Interview: Q&A with Alex Figueira – Tropical Instru-Mentalist (August 2022)

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We don’t know if a biography of Alex Figueira will ever be published, but if it is, it’s arguably going to be such an intricate, complex and of course, interesting work that its author will eventually end up on the Booker Prize shortlist.

Jokes apart, to recall, discern and write down all the music experiences, careers and works (from Fumaça Preta to Conjunto Papa Upa and from his solo career to collaborations) by the talented and overactive Portuguese-Venezuelan artist requires a heavy dose of research and synthesis skills. But after all, if there’s a musician who thoroughly deserves the adjective ‘eclectic’, that’s none other than Alex Figueira.

To make sense of his vibrant bio, learn a bit more about his latest releases and understand his plans for the future, we couldn’t do better than reach the man himself with a Q&A that will hopefully give some groundwork for a hypothetical plot line…

You are a good-and-proper music wanderer. Is there any country or region of the world that you are most fond of and where would you like or are planning to musically travel next?

I’ve been blessed with an insatiable curiosity that keeps me busy searching for that new exciting song / rhythm / genre / instrument / artist / etc. that I haven’t heard yet. It’s of course hard to choose a specific region because there’s so many different things I really like.

However, I am deeply fascinated by the musical cross pollination between the African and American continents. The amount of exciting music that has emanated from this process is breath-taking and I’m always finding improbable new connections that are not necessarily obvious. 

One of the most fitting “definitions” I’ve read about you is undoubtedly “the hardest working man in the Tropical Music Biz”. Despite the dozens and dozens of experiences, projects and collaborations… Can you briefly retrace your career for us?

I started playing Jamaican ska and rocksteady (my first musical love). Inevitably I ended up hanging with Punks, Mods, etc. Played in a few punk bands and the occasional R’n’B / soul one too.

Through Mod culture my ears opened up to soul, R’n’B, jazz, boogaloo, garage, psych, etc. I developed a serious obsession for collecting records and this inevitably took me first to the music of Latin America (where I grew up) and consequently to Africa.

When I moved to Amsterdam in 2006 I really struggled to find the right people to start a band with, so I decided to start DJing more frequently and organising live shows and parties as a way to stay active with music. I quickly noticed there were no labels doing the kind of music I liked in a more adventurous fashion so I started Music With Soul Records.

Apart from a few exceptions, I wasn’t finding enough suitable recordings to release, so it became clear I’d have to make them myself. I built a recording studio (Heat Too Hot) and learned how to produce. Since then it’s been a pretty intense ride.

Where is your music currently bringing you? What’s next for Alex Figueira’s sound?

It’s very hard for me to give you a clear idea where I’ll be taking my own music, because there are so many different styles I like. I know for certain that I will keep experimenting with genres that have not been put together very often. This is something that I find extremely rewarding, and from a music lover’s point of view, extremely important, in order to keep things evolving. Perhaps the most significant challenge for me is electronic music, which I’m just starting to approach. I’ve done one show as a solo electronic musician and I really enjoyed it. I will be completing my first solo electronic album at some point next year. There is still a lot for me to learn because it’s a totally different approach to music and I want to take the opportunity to push myself.

As well as a prolific and eclectic musician, you are or have been a DJ, crate digger, producer, label, recording studio and record shop owner, radio host and I’m pretty sure I’ve missed some “roles”… How can all the many Alex Figueiras coexist together and how much do they influence the music you write?

I am a servant of music first and foremost. Spreading music that touches people’s hearts and makes them move is the mission.

The different roles I constantly take help me accomplish that mission from different angles and with different tools, feeding each other constantly. It’s an immense privilege. I have no doubt my music sounds like it does because I have never stopped learning from the people who did it before me. As Isaac Newton once put it: “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

As we mentioned, also your sound and the sounds of the projects you have launched and collaborated with are kaleidoscopic and often worlds apart between each other. Still, I’m pretty sure there’s a fil-rouge that links all these music experiences. How do you choose the musicians you would like to collaborate with and projects you join?

I guess I’m lucky to have a good intuition. After meeting a fellow musician I can quickly sense whether we should work together. I’ve never considered working with someone merely because it was the right marketing move. All my collaborations have been based on that intuitive approach and I’m very happy with the results. Some people might be reading this and thinking it’s all BS. I would argue there is nothing mystical about intuition. It’s the result of our accumulated experiences and a mechanism our brain develops to help us save time and energy. Furthermore, I often ask people whose musical work I admire, have a great musical taste and/or are willing to push boundaries.

The inception and spark of this Q&A was your latest single Juicy, which opens with a tune moving between Afro-Caribbean flavours, psychedelia and jazzy arrangements followed by a visionary meeting between Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean sounds and rhythms. How would you introduce the single? Is it going to be part of a more extensive project or are these tunes an end in themselves?

The single is the result of that process, where I try to find a balance between my own limitations as a musician and my artistic vision as a producer. It’s a constant battle and every single I release represents the particular point I was at, in that never-ending search. The inclusion of upright bass and acoustic piano, for example, was something I could only do from this point on, because I could not play them before.

The 45 is not part of a more extensive project. However, I enjoyed the process and the result so much that I will probably make a decidedly acoustic full album at a certain point.

I really liked the anecdote related to the lyrics of ‘Aprende’. Can you explain to us what you sing at the end of that track?

I was doing the mixing and I remember it felt like the song needed a chorus. For some reason it came to my mind very quickly and when I tried to figure out why it had been exactly that text, I ended up remembering my teenage years, when I was into skateboarding in Caracas. The older skaters that we used to look up to, didn’t have any patience to show us how to do the tricks they could do so easily so they would just tell us “to learn you need to fall”. Those words got engraved in my head ever since and it took this song to realise it. Here’s a full translation: 

I was here mixing this track and when it got to this part I said, look, what this needs is a little chorus, but a very tasty one.

Then I remembered a message I was given when I was a kid and used to go skateboarding. The older skaters who could do all the tricks, used to tell us “to learn you have to fall” and I would scratch my head and say “dude but how many times do we have to fall?”, “as many as necessary”.

Well, now as a grown up I’ll tell you like this, with groove ”learn from your mistakes”.

We know that you are currently living in Amsterdam and enriching its music scene playing with many local musicians and bands. What can you tell us about the scene there? Do you find enough spaces for your music and what are the places/venues not to be missed by a global beats lover and dancer?

There’s a crazy amount of stuff to do in Amsterdam, considering its size. If you like records, for example, it’s a fantastic place for sure. We have a lot of great record stores: Platypus, Rush Hour, City Records, Record Palace, Waxwell, etc, etc.

For live music, again, there’s a crazy amount of venues and clubs. Many places stay in the safe lane of House and Disco but many others are non-specialised and you can see great shows if you check their programs beforehand. My favourites are Mezrab, OT301, De Ruimte and Garage Noord. 

Is there any Amsterdam-based/Dutch act (solo musician/band/DJ) that you would like to suggest to us?

Amsterdam is home to a lot of amazing tropical DJs. Duo Penossi from Platypus, the Vintage Voudou crew, Edo Bouman, Mateo Fava, Joumanne. Also everybody’s favourite DJ couple, Palo Santo and Coco Maria

What are your most recent music listening/discoveries?

I’m still finding new music within the countries that I’ve been obsessed about for quite some time. These last few months, Congo, Benin, Angola, Senegal, Mali and Brazil have been surprising me with records I never heard before, even though I’ve been collecting music from these places for many years. It always blows my mind how much great stuff is out there if we’re willing to put in the work and keep digging.

Do you have any music projects for the near future?

I have a soundtrack coming out on cassette for a film I did some time ago. You can check it out here: LINK

I have my first solo album coming out in a few months. It’s done already but you know how it is with pressing plants these days. It takes forever.

The first full length from Lola’s Dice will also be coming out soon. I had a lot of fun producing that one. After that, I’ll be finishing the second album from Conjunto Papa Upa, which will come out next year. The first single should be out by the beginning of the fall. 

How would you introduce your music to someone who’s never listened to it?

This is by far the hardest question. I would describe it graphically as I believe that always works best: it’s like being in a movie where you play different characters and visit many different places. Sometimes it is complete chaos and darkness, sometimes it’s just joy and sunshine and many times it’s a mixture of both, in unpredictably varying proportions. You cannot really tell the story to anybody but somehow it does make sense to you. 

Damn, that’s a lot of text right there. I’m not sure it’s the best answer but if you have a better version, please send it to me!

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