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Ask most rock stars what they dig about playing Japan and you'll get similar answers: the status artists are afforded, the reverence their talents inspire, the respect their music is given. As usual, Tommy Guerrero is an exception.
"First of all, it's like Tom Waits: I'm 'Big in Japan'," says the horn-rimmed, goateed Guerrero, sipping tea on a crisp afternoon inside the Atlas Cafe. "Everybody's big in Japan it's a joke now. But I think my whole lifestyle is what's attractive, in the sense of being an ex-pro skateboarder, being a musician, someone who lives my life pretty carefree to some degree. I'm more of like a character than I am a musician, this corny dude who sort of runs around willy-nilly, and I think that might be the appeal."
In Guerrero's case, the same explanation could be applied to his domestic fanbase. To use a somewhat lame comparison, what Jack Johnson is to surfing, Guerrero is to skateboarding, the real-deal guy whose passion for his sport and his music has translated to massive pop success. Or in Guerrero's case, underground hero worship. Over the course of six mostly instrumental albums, he's developed a small, ardent following as enamored by his soulful, lo-fi funk as it is by the smooth street skating moves he pioneered 25 years ago.
"I think most Americans cannot understand instrumental music," he says. "If they don't have a singer telling them what to think, they have no idea what to do. They're not gonna expand their minds and let the music take them. So I think that's why I'll never be huge, I'll never be rich and famous from this stuff."
The 40-year-old Guerrero has attained a different kind of wealth. S.F.-born and raised, he lives in Alameda with his wife and 2-year-old son Diego, and the rest of his family lives in the city or nearby. ("At my mom's house we were talking, and I think I only missed one Thanksgiving in my life, when I was on tour," he says.) He still clocks in a few hours a day at Deluxe, the skate company he co-founded in 1990. He also plays guitar, bass, keys, and a slew of percussion doodads, and programs his own beats, all in service of making music on his own terms, take it or leave it.
"It's very unintentional," he laughs, trying to pinpoint the genesis of his well-honed but reliably raw sound. "It's something that just keeps coming back to me, you know? I figure that I'm fortunate to have something that speaks to me, so I just let it do its thing."
This year's From the Soil to the Soulfeels a bit weightier than previous efforts, perhaps because it's Guerrero's first release on Bay Area imprint Quannum. Guerrero's music has always been more about street-level, motion-camera sketches than hooks and choruses, a distillation of the naturally blurred rhythms of city life as seen from a moving skateboard. Soil is no different, rolling through kick-push strut-funk, Latin stoop-party grooves, and mellowed, bittersweet melodies, an urban collage painted in sound. Guest vocals are provided by frequent partners in crime, like local faves Lyrics Born and Bing Ji Ling, as well as Brazilian crooner Curumin. It was recorded mostly in his home studio, Guerrero purging the melodic lines that he says stream through his head, usually on the first take.
Which is all his fans, wherever they're from, want from him, even if some critics dismiss the off-the-cuff approach as self-indulgent. "They don't understand that maybe that's the idea," he says. You'd have to be pretty jaded to overlook Guerrero's laid-back grace and open-mindedness shining through that sense of freedom that makes both his music and his lifestyle so alluring.
"The only thing I hope for my stuff is that it has longevity," he says. "People like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder that's gonna go on 'til the end of man, we will always be listening to them. Great music is great music. I just wanna be in it 'til the end of it all, basically. I hope my son, when he grows up, can appreciate it, can be proud."
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