Most mainstream music listeners in the U.S. know Manu Chao as the artist behind 1999’s catchy novelty hit ”Bongo Bong”, if at all. In much of the rest of the world, however, the Barcelona-based singer-songwriter is a major star — beloved for his outspoken critiques of war and globalization, as well as for his omnivorous blend of Latin, reggae, folk, and pop sounds. Chao took a break from mastering his long-awaited third studio album, due out August 28, to play an incendiary set at the Coachella festival, where EW.com joined him in his backstage trailer for a chat about music and politics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your last proper studio album came out in 2001. Why the wait?
MANU CHAO: I was not waiting. I was just recording and taking my time, because I didn’t feel in a hurry to put [something] out in the market. I was happy with what I was doing. Also what made time go by very quick was all the production I did [for other artists]. The work for ”Amadou and Mariam” [the Malian duo whose 2005 album Chao produced] was very, very interesting, but long. I produced another album for a friend from Kabylia — which is part of Algeria — called ”Akli D”. And it takes more time to do a CD for somebody else than to do yours, because it’s more responsibility! [Laughs]
When did you start recording your own new album, then?
Oh, some [sessions], maybe four, five years [ago].
How do you know when your music is ready for release?
It’s never ready! I can spend hours and hours and days and days in the studio changing the music, because I love that. When it’s already mixed, that’s the best moment to start cutting and doing silly things and adding new samples. So that’s where I really have my fun. And one day I have to say, ”Stop — I’m gonna put out today’s mix.”
What should your fans expect the album to sound like?
I’m not very objective. More heavy guitars than the two studio albums before — kind of between what we do live and what I used to do in studio. A little bit more rock.
What made you want to bring that harder edge from the stage into the studio?
Because the opportunity was there. We record at home; my friends Majid [Fahem] and David [Bourguignon, both members of Chao’s backing band] were around, they played, and they play more heavy guitar, you know?
What languages were the new songs written in?
A lot of songs in Spanish, some songs in English, some songs in French, maybe one in Portuguese. I got another CD all in Portuguese.
Where are you on that project?
I never really work on just one CD — I’m recording, recording. So I got a lot of CDs cooking, [including that] Portuguese CD — I should say, en Portuñol.
What’s it like playing to American audiences, who might not know your material as well as crowds in Europe or elsewhere?
That’s not my problem. [Laughs] In the U.S. there’s a lot of bands, and we don’t come here very often. So I think it’s quite normal, no? Years ago with Mano Negra [Chao’s former band in the ’80s and ’90s], I remember we had the problem that here the radio and the music business is [organized by genre]. They didn’t know where to put us, if we were world music, rock’n’roll, or reggae. [But] we’ve been touring the [U.S.] last year, and it was sold out everywhere. That was a big surprise. And the people knew the songs, so I was really happy with that. A lot of people in the shows [were] people from South America living here. I think that’s why we sold out everywhere. Because we toured a lot in South America — we are at home there, for sure.
How do you feel about playing here, given your strong opinions about this country’s foreign policy?
For sure I’m not very happy with your government. I’m not the only one. That’s why I’m interested to come and tour here in the last few years, you know? To understand what’s happening from the inside.
What have you learned from seeing the country firsthand?
Well, everywhere we played in USA, we’ve been saying what we think, and we realized that all the crowds we’ve been playing to really agree with what we think about the government here. I got two passports, I’m Spanish and French. And I cannot say that the French government or the Spanish government are really good. But I’m really sure about French people and Spanish people, if we had in our country a president like Bush, there would be 100,000 [people] every day outside in the streets. And here it’s not. That’s what I don’t understand. Of course, everywhere I go I find a lot of people that are activists, and that’s why I needed to come here. Because when you see it from the outside, [it looks like] everybody is happy with their government.