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In Extremis

Poetical Universe: Fernando Perales On The Argentine Avant-Garde
Robert Barry , January 13th, 2016 12:50

The prolific musician looks over his career with Robert Barry, moving from playing with arch-experimentalists Reynols to making solo noise improvisations, and sidestepping a lawsuit from Hollywood on the way

Fernando Perales is "a real industrial musician," as he puts it. Growing up in Buenos Aires, his father owned a windshield wiper factory and the family lived in the same building as the factory. The first sounds he heard as a child would have been the grinding and clanking of those factory machines.

Throughout almost all of his career as a bassist and guitarist in some of the wildest and most experimental groups in Argentina's avant-garde rock scene, Perales continued to work in his father's factory, even taking over its management after the old man's death seven years ago. "It took me a lot of time to understand that my most important influence was my family heritage, my industrial background," he tells me. "So, part of my poetical universe comes from this noisy familiar background. I've always been surrounded by machines, percussive machines and stuff like that."

After a stint playing with the group's guitarist Rob Conlazo in another project, Perales joined the band Reynols around the end of 1994 and remained with the group as bassist until the end of the decade. Later, he would reunite with Reynols members in the groups Virgen Vapor, Minexio VIII and ÜL. Today, he plays solo under his own name or as Viva La Muerte, making largely improvised noise with a guitar and a variety of objects, DIY tools and industrial detritus.

To get a sense of the absurdist streak that runs through Reynols' whole career, it suffices to recall one of the very first gigs Perales played with the group, in a public square in Buenos Aires, with one giant pumpkin for an amp.

"We were a bunch of six or seven musicians," Perales remembers. "It was a Sunday afternoon in one of the most popular squares in Buenos Aires, a quite popular spot, something like Trafalgar Square. Plenty of families and tourists walking around, enjoying a sunny day. We turned up with a huge pumpkin and plugged our guitar cables into that pumpkin and played for half an hour or something like that, just strumming the strings. A small audience gathered around us and they couldn't believe what they were watching."

In an interview with Dan Warburton for Paris Transatlantic a few years back, Reynols guitarist Anla Courtis elaborated: "In Argentina, if you're a band you're supposed to play this club and then that club, and then you're supposed to grow up, play this way and that way. And they make you sell tickets, and if you don't bring 50 people along to your gigs you end up having to pay to play. We refused to do that. We decided to find another place to play."

"Why pumpkins?" Warburton asked. "They're easier to plug guitars into," Courtis explained.

The concert ended with the local police turning up and ushering the group along as a disturbance of the peace – even though they weren't actually making any sound.

Reynols had formed in 1993 when Courtis and Conlazo were working as music teachers for people with special needs. One day, a 29-year-old with Down's syndrome named Miguel Tomasin turned up for drum lessons. "Hello," he said to them, "I'm the world's most famous drummer."

At first the trio of Courtis, Conlazo and Tomasin called themselves the Burt Reynols Ensamble. They released their first album under that name in 1993. It was a "dematerialised" CD. That is, a CD box with nothing inside it. At some point, however, they found themselves under pressure to change the name, and by 1997 became just Reynols.

What's the story here, exactly? I asked Perales.

Fernando Perales: With Reynols there is nothing like an 'exact story', everything remains in the shadows of uncertainty," he begins. "But, as far as I remember, an Argentinian film producer, in connection with the actor Burt Reynolds, advised the band to modify the name in order to avoid a future legal problem for using his name."

How did you meet the members of Reynols and come to join the band?

FP: I met Anla Courtis around 1991. We both were listeners of an experimental music radio show in Buenos Aires when we were around 20 years old. Then in 1993 I met Rob Conlazo via a common friend and we started to play together in a guitar duo called Un Arbol.

One day, Conlazo told me that he was also playing with some other fellas. When I finally met these other guys, one of them was Anla Courtis. Before I joined Reynols, as we were best mates, I was aware of what they were doing as something really special and unique.

What impressions spring to mind today when you think back to your time with the group?

FP: Reynols was an experience of absolute freedom. We were led by Miguel Tomasin, our drummer with Down's syndrome, whose approach to music was completely out of any rule or logic. He was always taking unexpected paths – I mean, in a musical sense. And that was a whole lesson for us.

In that sense, for me the most memorable concerts were those we played in Miguel Tomasin's school, because the audience was formed by other boys and girls with Down's syndrome. They were such a lovely and receptive audience.

At this time you were called Papaya Perales – how did you get this name?

FP: Well, this is part of my private life… My nickname is Pelado, which means 'bald headed', and by association Pelado became Papaya, because it sounds similar in Spanish. Not a quite serious name for an experimental musician. Anyway, I'm not a serious bloke.

Why did you decide to leave the group? And what led you to work with Anla Courtis again a few years later as ÜL?

FP: One of the main ideas behind Reynols was that music or art makes no sense. While my bandmates kept on playing, putting together records with other artists, I decided to stop playing. At that moment, I really believed that music was nonsense. I even sold my guitar and pedals.

This was around the year 2000. I spent two or three years apart from music. At that time I began to work as a boxing trainer. Some years later, they invited me again to join them, basically for jamming and that. From that period, 2003, 2005, are the Virgen Vapor records.

After the end of Reynols, which was a bit traumatic, in 2007, 2008, we began to play again with Anla Courtis and another friend from Buenos Aires, called Charly Zaragoza. ÜL was a noise guitar trio, brutal and visceral. All the decisions were taken by the three of us. And if any other personal project turned up we were free to follow it.

The last ÜL record was 2010's Uuq – will there ever be another do you think?

FP: No, I think there won't be another ÜL record.

The Virgen Vapor album you made in-between Reynols and ÜL has this very conceptual sounding title, All The Songs Of The Universe Played At The Same Time, Shaping An Invisible Golden-Flou Triangle – what was the idea behind this album? 

FP: I think the name came up after the record was finished. And it was because of the sound of the music, which was a bit strange. To use a euphemism, we thought that the record was like all the songs of the universe played at the same time.

Tell me about your current solo project – how does the sound compare to the previous bands you've been involved in?

FP: Viva La Muerte, my solo project, is based on free improvisation and on the non-semantic difference between noise and traditional musical sounds, using composition and execution techniques, working without a harmonic and melodic structure, focusing on exploring the timbral and material aspect of sound and noise.

It's like a one-person orchestra, composed by guitars, tapes, contact mics, pieces of metal, garage tools, metal sheets and industrial materials fallen into disuse, creating a mix of noise, drone and post-industrial minimalism.

The main difference with my past group projects is that, even though I improvise, I'm trying to play in an extremely controlled way. I try to keep every musical movement under control. It is, at the same time, an enjoyable and stressful experience. I'm usually told by the audience that I look like a chess player or a scientist.

What other projects are you working on now?

FP: Beside my solo work, I am developing a new collaborative project with my friend and partner Luis Conde. We are working on a particular way of conducted improvisation, based on the gap in understanding between musician and conductor. The name of this project is Yarara, a Latin American snake – a critical and ironic translation of cobra. 

It is an orchestra of improvisers, where the indications for the musicians are complete nonsense. This gap between conductors and musicians brings a lovely sense of confusion to the performance. Well, sometimes it is more than confusion.

Fernando Perales plays the Fiddler's Elbow in Camden, London on January 19, alongside Peter Zinovieff, Homodular and The Hermes Experiment; for full details, head here, and tickets, here