Gustavo Santaolalla had a considerable string of successes in the rock music world before a filmmaker ever thought he might be able to score a pic.
A legend in his native Argentina via the band he started as a teen, Arco Iris, he had moved to Los Angeles in 1982 and discovered, produced and guided leading Spanish-speaking acts Cafe Tacuba, Molotov, Juanes and Maldita Vaeindad.
In 1997, he became the president of an MCA-financed record label, Surco Records, the first joint venture of the rock en Espanol era. Surco releases, which started with a global million-seller from Molotov, were nominated for 21 Latin Grammys this year and 23 in 2003.
In the 21st century, though, as he spreads his wings into art songs, electronica, folk music and the tango, he has become a lauded film composer after just three works: “Amores perros,” “21 Grams” and “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
His next project is Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” in which he is composing score and songs, with Bernie Taupin, to be sung by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Rufus Wainwright.
Lee edited his pic with music that Santaolalla composed after reading the script; Santaolalla will write more later. That pre-lensing process is extremely rare. Even rarer, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directed scenes for “21 Grams” with actors listening to music Santaolalla had composed for that pic.
Meanwhile, the musician spent the last week of September in Argentina recording tango legends — all between the ages of 70 and 93 — for an album similar in tone to a project he did 20 years ago, “Cafe de Los Maestros.”
He has talked 88-year-old Horacio Salgan out of retirement to conduct for this project, which could do for tango what Buena Vista Social Club did for forgotten Cuban music forms.
“Tango has the capacity to regenerate,” says Santaolalla, who leads and plays guitar in a cooperative, Bajafondo Tango Club, that merges electronic dance forms such as drum & bass and trip-hop.
“Today it has a tremendous life in Prague and Finland and Germany. The music has been on the back burner, but it taps into a melancholy that’s very universal. The tango is always there waiting for me.”
Upon his return, Santaolalla was back in the editing suite working on two projects with new music champion Dawn Upshaw, one of which is dedicated to the folk songs of Italian composer Luciano Berio. The other includes songs by his fellow countryman Osvaldo Golijov, the composer of “La Pasion Segun San Marcos.”
“Gustavo’s artistry has no bounds,” says Zach Horowitz, president and chief operating officer, Universal Music Group, who signed the Surco/Universal deal.
“He is a consummate Renaissance man. He has been a critical piece in establishing credibility in the Latin music world, and whatever roads he wants to go down we want to go with him.”
No longer sporting the look of a militant hippie as he did up through the late ’90s, Santaolalla owes some of his success to his charm. He laughs frequently and speaks in several languages during an interview, passionate about every aspect of his largely self-taught career path. He has never learned, for example, to write musical notation and instead uses “memory, instinct and my own notation.”
“When I was very young, I wanted to do music that had an identity of where I was from,” he says. “I have always been involved in alternative music and not the pop music on the radio. I have eclectic taste, but the big trigger was the Beatles — they’re my spiritual fathers. But it wasn’t just the music; I was also fascinated by the recordings and wanted to find a way to learn how it was done.”
At 16, he taught himself how to run a soundboard in a recording studio; in his 30s, with no experience as a manager to scout talent, he ventured into Mexico’s burgeoning rock scene and started inking acts such Cafe Tacuba, which is now regarded as important as Radiohead or Beck in alternative rock circles.
Unlike his producing and performing peers, Santaolalla’s most immediate projects touch on a variety of musical forms.
The label he set up for electronic efforts, Vibra, released the second album from Bajafondo Tango Club, “Superville,” last month; the latest Surco/Universal album from Juanes, who has won nine Latin Grammys, was released Sept. 28; and tango singer Cristobal Repetto, a member of Bajafondo, will see his debut released this month.
And he is finishing the debut of Javier Garcia, a singer born in Spain and raised in Miami by his Irish mother and Cuban father. Garcia sings a mixture of Afro-Cuban, rock and hip-hop.
At a BMI-sponsored reception for Santaolalla following the screening of “Motorcycle Diaries,” the composer excitedly rattled off his projects with the enthusiasm of a child recounting his birthday gifts. Prodding him about his contributions though, yielded nothing but humility.
“These are great artists I work with,” he says. “I am fortunate to be working with them, but the greatness is already there within them. I just help.”