By ANA AMMANN // It’s been four years since the world has heard music from the Argentine born, Portland-based rocker Fernando Viciconte.
Had it not been for a bout of pneumonia in 2012 that led to a long-term, previously undiagnosed serious stomach disorder, the world might never have heard him sing again.
He came to this country from Buenos Aires in 1971 at the age of two with his parents who, like many at that time, were seeking a better life for their family. They didn’t speak English and didn’t have their papers. For 10 years, Fernando and his family lived as illegal immigrants seeking legal status, but their attempts were thwarted in the post-Vietnam era. At the age of 12, he became a resident alien, his father found success as the owner of an auto body shop in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and he began to cut his musical teeth in school in Canoga Park. From there life took on an accelerated pace — a major label deal, touring, marriage, divorce and drug addiction.
How did you make your way to the Northwest?
I was in a band in Los Angeles called Monkey Paw and we had a development deal with A&M records in 1991. And this is so cliché, the guy that signed us went to another label so we got dropped. I had been married at 23, divorced by 24, and was now being dropped from the label. I had been addicted to cocaine for three years and did the whole Rock ‘n’ Roll thing, touring non-stop, and it destroyed my marriage. I was in pretty bad shape when friends of mine from the band Gern Blanston on Cavity Search Records came to visit me while they were on tour. They said, “You’ve got to get out of here.” I realized I would probably end up dying if I stayed. So, when a friend invited me to Portland, I liked it. I packed up my bags and went. My friends let me stay with them the first few months, that’s how I got on my feet, got clean, and changed my life around.
You have quite a rich life history up through your 20s, starting with your family uprooting and leaving Argentina for the U.S., through to the time you landed in Portland. How did those experiences make their way into your music thematically?
When you’re told from a very young age that you can’t say what your status is in this country because you might be deported, you live under a permanent fear. You are an outsider looking in at the world and you don’t feel like you belong. There are a lot of themes I touch upon, be it religion, politics or just sociological things in my music that look at it from that perspective — from someone outside looking in — so it definitely had an impact on me.
Fast forward to today, you’ve just released your 7th album. How do the themes in your new album compare with what you have written about in prior efforts?
There is definitely a theme that runs through the new record and it is human connection. The name, Leave The Radio On, is a metaphor for leaving that connection open between human beings. Without getting too existential or anything, it starts the record out with someone that has kind of lost faith in humanity or his own spiritually and feels a disconnect. Throughout the course of the record, it deals with different aspects of that connection being lost, be it with a lover or a friend, a regret, youth, growing up…
“Kingdom Come” deals with getting older and looking back at your youth and finding in yourself that you’ve lost that wide eyed wonder looking at the world. A lot of the themes follow that arc throughout the record, starting from a pessimistic view and arcing by the end of the record when it ends with “Leave The Radio On.” It’s someone releasing that kind of mortal coil and looking at it from another perspective and finally realizing that through all the hardships that we see in our life, there is a connection with everyone, and that is what makes this existence special.
It’s been several years since your last album, what in your life has changed since?
Since the last record, the major thing that changed is that I had major stomach operation two years ago. Over 10 years ago I started having severe stomach pains and consequently had severe throat problems associated with the acid reflux and all these other problems coming from that. I had a hiatal hernia, which keeps your stomach open the entire time, all that hydrochloric acid seeps into your esophagus.
In 2001 I stopped touring because I couldn’t do it without losing my voice. Doctors had no idea what it was. About three years ago I had pneumonia, which is one of the symptoms that happens to people when they have constant acid reflux because when you are sleeping you aspirate the hydrochloric acid and it damages your lung tissue.
I ended up in the hospital and they did an x-ray to check out the pneumonia and they saw a spot on my lungs. This hernia was so big they could see it sticking into the chest cavity, and finally realized that was the root of my problem. So I went to OHSU for an operation. It took seven months to recover from it. I lost 35 pounds in five weeks because I was on an all liquid diet, so it was pretty drastic. But from the second I had the surgery, I could tell the pain was gone.
It took a year to get back into it. I had been a property tax accountant for the last nine years I couldn’t play. I quit my job and just started touring again. I just finished my seventh tour in the last year. It’s been great ever since the surgery — a life changer.
People remark most about your incredible voice. Have you noticed it is easier to sing, or other changes since the surgery?
Definitely. I used to wake up every day with a burning sore throat. I knew years ago my situation was uncommon. Two to three weeks on the road… very difficult to keep a pure voice under most circumstances, but since the surgery, my range has gone up and I can sing a lot easier than I used to.
What was the impetus for embarking on a new album?
I started writing the album about four years ago, when I was still going through these health issues. I had stopped playing, and I was out at a club and I met Peter Buck there, and he asked what was going on with me not playing anymore. He offered to play on my new record if I would go into the studio. He just wanted to get me back in the studio to make another record. So, of course, you know, when Peter Buck asks to do something on your record… I responded [laughing], “Ok, I’ve got a great record ready!” And I decided I better start working on this, so that began the process of me woodshedding.
What is your songwriting process like?
There is never a set way that I do anything. It has started with lyrics, but I’m more comfortable strumming a guitar and coming up with a melody than writing down the lyrics initially. On this record there was a bit of both of those things, not thinking about what the themes would be, just thinking about a certain emotion, and just letting it go, and then editing the lyrical content later.
I did a lot of four tracking where I wasn’t thinking about what the song structure was or what was going on thematically or lyrically, I was just kind of going for it subconsciously, letting words come out and maybe thinking a certain feeling or direction I wanted to go to, but not really trying to get the lyrics before I recorded the song.
What I didn’t even realize was that I had maybe 30-40 sketches of songs. I didn’t even know I had a record until a buddy of mine named Russell came to visit me and asked if I had been working on anything. I said, “Not really, just messing around.” And he asked if he could listen to some of the tapes that I had four tracked and started asking, “Well what about this song?” “This one is pretty good,” or “This sounds like a song.” Ultimately, playing the songs back to me and encouraging me made me go back into those songs to edit them a bit and work on lyrics, and work on the kernel for the first 15 we were going to put on the record.
There are quite a few notable collaborators you’ve got on the album.
There are a total of 15 guests on the record. It’s like a basketball team! Peter Buck from REM is on eight of the tracks; Scott McCaughey, who plays in Young Fresh Fellows and also played in REM is featured on 7 tracks; Mike Coykendall, a great singer songwriter who has worked with M. Ward and Blitzen Trapper; my buddy Scott McPherson is on there, he played in Elliott Smith’s band and is in M. Ward’s band. Basically everyone except Willy from Richmond Fontaine is on the record. Luther Russell, a great old friend of mine who produced my Old Man Motel and Pacoima records.
What’s the greatest compliment someone has given you about your music?
I met a gentleman on one of my tours who had been suffering from cancer in the hospital. Someone had given him one of my records, Widow, from 1997. There is a song on it called “Beautiful,” and he said he would just keep playing that song. The feeling it gave him, it meant so much to him; he attributes it with him getting over his cancer. You can’t get a bigger compliment than that: someone saying your music helped save of their life. More than any review or anything, that touched me to the point of tears.
You know you make a record, you send it out there, and hope for the best. Now through Facebook I get more feedback than I used to, but in general you don’t see people face to face when they are describing your music.
Is there a particular song on the album that is near and dear to your heart? Or do they all feel like your children and you love them all equally?
You always love the record you just made most. I think the theme of the record and the title track “Leave The Radio On” sums up a lot of my feelings about our existence: how I feel about it and that we are all kind of tied together. It takes a record that is pretty dark in a lot of tones, and ends it by going towards the light on a happier note — not that it’s a happy song, but it has a positive message — probably the most positive on the record, and I like that it leaves people with that to go out on.
What sort of impact do you want your music to make as you put it out in the world?
I want it to be a reminder that we are on this Earth for a short amount of time. I’ve gone through the loss of many close friends. In the past year I have lost three. In the last five years I have lost ten friends. We tend to think we are going to be here forever and that we are going to see that person we love tomorrow. Like “Burned Out Love” on the record, where you have someone that you love and appreciate, but something comes between you at a certain point in your life and you never face it. One day they pass away, or there is an accident and they are gone from your life, or they just move away and you never see them again — you never have that chance to reconcile with that person.
Overall, that’s what I want people to take from this record. This life is very short and we need to appreciate it and we need to appreciate each other because that is what makes it worth living: our connection to each other. [OMN]