“This shit is in my blood,” Rene Lopez says with a cool self-assuredness on his phenomenal E.L.S. and although it may seem like a throwaway line to the uninitiated but it’s actually quite revelatory as Lopez has not just natural talent, but he does everything with an effortless wit and charm. In fact, Lopez is among a group of some of the most exceptionally talented and charming artists I’ve covered and gotten to know. How is it that someone of Lopez’s talents not bigger than what he is? What is it that’s somehow getting missed? And as you can imagine, it makes me wonder about the state of the music industry and of music criticism and journalism, especially when artists with half the talent of Lopez are getting the backing of major labels and are getting critically applauded.
Sadly, there aren’t any easy answers to those questions. But what I can tell you is that it can be extremely difficult to separate the actual substance from the noise. Perhaps much worse, is that there are many of my colleagues and associates who really don’t know as much about music as they should and yet they dare to write critically about music!
But I’m getting on a soapbox right now. Let’s get to the business at hand, right?
As the son of Rene Lopez Sr, the salsa trumpeter who had played with the Ray Barretto Orchestra and Tipica 73, two of the most highly regarded and beloved salsa acts of their time, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the younger Lopez was raised in a home where music was a very vital and constant presence; in fact, the younger Lopez learned how to play drums before he could read. And as he tell us in the Q&A below, dance music – in particular disco and funk were regularly played in his home, alone with salsa and other genres. But as Rene Lopez grew into his own as a musician, he gravitated towards rock, R&B, soul and funk. With stints in bands such as Wasabi, The Authority and Extra Virgin. Lopez has been involved in New York’s music scene for the better part of two decades as a drummer and frontperson, playing in countless venues including the beloved and dearly departed home of New York’s jam band scene — The Wetlands.
Interestingly, Lopez artistically has been something of a chameleon throughout the bulk of his career. His fourth and latest full-length effort, Paint the Moon Gold is comprised of compositions that are stripped down to live instrumentation only — vocals, guitar, bass, percussion, horns, flute, etc. And in some way, 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 also owes an even greater debt to the smooth, breezy, summery feel of 70s Brazilian music. And if you listen to it as a whole, it sounds as though it could have easily been released sometime in 1974 as it could have been released a few months ago.
However, his soon-to-be released EP, Love Has No Mercy reveals yet another dramatic change in sonic direction for Lopez. Although it still draws a bit from his Latin music roots, the material on the EP is comprised of slinkily seductive, synth and sinuous bass line-based R&B and funk that sounds directly inspired by the likes of Prince, The Gap Band, Rick James, Chic and others released during the 70s and 80s. Overall, the material may arguably be some of Lopez’s funkiest straight up party jams he’s released to date while retaining the amiable charm, easy-going nature and thoughtfulness that have won me and others over.
I recently caught up with Lopez for a second time – a first in this site’s history – to discuss Love Has No Mercy, his European tour with singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur, in which he opened for Arthur and played bass Arthur’s backing band, how he balances family life with that of the musician’s life and much more. You can check out the Q&A below.
And before I forget, if you’re in the New York area and are around for the CMJ Festival, you can catch Rene Lopez at the Slipper Room on October 23. I guarantee you that you’ll dance and have a great time.
Photo credit: Dan Monick
WRH: As you know, I was first put on to after the release of E.L.S., which was among my favorite albums back in 2011. And on that album you introduced a sound you had been working on for some time, “Electric Latin Soul,” a heady genre-bending sound that just captures the old school New York that we both know and love. You followed that up with Paint the Moon Gold, which was a stripped down, soulful return to your roots – and has some great songwriting, to boot. Your soon to be released latest EP, Love Has No Mercy will be considered by many as a sonic left turn as it’s an album of slinky, seductive funk. Was there even more of a concerted effort to change things up? And what inspired the change in direction?
Rene Lopez: To tell you the truth I wasn’t trying to change things up at all. I was just inspired to write and when these tunes started to come out of me I got excited, and wanted to go more in that direction and record right away. The band didn’t even hear the tunes until we got into the studio to record. They just jumped right in and brought a lot to the table. You already know that I have a Latin background, but I also have a deep funk background and I grew up with my parents dancing to disco in our living room; so it was very natural for me to write these types of jams. It’s in my blood and I have more coming!
WRH: Speaking of funk, many of the songs sound as though you were listening to the funk, soul and disco records of the late 70s and 80s. “Lovegod” has a bass line that reminds me of The Gap Band’s “You’ve Dropped a Bomb on Me” but paired with synths and Latin percussion. “Show Your Light” is the one track that reminds me of ELS but sexier. EP title track “Love Has No Mercy” has a rhythm guitar line, paired with chiming percussion that reminds me so much of Nile Rodgers. “City Streets are Dead Tonight,” reminds me of old Prince albums. What exactly inspired the material?
Rene Lopez: There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with the funk. It went deep. I based my first band The Authority on Prince and The Revolution and through Prince I discovered his influences which led me to Sly [Stone and The Family Stone], P. Funk, Ohio Players, Rick James, The Meters, James Brown, Chic, The Brothers Johnson and many more. I also loved Off The Wall from MJ and The Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever. I tried to write tunes like that in my early 20’s but they weren’t that good. Now I’m a stronger songwriter and I’m able to tap back into that vibe again, and come out with good tunes that have my own voice. Man, I was the biggest Prince fan. My walls were covered with his image and I even tried to rock the Purple Rain haircut but I ended up looking like John Oates…
WRH: If I remember it correctly, much of the EP was recorded in New Orleans. Did being in New Orleans change your approach to recording and songwriting?
RL: This EP was not recorded in New Orleans. Brooklyn baby!!!! Paint The Moon Gold was mixed in New Orleans with my buddy Nappy and producer Daniel Collas. Now, I have some unreleased jams that I recorded in NOLA and I also recorded a album at Daniel Lanois’ old studio Kingsway with my second band back in ’99, Extra Virgin. That album is called 12 Stories High. I’ll get that one too ya. New Orleans is my second favorite city and always in my heart.
WRH: When do you know that you have a finished song? Does that moment change when the approach changes so radically?
RL: I just know. It feels right and I want to go and record it. I have tons of unfinished songs on my phone right now that I have to get on and finish. The moment doesn’t really change for me. A good song is a good song no matter what genre it’s played in.
WRH: In a way, Love Has No Mercy bears a resemblance to E.L.S. Is that a fair comparison? And for the uninitiated, how does Love differ?
RL: Yeah there are some similarities. I actually think that People Are Just People which was the album before ELS is a bit closer to Love Has No Mercy. ELS was put together in pieces – like a puzzle, using drum machines, samples, synths, and I was jumping around playing different instruments. I also used a band on the album and chopped it up a bit when I brought it out to Mario Caldato’s studio in L.A. Love Has No Mercy was recorded with a live band. We did the basic tracks in two days and then we put keys, percussion, my vocals and background vocals in 3 or 4 days.. We were pretty quick. I don’t have a record company backing me so I have to get in and out of there. Lucky I have great people I work with…
WRH: You’ve had a pretty interesting year or so, as you recorded a full-length album, an EP and you toured with Joseph Arthur as part of his backing band and opening for him. (I didn’t know that you also played bass until national TV appearances on Letterman and Kimmel!) For the most part, you’ve been a frontman, so is it a difficult adjustment to be a sideman? How did that come about? How did the tour go and what was the response to your material?
RL: I didn’t really know I played bass either!! Actually I love bass and always enjoyed using it to write on, but never thought I would tour as a bass player. Joe asked me if I could do it and of course I said “yes,” because I like putting myself in uncomfortable situations to see what happens. I like the challenge and I stepped up to the plate and rocked it. Yeah I enjoy being a frontman more but you need to step outside yourself if you are going to learn more. The tour was ok. Not gonna lie. It was hard doing my solo show then playing bass with Joe for two hours then selling my merch. I think we played 26 shows and by the end we got on each others nerves. The crowds where amazing and so open to my music. I still get emails from fans who want me to come back. I could do really well in Europe given the chance.
WRH: How do you manage being a married father of two with the life of a musician? I would presume that there are times in which there are competing demands for your time?
RL: It’s a lot of work but so worth it. My greatest joy is my family and they inspire me to make good music and get better at what I do. My family is first then my music. Because of that I really have become super organized with my time and I don’t bullshit. I want my kids to see how passionate I am about what I do and how happy it makes me.. My wife has always been so supportive. I really wouldn’t be able to do it with out her.
WRH: How did you manage the time to write and then record material while all of that was going on?
RL: Again I just organize my time right. When I go to my studio I get to it. Also I’m always writing tunes in my head. Always…
WRH: I’ve long had the sense that you should be much larger than what you currently are, and the new EP cements that in my mind. You can play anything with an effortless, easy-going charm. However, on another level that makes you a sonic chameleon that’s difficult to easily pigeonhole and you do so in an uncompromising fashion. And yet you’ve had a very lengthy career. Has it been difficult to be so uncompromising in such a competitive business? Is there a certain point where you frankly say “Fuck this, I gotta follow my muse regardless of where that puts me”?
RL: When I was younger I used to get frustrated with the music biz but not anymore. It is what it is. I just need to stay on my path. I’m not going to follow trends in music. I’m going to do my best to be honest with myself and make what’s already inside me. Yes, it would be nice if I had a bigger following and I sold more records, and had someone back me for a major tour so I could bring my band on the road. Ah that would be nice… I just keep my head up and make music. I’ll keep on knocking until the door opens wide and they invite me in and they say, “Damn where have you been all this time?” And I’ll say “I’ve been knocking the whole time you just were too distracted and weren’t listening.” Ha!!
WRH: What do you ascribe to your longevity?
RL: I’m still a kid at heart that loves to be on stage and gets high off of writing and playing music. Plus I never was into cocaine.
WRH: Will there be a full-length album to follow up on the EP?
RL: Yes sir… If I don’t get to tour I will go right back to work putting together a full- length album that I will serve to you on a hot iron greasy skillet. What the hell else I’m I gonna do????