CUCO: I’M JUST SHOWING WHO I AM
photography by gari askew
Omar Banos, the dream-pop sweetheart who performs under the name Cuco, never found his niche within our city’s ‘DIY’ music community. His parents weren’t Hollywood producers or famous musicians—instead, they’d immigrated from Mexico just prior to Omar’s birth in Hawthorne. And Cuco was born out of Banos’ sheer loneliness, his desire for earnest expression, and a dedication to stay true to himself. Thanks to a video that went viral, Cuco found an audience, and seemingly immediately the now nineteen-year-old found considerable success, too, as both a personality and performer. He’s earned billing on America’s top music festivals and opening slots for massive artists like Portugal. The Man, Kali Uchis, and Rex Orange County—and deservingly so. He performs with Portugal. The Man on Fri., Aug. 10, at the Shrine. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
That video of you playing slide guitar literally went viral overnight—that was probably when your bedroom project started to feel ready for more than your actual bedroom.
Cuco: That was a bit unreal to me. It was like my first chance at fame. I was kind of like, ‘Oh shit, this is it. Now I’m getting this attention all of a sudden. It’s time to make moves.’ I noticed that I started to get a lot of traction with Twitter and a bunch of people started checking me out. It was pretty eye-opening to realize that social media has had a huge impact on what I’m doing. I feel like … you know, I really need to take it upon myself to expand this horizon that exists within my music and what it means to me. It allows me to really take things to the next level. In a sense, yeah—it does feel like it was overnight. But there were also a lot of hard nights that I spent working. So maybe it was one really long night. It happened so quickly, but also a lot went into it.
Do you feel that you’ve had to grow up quickly to keep up with the shifting environment around you?
Cuco: Dude—100%. I had to really heighten myself up and brace myself for whatever was coming. It was totally, totally, totally unpredictable as to where anything was going. There have been a lot of pressures. I’m trying to keep things relevant, but still stay true to myself at the same time. I’m not trying to get fucked over in the industry. You’ll always find the good and the bad in people and that’s hard sometimes. It goes into saying, ‘It’s not who you like the best, but who you hate the least.’ You just have to feel out everything that exists in the industry and learn from it. I’ve never had that many people around me my whole life, so I know who and what I want to include. It’s very crucial to have that aspect of distrust towards anyone around you, so you can make your situation the best it can be.
At a certain level, do you feel like you’ve still had to ‘sell out’ as well?
Cuco: I never really felt like I was part of any community, so not really. I didn’t even know about the DIY scene until I started playing shows and it was over pretty quickly. It was fun for a cool minute, but even then we’d drive all the way to parts of downtown from like Norwalk or Whittier and then afterward we’d just pack up and dip. I’m from the South Bay—I didn’t know shit about any scenes. Except for maybe hardcore. I was in a hardcore band for a bit, but we didn’t play that many shows. I didn’t really know much about L.A. until I started doing music. I never really left from where I’m from. It was very few times that I went to downtown, or even like Santa Monica or something. I was just always here in the South Bay. But I guess this area is kind of like the epitome of what other people think about the city as well. This is where a bunch of the beaches are at. There’s a very L.A. thing going on down here. It’s not like all the saturated shit, like over in Fairfax or Echo Park. This is just all I know and am familiar with. I’ve never had a positive or negative view on it, either. It’s just kinda been like, ‘I live here, and I am gonna look at everything that’s going on.’
As the son of Mexican immigrants, do you feel a sense of obligation to uphold your heritage within your songwriting?
Cuco: I mean … that’s who I am, you know. It doesn’t feel forced or anything because it’s all been so natural to me. I don’t feel pressured to have to represent anything. Growing up was a little lonely because I didn’t have siblings or many friends or anything. The South Bay was a very ‘chill’ place to grow up. It wasn’t like a bummer all the time. I don’t know, the environment kind of made me want to get into music, which felt natural to me. I’m just showing who I am, as like a Chicano kid. I wasn’t like born and raised in Mexico. I’m growing up here, in L.A. I’m just being myself, which itself shows what my roots are and what inspires me—from both my Mexican and my L.A. cultures. I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I’m not like the super most-woke person ever because I didn’t get like a college education or anything. I’m still learning about all the shit that’s been going on. I’m just trying to be real and hopefully that can be a good example for kids like me. Being a Mexican musician is a form of activism. Hopefully I can give an opportunity to those voices that actually have something more to say.
Many people describe you as a ‘modern day heartthrob’—do you like that?
Cuco: I don’t know how I feel about it to be quite honest. I’ve never been like, really happy with that description of myself. I guess it would feel pretty cool to see myself as one.
What description would you prefer?
Cuco: Literally just a real-life artist. I don’t think I want anything other than that. An artist sometimes needs to be a role model. Or just to be like … inspiring. That’s all I really want to do, just inspire. Do the best I can do.
What would a so-called ‘modern day heartthrob’ do on a first date in the city of Hawthorne?
Cuco: Honestly, probably like a Dino’s date. I think Dino’s is like the fucking firest burger joint ever. Then probably leave Hawthorne and go down to like Manhattan Beach. That’s all me and my girlfriend do, hit Dino’s and go to the beach. And maybe like the movie theater.
What’s more Hawthorne now—the Beach Boys or Space-X?
Cuco: I think Hawthorne right now is more of a Space-X town. Elon Musk is like really killing it I guess out here. Shout out to Elon Musk though—I ordered one of his flamethrowers recently.
CUCO WITH PORTUGAL. THE MAN ON FRI., AUG. 10, AT THE SHRINE AUDITORIUM, 665 W. JEFFERSON BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 7 PM / $29.50-$69.50 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! CUCO’S CHIQUITO EP IS OUT NOW. VISIT CUCO AT FINEFOREST.BANDCAMP.COM.