As audiences at South by Southwest can attest, Juan Wauters leaves a lasting impression wherever he performs, but sometimes a town leaves its own impression on him. When he played a last-minute show in Wilkes-Barre with The Beets last year, the city stuck with him for one obvious reason.
“I love Wilkes-Barre! The pizza there is great,” Wauters told The Weekender in a phone interview last week.
“We’re from New York and we’re always talking about our pizza, and we get there and this guy Joe says, ‘Oh, we have the best pizza in the world,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, man, we hear that all the time.’ But then we go to this place and it was sick! It was definitely in the top five pizzas I ever had in my life.”
That isn’t the only reason he’s looking forward to returning this Sunday, though – his recent solo project has been going over exceptionally well with listeners. At SXSW earlier this month, for example, Wauters and his friend Matt Volz drew a sizable crowd that followed them to each location they played.
“I was little bit anxious before we left on the road because I’ve been doing shows here and there the past year, but I’ve never really done shows on my own on the guitar. I’ve always had other people that I play with, but this tour we decided to do it just by ourselves,” he explained.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know what to expect, but I feel like as we did it, we got better at it. I started feeling more comfortable and the shows started coming out really well, I thought.”
Volz, an artist also from Queens who makes Wauters’ music videos and album artwork, provides a lightshow that corresponds with the singer’s heartfelt tunes, crafting a moody atmosphere audiences aren’t used to in small venues – “a reality” all to themselves.
“We had an effort to make all the shows different from each other, so people felt like they were getting a different show every time they came or it was perhaps a continuation of the one we just played before,” Wauters noted.
“I do the music and he works the visuals around my music, so it’s something that we worked on as a project, and last year I was reading a lot about the Ramones. Johnny came out with that book ‘Commando.’ In all the Ramones books, they talk about how important it was to them, the visual aspect of the band, the style. And Johnny was very eloquent about it in his book, so I thought I should look at that aspect of the project and pay attention to that.
“We’re bringing the show to you now. Before we would just go play a show. Right now, we can set up anywhere and it’ll be very similar everywhere we go. We have a backdrop, a lightshow – I even bring my own stool. It’s a sense of, ‘We’re here for you and this is for you right now.’”
They will be joined by Carmelle Safdie, who sings on Wauters’ debut solo record “N.A.P. North American Poetry,” at The Other Side in Wilkes-Barre for the venue’s first all-ages show on March 30, and while it may not be apparent during their mesmerizing performance, Wauters admitted that he never actually set out to be a musician originally – it simply came to him and he had to “rise to the occasion.”
He listened to his father play tango music growing up in Uruguay and became a fan of The Rolling Stones on the radio, but when they moved to New York, his tastes began to develop.
“When I came to New York, I got really into The Beatles because in Uruguay you can’t really do The Beatles – you either like the Stones or The Beatles. It’s still like if it was the 1960s there, or maybe that’s how I took it. I don’t know. I was really young when I was there,” he related with a laugh.
“Right now I write music and try to create a sound that describes me as a person, and I don’t really know what kind of sound that is. … I’m a big fan of simplicity.”
He helped form The Beets and performed in the group for years, but as the band began to dissipate, he took the music he was writing on the side and struck out on his own, recording his first solo album in fits and starts between 2010 and 2012. While this presented a new set of challenges and feelings to deal with, he was glad he made the leap.
“The Beets were a couple of friends from the same neighborhood. We worked on things together and The Beets became my first outlet to my music, so when I was involved in The Beets, I wrote thinking about The Beets,” he acknowledged.
“I feel like right now I don’t really have a label to my music, so it really gives me an opportunity to experiment a little more and try to find different sounds within myself.”
As his songwriting consistently evolves, it’s actually this uncertainty that drives his creativity.
“I like to perform in that position. I like the unknown. I like to feel that there’s space for mistakes or error. I think it gives the performance a thrilling factor. It’s like everything is about to go wrong, but everything’s going well,” he continued.
“I’m glad to see that the songs are going to different places. It’s exciting to look at my catalog so far and see how things keep changing. I want to continue that way.
“I never want to find out who I am as a musician. I never want to say, ‘This is how I write music,’ because I feel like once I do that I’m already burying myself. I’m already killing myself. I’m killing any sort of future that I have by doing that. I like to be in the constant search.”
While this search can be a bit scary, it’s also much more rewarding than the familiar. His music has been called everything from garage folk to lo-fi, but labels are the last thing on Wauters’ mind.
“The artist does it for themselves, and then it becomes a conversation between them and the audience, but once it becomes just for the audience, it loses that magic that art has, that intimacy that you might get.”
The 12 songs on the record are a reflection of that expression and a deeply personal look into himself during what proved to be a tough but fulfilling time in his life.
“The Beets had been a constant in my life all the time before that, and during this time The Beets weren’t playing out and I was trying to decide if I should either go back to The Beets or not, so I was kind of reevaluating everything in my life – my family, myself, my friendships, my relationship to the music, and just my future and my present in general,” he recalled.
But by the time he returned to Uruguay with Volz to film the video for his song “Water,” he had a much clearer perspective, determining that his career would be in music for at least the foreseeable future.
“I’m just now realizing my fate to be a musician right now. At this moment in my life, my fate is to play music. In Uruguay growing up, I had no idea I would be playing music, so it was great to be able to go back there and show my friends and family what I’m up to right now,” Wauters said.
“It had some emotions attached.”