Stereo Tonic

Three television camera crews, about a dozen radio DJs and print journalists, and some bilingual college students convened in a hospitality room at the Miami International Airport Hotel early one morning in February to await the arrival of the Argentine rock group Soda Stereo. Dressed in stylish grungewear and sporting sunglasses, lead singer and guitar player Gustavo Cerati, bassist Zeta Bosio, and drummer Charly Alberti arrived at MIA en route from Buenos Aires to a concert in Guatemala. Fashionably late, they entered the smallish room and settled behind a table to field questions in Spanish about Sue*o Stereo, their new ambient/psychedelic album recorded in London, and their their upcoming concert at the James L. Knight Center. A contingent from MTV Latino waited in a hallway to talk with the trio about Soda Stereo's "Unplugged" concert, to be taped on March 12 in the music channel's Lincoln Road studios.

As the rather stilted half-hour press conference ended, the assembled media members perked up, elbowed their way to the front of the room, and pestered the musicians for autographs. Some had brought CDs, while others extended press kits for a signature. The starstruck editor of a local Spanish-language music magazine pulled album after album from a bulging plastic bag and had the group sign each. Then he handed a camera to a friend and posed for photographs with the musicians, who complied pleasantly, if perfunctorily. It's not as if this was something new for the band.

"People have always had this really strong attraction to us, and I'm not sure why," muses Cerati, speaking by phone from Guadalajara, Mexico, on an early morning several weeks after the press conference. "But it's more comfortable than it used to be. We have a little more room. We can walk around now without being mobbed."

The first Latin American supergroup, Soda Stereo helped pave the way more than ten years ago for the current commercial success of Latin rock, or rock en espa*ol. The group debuted in 1982 with a hard-edged pop sound underlined by intelligent but accessible lyrics about subjects with a pan-Latin appeal: television, relationships, alienation, earthquakes, and living in the Third World. This last subject was the theme of "Persiana Americana" ("American Curtain", also the common Argentine term for a venetian blind), one of their biggest early hits. Their songs were built around glistening guitar lines and thundering drums worthy of the finest American arena rockers, while the soaring choruses recalled the more bombastic moments of vintage U2. To the mix, Soda Stereo applied some distinctly South American touches, such as adding Andean wind instruments.

By the mid-Eighties -- before MTV began broadcasting to a global village of Latin youth and before record companies began to understand the commercial potential of rock en espa*ol A the group had sold over a million records and was performing for huge audiences all over Latin America. "We were pretty adventurous," concedes Cerati. "We were pioneers."

In the early Eighties, the Argentine rock scene was starting to explode. Although bands had been playing rock in Buenos Aires since the Sixties, those first groups merely imitated the sounds and styles of popular British and American bands. By the late Seventies, however, Argentine rock had its own sound, distinguished primarily by the metaphoric protest songs that were written in response to the military regime that took power in Argentina in 1976. When the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina broke out in 1982, music with English lyrics was banned from the radio, and in their rush to find music in Spanish to put on the air, Argentine DJs relied on national product, even playing tracks from albums that had been censored by the state. The positive reaction of listeners confirmed the widespread appeal of Argentine rock, and the new democratic government, which replaced the junta in 1983, encouraged "young people's music" with public concerts and rock festivals in Buenos Aires and other cities. Although "Rock & Pop," Argentina's first FM station devoted to rock music in English and Spanish, would not start transmitting until 1986, Argentine newspapers began devoting more space to rock as early as 1983, a year before Soda Stereo hired a manager and released its self-titled debut album.

Cerati and Bosio were in their twenties when they formed Soda Stereo, while Alberti, the son of jazz drummer Tito Alberti, was still in his teens. Like other groups getting together at the time, Soda Stereo reflected a renewed optimism in Argentina. Rather than write and perform the somber rock ballads favored by the previous generation, these so-called moderno bands gravitated toward dance music, pop, and new wave, with songs that featured lighthearted, sometimes even frivolous lyrics that embodied this new spirit of freedom and democracy.

In 1986, after the release of their third album Signos (Signs), they set off on an extensive Latin American tour, playing in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile, and in the process creating what Cerati describes as a sort of Beatlemania. "People were following us all over; they chased us down the street," he recalls. "It was crazy." During concerts teenage girls pleaded for Cerati to take off his pants and throw his underwear into the crowd. And at the 1987 Vina del Mar Festival in Chile paramedics reported 120 cases of "collective hysteria," or fainting, during Soda Stereo's performance. The group kept on traveling -- to Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama -- breaking new ground for a Spanish-language band.

"Touring was an adventure," remembers Cerati. "In these countries even the minimum infrastructure for producing a rock concert didn't exist. The American music that people heard on the radio had very little resemblance to what they could produce in their own country. There were bands, but the mechanisms didn't exist to consolidate a scene. What we did was remove that veil. We proved that it could be done. And once the record industry saw our success, they came running behind to find other groups that sounded like us.

"People say that we cleared the path for Latin rock," he continues. "When we traveled outside of Argentina for the first time, we didn't know what Latin rock was. We knew the music that was being played in Argentina, we knew there were groups singing in Spanish, but we didn't imagine Latin rock as a product. Some record people think of Latin rock as an alternative sound. To me it's just about quality music. It doesn't matter if you sing it in Spanish or English. It's the same thing."

With their popularity established, the band was free to take even greater artistic risks. Their 1988 album Doble Vida (Double Life) was cut in New York City with producer Carlos Alomar, David Bowie's long-time guitarist/songwriting collaborator. The album's complex arrangements and postpunk sound was a dramatic departure from the group's previous Top 40 hits, yet 25,000 people attended a Buenos Aires concert promoting the release, during which Alomar joined the band on stage.

Sueno Stereo, the group's first album in three years and their first for BMG Latin, arrives after a hiatus in which each musician pursued solo projects. Like Doble Vida, it finds the band working new sonic territory. This time, however, they're dabbling in the techno textures of ambient trance music, experimenting with Sgt. Pepper's psychedelia, and burying Cerati's vocals beneath layers of echo and reverb. It's their most experimental album yet -- not exactly an easy listen. Cerati acknowledges that it might alienate some of the band's fans, but he's not worried. "You start to become a classic by virtue of all the people who've grown up with your music," he says. "And that gives you some freedom. We take advantage of Soda Stereo's name to do what we want."

Soda Stereo's upcoming show at the Knight Center is the last date of a short American tour that also included stops in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. While the band has played clubs in those cities before, they've previously avoided Miami, although their 1990 album Cancion Animal (Savage Song) was mixed here at Criteria Studios. "It always seemed so behind the times," Cerati says of the city. "The interesting thing is that Miami's changed a lot. Now there are local bands who play rock in Spanish. There's a growing audience. When the kids here find out that the countries that their parents come from produce music that's as good as what's made in America, that produces a very strong emotional effect."

Soda Stereo performs with Aterciopelados on Friday, March 8, at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2nd Ave; 372-0929. Showtime is 8:00. Tickets are $25, $32, and $37.

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