Gizmo Varillas is a Spanish-Basque songwriter, musician and record producer, who was raised both in the UK and Spain. His music is a wonderfully colourful mix of tropical Latin, funky Afrobeat, and acoustic folk, which has seen him appear here in numerous mixtapes over the past couple of years. Ahead of his first London headline show of 2019 on November 26th at the Camden Assembly, and forthcoming third album, he takes part in this Q&A – so read on to find out more about his music, the new album, indigenous Pygmy flutes, and the legendary drummer Tony Allen.
~ When did you first pick up a guitar, and also to write your own music?
I first started playing guitar when I was around 10 back in Spain. There was a guitar teacher that played flamenco guitar in the building I lived in and that’s where I learned the foundation of my playing. Later on, I started to get into different styles of music as I grew older and moved across between Spain and the UK, so I started to find my own style of playing and I learned to play by ear. Slowly I became interested in Jamaican inspired music, the likes of Bob Marley and the whole ska-Trojan records world.
As a teenager I was inspired by that scene and that’s when I started my first ever band. Even though I was born in Spain, only when I moved to London a few later, that’s where I re-connected with my Latin roots. London is so multicultural that I found inspiration everywhere I went. I used to work at a venue where they had all sorts of world music and they had South American, Arabic and all sorts of African bands playing there. It was a joy to watch and that really exposed me to a lot of different music. I’ve always been writing/recording music at home ever since I was a teenager. After school, I’d arrive home and record ideas for fun. Ten years later I found myself recording songs in London for my debut album El Dorado in 2016.
Since then I have worked independently and continue to grow in my own way. I come from a family of artists, my dad was a painter and my mum would make puppets, artwork made out of clay and paint as well. I remember as a child we would spend a lot of time together making art at home. I think that my creative flare comes from both of them, I’m always looking out for creative ways to make music and do things differently each time. It’s what keeps me excited… in return, I hope that keeps my fans excited too. I’m always striving for something new I haven’t done before.
~ Album number 3 is due out next year, so what can we expect compared with the first two?
My first 2 albums were recorded in my home studio, where I played all the instruments myself. However, for this album I’ve taken on the role of producer and have involved other musicians in the process too. We recorded live drums at RAK studio here in London and it really elevated the tracks by giving them a whole new sense of dynamics. I’ve still used an eclectic selection of instruments across the album, from Charango (Bolivian 10 string instrument that sounds like a harp) to indigenous Pygmy flutes, to Marimbas, Strings, Piano and a bunch of 80’s synths. Lyrically it is one of my most personal albums.
My first two releases were very much an outward-looking collection of songs, talking about the world around me, like No War and One People. This album is very much focused on stories from my life. Last year was challenging for me in many ways, I also had close friends and family that went through very difficult times and that affected me too. I’ve always turned to music at my lowest points and writing this album was very much part of my healing. It made me reflect on my past, and how hard it was for me to adapt when moving between the UK and Spain as a kid. Somehow these thoughts kept creeping into my songs and even though I was writing about being in a dark place, I somehow felt like there was always a sense of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why I called the album Out of the Darkness.
~ What did you find most challenging when making the new album?
Whenever I start a new album it feels very daunting. I’m always wondering about how I will move onto the next chapter, what my journey will be, what I can write about… I think we all have these questions and anxieties, but that quickly dissipates as soon as I start getting into the creative flow. I set the bar high for myself, and I push myself to experiment when writing music. This opens up new possibilities that I never thought about. Sometimes I start from lyrics, something I’ll start writing the song from the music, others it’s just a sound or instrument that inspires a new song. This way of creating music can be very challenging but it’s what I love most about the writing process.
~ What’s the best advice you’ve received about making, recording, & releasing music?
I’ve talked to many musicians and the thing that always comes up is that the most important thing is always the song. All the arrangements and instruments should be there to embellish it as opposed to overpower it. For me, the song is good when it can connect with people regardless of the arrangements, either acoustic, on the CD, or live with a band. That’s when you know you’ve got something good, when it shines on its own and stands for itself.
~ If you could collaborate with a famous musician or band, who would it be?
My collaboration wish list is quite long, but I am excited to say that on this new record I have ticked the top name of that list with one of my heroes, the legendary drummer Tony Allen. He played drums on my track Saving Grace and it is really a dream come true. He was the pioneer of Afrobeat, playing alongside Fela Kuti in the 70’s. Today he collaborates with the likes of Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Jeff Mills… it’s a real honour to be part of his legacy.
~ Are there any other new bands or musicians that you recommend we check out?
~ You have a regularly updated Spotify playlist with some of the favourite music you’ve listened to recently, so how do you usually discover music, especially new music?
I try to find music in many different ways, and for me word of mouth is the easiest, particularly for new music, when I talk to friends and fellow musicians about new bands/artists. This is why I started my “Favourite Tracks” playlist, so I could recommend songs that I’ve come across to my fans. At some point, I’d love to have recommendations from my audience so it can be a two way conversation about music. I also look into other releases from record labels that I love, for example I’ve found plenty of hidden gems while sorting through albums from Soundway Records, Awesome Tapes from Africa, or Habibi Records. Last but not least, certainly not as romantic, I use YouTube and Spotify which are great ways to find new and old sounds with all their personalized playlists and discover weekly. I’m constantly researching music, as I think that listening with intent is one of the best ways to learn and find inspiration.
Gizmo’s Spotify playlist is here.
~ If you were appearing on ‘Later with Jools Holland’, which track would you choose to perform?
Definitely one of the new tracks from the album, perhaps Out of the Darkness, Saving Grace or Born Again. I feel either of these would be so much fun to play for Jools Holland! They are all upbeat and can get you dancing.
~ Aside from music, do you have any other creative skills? (or obscure talents!)
I enjoyed making documentary films while at school, I probably would have taken that direction as a career if I didn’t have such passion for music! To this day, documentaries are my favourite film genre to watch.
~ Who are your musical Guilty Pleasures?
It’s a Spanish band from the 80’s called Mecano, they made some of the biggest hits. I remember when I was a kid listening to tapes of them in the car while travelling with my dad on our summer holidays. I listen to them to this day!
~ What are your plans for 2020?
I’m releasing my 3rd album Out of the Darkness and will be touring! I’ll also be co-writing songs with other artists and this is a new chapter in my career which I’m very excited about!