A Q&A with Rene Lopez

Rene Lopez is the son of Rene Lopez Sr, the salsa trumpeter who had played with the Ray Barretto Orchestra and Tipica 73, arguably two of the most highly regarded and beloved salsa acts of their time, and with that in mind it shouldn’t be surprising that the younger Lopez grew up in a home where music was a constant and vital presence. In fact, as the story goes, the younger Lopez learned how to play drums before he could read. 

As the younger Lopez grew into his own as a musician, he gravitated towards rock, R&B, soul and funk and had stints in several bands including Wasabi, the Authority and Extra Virgin as the drummer and frontperson. However, by the early part of the 00s, Lopez had begun concentrating on a solo career, releasing the I Know What I See EP in 2003 and his debut LP, One Man’s Year, which featured Lopez on drums, vocals, clavinet, keyboards and several different varieties of guitar. But it was the 2011 release of his third full-length effort, E.L.S. that managed to bring Lopez out to a larger, national scene. 

Influenced by salsa, boogaloo, hip hop, merengue and old school hip hop, that album sounds warmly familiar — the sounds you’d likely hear coming from car stereos and apartments in Jackson Heights, Corona, Spanish Harlem, the Lower East Side (pre 1995 or so), and of the South Bronx. It’s a loving homage to the  universally beloved sounds of Latino New York but with a modern re-interpreation through some playfully inventive genre mashing. And the material which often employs huge, club-banging beats manages to swing and saunter with an amiable charming, swagger much like Lopez himself. Unsurprisingly, E.L.S. landed at number 12 on this site’s Best of 2011 List for it’s inventive and fun-loving nature. 

The younger Lopez, along with his backing band spent the better part of 2012 and 2013 writing and recording new material, some of which appears on his recently released EP, Let’s Be Strangers Again. And you can expect his fourth full-length Paint the Moon Gold in the near future. The new EP, and in turn, the new album finds Lopez in a rather interesting place as an artist and as a man. In particular, the material on the new EP comes from several different sources. Lyrically, the songs come from a deeply personal place – they express the thoughts, sentiments, regrets, compromises and desires of an experienced, wizened 40 something, married father of 2. So yes, lyrically the material is mature but it never loses it’s wit, playfulness or it’s sense of ebullient joy.

Sonically speaking the material represents both a change in sonic direction as much as it represents a return (of sorts) to Lopez’s roots. If you were familiar with Lopez’s E.L.S., the first thing you immediately notice is that the arrangements throughout Strangers’s compositions are stripped down to live instrumentation only – vocals, guitar, bass, percussion, horns, flute, etc. Simply put, it’s less electric and much more soul. Naturally, the material possesses familiar elements as it continues to draw from the salsa of Lopez’s youth and of his late father, Rene Lopez, Sr. But it’s not as seemingly straightforward as the uninitiated would likely believe. You see, the compositions manage to owe an even greater sonic debt to the smooth, breezy, summery feel of 70s Brazilian music. In some way, the EP sounds as though it could have been easily released in 1974 as much as it could have been released a few weeks ago. 

Certainly, as different as Let’s Be Strangers Again is in comparison to E.L.S. both albums have remarkable similarities.  Throughout both efforts, Lopez’ amiable charm shines through and just as important, Lopez and his backing band play with a loose, free-flowing self-assuredness that create the sense of a bunch of guys jamming at a party …

I managed to catch up with Lopez via email while he was touring across Europe with Joseph Arthur. And in this Q&A, Lopez talks about his new EP and the forthcoming new album, gives his honest thoughts about the music industry, while giving some honest advice to fellow musicians – and he does so while being both brutally honest and charming. Check it out below.

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WRH: Your dad was a member of the beloved Tipica 73.  Has there been any point where you have been compared to your father?

Rene Lopez: Actually I have never been compared to him but his influence on my music is apparent.

WRH: You’ve been around the New York music scene for quite some time, going back to the 90s, playing in a couple of bands before you went solo. What inspired the decision to be a solo artist? Was it initially difficult or odd to be the frontperson? 

RL: I’ve always been the front person. The first band I ever started was The Authority where I was the front person and bandleader. The inspiration behind going solo was I needed to dig deeper as an artist and I was not getting that with the band. Since the Authority I have been a solo artist and backed up other artist as a drummer. I’m actually now on tour in Europe playing bass with Joseph Arthur and opening the show with my solo thang.

WRH: I caught the Tribe Called Quest documentary a few months ago, and at one point, Q-Tip openly mentions that after being in a group for a decade, that being a solo artist was liberating for a number of reasons. Did that apply in your case?  

RL: Hell yes. For me it was a huge growing period. I had to really dig deep to become a better singer, learn how to play guitar and become a better songwriter. Jumping into the unknown and completely embracing it. I do love the band vibe when it clicks but being a solo artist gives me the freedom to do exactly what my heart tells me to do.

WRH: Who are your influences?

RL: Damn. On this day sitting in a van traveling to Zurich it’s Ray Charles, Miles Davis, George Benson, Eddie Palmieri, my dad, Jorge Ben, Marvin Gaye, Dr. Lonnie Smith. Tomorrow my influences might change. 

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

RL: Right now I’m in the van listening to Ray Charles The Birth Of Soul 1952-1959 box set.

WRH: How did you meet the guys in your backing band?

Through 20 years of playing gigs in NYC.

WRH: Your previous album E.L.S. was one of the more playfully inventive albums I personally heard in quite some time. The material on your latest effort, Let’s Be Strangers Again EP has a number of changes that may surprise those who were familiar with E.L.S. – your new material has you primarily playing guitar and singing instead of you singing and on drums/percussion. What brought that about? And was this stripped down approach a conscious decision?

RL: I never make a conscious decision like that. I just create. I just got in the zone playing my guitar everyday and the songs just came out in a couple of months.. Listening to Jorge Ben, Tim Maia and Gilberto Gil inspired me to write.. I hope to put out the full lengthy album Paint The Moon Gold with all the songs very soon.

WRH: One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between E.L.S. and Let’s Be Strangers Again is that the songs on Strangers come from a very adult perspective – as though the material pays direct homage to salsa and Brazillan music. What brought this about?

RL: I started going to a record shop called Tropicalia in Furs in the East Village. The owner Joel started turning me on to all this amazing Brazilian music from the 60’s and 70’s. I became obsessed and I still am. I think it will stay will me for a while and grow into something very special. The salsa roots have always been there with me but you already know that. 🙂

WRH” Your live sets appear to include a helluva lot of improvisation. It’s not surprising to see you and your band play with the arrangements and tempos of the material. I don’t think that I’ve heard the same song in the same exact fashion. Is your material written with that in mind? 

RL: I never want my songs to sound like the album. The reason why I play with great musicians is because I want everyone to play. Get on stage a play. Let’s see where it goes. Let’s take some risks.. Fuck being safe. I don’t write songs with that in mind but when I get on stage I want on hell to break loose. 

WRH: How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you have ideas and others help flesh them out or do several people contribute ideas as you’re writing? 

RL: I write the songs and bring them into rehearsal. I have a great band and I always respect any arrangement ideas they have and if they have a idea for a part.. 

WRH: In my mind, your sound is difficult to pigeonhole. Sure, it has elements of salsa, boogaloo, hip hop, rock, jazz and pop – it’s very much the sound and feel of New York. Has there been a point where you’ve dealt with someone who really doesn’t get it? Do you think that because your sound is so difficult to pigeonhole that sometimes industry people have a hard time marketing and selling your work?

RL: I don’t give a damn about the industry. During the last 20 years I’ve met so many people in the music industry who where in powerful positions who have their heads up their asses. I have my own sound. It’s mine and New York is a big part of it because it runs through my blood. It should be simple. I write good tunes and I rock the stage. If they can’t see that then it’s their problem. I’ll be making albums until I’m 90. Ha!

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make it? 

RL: I gave this advice the other day.. Don’t expect anything from the music industry. You do it because you would die a slow painful death if you did not.