When the world shut down in 2020, Cuco took that time to re-centre. He embarked on a transformative journey of nurturing his mind, reforming his lifestyle and grounding himself in community; a journey that felt like a passage to another world. “Like an alternate dimension, where dreamworld and purgatory are in the same realm”, he explains.
This idea of escaping into another world became the inspiration for Cuco’s new album, ‘Fantasy Gateway’. The record, his second after his debut ‘Para Mi’ in 2019, amplifies all the things fans have come to love about Cuco – dreamy soundscapes, deeply ingrained Latin influences, and a free-for-all spirit of collaboration with artists and producers across musical genres and worlds.
For the latest in NME‘s In Conversation series, we caught up with Cuco to discuss the creation of the record, his ever expanding universe of collaborators and his newfound love of rock climbing. Here’s what we learned.
Making ‘Fantasy Gateway’ pushed Cuco’s creative boundaries as a producer
“This is the first time I’ve trusted other producers to work on my sound with me”, says Cuco, who first rose to prominence in the “bedroom pop” scene as a mostly self-taught and self-sufficient producer. “Manu Lara, Julian Bernal and Andres Rebellón took the production to a whole new level. This way I could focus more on writing, and was able to really conceptualise this world I wanted to create.”
Letting others into the creative process and giving himself space to develop the album’s narrative unlocked a richer, more evolved sound on ‘Fantasy Gateway’, building on the hazy and psychedelic musical textures of ‘Para Mí’. “I’m exploring different sounds but still staying true to what I’ve always done. Everything is dreamy, both melancholic and euphoric, yet still kind of eerie.”
Keeping this signature eerie sound and feeling is important to Cuco. “I love when a song makes me feel like I’m reminiscing on something that never even happened, or when a melody makes me feel like I’m dreaming. I want my music to make people feel like they can escape reality.”
He’s still a champion of the concept album
Cuco’s debut album ‘Para Mí’ opened with memorable first track, ‘Intro’, an endearingly unhinged vignette that has assumed hallowed meme status among Cuco fans. The 30-second clip features a chant by collective Foos Gone Wild: “Warning! Another sighting for the foo files… This foo Cuco is on a sick one… The real question remains: where is this foo going?”
On ‘Fantasy Gateway’, the opening track ‘Heaven is Lucid Dreaming’ is also a scene setter. “We will go where no human has gone… Life in the gateway isn’t programmed to be perfect… Final destination unknown,” reads a faraway voice over tannoy. The vocals actually belong to his pal Anthony who mixed the album, whose bewitching radio voice Cuco asked to borrow for the narration.
Cuco likes this intro format. “I love concept albums and feeling like I’m about to go on a journey when I start an album”, says Cuco. “Albums like Tame Impala’s ‘Lonerism’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ just flow into each other. This album opens with a voice from this corporation that’s going to take you into the fantasy gateway. It’s kind of like that episode of Futurama where the cryo company freezes you in time.”
Making the album prompted a lot of self-reflection for Cuco, including the decision to quit drinking.
“I kept it super real with myself on this album”, says Cuco. “The song ‘Caution’, for example, is about trying to open up about your own insecurities and struggles, but still bottling it up because you don’t want to affect other people.” The track is honest and introspective, with Cuco singing of the “battle in my head that I just try to keep away from you”.
Writing around this concept of a dream world was freeing. “It’s a world where I can tackle a lot of issues in my head, and therapeutically write about it.”
“That opened my eyes to a lot of different things”, shares Cuco. “I realized I had to stop drinking. Two, three months after we turned it in, I quit. It’s now been about four months without alcohol”. It was one lyric in particular on track ‘Paraphonic’ that gave him pause for self-reflection: “I don’t want to be surprised when it all comes crashing down.”
“I would use alcohol to get away from things”, Cuco recalls. “My pattern was to sit around waiting for things to go wrong. But I realized I could still change things. I could make my life better by taking care of myself.”
He’s gotten really into rock climbing
“The same month I stopped drinking, my friend posted on his Instagram story that he was going rock climbing”, says Cuco. “I asked to join him, having wanted to do it for years. Literally that day, I bought my pair of climbing shoes and got my membership to the gym.”
Conquering the rock faces has now become one of Cuco’s favorite hobbies, giving him real mental as well as physical clarity. “I’m super addicted to it. It’s been crazy changing the focus of my addictive personality from substance abuse to this. Climbing makes me want to get stronger – it has been the one thing that actually motivates me to work out and be active. Now if I don’t do anything active in the day, I feel like I have to skate or go for a run.”
Cuco’s universe of collaborators has continued to expand
‘Sitting in the Corner’ is one of the album’s most distinctive tracks, an alluring Spanish-English hybrid featuring traditional Mexican instrumentation like the guitarrón and vihuela.
Perhaps as alluring as the song itself is the pair of artists singing alongside Cuco on the track. “We wanted to make something psychedelic but Mexican”, says Cuco. And so, he enlisted the help of new wave Norteño artist Adriel Favela and psychedelic country singer Kacey Musgraves. “Both artists are so creative and experimental that bringing their worlds together on this song made perfect sense. It felt like the universe put this on course to happen. I feel lucky that it’s part of my project.”
Cuco is no stranger to working across genres, counting features from Clairo to Yung Gravy to Dillon Francis. Other recent team-ups include Mexican bedroom-popper Bratty and Mexican-American singer-songwriter DannyLux on the new album, and Chilean–Norwegian artist Boy Pablo on the recent duet ‘La Novela’. “Working with fellow upcoming Latino artists and being able to grow with each other is so sick. They’re all just really good people who are humble, excited and happy to collaborate”, says Cuco.
“The fantasy gateway is just the intro to this world I’m creating”, he concludes. “It’s all about keeping it going, and seeing who else we bring in.”
‘Fantasy Gateway’ is out now