the rehearsal room of his parents’ house, which soon became a recording studio: Limonero. That’s how I met him, with that name, when he arrived at Radio Ambulante, and many of us, the older ones here, still call him that.
Limonero. After Lemon Tree, of course. And because there was a lemon tree in the garden.
For years, Andrés spent his time learning the art of recording, production and mixing. Obsessed, as he was obsessed as a child with Fools Garden.
It would take Andrés almost a decade to feel capable enough to produce an album. In the end, he did it with his brother Juan, but in a more collaborative, less demanding environment. The project is called Delay lay lay. They record, but they don’t do concerts constantly, and they are not very interested in doing so.
Andrés told me this story as he was recording the second album. It is an album which, in certain parts, reflects on the past. And this, it seems, aroused something in Andrés: a wish to know what happened to Versus. Why did it die, or rather, implode? Why was nothing kept from those three years, from that trip to Germany? Neither the project, nor the most important thing, the friendships.
And to do this, he looked up someone who was part of that past life.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
So, Andrés wanted to understand what had happened to his band. To Versus. To his friends. Max and Alfred. Fourteen years have passed since that breakup, and contact has been minimal. Occasionally, Andrés has seen them by chance. And the interactions have never gone beyond a friendly hello.
But while he was recording his second disk with his brother, he decided it was time to confront the past.
[Alfredo]: What’s going on, Chip?
[Andrés]: What’s up, Shura. Turn your camera on.
[Alfredo]: Hang on.
[Andrés]: I want to see your mustache.
[Daniel]: I leave you with Andrés.
[Andrés]: When considering whom to talk to, Alfredo was the most accessible option. The situation with Max is more complicated, since he and my brother Juan were best friends, even since before forming the band and, well, that additional closeness made the breakup more difficult.
But Alfredo was always one of the most receptive in the group. And we cannot ignore the fact that more than a decade has passed, and that we are now 36 years old. We are different people.
What you are going to hear are fragments of a two-hour conversation, a conversation that was not tense… perhaps thanks to the curiosity that each had for what the other had to say. It was like meeting an old friend that you stopped talking to because life takes you on different paths.
First of all, what a damn pleasure and thank you very much for accepting.
[Alfredo]: Yes, what a pleasure, dude… Huh? Yes, this is good, really. I mean, I understand that you—I mean, you are going to ask the questions, right? Or something like that?
[Andrés]: There is something you should know about Alfredo. To begin with, his family had a business in the central market, not unlike mine, but they sold fruit instead of dairy. And our families followed more or less the same economic path. After the crisis of ’94, it was harder and harder for us to make a living. I mention it because, despite our financial situation, the truth is that my parents supported my brother’s and my musical careers a lot more, compared to his situation. But he does remember music in his youth, for example listening to Life is Life in the car with his parents on the road to Tabasco.
And some lessons. A few.
[Alfredo]: Aside from the keyboard lessons, there was never another push from my parents to continue exploring music or learning music.
[Andrés]: And did you ever dream of being a rock star?
[Alfredo]: The truth is, I never thought, “Oh, I want to be a rock star.” I do remember that civil engineering began to attract my attention.
[Andrés]: In other words, he liked music, but it was just one interest among several of his. I say this because now, as an adult, it seems important to provide some context on where Alfredo came from when he joined the band. He describes what it was like to join the band like this:
[Alfredo]: At least on my side of the story, it’s naïveté. I remember that day, I mean, literally, I get on, I borrow a guitar that wasn’t mine, I start playing Fake Plastic Trees, it’s over. No one beat me up, I get off, and Juan stops me two meters ahead, “Hey dude, it came out cool,” and I said, “Oh, thank you,” I didn’t even know how to take it. And the next thing I know is—I don’t know whether you remember, but they came to my house with drums, with a guitar, the bass, I think; ha, ha, ha.
[Andrés]: Naiveté has a bad reputation among adults, but how many things would not be achieved without a certain teenage innocence? My brother and I had some. In large quantities. But until Alfredo told me, honestly, I had forgotten that we were that intense from day one. And Alfredo let himself be carried away; he didn’t give it much thought at the time, and perhaps that’s what he means when he says he was naive.
[Alfredo]: It sounded to me like, “Dude, we play, they play, we’re at the right age to make friends,” and when I told my parents, it must have been like “Do whatever you want;” What are they going to do? Make noise? Well…
[Andrés]: So what could happen?
[Alfredo]: Exactly, what could go wrong? Ha, ha, ha.
[Andrés]: What could go wrong? Well, then… Three years later, your son abandons his studies in industrial engineering, the promise of a stable future, to try his luck in Germany and pursue the dream of being a rock star.
[Andrés]: And the moment we consider traveling to Germany, what went through your head? Did the idea excite you or scare you?
[Alfredo]: Joy, excitement, fear. I think I may have felt everything. It was the first time I would be away from my family, and also for so long, and also so far away, and also without a really clear objective. If you ask me right now, the memory is like, like something we had to do. And of course, since it was the first time something like this happened to me, I must have had a lot of doubts, but the fact is that somehow I was able to buy the plane ticket by myself because I didn’t ask anyone for money. It was mine, it wasn’t motivated by my parents or anyone else. So it was pretty clear that it was something I wanted to do, even though I was scared or the plan wasn’t so clear.
[Andrés]: I agree with all this except for one detail… According to me, we did have a clear plan:
One, Getting to Germany. Two, Record a couple of songs with Fools Garden. Three, Get a contract. Four, Record an album and jump to England… Five, Fill Wembley Stadium.
OK… I swear, it sounded better in my head 15 years ago than it just did now.
While we were talking, I was wondering how much pressure my brother and I exerted. And I think about those years, and I don’t remember that we talked about anything other than music, music, music. I felt, until the day of the breakup, that we all shared the same dream.
It wasn’t a comfortable question, but I asked it.
[Andrés]: I don’t know—I would like to know whether you think that… that there was a lot of insistence from me or from Juan, that we were forcing things…
[Alfredo]: I mean, there was a time when going to rehearse at your house, it was a party, right? In other words, we had perfect days for young people anywhere in the world. We were already too lucky. I mean, I remember one Saturday. It was about arriving at your house, eating tons of quesadillas, turning on the TV, watching a strange documentary, listening to a song, playing. What was it called?
[Andrés]: Pro Evolution Soccer, PES, PES.
[Alfredo]: PES, PES or Mario Kart. Go out, kick a ball around in the yard, and then go back inside to rehearse, and then go play soccer, and then come back and drink beer and listen to music and continue. What a great youth! I mean, it was beautiful, dude. It was… it was awesome. So I have very good memories of that; that time of my life was one of the happiest. I think so. When we talk about the last days, there was a contrast. Something, something, something got disconnected, I don’t know how to say it.
[Andrés]: And then he brought up a topic: Juan, my brother.
[Alfredo]: You understand Juan’s personality, don’t you? You understand that you are used to it and here we are not going to put labels or anything. I had my own personality, Max had his own personality.
[Andrés]: But Juan’s personality—well, I would describe it as visceral. Passionate. And according to Alfredo, it dominated the group.
[Alfredo]: Not only in the dynamics of the band, but even the composition of the music. “Well, Juan came up with this.” “Wow, it’s cool, we’ll put it in, but what if you do this?” “No way!” So they were discussing music, that is, between guys. I’m going to call myself inexperienced; I remember keeping quiet, like, “Dude, you guys agree on the music.” I remember sitting down with Juan and he said, “The lyrics go more or less like this for you,” right? The melody goes this way, and suddenly I also wanted to put in my twist, you know? I mean someone, if I do this here and I do it here, here I get tired, here I get off and I remember there were disagreements about the music.
[Andrés]: What Alfredo did not want to tell me is that I was also part of the problem for him. While Juan dictated what had to be done with the lyrics, I was the one saying what to do with the music.
The fact is that we were only demanding what the circumstances required of us. We were already in Germany; if we wanted to get ahead, we couldn’t handle things as if it was a hobby. We had to stand out, show that we were professionals. That’s how I felt.
But now I also see that we had a band because we wanted to follow a less… formal professional path, or at least without the typical stresses of an office job.
But these tensions became more and more frequent. Alfredo gave the example of a song that was out of the norm. It was called Working Class. There we all contributed ideas; it was a more collaborative process.
[Alfredo]: If we had continued, I think, on that track of creating music together, I think the story might possibly have been different.
[Andrés]: It was kind of awkward to hear that, I admit. You never want to be someone who did the wrong thing. Honestly, maybe in my youth and my stubbornness to fulfill my dream, I didn’t notice those behaviors. Or I assimilated them as a necessary evil if we wanted to reach our goal.
Now, that is not a problem unique to our band. It is something which thousands of music groups deal with. The example that always comes to mind is The Strokes, where Julian Casablancas handled every detail at a microscopic level. And yes, The Strokes were one of our references. An example of how things should be done.
[Alfredo]: I think the question would be: What if we hadn’t had that stress of not knowing what we were doing or how to land the sound, comparing ourselves—anyway, a bit unfairly—with the sound of The Strokes or Oasis, with the sound that we could achieve in Mexico? As for me, I wasn’t a musician, none of us was a producer, none of us was an engineer, you know? So, I mean, maybe being that demand was a bit premature…
[Andrés]: Yes, they were a couple of very demanding years. It doesn’t seem like much now, but at that age, three years felt like an eternity. So, I understand and I don’t blame him, either.
And in this conversation I realized that, unlike how I took it at the time, it was not easy for Alfredo to break up the band.
[Alfredo]: It was a tough moment. I remember that when we got to your house, I got out of the car, Max walked by me and I vomited, just like that, on the sidewalk. On the sidewalk in front of your house there was a drain and I was so stressed that I got down and I threw up.
[Andrés]: I had no idea about this. I didn’t know it had affected him so much. We didn’t have the time to talk about it, or the desire. Because of the adrenaline and the anger of the moment, I can’t remember it clearly, but we probably laid into each other.
[Alfredo]: But I think it’s precisely during those hard times when someone in a relationship has to decide and say, “Hey, now… I mean, I don’t know where we’re headed, right?” Regardless of agreements or disagreements, there will always be someone who will hopefully make the decision. I mean, I don’t know what you think. Whether it was a moment that called for it, you know? Like that separation, or whether the agreements or disagreements justified it.
[Andrés]: Well, I don’t know. From a very young age I knew that I wanted to do this, and I studied History because studying music was too much, because I knew, “I’m going to devote myself to music, so why the hell would I want—I mean, want to devote myself to something else,” right? I never had any doubt, so, obviously, I had placed all my… my hopes in us and… And yes, it was a big smack, and, “What now, what do we do now,” right? Because if they take away a fucking limb from you, you have to learn to compensate somehow, right?
Compensating took time. I literally locked myself in our rehearsal room trying to fill the void left by Max and Alfredo, learning to produce music. But it was also an emotional confinement. I remember that, for months, the overriding feeling was shame. Shame of having failed. Of failing my family. My mom, whom I’d promised that by 24 I would be famous. And it was a promise that may sound like a teenage joke, but for me it was heartfelt. And I failed. I felt that I had come very close to fulfilling it, but that I flew too close to the sun.
The idea of success has always caused me anxiety, and the feeling of failure has been with me for a long time. I’m not the only one to experience this, of course. I asked Alfredo whether he feels successful at his current job, far away from music.
[Alfredo]: Right now I feel successful, definitely. My definition of success is having time. Having time for—if I want to sit down and write a song right now, at 6:00 pm., being able to sit down, write a song at 6:00 pm. Having time for myself is the key to success: time and peace, with tranquility, not wondering what you are going to eat tomorrow or whether you are going to make it tomorrow.
[Andrés]: In addition to Alfredo, it occurred to me that for this story and, specifically, for this topic, I had to call on someone else.
[Andrés]: Oh, Mr. Peter Freudenthaler. How are you?
[Peter]: Mr. Azpiri. Thank you. I’m fine. And you?
[Andrés]: Who else but the Fools Garden singer, one of the most important mentors I’ve ever had.
From him, the one who had a worldwide hit, something that most bands don’t attain, I asked, “What is success?”
[Peter]: There are so many different definitions of success. But I would say that the success that makes you the most happy is when you sit in in your chair at the end of the day and think about what happened, was it a good day or was it a bad day? And if you can say it’s been a good day, then it’s a successful day.
[Andrés]: He says there are many types of success. But the one that makes you the happiest is the one where you sit at the end of the day and think about everything that happened, whether it was a good day or a bad day, and if you can say, “Yes, it was a good day,” that is a successful day.
We talked about how it affected his life to achieve what most fail to achieve, a commercially successful song.
[Peter]: Even though we had a huge, huge hit, a worldwide hit, it didn’t make me happier than I was before. And when I look back now, it’s for sure it’s a milestone in my life, but in the end it didn’t change so much in my life.
[Andrés]: He told me that even though they had a big hit, it didn’t make him any happier than before. When he looks back, yes, of course, he recognizes that it was a great milestone in his life, but in the end… it didn’t change things that much.
And then he mentioned something that my 20-year-old self wouldn’t have understood:
[Peter]: We did not fell into a hole after this huge success, because we did not take the success too personally.
[Andrés]: Why didn’t they fall into a hole after that unmatchable Lemon Tree success? Because they didn’t take it personally. In other words, they did not define their value by the fact they had a musical success. Taking it very seriously would also mean taking failures very seriously. The latter resonated with me.
[Peter]: And if you tell me the story of your band when you came to Germany, this was a great idea. And you, you did it. Maybe you expected too much. And that’s why the band broke off afterwards. But, you had a successful time in Germany. Don’t you think so?
[Andrés]: That when he hears the story of our trip to Germany, what he hears is a great idea. And what we made it. That maybe we expected too much and that’s why the band dissolved soon afterward. He asked me whether I agree that the time we lived in Germany was successful.
I said yes, but I confess that it took me a moment to see it, to feel that way. I think that I was not only focusing on failure, but I was precisely taking it too personally. I didn’t realize that until now. But I cannot deny that we met several of our goals.
Behind Peter’s words is this old idea of letting go, of closing cycles. Concepts that are nothing new, but that I needed to hear right at this stage of my life. This has been a year of… emotions, to say the least. My mom died from a sudden accident and my family is in the process of selling the house where I grew up, taking out everything from my childhood… All of this has made me look back… maybe too much.
And on the other hand, I’ve just became a dad, which makes me very excited, of course, but also makes me look to the future… maybe too much. So this talk with Peter helped me see that in most cases, I can go to bed at night and say that I had a good day, that it was a successful day.
I have the great privilege of making a living from music, and thanks to musical projects, I can spend time with my family and friends. And maybe it’s not what the 16-year-old Andrés who wanted to be a rock star imagined. But I’m sure that for him, a day of music and family would be a good day.
[Daniel]: Andrés Azpiri is the sound director of Radio Ambulante. He lives in Mexico City. He now has a new member in his band: His name is Pascal, and he was born a few months ago. Congratulations to Pati and Andrés on this new Ambulante baby.
He produced this story with Luis Fernando Vargas. Luis Fernando is an editor and lives in San José, Costa Rica.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez Loayza and me. Bruno Scelza and Désirée Yépez did the fact-checking. Music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill , Ana Tuirán, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Selene Mazón is our production intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.