By Mike Greenhaus
Beto Hale has learned to wear different hats. Born in Mexico City, but currently residing in Colorado, he’s a bilingual singer who composes in both English and Spanish. A onetime magazine editor (Musico Pro), he’s both an avid reviewer and an introspective songwriter. A onetime session musician, he’s a guitarist’s guitarist and a road-weathered drummer. Hale talks with Relix about how his duel identities add up to a single
For several years, you clocked in time as an editor at a music publication. How has your time in the magazine business influenced your current solo career?
I think I learned a lot about the industry. I was struggling to keep up with my practicing and my writing, which I never abandoned. But, strictly speaking, I think my biggest learning experience really came from an inside view of the industry—from instrument manufacturing to record labels to how a PR person works. So it really helped me on the business side a lot. Also, it was great to be able to interview people and learn that the people I admired for years and years are just normal people. For example, I interviewed Stewart Copeland—he’s just a regular guy who was lucky and worked really hard and made an impact. It gave me a great perspective on the human side of these people I used to look at as gods.
The songs on your new album, American Mythology, seemed to develop quite organically. Can you tell us about your writing process?
Actually, a lot of it was the lonely work of getting up in the morning and having a schedule where I’d say, “Okay, I’m going to write whatever comes out from eight in the morning to nine at night.” Then, I would just bang out ideas and I kinda compiled what I liked from that and then started compiling more formal demos. A few of the things I’ve definitely tried out, like at open mics and certain performances. I’d been working mostly as a side man the last few years, so I didn’t really get a chance to try out these tunes live. I did show them to people once I felt comfortable sharing them and I would get feedback.
It seems like your desk job helped give you a structural context for your writing.
I think that was very important. Now that you mention it, that was a big thing that helped me in terms of my music direction. I found myself at home and was like “Man, what do I do with all this time?” So I thought, “Why don’t I just try to structure it a little bit and try to write a little bit every day?”
For many years you also clocked in time as a sideman. What lessons did you take from that experience?
I think one of the biggest lessons was knowing how to play for the music, for the song, and not to necessarily show off what you can do because I’m a fairly technical player. I’ve mostly been a drummer as a sideman, which is my main instrument. As a sideman, you figure out soon in your career that if you’re doing a lot of stuff you’re taking away attention from the music.
How has being bilingual influenced your writing technique?
My mom was born and raised outside Philly, my dad was born and raised in Mexico and I was born in Mexico but surrounded by a lot of Anglo influences. I think what happens is you not only start dreaming and thinking in both languages, you also receive influences from both cultures. I’m very lucky in that sense. I remember Rubén Blades, the salsa master, once told me that he felt he had an advantage growing up in Panama and then coming to New York. He had all this other stuff he had listened to that the other guys in New York, even though they were Puerto Rican, hadn’t really heard. So I think the language translates into what cultures you can kinda tap into.
For some reason it just kinda naturally happens. I can’t tell you if it’s necessarily a conscious thing. I’ll start playing a riff on a guitar and for some reason it’ll suggest something in Spanish or English and I cannot necessarily explain to you how. I think it’s just cause it’s so integrated in my system now that I don’t even think twice about it. I’ve been speaking both languages since I can remember and when you go back and analyze you say, “Oh yeah, I think this comes from this and that.”
You mentioned earlier that you were originally a drummer but that you now primarily play guitar. Do you see yourself as a particularly percussive guitar player?
Oh definitely. I think I’m a pretty good rhythm guitar player because of my drumming background. It happens with piano also—I play piano, too. A really good friend of mine, who’s like a super pianist, I mean classically trained, plays jazz and everything, he’s told me “Man, I would have never come up with that riff because it comes so much from playing drums.” I think every instrument has its uniqueness but if you play one really well there’s a lot of stuff you can transfer over to the other instruments. A lot of times I think players don’t realize that. I mean, I always encourage drummers, “Man, start jamming on the keyboard, you’ll be surprised at the stuff you come up with.’
Does your new album have a major lyrical theme?
I was trying to think about that the other day, and even though it sounds a bit clichéd thinking about it, a lot of it is about love. I’m talking either about people I love that I lost or people that I love right now or just simply friends. Of the 19 tunes, I would say at least ten or 12 really deal directly with that. Even the political stuff comes across as angry, maybe, but what I’m really trying to say is, man, we really got to get over our differences and try to coexist. I wrote “Save Us” a day or two after the September 11th attacks and “Save Us” is pretty literal.
Were you living in New York at the time of 9/11?
No, I wasn’t… but it had only been three years since I had left. I had so many friends there and I just really fell in love with the place so it was just really hard. The second tune on the album, “Bring Me Joy,” was written after 9/11 and it pretty much describes what somebody who lost a loved one must be going through. I tried to give it a positive twist. I also transferred it to the other side of the world. After a few months, the U.S. went bombing and I was thinking about this Afghani parent trying to find his family ‘cause a stray bomb hit his house. Even though they don’t want to accept it, I’m sure there’s a lot more than they’re telling us.
How has your Mexican heritage influenced your perspective on the United States’ current political climate?
One thing that I feel is unfortunate, and obviously I do not want to generalize, is that most people that I’ve met living here in what we call “middle America” have a lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a big word but it’s basically lack of information, which leads to lack of interest in other cultures, other nations. I’ve met all sorts of people but most people can’t even fathom the idea of what it’s like to be from Mexico. People don’t know that this is a multicultural nation. I think a lot of it is the education system that ignores what happens in other parts of the world, just like U.S. history. We aren’t all as connected as we seem, especially lately. And, by having this perspective, some people get offended. And then again there a lot of people that are like, “You know what, I would love to go to Mexico. I want to learn what you have lived through and know what it is like to be from somewhere else.”
You’ve worked with a number of notable musicians, including Tony Levin. Can you tell me a little bit about how your friendship developed?
It was another privilege, or lucky break, from being at the magazine. I was both an editor and musician at the time. Through the magazine I was able to have lunch with Tony. We went to Boulder, had Italian food and my wife was there—he was super nice. He had a show with Robert Fripp, it wasn’t a full King Crimson but something called ProjeKt Four. At the end of the show, I was standing there thinking, “What would I have to lose?” ‘cause I had been thinking about asking him if he would record some tracks. I was really nervous and my wife and friends said, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” So I went up to him and said, “Hey Tony, do you ever do like indie albums?” I was just shaking in my pants, and he was like, “Yeah man, what format are you recording in?” I said DATs, which is what everyone was using then, and he said, “Oh, I have a DAT studio at my house, just send me the tracks and I’ll lay something down.” But then he got a call from Seal and did a tour with him. So it took him 11 months to finally sit down and track what ended up being five tunes. But, you know, he did it, and it was just an added bonus. He was amazing. He said, “Don’t worry about money, if you end up making some money with the album just send me what you can, but don’t worry about it.”
In concert do you ever pick up your drum sticks?
I try to hop on the drums for two or three songs, just as a visual thing for people to say, “Oh, that’s cool.” I sing and play pretty well which is something I’ve developed over the years. The coordination is tough for a lot of people. What I’m trying to do this tour is play with people who can do everything, then I can just sing because some of these tunes require a lot of concentration on the melody side of things.
How much focus do you place on live improvisation?
I always try to encourage that. Sometimes, because the people that I end up hiring are so good, they end up being very busy, so the number-one priority ends up being trying to get the songs to sound as good as they can. But since they’re all so experienced, it’s really easy to tell them in rehearsal where I might extend a song or take a solo.
Most of those guys play jazz and they are open to Latin stuff. That’s what I look for, too: people who know how to improvise on the spot.
Are you currently writing material for your next album?
It’s a lot of work to just promote this one, but I made a personal decision to not stop writing because between my first and second discs, I kinda did stop for awhile. So I’m currently trying to find time every day, or every other day, where I can sit down and write. I’m going to try and not ever stop writing because it’s hard to get back into the flow of things [laughs].
Mike Greenhaus blogs at http://www.greenhauseffect.com