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Lars von Trier dogmatics: José González

INTERVIEW. The Swedish-born Argentinian singer-songwriter broke through with revelatory versions of The Knife and Massive Attack, but his approach to recording and politics makes him truly unique. See him in the flesh on Nov 3 at Tempodrom.

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Born in Gothenburg, Sweden to Argentinian parents, José González always kept close ties to his musical ancestry. At an early age, he took Spanish guitar lessons and learned the ropes of composition by covering bossa nova tunes. Receiving worldwide accolades for recording revelatory versions of The Knife’s “Heartbeats” or Massive Attack’s “Teardrops”, González accumulated a solid body of work and never lost sight of his heritage. Catch the hypnotically-voiced bard at Tempodrom on November 3.

You’ve been drawing inspiration from South American and lately West African music.

Brazilian music has been part of my growing up. My parents fled from Argentina. So among the music they were playing at home, there was Latin American music; not just Argentinian, but also Cuban and Brazilian. With my first album [Veneer, 2003], I’ve been listening to Tropicália. I really enjoy the soundscapes, and many times, there’s a mystical side to the harmonies. I think my music doesn’t sound that similar actually, but it’s still an inspiration. And with Western African music, I have to admit, I am a bit late. I always felt that I’d listen to everything, but then I noticed I don’t know anything. [laughs] So I discovered Amadou & Mariam. Through them, I started to find more and more. On my second album [In Our Nature, 2007], I was already inspired and started to imitate some riffs. That’s when I wrote “Killing for Love”.

How important is clarity in music?

Clarity can be a hurdle, but it’s a matter of taste. If you want a pop song on the radio, it needs to be clear. It can be hidden – like [Christina Aguilera’s] “Genie in a Bottle”, which can be interpreted in a sexual way, and that’s probably a good thing for pop songs – but in general, the more you want to connect to big crowds the clearer you have to be. For me, I feel like it’s the opposite.

How does that reflect in your production process?

I used to be very protective of how I mix my vocals. I wanted the lyrics to be secondary, a bonus if people find it and like it. With the third album [Vestiges & Claws, 2015], I became more open. I let people understand the words if they wanted to. But it’s still on the obscure side of the spectrum.

What’s the setup when you record your albums?

I have a small room in a studio complex, but also at home. And I noticed recording at home was easier. So I did almost everything at home. It’s practical in many ways. Waking up, doing something, eating something and doing something. It’s an ongoing process opposed to the office work feeling that comes with the studio where there is more frustration involved. I would sometimes go to the studio and just sit on a couch.

You’re pretty much self-reliant?

I’ve always recorded my own guitar and my own vocals. I learnt the tricks pretty early. What I did differently this time was to mix it myself, too. With the first album, I recorded myself, but I let Mikko Helsing master it with Cubase in a cheap way. I felt like that was a cool trend to make something that sounds analogue but completely do it in the computer. Nowadays so many people do it with a computer, yet I wanted to continue that trend. There are more and better plug-ins, and I wanted to learn, so I did it all on the laptop.

So you’re not an analogue purist?

I’m really excited about all gear, but I’m not a purist. I’m even more excited about what’s happening in terms of democratisation of information, how you can have pretty cheap stuff, but through the power of microchips, you can make it sound extremely analogue. I’m interested from a philosophical perspective, too. There is a limit to our perception. Once the digital is able to imitate the analogue, suddenly you get to a point of imitation that you can’t tell the two apart; and that’s basically where we’re headed. I’ve been only focussing on EQs, distortion and tape emulators. So, I haven’t geeked out on these things. Even though those are the interesting things that I would like to know more about.

You’ve indeed been consistent with the choice of your instrument.

With the nylon string guitar, my vocals, how I use my range, I have been a purist, almost dogmatic – Lars von Trier type dogmatic. [laughs] I sing about dogma in “What Will”. I’m against dogma in an ideological sense, but in art, I think dogma is perfect because it gives you limits and it gives you something to talk about when you’ve done your art. So dogma is great in the Lars von Trier sense, but not so good in the ISIS sense.

After this last reference, I have to ask about a political message in your songs.

It’s on a general level. “Every Age” is a song where I’m singing how every age has to deal with its issues. For me, it’s important to push for the good side of global issues and even more ideas that promote human rights. The title, Vestiges & Claws, is not necessarily meant to be political, but it’s meant to be pushing people towards a zoomed-out worldview. I think dogma doesn’t have a place with the issues that we’re facing. In that sense I’m political. As a musician, I don’t have a big role to play, but people listen to people who sing and play guitar. [laughs]

So you as a musician can only be an indicator but not a factor of social change?

I need to nuance that a bit. I like to be part of those who change the world for the better. So, when I’m asked to play a benefit, I say yes. Musicians and artists can really help. But then you don’t always have to listen to what artists say. That’s where I feel like I can downplay the musician’s role. I think art is a powerful instrument; you can push emotional buttons, you can repeat a sentence and make huge change, but I feel a tiny bit scared when people like Kanye West want to be president. You have people who spent many years in university and many years working politically. I get scared with Donald Trump and Kanye West. It’s absurd. I’m for meritocracy – not completely, but for a certain degree, especially for people that become very powerful. To many people, I have a nice voice, I have been practicing guitar, it doesn’t mean that I have good economic solutions to global issues.

JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ, Tue, Nov 3, 20:00 | Tempodrom, Möckernstraße 10, S-Bhf Anhalter Bahnhof