Tall Juan's Classic Punk Sound Is a Throwback Worth Seeing Live

Listening to a Tall Juan track for the first time, you might mistake the energetic hooks and propulsive guitar for an acoustic Ramones B-side. Indeed, the Buenos Aires-born songwriter (born Juan Zaballa) takes cues from the monolithic presence that Joey Ramone and company had in the heyday of punk. "I heard the Ramones for the first time when I was about 8 years old," Zaballa explains. "I didn't speak English then, but there was something in the melodies, sound, and attitude that got me into it right away." In fact, the band's anthems were one of the reasons Zaballa picked up English: "Once I moved to New York with my friend Juan, we started playing their songs while he taught me their lyrics, and I started learning English. I decided to write more songs in English — my broken English, anyway," he jokes.

Zaballa has wanted to pursue music as long as he can remember. Even before he found the Ramones, his dad, uncles, and their circle of friends were his earliest musical influences. "Tall Juan" is a nickname his childhood friends gave him. "But there's definitely a Tall Juan onstage who's different from the Juan brushing my teeth every morning," he admits. "Everything is retro-influenced, not just the music."

It's easy to imagine Zaballa — who often wears '70s flower-print shirts or a jacket speckled with band pins — slotted to perform a rowdy gig at CBGB. He's known to bring a lot of energy to his infectious tunes when playing live. He says fans should expect a good old-fashioned rock show, with all the raucous showmanship that implies. "I don't know if it is important to throw that much energy to the crowd, but at least when I was a kid, going to see live music gave me hope and inspired me," he says. Though the recordings predominantly feature his frenetic playing and emotive voice, "If you come to the show, you'll see a classic rock band, with bass, drums, and acoustic guitar, playing a fast and short set."

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    Zaballa recently spent time recording with master slacker Mac DeMarco at his eloquently named Jizz Jazz Studios in Far Rockaway, New York. Asked if the clean sound of his new material is the result of DeMarco's pop sensibilities, Zaballa pauses to consider. "Maybe it is, but I didn't think about it. I always get influenced by the people who surround me, friends, and music I like," he says. "[DeMarco] was just doing me a favor by recording me. The tracks aren't 'produced' at all."

    He's played many a Tall Juan set throughout the Americas, so naturally Zaballa has observed the punk scenes in various locales, including his adopted hometown, Queens, New York. But even though he has played at Churchill's, he admits his knowledge of the South Florida scene is limited. "I don't know much about the Miami punk scene. I know about the Argentinean one," he says. "I used to go see this band Flema. It was pretty bad but good at the same time. Lots of punk kids used to go to their shows and fight with skinheads."

    Zaballa, along with friend and tour mate Juan Wauters, will bring his groovy, classic-tinged rock to Gramps this Monday. Asked about the possibility of a dual-Juan world takeover, Zaballa thinks. "Sure, that sounds good! Or maybe we'll start a wrestling tag team."

    Either way, brace yourself.

    Tall Juan with Juan Wauters and Ben Katzman's Degreaser. 9 p.m. Monday, February 29, at Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Admission costs $5.

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