Para leer la versión en español de este artículo, hacé clic acá.
There’s a scene in the 2003 documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones where Mickey Leigh, brother of Joey Ramone, describes discovering how all these albums he & his brother listened to were produced by the same person (Phil Spector). A similar feeling came over me when I first looked into the discography of legendary producer Sebastian Krys, a parade of instantly recognizable names and titles that were basically inescapable if you ever listened to any Spanish-language radio. He’s worked on seminal albums from the Latin pop canon, collaborating with artists such as Shakira, Carlos Vives, Luis Fonsi, Eros Ramazzotti, David Visbal, and many, many more.
Sebastian was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and moved to the US at a very young age. He has carved out a career as one of the most celebrated Argentinian musicians of all time, earning 6 Grammy Awards and 12 Latin Grammy Awards. Most recently, he’s been collaborating with legendary singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, co-producing the albums Look Now (which earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Album) and Hey Clockface.
Now the unlikely pair is involved in a peculiar new project: Spanish Model, a re-interpretation of Costello’s 1978 album This Year’s Model which brings the original instrumental tracks together with new vocal performances by various notable Spanish-language artists such as Jorge Drexler, Fito Paez, Robi Draco, and more. The album comes out on September 10th.
We reached out to Sebastian for an interview. Ever the multi-tasker, and since he’s much nicer than Phil Spector, Sebastian graciously agreed to do it while driving his mother to the airport. Below is a translation of our chat (for the Spanish version, click here).
Thanks for agreeing to talk to me today.
Sebastian: Of course.
I wanted to start with some questions about your career, and then we can talk about your new project Spanish Model.
Perfect. If I can’t answer them, maybe my mom can. She’s here with me.
She should feel free to interject any time she wants. I know you left Argentina when you were only 9 years old. Was it hard adapting to life in the US?
We arrived on May 1st 1980, and by May 2nd I already wanted to go back home. I found it really hard to adapt. Although Argentina had a lot of problems at that time, and obviously still faces many challenges, I found it easy to get around as a kid. Riding a bus or taking a train. Life in the US was different. Miami was especially not a city where one could walk around or take public transportation, so I suddenly found myself far from family and friends, and relying on others to be able to do anything. Life is very different as a kid over there. So I struggled with it for several years. Up until I started driving.
How did you first get into music?
Back in the 70s, people were into their hi-fi systems, using amps, speakers… My dad was a big rock fan. He’d sit us down and play albums by The Who, Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd, The Beatles. There was a lot of music in my home. We weren’t allowed to touch the record player, so my brother and I would just sit and listen. My uncles used to play the piano. There was always music. It was there, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it. I didn’t have access to the piano, because that was at my uncle’s house, nor was I allowed to touch the record player. So I was always interested in finding out how it worked.
You left Argentina pretty early in life. Did you have the chance to explore Argentine music? Or is that something you arrived at later in life?
There were two types of music played at home. Actually, three types. There would be classical music, rock music, and folk music. A lot of Mercedes Sosa, Chilean folk, a lot of Brazilian music. Gal Costa, Maria Bethania. After things started opening up again around 83, a friend of mine would show me a bunch of Argentine rock such as Sumo, Redonditos de Ricota, Charly García, Fito, things like that.
Did you try your hand at making your own music?
Yeah. I played in bands but I was more interested in the production side of it. I used to be in a punk band called Suburban Delinquents.
That’s a very punk rock band name.
Yeah. [Laughs] It was very fun. We weren’t any good, but we had a good time.
Sebastian’s mother: They were great.
What led you to the role of producer?
Sebastian: I knew I didn’t have enough talent to be on stage, but I still wanted to be involved in music. Reading the liner notes on albums I saw that there were these roles called “producer” and “engineer.” On albums by The Police and Billy Joel I saw names like Phil Ramone, like Hugh Padgham. People who come from a more technical background…
Sebastian’s mother: Wait, it’s this way…
Sebastián: … Uh… and… sorry, I’m trying not to crash my car.
Sebastián: Yeah, those people who had a more technical background. I wasn’t really sure what it meant to be a producer but it caught my attention. And I started to explore that technical side of music, of capturing sound, of recording, all those things.
What were the first projects you worked on?
I got my start serving coffee at the studio owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan. That led to working as an assistant, and then to working as a sound engineer. That led me to projects such as Dónde Están los Ladrones, some of Gloria’s albums, some albums by Carlos Vives and other people. It was after many years of working as an assistant, 80 hours a week. I loved doing it, so it didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice, but that’s what my life was. Spending 24 hours a day in the studio.
The role of “producer” seems to vary quite a bit, and each producer seems to have their own idea of how they fit into things. How do you perceive your role within the creative process of the artists you work with?
I want the artists to sound like themselves. My job is to create a space that allows them to create. To succeed, to make mistakes, to be confident that they’re safe to explore. Because that’s what they really want to do, explore. There are some producers who have a particular “sound,” and after many years you start to develop it, but my priority is for artists to sound like themselves. As opposed to an album made by me.
Looking over your discography, I do notice that you haven’t worked with many Argentine acts…
That’s just how things worked out, I think. Those were the projects that made their way to me. Argentina is currently going through another musical boom, but when I was coming up it wasn’t quite like that. Argentine music seemed to be more local, not really at an international level. So it wasn’t on purpose. I really wanted to work with more Argentine artists, but either there weren’t that many of them around or I just wasn’t in that circuit.
How did you first cross paths with Elvis Costello?
He was in Miami. He’d written music for a ballet. Two friends of mine were part of the orchestra. They told him I was a fan. I’d asked them to ask him to sign a guitar for me. He was interested in meeting, so we did, and we kept in contact. That was 12 or 13 years ago. I was happy just to know him, I never thought the relationship would evolve past that.
So you were a fan.
Very much so. I’d already seen him in concert several times. I don’t know if I own his entire discography, because it’s over 30 albums, but I have at least 25 of the main ones.
How did you go on to work together?
We collaborated a few times. He sang on an album that I was producing for a band called La Santa Cecilia, and their singer performed on an album he was recording with The Roots. So we had collaborated a little bit. I had done a lot of work with Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, the drummer and bassist [from Costello’s band The Imposters]. Elvis told Pete that he wanted to record an album, and it was Pete who suggested that they work with me. So it was thanks to Pete that we ended up making albums together.
When you recorded Look Now (2018) and Hey Clockface (2020), did you head into the sessions with a clear concept in mind? Or did it start taking shape as the songs came together?
In the case of Look Now, he’d been wanting to make that album for a long time. He told me he’d been thinking about it for almost 20 years. He wanted to make an album that was inspired by pop music of the 60s, something like Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. He had also just finished a tour where he played songs from Imperial Bedroom so he had that album fresh in his mind, as well as his work with Burt Bacharach. Hey Clockface was more eclectic since he recorded it with three different collaborators in three different parts of the world. There was a part he recorded in Paris, a part he recorded in Finland, and a part he recorded in New York.
Spanish Model is a project I never could have imagined.
Me neither. [Laughs]
Is This Year’s Model your favorite Elvis Costello album?
I don’t know. It’s among my favorites, but there’s also Mighty Like a Rose, Get Happy… Armed Forces is another album I just love. There’s so many of them. Brutal Youth I think is a great album. I’m a fan. But yes, it’s an album I know by heart. I didn’t have to do much research when he first proposed this project.
How did the project come about?
The project came from… hold on, which way?
Sebastian’s mother: That’s what I’d like to know.
Sebastian: Hold on. Sorry, I got kind of lost.
Take your time.
Here. I think I have to head this way.
Sebastian’s mother: This way? Are you sure?
Sebastian: I hope so. Well. I screwed up a bit, but we’re going to be okay.
The project came up because we were asked to do a version of “This Year’s Girl” for an HBO show called The Deuce. They wanted to turn it into a duet with a female singer. So we looked at the tracks and realized that they were in very good condition. So we did that, I forgot all about it, and then a couple months later he told me “I have an idea.” He said “let’s make This Year’s Model, because they want to reissue it but I don’t want to reissue it again without adding anything new.” So he came up with this idea.
How did you go about selecting the singers for each song?
It was an interesting process. I’d send him possible candidates, and which songs I thought they’d work well with. Really, what we were looking for was voices that worked well with each song. We also wanted female singers, to have a good balance between male and female vocalists, figuring out which songs would work well from a female perspective. It was less of “who can we get that’s a big star?” and more “who has a voice that would sound good within the existing track?”. We also wanted to have some duets. There are some tracks that work really well as duets.
Right, such as “Crawling to the USA,” an outtake from the original album that you turned into a duet between Gian Marco and Nicole Zignago.
And what we did with that song, we turned it into a duet between father and daughter. It gave a new meaning to the song.
Some of the choices seem like a natural fit, while some others are a bit more surprising. I’m very curious to hear Luis Fonsi performing “You Belong to Me,” for instance.
Fonsi was familiar with his work through “She,” which was his wedding song. I thought of him for “You Belong to Me” because of his song “Corazón en la Maleta”. It has a somewhat similar style in the production.
Were you ever tempted to add new musical elements, or alter the existing arrangements?
There is one track that we did edit in order to add a part, but we only used existing elements to add it. It was important for us to stay true to that concept.
There are a few differences, though. I can hear the Mick Jones guitar track on “Pump It Up”…
Yeah. Obviously, as soon as I saw a track marked “Mick Jones” I thought “we have to include this.” I think with automation… modern technology really helps when it comes to using these parts. I can understand why they thought it didn’t work in the original recording. But nowadays, you can fade it in and out much more easily. The album was made in 11 days, so back then it either worked or it just didn’t.
Did you find anything in the original tracks that you didn’t expect?
There were a few elements that you couldn’t hear very well, or weren’t particularly noticeable. Choices in the mixing. For example, there’s a synthesizer on “Radio Radio” that is very interesting, but isn’t really that present in the original. These tracks are really well recorded. Roger Bechirian, the original engineer, did a phenomenal job. They sound like they could have been recorded today..
Are there plans to apply this treatment to other Elvis albums?
Not that I’m aware of. You know that Elvis isn’t really about repeating himself. I’d be very surprised if he did it again.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure, and I hope you make it to the airport okay.
Thank you. We got a little lost, and my mom is a little nervous, but we’ll arrive on time.
Sebastian’s mother: Where will this article be published?
La La Lista. We’re an independent publication that covers arts and culture in Argentina…
Sebastian’s mother: That’s very nice. Thank you.