He’s tall and wily. He flails across stages with a manic glint in his eyes; he plays chess and not checkers. His songs are explosive, short, and sweet, like a hand-grenade appetizer. Pastimes include self-mutilation while playing the knife game.
Juan Zaballa (better known by his stage name Tall Juan) is an eccentric artist who isn’t afraid to piss on his guitar during a live performance, yet remains decidedly insightful and collected in conversation. There’s a method to the Argentinian songwriter’s madness that stems from equal parts old-school punk, freak-folk, and concise hooks that leave you wanting more.
Thankfully, Zaballa is just getting started. He’s got his debut album on the way, supported by the talented drummer (and The Beets) band member Juan Wauters. To whet your whistle in the meantime, listeners can feast on some of the wonderfully quirky singles he’s released.
Zaballa sits down with BTR and talks about how he holds it all together while never taking himself too seriously.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): If you could describe your sound to somebody who’s never heard you before (without using genre distinctions), what would you say?
Juan Zaballa (JZ): Right now for the set list we have mostly short love songs with emotionally-sung melodies. Sometimes they’re in faster tempos. It’s all pretty loud, but still with nylon-string acoustic guitar.
BTR: Your touring schedule is pretty relentless–you’ve played a show almost every day this month alone–yet your performances require a lot of energy. How do you remain so spirited and inspired while on the road?
JZ: I try not to drink or do drugs and sleep as much as I can to keep my energy up. Playing every show I can and knowing that I have another one coming up inspires me to keep going.
BTR: How did you meet collaborator Juan Wauters, and how has your creative relationship grown over the years?
JZ: I met Juan through my Uruguayan friends Dinamita and Cantina back when I first moved to New York. In the beginning we were creating together through building physical stuff, like a wooden loft for instance, and then we started playing Ramones songs together. We realized that we shared a passion for their music. Wauters started teaching me the lyrics, and that way I began to learn English.
He asked me to play bass with his band, The Beets, for a couple of months, and after that I played with him on his solo project. There was a lot of touring–playing guitar, sometimes bass, keyboards… even drums [laughs].
BTR: He’s also helped you with your own music, too, right?
JZ: Yeah, he played drums for Tall Juan in the beginning and also recorded them for the EP I just put out. He always inspires me to create more and more.
He actually just recorded the drums for one of the songs that will be on my upcoming album; it’s a Ramones cover of “Chinese Rock” with Barbara Zampini on bass.
BTR: What are some of your biggest influences as a guitar player?
JZ: There have been many guitar players who have inspired me throughout my musical life. To name a few: Toquinho, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Mick Ronson, and whoever the guy is that plays solos with Television… I don’t know if it’s Richard Loyd or Tom Verlaine.
BTR: Speaking of your EP, tell us a little bit about your most recent release Another Juan.
JZ: Mac Demarco was doing this contest online, asking his fans to record their own version of his song “Another One.” Most of the versions people sent to him were slow, soft, and pretty wack except for a couple of funny ones.
He asked me to record my own one so I did it and changed the title. I like it a lot, and I didn’t want it to be in a cassette in my room, so I decided to put it online.
BTR: You’ve mentioned that while you used to begin the songwriting process with the music first, lately you’ve been starting with lyrics and then later adding the rest. What prompted this transition?
JZ: Honestly, I feel it’s never the same way for me. I keep changing it, trying to find the way I like it most and that works the best. But yeah, right now I feel like coming out with melodies and then trying to fit lyrics in afterwards.
BTR: As for lyrics, do you ever find yourself returning to familiar places–recurring themes or life experiences?
JZ: Yeah, I do. I feel like I almost always write about girls. Now I’m trying to write about something else–like friends… fights, and fake people.
BTR: Is there any territory you really wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about?
JZ: Hmmm… maybe religion or politics.
BTR: What’s in store for the rest of 2015?
JZ: I’m about to put out a four song EP on Nov 1, with a release show at Shea Stadium. There will be a lot of other shows and I’m also just finishing my first full length album.
To hear more from Tall Juan, check out his Bandcamp or tune into BTR’s very own In the Den.