Last November, when the Argentinean government blocked access to everyone's bank accounts and the national economy collapsed, rock band Los Piojos still managed to fill a 40,000-seat soccer stadium. It should come as no surprise, then, that the rockeros whose name means lice played to sold-out crowds of Argentinean expatriates in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Diego during their first tour of the United States that concluded May 1. Tenacious little pinchers, Los Piojos represent the young majority that sees no opportunities in Argentina -- and not many more abroad.
Nobody in the media had access to the band when it played for 12,000 people on Sunday, April 28, at Bayfront Park as part of the Fourth Argentine Festival. Cult favorites turned stars by hard times, singer and main songwriter Andres Ciro Martinez, guitarists Gustavo Kupinski and Daniel Fernandez, bassist Miki Rodriguez, and drummer Sebastian Cardero are still reluctant to engage the media and don't trust TV cameras.
"We have to get to know the characteristics of each radio, TV show, or print outlet before we talk to them," explains Pocho Rocca, Los Piojos' manager. But if the band has to start over in the United States, talking to strangers about all those things that everybody already knows in Argentina, the band members cannot walk anonymously in Miami. They are recognized by the large number of countrymen who came here in the past two years to escape the depression and start a new life.
"Here you can see their sad reality," says Martinez of the thousands of Argentineans he encountered in Miami. "It's like playing for the soldiers on the front line, like a war zone where you go and try to entertain them, bringing something from their land." He is looking through the car window at the northern Miami Beach neighborhood along Collins Avenue known as Little Argentina. Driving around the city, New Times covered a good many miles with Los Piojos; the exclusive U.S. interview took place upon the band's return to Miami after wrapping up the tour in San Diego.
"Besides the Argentinean festival here, where we had a reception similar to our shows in Buenos Aires, I think the highlights of this tour have been the second show in New York and the closing in San Diego," says Martinez about the club gigs in Queens and Chulavista packed with hundreds of enthusiastic fans. Just hours before playing in Queens, Los Piojos played for the first time in Manhattan, selling out the 800-person capacity of Club New York in Midtown. Right after that, they came to Miami en route to Los Angeles, where they played for 800 people at a sold-out show at Key Club.
In spite of the enthusiastic response, the lice don't want to buy into the American dream. "People here are as desperate as they are in Argentina," insists Martinez. "Many of them don't know why they're here or what to expect, and they now realize that there's no American dream." He's not sure what role his band should play for his peers in exile. "We'll see if it makes any sense to be here entertaining soldiers," jokes Martinez after enumerating the difficulties suffered by a touring band that had to travel more than 20,000 miles, only to begin once again its long journey toward fame.
Expat support secure, the singer says his dream is to be part of an all-American rock fest, where his band could face a challenge. "It is comforting to know that you can count on your people, that they will be there wherever you play," he ventures, "but it's not as challenging as it could be to be the unknowns in a local festival."
Rather than come back to play for compatriots, Los Piojos believe that it's possible to expand their audience. That doesn't mean they have any plans to switch to English and try to cross over. In fact Los Piojos has moved progressively further away from Anglo rock. After forming in Buenos Aires in 1987, the band played mostly Rolling Stones covers. "At that time, a number of bands playing that type of rock and soul music appeared and all of us were immediately associated," recalls Andres Ciro Martinez. "In that sense, we were part of a movement, but we quickly separated from the pack by mixing Argentinean tango and Uruguayan candombe into a rock cocktail with lyrics in Spanish." For the first five years, the band kept changing lineups and getting experience on the road, playing with very basic equipment. As part of a generation that grew up listening to Argentinean rock legend Los Redonditos de Ricota, Los Piojos learned an alternative way of doing things. The group decided to release their albums with small independent label DBN, walking the longest path to the top of the mountain.
Neither of their first two albums, Chac Tu Chac (1992) and Ay Ay Ay (1994), have been released in the States. These are symbols of the cult years, when the band recorded a quasipunk cover of Discepolo's classic tango "Yira Yira" and included the Argentinean national anthem in its shows. Both gestures were repeated onstage in Miami -- and greeted ardently -- at the Argentine Festival. Those 12,000 screaming people didn't need to buy the albums in the States. They brought them along to this country to ease their life-changing trip.
The band's status changed after Los Piojos released Tercer Arco (1996), the first disc available in the United States. Songs "El Farolito" (The Lamp Post -- a reference to the favorite place for slick tango dancers to lean), "Verano del 92" (Summer of '92), and "Maradó" became radio staples. Their videos gained heavy rotation in Argentina. Shows were booked in stadiums. And the band took a vow of silence. They stopped talking to the press, trying to redirect the media focus onto their music rather than their private lives.
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That same intense media scrutiny, but greatly magnified, was being endured at that time by the band's hero, Diego Maradona. Los Piojos dedicated the song "Maradó" to the soccer star after he was expelled from the Argentinean team in the 1994 U.S. World Cup because random tests showed him positive for ephedrine. "They say he escaped/From the faceless dream/That he faces the powerful/And he attacks the villains/With no weapon in his hand/But a 10 on the back of his T-shirt," wrote Martinez about his friend-to-be Maradona. "In a way, he represents a hero," he explains, "considering that a hero could be someone with a glorious era that has to survive a moment of strong adversity, and is capable of starting all over again."
The first time Los Piojos came to the States was in 1998, when they mixed a fourth album, Azul, in New York. Since then they have crisscrossed more than twenty provinces in Argentina and continued playing in front of huge audiences in Buenos Aires. In 1999 the band members gained even greater independence by forming their own label, El Farolito Records, to release the live album Ritual. The sale of more than 60,000 copies in Argentina alone gave them the chance to pay upfront for the production of their sixth album, Verde Paisaje del Infierno (Green Landscape of Hell, 2000). Ritual and Verde will soon be released here through another independent outlet, Delanuca, to coincide with the band's next visit -- this time alone -- expected in the next five months.
Among all the happy memories of their first tour, including the boisterous Miami crowd, there is one encounter Los Piojos say they will cherish. For the first time since they started playing music, despite living and working in the same city, they had the chance to spend time with Argentinean legend Charly Garcia. They shared jokes and their thoughts on music as his brand-new CD Influencias blasted from the speakers at a house party in Miami after the rockeros shared headlining responsibilities at the Argentine Festival. "It was awesome," gushes the singer. "Especially being far from home listening to his new songs, rather than trying to talk to him in a bar, surrounded by people."
However excited Los Piojos may have been to spend time with the legendary Garcia, the fans at the Argentine Festival showed up to see his successors. The Bayfront Park Amphitheater stands that overflowed with young people howling lyrics and waving banners emblazoned with enormous lice began to empty when Los Piojos left the stage to let Garcia officially close the show. All these miles away, the troops recognized their own heroes.