No Borders

In the post-download era, selling 300,000 copies of a new album in the U.S. is something of an achievement. Considering that the quintet La Oreja de Van Gogh (Van Gogh's Ear) comes from Spain, performs Spanish pop songs, and hasn't used an English-language crossover album as a door opener (à la Ricky Martin, Shakira, and Enrique Iglesias), such success is remarkable.

La Oreja de Van Gogh's breakthrough favorably compares to the perennial Mexican regional music phenomenon and pop-rock mega-sellers such as Maná and Juanes. But even those examples are sustained by huge colonies of immigrants, such as Mexicans and Colombians, who live in the States. The number of immigrants from Spain is certainly tiny compared to those two groups, but La Oreja de Van Gogh has nevertheless built a major profile here.

"Honestly, it's hard to believe the way we're being received in the U.S.," says guitarist Pablo Benegas from his hometown, San Sebastián, in the north of Spain. "We are thrilled, we know that is not easy to open that kind of doors, and now that we feel that they are finally open, we're going to go in high spirits," he continues, discussing his group's upcoming American tour that will cover eight cities, including Miami.

Benegas thinks that there are two reasons why La Oreja de Van Gogh's third album, Lo Que Te Cont Mientras Te Hacías La Dormida (What I Told You While You Were Pretending To Be Asleep), is being embraced with such open arms. One, it is a reflection of the many promotional trips they have made here since releasing their debut album, Dile al Sol (Talk to the Sun), in 1998. He also explains that, thanks to their musical commitment, "People understand that there's a serious band with things to say behind the promotional gigs and videos, and they definitely identify with our songs, which we believe is our strongest point."

He is basically right; La Oreja de Van Gogh's songs are as universal as can be. For instance, take the hook on their latest hit, "20 de Enero," which communicates love in simple yet poetic language: "The moment I saw you looking for my face/As you got out of the train early on January 20/I wondered what I was going to do the rest of my life without you/Since then I love you, I adore you/And I love you again."

Here's another statistic as proof: Seven of the album's fifteen songs have been cut as singles in Spain since it was released late last year. Singer Amaia Montero's high-pitched voice -- with her sweet, syrupy, and extremely catchy Spanish accent -- sustained by totally Eighties keyboard and synthesizer-driven melodies, is the master key.

Spain hasn't exported such a successful pop band around the globe since New Wave trio Mecano became hitmakers in Europe and Latin America during the Eighties. "I think that most of the time it's about fads. I don't know how to explain the success of late Eighties, early Nineties-inspired pop music so many years later," says Benegas. "We do have that kind of influence, not only in the way we use the keyboards, but also as to how our melodies are constructed. But even though, honestly, these are not things that we stop to overanalyze. We are not musical virtuosos that can control every little detail. We try to be natural, spontaneous, and always playful."

Benegas doesn't like to spend time explaining how La Oreja de Van Gogh has sold four million copies of its three albums worldwide. Instead, the guitarist likes to talk about five university students (bassist Alvaro Fuentes, keyboardist Xabi San Martin, and drummer Haritz Garde complete the lineup) who, at age eighteen, decided to spend their weekends playing U2, Metallica, Janis Joplin, and Nirvana covers just for fun, until they discovered that they could come up with their own stuff, too. "None of the songs that we used to play are to be found in our music today, of course, but that's good," he laughs.

There are a couple of things that the band has learned since they first entered a recording studio in Madrid as small-town newcomers from San Sebastián, not believing their luck. Once they were given the opportunity to work in the capital city, and songs from Dile al Sol hit the country's radio airwaves with such ferocity that album sales almost reached the one-million mark, they needed to stop for a while in order to adjust to their new reality before releasing another hit, the 1.7 million-selling El Viaje de Coppercot (Coppercot's Trip), in 2000.

While La Oreja de Van Gogh has gotten used to the big sales numbers, they aren't exactly resting on their laurels. "You can't fool people," says Benegas. "If they sense that you [celebrate] your own success, they'll turn their backs on you in no time."

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Javier Andrade