Queens resident by way of Uruguay, Juan Wauters has been making music with his band the Beets (just as American and rock ‘n’ roll as the name implies) for quite a while. Now playing solo, with not much more than a guitar and an interesting light set up to accompany him onstage, Juan Wauters is making simple, poetic, and narrative songs that appeal to the unwary child inside us all. When I called him for this interview he was wandering around the island of Manhattan, painting a picture of the sights — whether building landmarks or human ones — almost as immediately as he answered the phone. Below, read our conversation that ranged from spirited ramblings, to Dr. Seuss, to underground VHS tapes.
Hey Juan, what’s up?
I’m in New York. I’m by the Flatiron building.
Oh, okay I thought you were touring right now?
No, actually we’re back for a little bit. We were gone and we came back last week and then we’re leaving again Friday.
Okay, where are you headed Friday?
We’re going out to this music festival that Burger Records put together: the Burger Boogaloo. We’re doing a couple of shows around that.
You’re from Uruguay, right? Thoughts on the World Cup?
We’re outta there, unfortunately.
Yeah, I’m Mexican, so —
You guys lost yesterday!
Yeah, pretty depressing.
You know what, I wasn’t watching the game because I was caught up with something — [Loud talking in background] Woah, that’s a crazy looking guy right there! It looks like they’re still kind of tripping about the thing that happened yesterday, the pride parade. They were still walking it [laughs].
A friend came in from Pennsylvania yesterday and we were walking around on the West Side, it was crazy! I had completely forgotten that was going on this weekend.
Yeah, it’s pretty nuts! I didn’t come yesterday but I’ve been different years and it’s pretty wild. I always happen to be in the city when its happening.
Yeah, that’s basically what happened yesterday. We were trying go to the High Line and the cops were blocking it off and all you see is people dressed as fairies and all this crazy stuff [laughs].
Yeah, it’s wild. It’s kind of cool, I like it.
You live in Jackson Heights, right?
Yeah, my parents are there. Right now I’m between apartments. I might be moving to Astoria. My girlfriend lives there and we might be moving in together.
Oh, cool! I feel like Jackson Heights has the best food in New York.
Where’s your favorite place to eat there?
I like the different taco trucks on the street. There’s one that sells tacos on the corner of Roosevelt and Baxter. That one’s really good, they make really good tacos there.Then there’s another one, they make quesadillas on the spot, from scratch. The good thing about Jackson Heights is that everything is really official here. There’s people from all over the world, it’s the place with the most variety in ethnicity in the whole country. So they want to eat food like they make it back home, it’s very authentic. I like the Mexican food there a lot; there’s a very good Uruguayan bakery there, and then the Indian food is very good. It’s pretty crazy how varied everything is.
Yeah, I always try to get friends from Brooklyn to go up there with me but it’s always, “Oh it’s too far!” Why should people get out of the Brooklyn mindset?
Yeah, that’s kind of crazy to me. How everybody is moving there. They’re kind of creating a new reality for themselves apart from what New York has been, instead of trying to assimilate to what already exists.
Not even trying to assimilate but if you’re going to be in a place that’s so culturally open you should just try it, too.
Yeah, but at the same time you know, every person does whatever they think is right for them. So, what can we say, right? [laughs]
I wanted to ask you about North American Poetry. Where does the title come from?
While I was writing stuff for the record I wasn’t really thinking about doing a record. I was just recording songs. I had gotten into writing poetry. I had never really read poetry because I find it a little bit boring. I never really took a poetry class or anything like that. I like the idea of poetry but sometimes I find it a little bit too rigid at times. To me, what it means is expressing an idea with a very colorful choice of words. I was writing a lot and one day I decided with a friend to compile all these writings that I was doing, and he wrote some stuff too, and we made a magazine, and we called it NAP: North American Poetry. When I did the record, I had the title and I said, maybe I should name it the same thing? It comes from that magazine.
Is it a poetry zine?
Yeah, it’s a poetry zine but like I said, poetry might be a little bit scary. People may not want to associate with that. It’s fun poetry.
I feel like there can be a lot of self-serious poetry.
This is more fun. You know what I like? That kind of poetry from Dr. Seuss; Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Oh yeah, Shel Silverstein.
Yeah, very simple but very complex at the same time. [Horns honking in the background] What the heck? All right, I was crossing the street. It’s mostly fun to read, that’s what I try to think about when I write something. That when you read it, the way the words fit with each other, kind of makes it fun to read.
I think that kind of shows through in the album too. Especially with “Water,” the first few times I heard it seemed like such a simple song but it has a lot of depth to it too.
I’m glad it comes through like that [laughs]. Like I said, around that time I was experimenting with writing.
It makes sense that you would say Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein because to me the music is very childlike but in the same way that they’re childlike: they’re very real and honest but in a way that helps you rather than hurts you. So why do you think that’s a big part of your songwriting, that simplicity?
Well, I first read them as an adult. I didn’t grow up with those books. I didn’t read them at the time everyone else read them. So I have a different approach to them, a different experience. I think about accessibility a lot. I want my songs to be understood by everyone. I want them to appeal to everyone. I want to make sure I like them, but I want to be connected to the world, that way if I like them other people will understand that I like them too. It’s kind of a hard concept. I think about people listening to this music and having a general idea of what’s going on but being confused at the same time. But I only want to think about it so much because I don’t want to take that away from my music. I don’t want to overdo it.
You want to let people come to their own conclusions.
I actually read a lot of Dr. Seuss now too, because I also babysit a little kid who loves Dr. Seuss. It’s definitely interesting being older and reading it now and seeing the deeper meaning in it. So what’s your favorite Dr. Seuss book?
I like the one with the green ham. What’s it called? Green Eggs and Ham.
Have you read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! ?
Maybe, I don’t know.
You should. It’s kind of mind-blowing how positive it is.
I’ll pick it up today! His writing is very encouraging in a very sincere way. It connects to the core of humanity.
I wanted to ask you about the “Goo” video. How did you come up with that concept?
I work with my friend Matthew Volz, he makes all the videos for my music. He also does the light show when I play live. We’ve known each other for a long time, he used to do the same thing for the Beets. He had an idea for the video, then we kind of just went out and did it. He has some shots he thinks about and then they just happen as we go.
So you just wander around and see what works?
Yeah, that video especially. We’re just hanging out. I think I go to my parents house, I get a haircut. It was pretty fun. I love making videos with him. The outfit is pretty wild, [though] I don’t wear that every day. The hat, the camouflage jacket, the construction worker boots. We put it together for the video because we really like hip hop music. It’s kind of like a hip hop video, that Make It Or Break It thing is a video compilation. They used to sell them on the street, they were these VHS tapes that this company would compile and send around. They would collect votes from the people that bought them. You could say, “Hey, I just watched the new Juan Wauters video; break it,” which means they’re giving me a negative vote. So then the artists would kind of know what videos are good and what videos are bad.
That was a real thing, then?
Yeah, of course. It’s like a primitive “like” on Facebook. A primitive way of creating likes. There’s a phone number there, but it’s a different phone number than the actual one they had. Did you see all the people that are saying, “You’re watching Make It Or Break It videos”?
All those are really famous rappers!
I know but I had never had heard of it before so I was like, did they do this specifically for this video? Did they take it from an actual thing that I just didn’t know existed or is he BFFs with Pete Rock?
Maybe you shouldn’t tell people it wasn’t real. It’d be cool that people saw that we had all these rappers to be in our video.
You already kind of answered this question but what do you hope people get out of your music?
I don’t know, I hope they like it and that they get a positive message. I’d been writing music for a little bit and one day I decided that I wanted to write music that makes me feel good among everybody, like the idea that we’re all together and we’re all going to the same place. It doesn’t really matter what you do because there’s a whole world around you, so it’s not really about you.
Interview by Alex Martinez. She can read more than Dr. Seuss books, she swears. Follow her on Twitter @xxalexm.