Antonio Sánchez Brings Electronics and Politics To 'Bad Hombre'

Oct 4, 2017

Antonio Sánchez, the virtuoso drummer and composer, can often be found on tour — tending rhythmic fires for guitarist Pat Metheny; leading Migration, his own dynamic post-bop band; or performing his solo drum score at screenings of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the 2014 Alejandro G. Iñárritu film. 

For the moment, though, Sánchez is back home in Mexico City, catching up and checking in. His network of family and friends made it safely through the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed hundreds and caused massive destruction there. "The way people have come together, it's incredible," he says, speaking by Skype over the weekend from his mother's house. "But the recovery will go on for a long time. Just like in Puerto Rico."

Sánchez lives in New York — but along with his ties to Mexico City, he has a small beachfront apartment in Puerto Rico. ("I don't even know what state it's in now," he says.) So the devastating natural disasters of the last couple of weeks have hit close to home on more than one front. "In these times," he says, "a good humanitarian leader that really brings people together would make a big difference. And obviously there's none of that going on."

To put it mildly, Sánchez is not a big fan of President Donald J. Trump. He's full-voiced with his criticism on social media, and has now found a musical outlet for it: Sánchez's new album is Bad Hombre (CAM Jazz), a solo drums-and-electronics odyssey that functions in one sense as his follow-up to the award-winning Birdman score.

In another sense, of course, Bad Hombre is a rejoinder to then-candidate Trump's infamous quip last year about undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States: "We have some bad hombres here, and we're going to get them out." The line stirred up outrage and ridicule, but for Sánchez it also rang the alarm. 

"It's been a long road, immigration-wise, for me," he says, recalling a succession of bureaucratic hurdles stretching back to the early 1990s, when he was studying at the Berklee College of Music. After years of dutiful visa renewals, he received a green card in 2007. He finally secured his American citizenship last fall, just in time to cast his first vote in a presidential election.

Sánchez will play a trio set Wednesday at the La Paz Jazz Festival on the Baja peninsula. Then he'll return to the states to perform live Birdman screenings on Friday, at the AT&T Center in Dallas, and on Oct. 9, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He says he's still puzzling over how to adapt Bad Hombre to a live performance setting. For now, the album is a world unto itself — albeit one that holds a funhouse mirror to our own.

Nate Chinen: It was a stray remark from one of the presidential debates last year that gives your album its title. How were you specifically motivated by the idea of someone in power who has said inflammatory things about Mexicans?

Antonio Sánchez: The music is definitely influenced by it, in the sense that it's a somewhat dark album that was conceived first during the election cycle and then after he won. So it's a very personal thing that I feel, obviously because of what you mentioned. He really took it upon himself to go after Mexicans right off the bat, with absolutely no provocation at all, when he announced his candidacy. And it's just been downhill from there. 

You recently bought a house in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I read somewhere that the establishment of a home studio was integral to being able to make this album. 

I don't think I would have been able to pull this off without that studio. When I realized how much time I spent on it, and how much more relaxed I was — like, I'm not running against the clock. I would record a bunch of drums, then work on the electronic sounds on the road, and then again when I got back home. So it was an on-and-off process, but it wouldn't have happened without this amazing lab I was able to build in the basement of our house.

It's interesting to think about this album as an electronic project of sorts. It's not a drums-first record all the time. Was that something you set about to do after the explicitly percussive nature of Birdman?

I wanted to find a balance between soloing, playing really busy, and then having enough electronic content that would make the sonority of the album something different. The juxtaposition of the acoustic drums with the all-electronic background, that's what was interesting about this whole thing. I was completely improvising on the drums, without thinking too much. I would improvise on one particular vibe for hours. Then once I had enough material, I would start splicing it, editing it, trying to condense a few hours of improvisation into seven minutes or so. Sometimes I would actually be editing the drum tracks and adding electronics as I went along — kind of discovering the story of each tune as I went along.

Were there any specific sources of musical inspiration for this album? 

Not really, but I was listening to a lot of music that probably influenced me in some ways. I'm a big fan of Hiatus Kaiyote, the Australian band — and even though they're not an electronic band, they have a lot of electronic elements. I was listening to some Boards of CanadaAphex TwinBonoboLittle Dragon. All these bands that have very rich production value. But a lot of them don't really have real drums. 

Right, I was about to say that you just named some really celebrated drum programmers.

Exactly. So I think if I would have made this record exactly the way it is and then programmed some drums, the sonority of the whole thing would have been completely different. But just the fact that it's jazz drums with jazz cymbals ... and of course I tweaked the sound quite a bit, and I was able to experiment with different techniques. So, things like: "OK, what would it sound like if I put a T-shirt on the drums and then a cymbal on top and then I tape it to the side of the drum, and then I move the mic a little bit and then I hit it with something different from a stick?" All of a sudden, I was discovering all these sonic possibilities that I'd never been able to put on tape before.

You open the album with a corrido and a recitation by your grandfather, the celebrated actor Ignacio López Tarso, who is now 92. Was that an immediate thought for you? Like: "If we're going to talk bad hombres, let me find the baddest hombre I know"?

To begin the record, I wanted something that was inherently Mexican, no mistaking it. My grandfather came to mind, and I thought about having his voice in there, and then a mariachi band, and my drums on top with some electronics. That was something that at least for me would be completely new and different. I found this corrido that I love, "Benito Canales," and it turned out it was in the same key as this groove that I had already done. And it really moved me to have the voice of my grandfather. Immediately I thought, "Well, he's the ultimate bad hombre." He's such an example of a Mexican that is incredibly hardworking, supported his whole family doing what he loved, which is acting. He changed acting in Mexico. That just really rounded out the whole concept for me. 

Was his artistry, and his eminent stature, a source of inspiration to you back when you were forming your identity? 

Oh, absolutely. I grew up going to rehearsals, and he would bring whole theater companies to lunch at home. I love the show business side of it. Acting never really interested me, because I was playing drums already. We did a pilot together, I must have been seven. It was a traveling circus, but even in the pilot I was already playing drums: it was a circus story, and in the circus I had a little snare drum, and was playing behind some of the acrobats. Really the main thing that happened from seeing him in action was being inspired to pursue what I wanted to do. Seeing him be so successful, so well respected, so revered, and financially he was always well off. He accomplished a lot. So for me to see that firsthand was a very powerful image, and made me want to go for it.

And now you're someone who is celebrated when you return home. How has that evolved?

Back in 2002 I played here with the Pat Metheny Group. It was the only time the group played here, and it was a huge deal because Pat had never been here. Then I came back in 2003 with my own trio; I brought [saxophonist] David Sánchez and [bassist] Reuben Rogers to this beautiful theater. Those things established me a little bit in people's consciousness: This guy is good, and he's doing some stuff that no other Mexican has been able to do before. So every other year, I would come and do something with different bands. I have a few friends who are promoters. But after Birdman ... because Iñárritu is also Mexican, it had big consequences in the press. And because my name was attached to the project, by default I ended up getting a lot of good rep because of that. Seeing how much it changed after Birdman was kind of shocking. Now I can come and do anything I want and usually people are behind me.

You can trace a clear line from the Birdman soundtrack to Bad Hombre, but the previous album and project you put together, The Meridian Suite, was an ambitious longform composition for jazz ensemble. Will you pursue both paths, going forward?

I cannot see myself leaving either one of those, because I'm really both things at the same time. I cannot satisfy my compositional ambitions in a project like Bad Hombre, and I cannot fulfill these other, more experimental ambitions with my band, at least so far. I really admire people that have a long and varied discography. I'm very interested in that, and exploring all kinds of different paths that I have in my head. The next project is a big band record of my music arranged by Vince Mendoza, with the WDR Orchestra in Cologne. It's finished, and should come out on CAM Jazz in March. I like it when each record is completely different from the previous one. 

That's a big swing of the pendulum, from solo drums and electronics to Vince Mendoza orchestrations. To swing it back to Bad Hombre: What would you say to someone who raises an eyebrow to the outspoken statement behind this album?

Artists usually transform what's going on in life and then put it into our work. Art is a reflection of life. And it would have been incredibly hard for me to ignore what has been happening and just make a record that has absolutely nothing to do with the political and social climate that we're living in the States. Especially because of my Mexican origin. A lot of people write to me on Facebook, and some of them say "I love your drumming but your politics suck. I wish you would not use your platform to plug your political views." To them I always say: "Precisely because I have a platform, I'm going to use it to say what I think." I think it's incredibly important for me, for other musicians, to not normalize the situation. Not stay quiet and just do my music. I am from Mexico, I'm a minority, I'm brown. I can't help but be influenced in a really, really big way by everything that's going on. If this album creates a small platform for me to be able to talk about it, that was basically the idea.