GREATEST / Cuco
The multi-instrumentalist on his death-metal influences, the creative benefits of solitude and why his best music is still to come.
Isolation doesn’t phase Omar Banos. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter, better known as Cuco, thrives in solitude; the perfect condition in which he builds psychedelic worlds through his introspective strain of bedroom pop.
Since making his musical debut in 2016, the Los Angeles native has released a string of intoxicating EPs, amassing millions of streams on Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube. Dropping out of school after finding early success to pursue his music career, it was Cuco’s genre-defying 2019 debut album, Para Mi, that crystallized his creative vision and cemented his position as one to watch this generation. Fusing woozy indie, lilting electronic beats and Latin influences, Para Mi’s patchwork of sounds carried Cuco’s introspective lyrics sung in both English and Spanish to fans around the world.
And if his new single, “Under the Sun,” is indicative of his future direction, the multi-instrumentalist and musical shapeshifter is poised to transform once more. GREATEST caught up with Cuco ahead of his sophomore album to discuss his new musical path, finding inspiration in nostalgia and navigating Latin identity in the public eye.
Your new music signifies transformation—it’s almost like we’re witnessing a new artist. How has writing the new album been for you?
It's been a really good process. I've matured the most I ever have for a project and can’t wait to unveil it to the world.
How do you measure maturity in that sense?
I feel it in my production and songwriting. I've been reaching new places and rising to levels that I've never reached in my life previously. It feels good to hear a finished product and realize I was able to do that. It's like if I really put myself to that challenge, something crazy comes out of it.
Once you're out of that process, do you feel like what you created is detached from you? Like, you write a song, finish it and then give it away.
Absolutely. I listen a lot to the music I haven't put out yet, but once it's out, I don't bother to listen to it again. I don't listen to any of my old music at all.
What's inspiring you these days?
Being in solitude is something that I need to feel sane. I've been in that a little more than usual, and I've been able to just embrace it. It helps me write a lot and produce, and that's where I've been finding a lot of inspiration—just in the cosmos that live in my head, outside of reality.
Did you always reach into solitude to write or is that something you've recently discovered?
I was definitely like that before. I was in high school when I recorded Wannabewithu, which dropped the year after I graduated. I would come home from school and skate and record, always by myself. Sometimes it wouldn't be my best work, but I'd have lyrics or some type of formula in there that I'd take to the studio and transform into something bigger. It's always been part of my work process.
In the video for “Under the Sun” you're holding a vigil in a cantina for your past self. Does this represent a new incarnation of Cuco?
It's more about growth and welcoming a new chapter in my life. I'm talking to myself the entire song, smiling right under the sun. My grandpa passed away last year too, so it represents a big change in my life. I lost somebody I saw so much, so this song is also an homage to my grandpa.
You've always looked to your roots and infused Latin sounds in your music. Is there a reason you chose to do it so explicitly with Colombian cumbia influences on “Under the Sun?”
It just made sense. My engineer and I were listening to the song and were like, ”Damn, it'd be kind of crazy if it was a cumbia.” The next day we had a meeting about the song and we were like, ”Yeah, this is tight.” My A&R [was into the idea] too, so it just worked out.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed as an artist of Latin origin? It's like, if you're Latin, you're automatically making Latin music, when it may not be the case. I could be playing guitar in a hardcore band and people will be like, “It's Latin music.” And I'm like, “No, I'm Latin. This music is hardcore.”
It's just coincidental whenever I make a Latin song because I never force it. If it makes sense for a song to be in Spanish or to have those Latin elements, then I'll do it, but if it doesn't, then it's just another one of my songs. I’m not always making Latin music.
I know you've previously discussed your family supporting your music but also having reservations about it being your career. Have their attitudes changed now that you’ve found so much success?
Super heavy. Once they went to my first venue show and saw I sold it out, they were like, “Oh shit, you could really do this.” I had already dropped out [of school] months prior, but the day after the show, my mom came up to me and was like, “You know if you want to drop out now, I think you can.” I was like, “I already did.” She just took it in. [Now] my parents are my biggest fans.
With your new album, can we expect more experimental sounds? Even just the songs you've put out so far, the production feels, like you said, really next level. The music is more complex.
There's definitely a lot of experimentation. The music sounds like me, but it's me stepping out of my comfort zone without necessarily stepping outside of my sound. I've never been a person to talk up my music, but I think this is some of the best work I've ever done.
Your music has a strong sense of nostalgia to it. Why is the past such a source of inspiration for you?
Growing up, listening to older music gave me memories I never personally had. I like to channel that same sense of nostalgia and euphoria through melodies that make you feel like you're in another world. I like a lot of boleros like Los Panchos and románticas like Los Pasteles Verdes. Music from the ’70s and ’80s like New Order, INXS, Pink Floyd and The Lemon Pipers—those really old textures. Then I also dive into Cold War and Russian music from time to time and random stuff from ’70s Romania. It always has to have these qualities where it's like, ”Damn, what were you all going through when you wrote this?”
So it’s the escapist quality of the music that resonates with you. Growing up, though, it was hardcore and metal that nurtured you.
Yeah, hardcore and a lot of metal. I still listen to a lot of death metal, like The Faceless, Wretched and Within the Ruins, and newer deathcore like Whitechapel. I was also always into really technical stuff, like August Burns Red and bands like that.
What did you set out to do with Cuco, the project? Do you feel like you've achieved it?
I think so. I set out to just make music and there wasn't a purpose other than having fun with it. It eventually became a job. With the pandemic, there was a shift within my team and I got new management that has been great for me, and now I'm having fun again. I think if I'm able to make a positive impact, that's how I know I'm doing my job right.
Do you have an end goal, in both your artistic and personal life?
Being Latino and a person of color, I want to motivate people who look like me because when I was growing up, there weren’t many for me to look up to. But there's space for everybody. The world today is open to everything, whereas before there was a weird stigma. Above all, I want to keep having fun, while making timeless music and making a difference.