A man spotted Jose Luis Pardo, the guitarist for Los Amigos Invisibles, walking back onto the Variety Playhouse stage, a good 30 minutes after the band's three-hour show of pulsating, raunchy funk en Español.
The man greeted Pardo in Spanish. With a warm handshake and embrace, he offered Pardo a cup of chicha, a hot, grain-based drink from the South American Andes. The drink was "caido del cielo," or made in heaven, Pardo said. After all, it was a cold November night and the band was heading overnight to Charlotte to continue its 2004 tour. As the man poured five more cups, the other band members gathered around to chat and get seconds from their new friend.
Almost two years later, Los Amigos are back on the road promoting their new album, Superpop Venezuela, proving that their brotherhood in music has been the most crucial catalyst in the band's 15-year career.
Superpop Venezuela compiles some of their homeland's hits from the '70s and '80s, made over with the band's distinct, groovy sound. For Los Amigos, the album gives them an opportunity to showcase part of their culture wherever they play.
"It feels like we're the Venezuelan team in the World Cup," says Jose Rafael Torres, the band's bassist.
The once-booming Venezuelan entertainment industry began to drastically scale down during the '90s. "We were the last generation of artists that grew up consuming great entertainment on TV and in the radio," says Torres. "We felt a kind of nostalgia, that's why we decided to record an album like this."
Unlike at home, where a record stacked with old Venezuelan standards has a for-sure audience, promoting Superpop Venezuela abroad tests the loyalty of their American fans. So far, their American audience has embraced the group's original compositions and lyrical wit, but may not buy a "Los Amigos-flavored" album of covers. Torres and his bandmates, however, feel the tour cred they've earned by playing almost nonstop every year will translate into album sales.
The band established itself as a must-see live act during the early years of its career, but released one album in Venezuela in the early '90s. Around 1995, Talking Heads frontman and Luaka Bop founder David Byrne ended up with a copy of their first album, A Typical & Autoctonal Venezuelan Dance Band, and signed Los Amigos to a record deal soon after.
In 1998, Los Amigos' first U.S. release hit the shelves to moderate success (their original album, first released in Venezuela, was later rereleased through their own imprint). After recording their second album, Arepa 3000: A Venezuelan Journey into Space, in 2000, they debated moving to the United States. At the time, the music industry in Venezuela was in a freefall, says Torres, where a top-selling artist would manage to move only 10,000 copies.
That reality proved unavoidable even after settling in New York in 2000.
"We moved to the U.S. while the industry was going through some kind of a mutating process, a shrinking process," says Torres. "That was a tough situation for us because it forced us to understand the reality behind the scenes, and it was in a very direct, blunt way, like pain without anesthesia."
Though they garnered significant success, being nominated for the Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album Grammy in 2000, and winning two Latin Grammys, their label was not immune to the ills that were plaguing the record industry.
Their third U.S. release, Venezuelan Zinga Son, Vol. 1 was shelved for two years due to lack of a distribution company. They reached out to Long Lost Brother records in London to release the album in Europe and Japan, finally getting the record out in the States in April 2004.
"There was a moment where our impression was that Luaka was shrinking, and there wasn't a clear incentive to pick back up and continue growing," says Torres. "That's simply why we decided to leave."
In fact, their impasse with Luaka Bop allowed them to create their own label -- Gozadera Records -- and gave them sole possession of one of the most cherished rights in the music biz, the copyright. For Torres, that means total and true independence. "When I finally understood copyright law, I said to myself, 'What a dumbass.' I was basically giving away half of my money to the record company."
Their new album, with some production by Dimitri From Paris, will be released and distributed this August, solely through Gozadera Records.
Having gone through the ups and downs of the business, the band now feels more confident in the ability to succeed on their own, says Torres.
"From the very beginning, for some reason that I'm not sure I can point out, we have had a vision of the band as more as a brotherhood," he says. "That's been the key. This [project] wasn't simply a band started by six young punks looking to sell millions and become ultra-famous -- not that we aren't looking for that, or that we were at some point. But I think we were able to establish from early on in our career a dynamic way of working together where the most important thing was our kinship.
"And now, 15 years later, I can tell you that Los Amigos Invisibles, more than a business, it's a family."