Fernando Viciconte: Portland’s Best Kept Secret
“I don’t think any of my records are more important or significant than any of the others,” says Portland, Oregon-based roots rocker Fernando Viciconte. “The most important record is probably the one that I haven’t made yet.”
Viciconte’s 20-year catalog of music has taken various incarnations – from hard rock to country folk to Tejano. There is dreamy pop in there, and garage, and roots, and several of those can be occurring at the same time. His early influences were Elvis Presley, Carlos Gardel, and the Beatles.
Born in Argentina, which he left as a child, Viciconte is now an adopted and much-loved son of the Portland music scene, having moved there in 1994. Before that he was playing hard rock in the 1990s L.A.-based band Monkey Paw, and since then he has shape-shifted and taken the best out of all of the above.
Those 20 years have surely had their tough periods. The long lead-up to the release of his recent album, Leave the Radio On, saw Viciconte undergo major surgery in 2013 for a condition that had gone undiagnosed for more than a decade. “Stomach acids were constantly burning my esophagus and vocal folds,” he explains. “I was unable to tour or perform consistently. It was definitely a trying time. I was forced to get a job as a property tax accountant, which I did for nine years.”
No matter how large the loss to the world of property tax accountancy, I’m happy to say, we’ve got him back. The surgery worked. “[It] enabled me to resume my music career and quit the day job,” he says. “It really transformed my life and allowed me to be able to return to, and fully do what I love. Thanks, doc!”
One can only imagine the impact this would have had on a veteran musician like Viciconte, but he never lost contact with his music, even if he couldn’t perform. “I never stopped writing and recording music, so I always had a creative outlet to express myself,” he says. “I was more frustrated by the fact that I was in constant pain and no one in the medical community could figure out what was going on. I love performing live, but I much prefer to write and work in the studio, and that was never taken away from me, so I never felt too resentful for my situation.”
September’s U.S. release of his new album, Leave the Radio On, was his first record since 2011’s True Instigator. Ensconced as he is in Portland’s music scene, Viciconte spent years availing himself of musicians like Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and members of Richmond Fontaine and the Delines, to add this further record to his expanding musical legacy.
“Due to my illness, it took much longer to complete this record than my previous albums [almost five years]. But I think that the extra time provided me with a different perspective, which helped me select the best songs that fit the theme of the record. This record has about 15 musicians performing on it,” he says, “so it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to put together and was a unique and challenging experience as well.
“The theme of the record,” he adds, “is human connection, so that’s why I chose to call it Leave the Radio On, which is a metaphor for keeping the human connection open.”
After everything that has happened over recent years, Viciconte’s explanation of what he wants people to take from the album makes perfect sense. “Life is short, so live in the moment and be present, and try to appreciate all the people in your life. Love, life, youth, innocence, faith … can all disappear in the blink of an eye, so you really have to treasure these things and not take them for granted.”
Take “El Interior” for example. With a 1980s David Bowie air to his voice, he sings of maintaining those connections. It was written in Argentina during a very difficult time — his aunt was dealing with a cancer which ultimately took her life. “The other thing that inspired the song,” he adds, “was that I was unable to leave Argentina because of a passport snafu I wanted to convey that feeling of isolation and longing for family and home.”
Richmond Fontaine’s Paul Brainard plays lovely Mexican brass/mariachi trumpet, which takes over in the middle of “El Interior,” which made me wonder if the Spanish roots that Viciconte has explored in albums like True Instigator and the Spanish language album Pacoima (1998) are an important element that he wants to include in his songwriting. “I definitely want to blend different influences together when a song calls for it,” he says. “I grew up in Pacoima, which is a Mexican-American neighbourhood suburb of Los Angeles, so Mexican culture and music has played a big part in my life and music. I frequently find myself writing something that comes from those influences as well as my own Argentinean roots.”
He sees his music as a means to comment on social issues, and title track “Leave the Radio On,” which talks of “No war, no hate, no lies,” is a prime example. “I was trying to convey the feeling that this world is a bit of an illusion and that there is more to our existence than what meets the eye,” he explains. “I don’t want to come off as too preachy or saccharine with my lyrics, so I try to not make things too black and white, but sometimes certain points need to be said without ambiguity.”
“White Trees” summons up ambiguous, harsh, heart-breaking pictures.
The dime messiah has gone and left
Living with two wrists out
he’ll never let us forget
Viciconte pulls no punches on where these words came from. “I owe those lines to my upbringing in the Southern Baptist church, and my ultimate disillusionment with manmade religion as whole,” he says. “The song is an indictment on hypocritical religious dogma, which loves to use fear and promises of pie in the sky to recruit new converts. The fear that was imposed on me by my church definitely traumatized me. Those experiences have left permanent scars that inform most of my writing in one way or another. … [That] was not a conscious decision. The writing came about organically, but I did not want the lyrics to be too literal because I did not want to come off as too preachy. I wanted it to evoke a feeling rather than beating people over the head with the message. I usually prefer this approach because it allows the listener to take different things away from the songs and relate them to their own life experiences.”
There’s a riff running right through “The Dogs” from the opening bars. It sounds like a dreamy Sex Pistols “Pretty Vacant.” That’s Peter Buck on the electric sitar, which explodes beautifully later on in the song. Viciconte mentioned earlier on that there are around 15 musicians playing on this album, which raises the question: How did he manage to get them on board? “Peter Buck and I have been friends for going on a decade now,” he points out. “When he heard that I was not playing due to health reasons, he offered to play on my record to encourage me to continue making music. He was the impetus for this record and I probably would not have made it if he had not of pushed me to start writing and playing again.”
All of the songs on the album were written solely by Viciconte, apart from “Burned Out Love,” which was co-written with Richmond Fontaine’s Dan Eccles. “Dan and I have been friends and have played together for 20 years,” he says. “He’s my favourite guitar player in the world. That being said, ‘Burned Out Love’ is our first co-write because I usually bring in fully written and arranged songs to the band. This time around though, I had written the music for ‘Burned Out Love’ but had a loose melody and no lyrics. Dan had recently told me that one of his friends had passed away and he was feeling some regret for not reaching out to him, because they had some unresolved issues that kept them from communicating. I thought that would be a perfect theme for this song. I asked him to write lyrics to the song and when I heard what he came up with, I was blown away. I knew instantly that we had to record the song for this record.”
Then there are members of the Delines lurking about in there too. What did Freddy Trujillo bring to the table? “Freddy is another old friend,” Viciconte says, “and I love him. I met Freddy through our mutual friend Luther Russell, who produced my all-Spanish Chicano-rock record (Pacoima, 1998). We share a love and respect for Latino culture and music and we are constantly thinking about ways of bringing more of that music to the world. Also, we both believe that Latinos in the United States are under attack these days by the right wing con, so we definitely want to make everyone aware of how important Latinos are to the culture and fabric of America.”
“Luther mixed the record on his own in Los Angeles,” he continues, “so he completely reshaped the sound of my and Mike Coykendall’s production. He brought out the psychedelic elements of the production in a way that I was not capable of doing. I did not want this record to sound safe, so he and his engineer [Jason Hiller] definitely added some effects and dissonance that I might not have used, but I dug it when I heard it.”
All that said, it is not just in the recording studio that Viciconte works with these co-conspirators. He has been gigging quite relentlessly by the looks of it around Portland and beyond. Last year he toured Europe with the Delines. The future holds more too. His ongoing U.S. ‘Leave the Radio On Tour!’ continues right through October and November.