Cuco is back with another full-length album, Fantasy Gateway, three years after his studio debut, Para Mi. But for Omar Banos, the Mexican American songwriter and producer who started out making music on his own at home, it’s bedroom pop no more.
Things have changed for Cuco since he was signed by Interscope at just 20 years old. He now has a team helping him form a cohesive brand, he has traveled to places he had never even dreamed of visiting and he’s given up alcohol.
“I quit drinking four and a half months ago,” Cuco says. “So, I’m in a good space. I’m in a very ambitious place.”
All of those changes led to an album that delivers a familiar psychedelic style for fans of the tracks that launched Banos into internet stardom, like “Lover Is a Day” and “Lo Que Siento.” But the production growth allowed in new layers and rhythms; he wove in traditional Latinx genres such as boleros and Norteño after experimenting with these genres between album releases.
Part of how Cuco expanded his sound was by expanding his circle.
At first glance, the most surprising feature in the album is country-music star Kacey Musgraves. The darling of the new age of country, known to get a little psychedelic herself, provided vocals for “Sitting in the Corner.” Yet, her appearance makes perfect sense in the context of the song, which, for the sake of comparison, is a Mexican country song.
Norteño musician Adriel Favela ties the song together with his powerful gritos (screams), which are the signature of any Regional Mexican song. His energetic vocalizing during the chorus provides a refreshing contrast to Cuco’s usual mellow and breathy tone. Also featured in the album are Mexican bedroom pop singer BRATTY and Chicano singer-songwriter DannyLux.
Although the intro to the album, the tour guide’s warning “Heaven Is Lucid Dreaming,” promises a trip through a portal to the unknown, Cuco’s lyrics still heavily focus on intimate themes like lost love and mental health issues. The first single, “Caution,” describes anxiety as a mental implosion. Despite dealing with the same topics as he did during his lonely boy era, this track helps his day-one fans adjust to the faster and more upbeat tempo of Fantasy Gateway.
The production growth is also apparent visually. The deeply unsettling music video for the single released in April suggested that this album would bring an evolved version of Cuco. This embrace of the “uncanny valley” style of animation is brought by director Cole Kush, who has worked with artists such as Lil’ Yachty and BROCKHAMPTON. Cuco says he was glad to have a creative team that helped him shape his vision into reality.
“The team I have has helped me fully make this world that I wanted to make for myself,” Cuco says. “It’s crazy being able to see it just become a reality.”
On the Record: A Q&A With Cuco
Jackie Llanos: It’s been a few years since you’ve put out an album, so what can people who fell in love with Para Mi expect from Fantasy Gateway?
Cuco: A lot of emotions. I think production growth, because it was the first time I kind of allowed people into my world to be able to help me produce and captivate feelings I wanted to captivate. I think I just want it to be an experience for people when they hear the album.
JL: How was it for you to let people in to help you?
C: It was cool. I became very close with everybody that worked on the album, and I don’t think I could be happier. I think I’m already as excited as I could be about a project, and I don’t think there’s anything I’d change about this project, which was a new feeling for me.
JL: The album features Mexican musicians BRATTY, DannyLux and Adriel Favela. How do you feel about being at a point in your career when you can share this spotlight with other Mexican musicians?
C: I feel lucky, because I never thought I’d be in this place in my life, ever, because being Mexican in kind of like an American industry. And, obviously, from there it expanded to going to Mexico, and South America and going overseas. It was it was such a crazy thing to watch. I’m very privileged to be able to have these people want to work with me as well. I’m a very subconscious person. So, I’m just like, “I don’t know if people like my music or not.” It’s cool to work with people that we mutually respect each other’s music.
JL: So, with “Artificial Intelligence,” I noticed a vibe, specially with the saxophone beat. It reminded me a lot of Luis Miguel. And for listeners who aren’t familiar, Luis Miguel was the king of Latin pop in the 80s. Was that intentional?
C: Yeah, no, we were talking about the chorus and the keys sounds like Luis Miguel or like Luther Vandross or something like that. I just like to talk about music, though. I love those sounds. Those old school sounds like the DX7. I think it was only fair that we made a song like that.
JL: Was your mom a big fan of the song? I imagine she grew up listening to Luis Miguel.
C: My mom liked the whole album, actually. My mom is a big fan of “Sitting in the Corner,” though.
JL: I really enjoyed it, and it was a lot different than any of your previous songs. So, for “Artificial Intelligence” you leaned into the ballad, Latin pop genres. But, for “Sitting in the Corner” you’re leaning into Regional Mexican or Norteño genre. Why did you decide to be more adventurous in this album in terms of exploring all these different Latinx genres?
C: I think I’ve always been experimental. But I think the way I have been with this album; I think it was just kind of time to really push it and see what we could do without forcing it. So doing kind of a psychedelic mariachi thing with Kacey Musgraves and Adriel Favela…was so cool. I started really kind of going with some of that crazy experimentation when I actually did “Under the Sun,” when it was a psychedelic cumbia.
I’m very lucky that the universe chose our set of brains to make this all happen, because anyone else could have thought of it. I feel like the universe was like, “Yo, you guys are gonna make this song.” And I felt like we won a lottery or something like that, because I’m very lucky that this song is in my project, and that we’re putting this out to the world.
JL: It really sounded like a fun song to record. Did you guys get to do it together?
C: Kacey sent over the vocals, because one of the other producers, Ian Fitchuk, who worked on the song, he showed it to her, and she was like, “Yeah, I love this song. I would love to request some vocals over it.” But me and Adriel got together. We were having fun, having lots of fun. And it’s just super fun to see where the track went, where it started. It was a beautiful process.
JL: Did you get to do some of the gritos in the song or was it all Adriel?
C: He definitely had to boost my confidence because I was shy.
JL: With Spanish music starting to be embraced in the U.S., do you think you’re going to do a project entirely in Spanish at one point?
C: If it happens, yeah. I don’t ever try to force it, because I feel like if I tried to force myself to do a Spanish album, you’d be able to tell. Also, if I’m in the right mindset. I would love to make one, but I just really do whatever comes to mind at the moment.
JL: A lot of Fantasy Gateway focuses on the concept of time. “Fin del Mundo” talks about the lack of time and “Time Machine” talks about going back in time. Why did you pick that concept as a central theme for the album?
C: As humans we only go forward in time, and, to me, the fourth dimension is so crazy. And I just think messing around with it and thinking of the most impossible things is like so fun because I think we’d all wish we had certain superpowers.
JL: In your past work, mental health has always been a main topic, and, obviously, this album is not the exception. “Sweet Dissociation” touches on disconnecting from one’s thoughts. Why do you think it’s important to bring attention to mental health issues through your music?
C: People like to feel heard. I think it helps you helps you kind of cope with whatever you’re going through, if you’re going through like a hard time or something like that. I like giving my take on how I deal with my own issues, and I think it’s good for people to hear it. I think it’s good for you to hear, “Hey, you’re doing a good job.” It’s fine if you’re not okay. It’s important, because it’s more talked about now, but, even then, it’s still hard to deal with.
JL: And you’re getting ready to head on tour. How are you feeling about hitting the ground with fresh music?
C: I’m extremely excited. I’ve never liked touring before. Now I’m excited to be on tour.