WHO: Juan Wauters
WHEN: Monday, July 13, 2015
WHERE: PJ's Lager House
is an artist who feels as comfortable in the shadows as in the spotlight.
In fact, he spent much of his Monday night set at PJ’s Lager House silhouetted by the golden, pulsating stage lights (controlled by his friend and former bandmate Matt Volz).
The lights paralleled the 31-year-old musician’s style — warm, simple, but also at times a bit frenetic.
Wauters, born in Uruguay and based in Queens, is sincere and unassuming, but he’s also spunky, and he can pack a surprising punch with his nylon-stringed guitar.
Monday’s show was the second to last in his five-week tour promoting his new album, Who Me?
“I wanted the name to be two words in a question,” he said, adding that he considered using the title So What?
but that seemed too antagonizing.
Wauters said the title is a reference to Lester Napoleon Green, commonly known as Beetlejuice, who is a frequent guest on the Howard Stern Show
. “Who me?” is something of a catchphrase for Beetlejuice.
But it is also a reflection on Wauters’ growing popularity, which he said he is just starting to get used to.
Indeed, he seems a bit surprised and bewildered by it all.
When I asked him if I could interview him, he showed his wide, toothy smile (which hardly ever leaves his face), and excitedly asked if the interview would end up in print.
Leaning against his tiny, old Volvo station wagon, he told me that he only recently started taking his music seriously.
“At some point in my life, I came to terms with it,” he said. “I liked to play music, but I never really accepted it as my destiny.”
He said he’s trying to “go further and further into songwriting” to reach the “perfect song, the perfect state of mind.”
He wants to emulate artists like the Beatles, John Lennon and the Ramones — artists that he calls virtuosos: “people who really focus on the song.”
Different points in his musical career have provided different learning experiences, he said.
“Lately it’s been figuring out how to perform,” he said. “My mood changes by the day, so the music can be happy or sad or intense.”
I asked him what mood he thought he conveyed tonight.
“I think it was happy, free and introspective,” he said.
He said he relies largely on audience cues to guide his live performances, but that he couldn’t see the audience very well at P.J.’s Lager House, so he focused instead on his own feelings.
But looking inward has been a general trend in Wauters’ music for a while now, at least since he broke off from the punk-rock outfit, the Beets.
Many of his lyrics focus on how he views himself, how others view him, and the discrepancy that often arises between the two.
In many ways, it’s as if he’s trying to reconcile the changes that have taken place throughout his life — his family’s move from Uruguay when he was 17, the breakup of The Beets — and how each change has had is significant effect on his sense of identity.
He said his mother always encouraged him to focus on his music, and to try to make a viable living out of it.
“(For an immigrant family) there’s a lot of pressure to be successful, and that means bringing in the bread.”
But Wauters’ music doesn’t wallow in too much existential murkiness. It’s music you can tap your feet to. It’s bright and it remains cheerful, even as it wrestles with topics of inner struggle.
“At one point, I said let’s do it and I took it seriously,” he said. “I asked Matt (Volz), ‘Do you really want to do this right, like put our own fingers up our asses?’”
And in many ways, that’s the key to his music — the ability to press toward greater musicianship, without losing his sense of earnest optimism.