Juan Wauters has things to say, even if he’s not the one saying them. His new album, Real Life Situations, opens up with a line from the 2002, The Weather Underground documentary, “There’s no way to be committed to non-violence in the middle of the most violent society that history’s ever created. I’m not committed to non-violence in any way.” Wauters says that he by no means endorses all of the WUO’s controversial positions, but the Bernardine Dohrn quote made headway enough for him to kick off his latest LP with a compilation of phone-recorded snippets that’d caught his attention over the years. Or take, “Keep Cool,” for example, Wauters samples protagonist Sad Girl from the 1993 Allison Anders-directed film, Mi Vida Loca, as he dips into his more light-hearted, poetic tone by the 9th track. “Take it as it comes and keep cool, knowing in your heart that what goes around, comes around.”
Then there’s times when the pondering Wauters— with blustery wind-gusted recordings like “Sentimiento Queens,”— says it himself. “La música no es pocia, no es arte, es la expresión de un sentimiento,” which translates to, “Music is not magic; it is not art; it is the expression of a feeling.” And even, on “Locura,” the only song on the album written post-COVID life, Wauters’ empathy lingers over an uptempo guitar loop, “Ay locura en mi barrio,” which translates to “there’s madness in my neighborhood,” a feeling brought on by seeing his community deeply-affected by the pandemic. Juan Wauters’ fifth solo album is as multilayered can be, as he captures himself sifting through genres, narrators, languages and ideas, from a collection of old songs, phone notes, t.v. snippets, and field recordings in hopes of finding something useful.
At 37 years old, the Uruguay-American, singer-songwriter has traveled across at least half the globe, or it feels like it with his catalog, yet the recently-returned Queens resident still isn’t offering any existential answers. Instead, Wauters delves further into his bag of tricks, capturing unflattering moments and mundane subject matter; telling it like it is, in the charmingly relatable way only he can, that’s garnered him a dedicated indie fanbase and a label deal with Captured Tracks. After taking a break from his punk band, The Beets, in 2012, Wauters remained at home in his neighborhood, turning the focus to his solo music, which lead to 2014’s solo debut, NAP: North American Poetry, followed closely by, a second full-length, Who Me?, in 2015.
The next two records would see Juan live and travel all across South America, Mexico, etc. for some years, mostly just using recording equipment that he took with him. 2019’s La Onda de Juan Pablo picked up the traces along the way, writing songs in genres endemic to the countries he visited, assisted by the artists and musicians he met along the way in the streets and the plazas. Then the latter half of 2019, Wauters delivered Introducing Juan Pablo, intended as a prequel to the travelogue of La Onda de Juan Pablo, which pulls from studio sessions in Toronto, London, Paris, Switzerland and even Wauters’ back home adventures, in Montevideo, Uruguay. This fourth album also laid the foundation for his recent obsession with slipping real life clips, phone conversations, film dialogue, interviews and speeches in-between tracks.
Real Life Situations, alternates between English and Spanish as Wauters usually operates, maintaining his same straightforwardness in storytelling he oft does, while offering listeners an unfiltered, and humorous look, into what interests him at this point in his life, but maybe more importantly, what perplexes him too. Through his eclectic live instrumentation, Wauters explores themes of loneliness and solicitude in songs like “Carmina Pensa” and “Estás Escuchando” with El David Aguilar, that borrows the whistle-hook from N.E.R.D’s “Wonderful Place/Waiting for You,” as inspiration. Then there’s tracks like “Lion Dome” with Brooklyn-based artist Air Waves and “Monsoon” featuring Homeshake, in which Wauters’ bright demeanor shines through his high-pitched, soft vocals. Overheard conversations at the famous-Greenpoint donut shop, Peter Pans Donuts, bare a nostalgic burden for Wauters, and just as quickly, take a turn for the worst on “Crack Dabbling”, where an intense war of words is clipped from a house party in Kansas City last summer. It’s this ultra-realistic sense of humanity, that listeners perceive, and Wauters is able to bottle up so amiably, and placate, that makes it— his greatest strength.
Below, Juan Wauters talks to HYPEBEAST about growing up a real New Yorker as a Queens native, his experience traveling Latin America and then, coming back home, standout collaborations with Nick Hakim and Mac DeMarco, his aural documentations and his fifth solo album, Real Life Situations.
HYPEBEAST: Growing up in New York is such a singular experience, especially if you’re from Queens or like, the Bronx. That’s where you find the most real New York characters, so how has being from here played into who you are as an artist?
Juan Wauters: I remember as a kid going out to parties, and the parties would be in Manhattan still. So we would go out there but it was always good to, like come back home, to your hood after. Living that experience of heading into the place that everyone thinks of when you say ‘New York City,’ and the New York you see on t.v. It’s like you can go there but eventually you go back to where you actually live, and that’s what the real New York is to you. That neighborhood with the lively community where you feel free because it’s home. We have a lot of pride to be from that place and that really gave me the confidence to create music based on my environment and not feel the need to fit into the reality that had to do with these other worlds, where I’d like go to parties at. I didn’t feel like I had to fit into the cool, LES vibe.
With you being from Uruguay, how did your Hispanic roots play in?
Yeah I mean, in my neighborhood, there were a lot of kids that were kids of immigrants. For us growing up, there was no shame in being who you are. Everybody is bringing their own plate to the table and sharing that. We listen to Dominican music and then we go to a party and listen to hip-hop and then we come back to my house and we listen to some Uruguayan music. So, it was all organic to be very cultured in New York and maybe to some people who don’t have that experience it might feel strange, but for us it felt natural and for me, as a way to survive and relate to this place, you become like a New Yorker because you live this lifestyle that only people here can really understand. I’ve also found that I really relate to my music contemporaries in Uruguay, because I didn’t know them previously. And that’s been such a trip to kind of rediscover my Uruguayan sensitivities in depth, as an adult.
Especially since you were traveling through Latin America with your last album. It’s funny I was watching the video you shot for “A Volar” in Mexico City and there was a scene right at this well-known food spot called Churreria el moro, in the Central Lázaro Cárdenas, and around that same area in the market, I actually got pickpocketed.
Oh sh*t! [laughs] That’s crazy. It’s one of those real reality checks.
What I took from it though is that you really get into the mix in these countries too. How do you manage to interact with new sounds, and collaborate with different artists, in a meaningful way?
What I learned from traveling in South America is to listen to the radio and the local sounds and really pay attention to that. I was really focusing in on other music styles that I had never ventured into but I had been around and heard my whole life. And with these collaborations with these artists, we wanted to do something that was brand new each time, something that didn’t have much to do with my sound or their sound necessarily, but rather was us working together to find a middle ground in ways that challenged the idea of genre. It was definitely hard to work with other people but I feel like we each grew from that because we were exposed to situations in which we weren’t 100% comfortable in and a bit out of our elements.
So coming into the making of the album, Real Life Situations, what were you looking to capture with this project? Was it the New York sound?
Yeah but it was mostly just subconscious. I feel like at one point I did try to make an album that sounded like New York with my first solo album, North American Poetry. But when I hear it back now, I think, ‘well what really is New York?’ Sometimes, they make us think it’s like a Woody Allen movie, or it’s Héctor Lavoe music, or KRS One. Always something incredibly specific but like I was saying earlier, we all live here and I guess the most New York thing to do, is just go with the flow and have it be a style that is particular to you and your life experience. Real Life situations is an expression of me during that particular time after traveling through South America and coming back home. I left New York for six months and came back home and it felt really good. I saw things through a different lens because I had never left the city for that long and I was almost falling in love with it again. You know it changes too, like you leave for a bit and you come back and it’s different— new buildings, new neighbors.
With collaborations, like “Unity” with Cola boy or “Acordes” with Tall Juan, how did those songs end up coming together?
Cola Boy, Matthew Arango, I’ve known him since coming up in Queens when I played in a band called The Beets. Tall Juan was also in The Beets. We’d play mostly punk and rock music, and we’d tour the country in a car. We’d drive to California, just for fun and to play music, it was a different time. It was pre-internet, Facebook was hardly a thing [laughs]. But I’ve known Cola since 2009 and we always said once we started doing solo music, ‘We’ve got to do a song together!’ so when I was working, I’m like I want to include my old-time people on the album and we got together.
At the beginning, we wanted to do a song like Mase’s “Welcome Back”, because we always loved that song. And then the song started mutating into something else, going in different directions and so we made it into a puzzle, with a collection of four songs in one basically. But the intro was inspired by that Mase song, since we wanted something playful. The whole song was freestyle’d though, we came up with the music and then started singing on top of it as we were making it. We did some chopping and we finished it. I love making music with my friends and it’s scary to think sometimes that one day, it might become something that’s no longer fun because it’s like a job now.
Yeah, you talk about that a bit on the album, this late-stage capitalism and the music industry specifically, when you said, “It’s a dog eat dog wild world, you’re willing to shoot a brother down, just so you can get ahead.”
Yeah, I mean, it’s true right? In this business, I obviously love doing it and being able to play songs for a living but sometimes I get thrown off by the fact that we’re pit against each other to compete and it’s all crunched down to numbers and whoever has the most streams. I try not to subscribe to that lifestyle but at the same time, like you said, capitalism rules and we all got to eat, so you have to think about those things at times. I’m still battling with those feelings because unfortunately, if you find success in something, life pushes you more and more towards the machine of it.
Did a lot of those snippets or recordings on the album come from watching different things or just sampling conversation from the streets?
Yeah, a lot of them are snippets that I had collected on my phone from people’s public conversations. Usually random people I just happened to come across. And then, there was stuff I had been watching at home during COVID lockdown and it kind of had me in that mindset that I wanted to really stamp the feeling of being in New York through all of this. The idea of not going out and being secluded during that time.
And how was it making music during that time period?
At first, I was definitely thrown off by the feeling. I didn’t want to get involved in anything creative really. I didn’t have the feel or the love for it. I was thinking about other things at the time. It felt like somehow being isolated and in confinement. You go to the supermarket and then you just come back home. I went to see my parents every once and while but it was stressful because you had to be so careful, ya know? So I was very drawn inward during that time period and I think it shows on the project— that kind of obsessive thinking and paranoia that the world’s gonna end. But at the same time, I do think the album is very hopeful. There’s sad and then there’s happy moments on it.
Working on songs, “Presentation” with Nick Hakim, and “Real” with Mac DeMarco, making videos for each, what was the idea behind them? It felt like this is what you guys might be regularly doing on any given day.
Well Nick [Hakim], I had recently met him like a year ago during a recording session, and Mac Demarco, I’ve been friends with for a long time now. Nick had said he wanted to do a song together and “Presentation” was what came out of it. His friend Benamin was there, a producer from New York, and we became friends and he had produced a lot of Wiki’s stuff and Princess Nokia as well, so when we did that with Nick, it really just came from an improvisation mostly. Some kind of freestyle we did. We wrote and recorded the song in one night. For the video, in the song, I had used a lot of phrases from different singers from the Bronx specifically and I really liked the way the Beastie Boys made their videos so I wanted to make a Beastie Boys-inspired music video. Very DIY and showing New York in a very particular way and we’re from the neighborhood, so we knew exactly what to show. We said ‘yo let’s get together at a playground, play some basketball, sing the song a little bit and that’s it.’