“There’s no secret crazy backstory,” Omar Banos says, laughing. “I actually suck at writing. It takes me forever to write a song.” Throughout our conversation, the L.A.-area producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist better known as Cuco has been trying to insist he’s uninteresting. I want to remind him that he’s one of few 19-year-olds who can make money on Valentine’s Day cards of his face and lyrics.
Barely two years after he began tinkering with Ableton Live Lite after school, Cuco has found a young and passionate audience for his music, which combines earnest Spanglish love lyrics with an inscrutable deep-meme millennial sense of humor to create a persona that is at once carefree and emotionally involved — the way teenagers are. His brand of dream pop takes cues from jazz and hip-hop, combining homemade drum packs and loops with self-taught keyboard, trumpet, guitar and his sing-talking cadence to create twinkly lullabies. His most popular track, “Lo Que Siento,” is the kind of song you sing along to with your friends in a McDonald’s drive-through at the end of a night out. His 2016 single “Amor De Siempre” has the earnestness of your 7-year-old sobrino coaxed into singing karaoke.
Cuco’s first viral moment was a slide guitar cover of Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” an anonymous 30-second clip of which blew up on Twitter. Traces of that dreamy instrumental can be found in the original song “Lover Is a Day,” which also took off online. In February 2017, then-23-year-old Doris Muñoz approached Cuco at a house show in Commerce, weaving through a crowded patio of almost 200 girls chanting that song’s lyrics. The next day, over agua fresca at a bar in Highland Park, she proposed managing a skeptical Cuco, saying, “I just don’t want some old white dude to come through and Ritchie Valens you.”
That spring, the team rolled out “Lo Que Siento,” which by the end of the summer had gained Cuco nearly 350,000 monthly listeners on Spotify according to Muñoz. After a year of slacking off at Santa Monica City College, he dropped out to pursue music full-time. Today “Lo Que Siento” has over 12 million combined streams on Spotify and Soundcloud. Its creator, meanwhile, has earned heartthrob status with Chicano teenagers across the country, if the thousands of adoring Instagram comments are any indication. Lyrics like “Oye cariño, sólo pienso en ti” only fuel what Doris calls a Menudo effect.
And fans will always look to their idols for answers they might not have. Amidst disclaimers that he’s still young and learning about politics, Cuco has been using his platform to advocate for immigrants’ rights. Last year, he headlined the first “Solidarity for Sanctuary,” a benefit concert series co-organized by Muñoz for immigrant families at risk of deportation.
As for his own future, Cuco still isn’t signed to a record label, and isn’t trying to be. He’s hard at work on his official debut album after 2016’s Wannabewithyou and 2017’s Songs4u, two mixtapes of SoundCloud hits. Speaking from the Denver stop of his current tour, Cuco shared his thoughts about the stakes for families affected by DACA, growing up as a first-generation American and the scene in his hometown of Hawthorne, Calif., where he still lives with his parents.
Stefanie Fernández: You were 16 when you started learning music production. What was your world like then?
Cuco: I was like a hermit; I didn’t really have a lot of homies I would kick it with. I was in high school, I was failing all my classes, and I wanted to make music. My parents took me to Sam Ash and I got a pretty cheap setup, a MIDI keyboard and one of those cheaper mixers — but it was dope though, it was something. That was kind of how it was: just going to school, skating back home, making music, telling my parents I did my homework.
What kind of music scene did you see happening in Southern California at the time?
It’s a very diverse scene in SoCal, but at least for my city, Hawthorne, when I was a freshman in high school, it was all about ska and punk and hardcore music. But as time went by, I started finding more and more different artists in general, which actually became my homies — my guitarist and bassist were my some of my first friends in high school. There’s a really crazy scene in Hawthorne; it’s a bunch of, like, rap, EDM and stuff. There’s a bunch of producers. There’s a lot of really cool metal bands, too.
In previous interviews, you’ve listed Chicano rappers like Baby Bash as influences. You’re not a rapper of course, but what elements of that genre have made it into your music?
Definitely the Spanglish — that’s the one everybody would kind of call out. But the simplicity of the music, too: It wasn’t anything over-complicated. Like MC Magic‘s music, you know, simple romantic music. You have stuff like Lil Rob, just simple loops and a really cool flow.
You mentioned Spanglish, which a lot of people point out in your music. I would argue that mixing Spanish and English just feels natural to Latinos of our generation; it’s how we speak.
I always say that in interviews! People are like, “So what do you think about when you do that?’ I’m like, “I don’t really think about it.” That’s what comes out. I don’t really think about it when I’m arguing with my mom in Spanish, you know?
What are some of the obstacles or stereotypes in the industry you’ve run into so far?
One that’s annoying is, just because I’m a brown artist, they immediately just label you as a Latin artist. They don’t really want to put you different types of festivals and stuff; they just want to keep you Latin-exclusive. And I don’t mind playing stuff like that, but my music isn’t just catered to a group of people. It’s catered to everybody.
How do you feel about the other descriptors that have been applied your music — words like “chillwave” and “bedroom pop”?
I hate them. I mean, I get it — it kind of is that genre. But I feel like everybody just calls any type of alternative, at this point, chillwave. They’ll hear a vinyl spin and be like, “That’s chillwave.” They’ll hear lo-fi hip-hop beats to chill and relax, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, that’s chillwave.”
How has your family reacted to all your recent success?
I’m the only child of immigrant parents, you know? So all the pressure is just kind of on me: You have to make it. And I was like, “Well, let me make it in music.” They were like, “Nah, you gotta go to school.” But once they finally went to my first show and started really seeing everything pop off, they were really cool with me dropping out and doing my own thing. Because dude, I hated college. I slacked off so hard.
Being a first-generation American can feel like defining part of one’s identity; it affects a lot of things in your daily life. Can you tell me a bit more about how you were raised?
My dad is from Mexico City and my mom is from Puebla. They both emigrated back around the ‘80s and met here in the U.S. I would see my mom and my dad always working: My mom used to clean houses and my dad is currently a limo driver. My mom recently got sick, so she had to stop working, but thankfully I’m able to help her out now with bills and stuff like that. I’m trying to get my dad out of working soon too, you know? They gave me a perspective that more privileged people probably would never understand because they don’t see this struggle that people of color go through. But it definitely made me a mentally stronger individual.
Your manager, Doris Muñoz, and her company Mija Mgmt have been vocal advocates for immigrant rights; we’ve covered Solidarity for Sanctuary, the benefit shows she co-organizes, on Alt.Latino. How do you see your role in that movement?
For those who don’t know, those shows are benefits for undocumented families at risk of deportation. She puts those events together to help out because she, just like myself and many others, have family that are going through that immigrant struggle. For her first one, I was actually the headliner. There was one that I couldn’t really be there for because it was 21-plus, so I had to go up and DJ and then dip.
It’s cool, even when I’m not performing, to be able to promote it, because I’m not the most informed person right now, being that I am still pretty young and I didn’t get all the education I kind of needed, I guess. I know there’s kids that worry about what’s going to happen with their parents and stuff, if they were receiving DACA.
Do you worry about that?
Thankfully not from a personal standpoint, because I was born here, but I do definitely worry about it, because I do have family that receives DACA. And I see how hard they work to just be able to go to school, try to have a job [and] maintain it, and then they have to worry about their family and all that. I can’t tell you exactly how it feels because I haven’t lived it, but I could tell you that that they are some of the most hardworking kids ever. One way or another, everybody’s trying to make a living, and it’s scary to see that we have like someone in office that is trying to get rid of those type of resources.
Latino artists are often tasked, for better or for worse, with representing their communities. What, if anything, do you hope to represent?
It’s kind of crazy — being this Chicano artist, people put all this weight on me. Kids tell me, “Yo, I really look up to you. You look like me, and you’re making it” — so in that aspect, it’s cool to break those industry stereotypes, because with the little knowledge I have politically speaking, I don’t necessarily know how to be a representation yet, you know? But I’m hoping that eventually I can do more than just be an artist of color. Being an artist of color is already a form of activism, but I’m going to try to do more and do better.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about you as an artist?
I feel like people think I do a lot of really fun stuff, but I’m really boring. I spend all my money on instruments.