Juan Wauters on Living in Uruguay, 2010s Memories, and the Fear of Change

Juan Wauters on Living in Uruguay, 2010s Memories, and the Fear of Change
Photo by Fran Cunha

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Way, way back in 2009, I briefly hung out with Juan Wauters and our a mutual friend Aubrey in a LES bar where we talked about how much we liked Times New Viking as well as...other stuff that I honestly cannot remember. I've really enjoyed Juan's music since, both as a member of the late-2000s indie rockers the Beets as well as his increasingly accomplished solo career. His latest, Wandering Rebel, is reliably excellent; I've seen reviews saying this one's more personal than usual, and perhaps that's true, but Juan's songwriting has always felt charmingly intimate and honest. We had a good time catching up here, for sake of brevity I have left out the moments where we talked about Aubrey's father's cigar bar in New Orleans (shout out to Dos Jefes) and the Mets.

When did you move back to Uruguay?
It's hard to say. When COVID hit in 2020, America—New York, especially—was messed up with COVID. So I came back then in September of 2020, went back and forth for a bit, and ended up coming here and staying here more stably since last July or August. So about a year, maybe, but on and off for the last three years.

What was it like coming back in September of 2020, when COVID was still in full swing? What was going on in Uruguay?
It was nice to come here because it was funny to watch the news and see that, in the whole country, 19 people had COVID. I was coming from New York, where 700 people were dying every day. It was a different type of mobility—there were no masks, you could walk around, everything was way more chill from that point of view. But it still felt like we were going under some global crisis, from the way people interacted. Peoples' heads were in a particular space. Looking back, I was going through something back then.

I appreciated how you talked about COVID on this record, it felt more direct and straightforward than a lot of the tired cliches and euphemisms I've heard on other "COVID albums." You say on this record that you discovered new things about yourself during that time, which a lot of people can relate to. Tell me about that.
I come from an immigrant family in New York. It was already traumatizing to have to relocate as a young person. I lived in New York for 20 years straight, until my mid-30s. I was trying to understand what to do with my life, and some of it had to do with being a little bit rebellious with the life that was imposed upon to me by coming to New York. I felt like I lost power, because when we went to New York, it was hard. We were undocumented, so I did not like living under that lifestyle—not having opportunities. Then I found ways for myself to become an American citizen, so things slowly got better.

But I always wanted to be out and about. When I was in New York, I was never at home, and when I found a way to leave the city and travel through the world, I started doing that. My life, as I understood it up until COVID, was living in the world—being around, outside, not having stability. I liked that rush of being on the road and fearless of things going wrong. But then COVID hit, and that lifestyle that I'd put together was no more. There were no concerts, there was a global pandemic that had everybody scared because we didn't really know what it was—especially for us in New York, where people were dying by the hundreds every day. It was scary for everyone to see death so up close, you know?

First, there was a little bit of a shock, because I was moving so much and I had to stop, by external force. So I was at home. Then, later, I started enjoying other things about life. I had time to develop a relationship with the woman who I now live with. Before, I never really had time, headspace, or heart space to open up to a relationship. I did not enjoy stability and home life.

For years, doctors have been telling me to take care of myself. "You have this wrong, you have this wrong." Because I like traveling, I never took care of my health that much. I also had time to get Invisalign to change my teeth, which were really unhealthy before. For years, dentists were telling me, "If you don't get braces, your teeth will fall out in five years." So I'm finally taking care of my teeth and going to doctors. I learned a little bit about my health and started doing exercise—things I would've never taken into consideration previously, and I'm also in the time of my life where that goes hand-in-hand.

Before COVID, music was my way of making an income, and that continues now as well, so now that I like this home lifestyle, it's about understanding how to balance that with my lifestyle as a traveling musician. Now I'm in the process of the in-between, and this album is a portrait of that. It's me, the wandering rebel, and me, who I'm becoming. I'm so happy to live life and experience things. Whatever happens in life, for me, has been great to experience. Sad things, good things, happy things, terrible things. I'm so happy to have lived through COVID, and to have been given an opportunity to understand myself better and in a deeper way. I'm happy to face change. That's something that is a part of my personality—I embrace change, and COVID was a big change for everyone. [Laughs]

When we go through change, we also suffer, and we're scared through changing because we're facing the unknown. It's a yin/yang, the half-full/half-empty, however you want to see it, at the end, it's the same.

What is it you missed about touring life the most when things were shut down, beyond the ability to travel and make money?
I've always made music in a social setting. I write songs as a representation of what's happening in my real life, which had a lot to do with playing concerts. So I'd write music and then play the unfinished songs at concerts to try them out. I had immediate feedback from the audience. I've always done that. When there was COVID and we were locked down and I was writing music, I didn't have the opportunity to present them to my audience. It wasn't a social thing anymore.

I missed having the opportunity to have the songs in the world as I was making this album. All those experiments I did not have in my life during lockdown, and in the years following—because it wasn't just 2020, it went into 2022. I'm not sure how authorities and us as people have learned anything from COVID, but maybe a new virus is around the corner, who knows.

There's also a lot of adventure in touring. It's impossible to imagine how your day goes. You know you have a concert and that you have to be at a venue at a certain time, but most likely you don't know who the manager or sound engineer is, or who's even gonna come. Everything is open to surprise. What's that quote from The Great Gatsby, about the capacity to be surprised? Touring is that way. If I had taken the life that was imposed—if I hadn't been rebellious, and if I'd taken my life of routine in New York, having a job and taking a subway and developing a career—routine life can become heavy.

I'm still amazed at the wonders of the world, you know? I love meeting people and hearing their stories, seeing landscapes. I love to understand how the landscape changes as you drive through it. I love to understand history where I go. Touring is like a big university for me. [Laughs]  

How has touring been like now? Everyone feels different about it lately, it seems.
I was pushed by my inner circle to go out again. I was like, "No, I don't want to be involved in the music business anymore," but they were like, "We gotta go," and I was like, "OK, let's go." Once I was face-to-face with all of it again—and we went on tour early 2022, which was still when bands weren't really on tour again yet—I loved it for all the same reasons I told you.

But, I'm trying to balance that lifestyle with the one I discovered during COVID, of nurturing family relationships and other parts of my life. I lost something by stopping all the traveling, but I also gained something too, and all the traveling will continue in a balanced way. Before, my life was just traveling. Now, I realize that's part of myself—I'm an adventurer, I'm a social commentator, this is what I effortlessly do in my life. If I have to worry about money, I just play music, and luckily I've found a way to make an income and live off of it.

I used to have the band The Beets in New York from 2008 to 2011, and we toured America many times. I know people from that era who still come to the concerts. It was great to see everybody again, to see new faces, and understand that I grew as a person, and my music goes along with me. The Beets were mostly in English, my life was just in New York then. I was a New Yorker because I lived there and grew up in an immigrant community. Life happened in English.

Then I started traveling to Latin America, because I had an impulse to revisit that part of my life—and the next thing I know, I'm living back in the place where I was born. So I incorporated a lot of Spanish songs in my repertoire, and sometimes I wonder how my English-speaking listeners react to that. But, the music I do is a representation of myself, so I hope everybody tags along—and if they don't feel like it's interesting anymore, some others come on the boat, so that's how it's been.

I'm about to go tour again, and there's fear around the idea of change, because now I have a family and home in Uruguay. For the time being, we're here. Maybe we'll go back to New York at some point, because the rest of my family is there, so I hope I go back there and live there some time—but, also, I'm doing great here, so step by step. I'm looking forward to going out again and facing the fear of leaving this stability behind, or trying to have both sides live together. The idea is not to lose, but to gain, by changing.

Tell me about your memories of the NYC music scene while the Beets were a going concern.
We came from Jackson Heights, which was mostly immigrant communities and working families. There are some bars, but not the type of bars that would host those type of concerts. So we started doing backyard shows in 2003 or 2004, when we all met. One day, I remember someone said, "Come play a show in Brooklyn." We didn't know much about Brooklyn. [Laughs] I swear. Looking back, we were people who lived in the neighborhood but didn't really leave the area. Sometimes you'd go clubbing in Manhattan and come back to the neighborhood.

The experience is very different for a New Yorker than it is for a transplant. People who live in Williamsburg or Bushwick just say, "This is my New York." When you live in somewhere like Jackson Heights, the experience is totally different, because you're surrounded by different things. In those neighborhoods, it feels like a neighborhood full of young people, which always felt unreal. I always felt more comfortable in a neighborhood that's more varied [Laughs]—older people, younger people, kids, everything.

We clicked right away with the audiences in Brooklyn. Right away, they started calling us to do shows, and we made a lot of friends in that scene. For us, it was great to have a stage in which we could get on and express ourselves. Back then, we had no intentions of making this a profitable business. It was more what we did for fun. We don't come from families in which you can be an artist and make a living, so everyone in our lives told us, "You can play music, but that's not how you make music, so you should study or get a job." [Laughs] No one said, "Hey, go play music, and you can find a way to make a business out of it." It was just our fun.

Our way of going out was to do a show. We'd play three or four shows a week, it was incredible. I'm sure everybody that went to shows then saw us play. We were very unprofessional. It was just us going to get drunk and have fun. I'm very glad that the whole thing existed, because it gave us a place for us to express ourselves, and that was the foundation for what I do today. I learned how to get on stage, face the audience, and read them. I did thousands of hours of doing my thing, so when it did become my business, I had all that on my back already.

I made a lot of friends and lived under the type of setting that was a place in which everybody got to express themselves. It felt like there was one thousand bands in Brooklyn at the time. I think of it as a really nice moment, and I still have a lot of friends from then. A lot of us grew from that experience. Now, if I'm going to do a concert, I care a little bit about how it's going to sound in order to have a proper, nice show. Back then, there was hardly any sound. If we weren't professional, so were the venues. [Laughs]

It felt a little like anarchy, something happening outside the system—but a lot of us gained tools to put them to work in our lives today. I know people from that time who are now professional musicians, making a living doing this. I don't want to be the person saying that things that happened before were better, because that's not the case. But that was a really fun time! I hope there's scenes like that going on somewhere in the world now.

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Jamie Larson